Wednesday 17 January 2018

Television: These slow programmes are strictly for the birds

Powerful: Sheridan Smith in The C-Word
Powerful: Sheridan Smith in The C-Word

John Boland

Last weekend, my ornithologist daughter asked if I'd fancy crawling out of bed at 2.30am and travelling 10 miles to hear the dawn chorus. How could I refuse?

And so it was that at 3.45am on Sunday morning I found myself in the grounds of Aras an Uachtarain with Helen and her Birdwatch Ireland colleagues, all of us waiting for our avian friends to start their morning racket. Did I mention that it was teeming out of the heavens and that the only person protected from the incessant downpour was Niall Hatch of Birdwatch, who was safely ensconced in a little hut while broadcasting live to Derek Mooney?

More than two sodden hours later, when both Derek and the birds had called it a day, or at least a morning, President Higgins' kindly staff invited us inside for breakfast, but my teeth are still chattering as I type these sentences. You had to be there, but I'm glad I was in my armchair the following evening when BBC4 broadcast its own Dawn Chorus, which was part of what this most enterprising of channels called its "slow week".

This was being offered as an antidote to the frenetically attention-grabbing programmes that usually dominate the schedules, and it began with Frederick Wiseman's very leisurely three-hour stroll around the wonders of London's National Gallery.

There was also a lingering (some would say interminable) account of how glass gets crafted, while Dawn Chorus, which eschewed any voiceover and relied instead on occasional identifying captions, was just as soporific if you weren't in the mood for its languidly beautiful images of birds, woodlands and sleepy suburban gardens.

However, The C-Word (BBC1) was a rude reminder of intractable human concerns, Nicola Taylor's screenplay having been adapted from a blog and book by magazine editor Lisa Lynch, who died from cancer two years ago at the age of 33.

After this week's screening, sales of the book have soared to top place on Amazon, an indication of the film's affecting power - much of it due to the central performance of Sheridan Smith as her character moved from disbelief to defiant scorn, and then from raw despair at the cancer's return to something approaching equanimity.

Is there nothing this player can't do? An eye-catching early turn in the sitcom Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps didn't suggest any great depths, but in recent years she's been astonishing, whether as Ronnie Biggs's wife or as Cilla Black, and in this latest film she was wrenchingly good, her fearless exploration of Lisa's trauma going way beyond a startlingly shaven-headed exterior.

Paul Nicholls, Michael Maloney and Hayden Gwynne were beautifully supportive as husband and parents, but this was Smith's film from feisty first sequence to poignant last.

In a rancorous Prime Time (RTE1) debate on the upcoming marriage, most of the rancour came from the No side, with David Quinn and John Waters either seething or shouting at those who dared to differ from their grim dogmatism. Why can't people mind their own business and let others have a chance at happiness?

And, yikes, there's another televised debate to come next Monday. I can't wait for it all to be over.

The Lusitania passenger liner was sunk by a German torpedo off the Cork coast a hundred years ago on Thursday, with the loss of almost 1,200 lives, and to mark the occasion RTE1 showed Lusitania: 18 Minutes that Changed the World, which was made for the BBC but which had a voiceover by Dara O Briain for the Irish screening.

Focusing on 12 particular passengers, including Cork-born art collector Hugh Lane, the film aimed to build up tension with a timeline structure, and it was moderately successful in that, though the dramatic reconstructions were somewhat cursory, with none of the actors given any lines to say.

Still, the countdown method, if not original, was effective enough and kept you watching.

The Channel 4 voiceover assured viewers in advance that An Immigrant's Guide to Britain was "so hilarious it hurts", though in the event there was hardly a chuckle to be had from this introduction to English life by German comedian Henning Wehn. There were dissertations on such supposedly English traits and practices as self-deprecation, banter, class and accents, but the approach was lumbering.

More amusing was the same channel's Ballot Monkeys, a nightly sketch show coinciding with the run-up to the British general election and featuring PR people from the various parties in their respective tour buses.

The UKIP sequences were full of obvious race-related gags, but I laughed all the same, while Hugh Dennis as a worriedly bemused Tory stalwart brought his own distinctive comic expertise to the hit-and-miss proceedings.

Firefighters (RTE1) returned for a third season with a segment on the training of new recruits. This was conducted in a bootcamp manner that made Full Metal Jacket look like Butlin's, but none of the trainees - who spent half their time rolling up hoses - seemed to mind, and at the end they were all warmly commended by the visiting inspector.

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