Sunday 18 March 2018

Television: So what's cooking? Not an awful lot, I'm afraid to say

Reality check: Donal Skehan with oyster producer Steve Cullen for his new cookery show
Reality check: Donal Skehan with oyster producer Steve Cullen for his new cookery show

John Boland

BBC travel show presenter Simon Reeve is 42 years old but seems at least a decade younger. The same corporation's resident physicist Brian Cox could easily pass for 25 but is actually 47. And on this side of the Irish sea, RTÉ's Donal Skehan, although now approaching his 29th birthday, looks as if he should be fronting a boy band.

Which is precisely what he was doing until he reinvented himself by diverting his energies into cooking, our national broadcaster giving him his first culinary series in 2011, when he charmed viewers, if not gourmets, with his youthful exuberance.

And now he's back with Kitchen Hero: Donal's Irish Feast (RTÉ1), in a further bid to compete with such other celebrity chefs as Neven Maguire, Rachel Allen, Kevin Dundon, Paul Flynn, Catherine Fulvio, Richard Corrigan, Trish Deseine and... yikes, the list really is endless.

Do we really need any of them? Well, personally I'm sorry I never got round to reviewing Rory O'Connell's recent RTÉ1 series, How to Cook Well, if only because its unfussy and pragmatic presenter was plainly more interested in imparting the skills he's been teaching at the Ballymaloe cookery school for 30 years than in fashioning a spurious television persona for himself.

By contrast, the first instalment of Skehan's new series had less to do with cooking anything very interesting (unless beer-battered fish fingers are your thing) than with assuring the viewer of the presenter's amiability as he chatted to oyster farmers and rapeseed oil producers in Donegal.

Why was I watching this? Indeed, that's the question that increasingly arises with RTÉ reality shows. Why was I watching The Speech (RTÉ1), which began three weeks ago with celebrity lawyer Gerald Kean coaching a young guy in the art of public oration and which ended on Monday night with RTÉ's own Kathryn Thomas doing the same with a middle-aged Cork businesswoman?

When Thomas's observations weren't threadbare ("We just need Joan to be Joan"; "Emotion in a speech is really powerful"), they were merely crass: "She's standing there as if she has a poker so far up her..." before finally settling on "rear end".

Over on UTV Ireland, things weren't any better. Why was I watching Pat Kenny's stilted and seemingly interminable interview with Lulu on Pat Kenny in the Round? Aside from a couple of early hits in the 1960s, Lulu has had a minimal impact on the pop scene, while her personal life is no more fascinating than that of many other performers. So why would I want to spend an hour in her company?

Kenny has long been the most formidable interviewer in Irish broadcasting, but this series hasn't played to his intellectual strengths. Instead, he's been so flatteringly deferential to his subjects (GAA coach Mickey Harte and astronaut Chris Hadfield preceding Lulu) as to be almost smarmy.

So why these particular interviewees? We'd all be riveted if he was applying his unique forensic skills to the movers and shakers of Irish or international life, so it's sad to see him waste his talents on a Glaswegian warbler of no significance. Indeed, if this venture is to survive, it needs a drastic rethink, not to mention a less deadening setting and format.

Meanwhile, RTÉ2's acquisitions people have yet again been demonstrating their unerring instinct for choosing complete duds from the scores of US imported dramas currently available to them. A year or so ago, they opted for the risible Person of Interest, starring (if that's the word) Jim Caviezel, and now they've plumped for CSI: Cyber, which is simply woeful. Patricia Arquette won an Oscar earlier this year for her role in Richard Linklater's Boyhood, but she won't be winning anything for special agent Avery Ryan in this ill-conceived, stupidly plotted and wretchedly written CSI spin-off, which is further disfigured by the editor's irritating fondness for stuttering jump-cuts.

This week's first instalment involved the abduction of babies from their cots by means of hacked-into monitors, leading Arquette to solemnly declare: "Those poor parents, they buy a baby-cam to protect their child and it's the very thing that gets him abducted".

She also informs a colleague that "unlike drugs, babies have a value - as long as they're alive", a sentence which I've been pondering ever since I wrote it down, though it still makes no sense.

Later she muses that "desperate people do desperate things" and at the episode's end she turns down a drinks invitation from her colleagues by announcing "After every case, I go somewhere to think".

Then he saw her seated at the Lincoln memorial - thinking, I trust, of ways to get out of this ludicrous series.

The latest Danish drama series is called 1864 (BBC4) and it's very impressive. It also features Sidse Babett Knudsen, Lars Mikkelsen and scores of other players last seen in Borgen, The Killing and other Scandi dramas, so what's not to like?

The historical details will be unfamiliar to most people but they come vividly alive, while the portrayal of war is grimly realistic. Yet another winner from Denmark.

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