Sunday 25 February 2018

Television: What if our TV channels stuck to the actual facts?

Self-righteous visionary: Vaughan-Lawlor as Pearse
Self-righteous visionary: Vaughan-Lawlor as Pearse

John Boland

What if? That was the historical question posed over three nights last week on TG4, and it was also the historical question posed over three nights this week by TV3. What's going on? With all the centenary overkill, have the channels run out of facts about 1916 and are obliged to resort to fictions?

The scenario posited in TG4's Wrecking the Rising was that three time-travellers from today accidentally killed Patrick Pearse in the hours before the Rising and had to try to make amends - and, in the process, perhaps change the course of Irish history for the better. There were teasingly interesting notions in this generally light-footed comedy drama, but at three hours it went on for too long.

TV3's Trial of the Century: The Prosecution of Parick H Pearse, also three hours and also too long, was a more solemn affair, seeking to answer what the voiceover termed "one of the most divisive questions in Irish history: was the 1916 Rising legitimate, and was Pearse, as personification of the rebellion, guilty or not guilty?"

So two questions, then, but never mind because the main "what if" thrust was to imagine that Pearse hadn't been hurriedly executed after a cursory court martial for treason but had been allowed a full trial in which his actions could be both prosecuted and defended.

The result was an old-fashioned coutroom drama that pitted prosecutor Sebastian Banks (Andrew Bennett) first against defence counsel Edward Greene (Denis Conway) and then against Pearse himself, played by Tom Vaughan Lawlor as an unbendingly self-righteous visionary with occasional hints of vulnerability.

This set-up enabled screenwriter Hugh Travers to posit ideas that had never actually been uttered either by Pearse or by those who knew him (and who, in the drama, were asked to testify), and were mainly the product of historical hindsight.

Indeed, while it was all quite impressively staged (with Bennett's prosecutor an enlivening presence), I could never get out of my mind that none of this had ever happened and that the two hours devoted to the trial offered no more than an intriguing fantasy.

And the final hour was an odd affair, casting Pat Kenny as chairman of a 2016 jury who were being asked to decide if the Rising had been defensible and whether Pearse had been justified in his rebellious role.

This round-table discussion featured such people as human rights campaigner Colm O'Gorman, Atheist Ireland chairman Michael Nugent, singer Damien Dempsey, comedian Eleanor Tiernan, journalists Una Mullally and Justine McCarthy and (quite bizarrely) ex-trading fraudster Nick Leeson, and while Kenny kept it all civil and a few moderately interesting things got said, it seemed a pointless exercise.

Nor did I quite get the point of Ireland's Treasures (RTÉ1), an hour-long celebration of ancient national artefacts that had all the hallmarks - and excitement - of a corporate video.

Backed by a coercive musical soundtrack, presenter Ella McSweeney promised us not just "undiscovered tales" and "astonishing stories" but also an insight into "how these treasures can shine a new light on the story of Ireland", though what we got a rather staid trundle through various archaeological discoveries and a lot experts assuring us of their significance.

It was all handsomely filmed and McSweeney did her best to make it seem of urgent interest, but I felt as if I was trapped in a conference room at a worthy cultual seminar and looking wistfully at life going on outside the window.

There was something of the seminar, too, about the opening episode of The Silk Road (BBC4), but at least the scenery was splendid.

Evocatively named, the Silk Road has always conjured up images of mystery and enchantment, and these remained as historian Sam Willis began his journey in Venice, which Charles Dickens thought oriental rather than European in its suggestion of the Arabian nights.

There were commercial and cultural reasons for him to think in this way, and Willis then went to the ancient Chinese capital of Xi'an to explain how Eastern influences ended up in the heart of Europe. He was a congenial, if not always narratively clear, guide and I can see myself accompanying him on the rest of his journey.

Over on BBC2, The Conspiracy Files: Who Shot Down MH17? posed the question about the Maylasian plane that was blown up over Ukraine in July 2014, killing all 298 people on board, but it couldn't supply a definitive answer.

Was it the work of Russian-backed rebels or was it caused by the Ukrainians in a bid to discredit the rebels and their Russian masters? Locals were interviewed who claimed to have seen fighter jets nearby at the same time, while there was also footage of ground-to-air missiles being transported to the area in days before the disaster.

But by the end, the film left you just as unsure about the perpetrators as at the start, though the Russian connection was posited as the most probable cause - just as it had been in the immediate aftermath. So nothing new then.

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