Monday 19 November 2018

A funny comedian? Don't make me laugh

A Little bit funny RTE1 The meaning of life RTE1 Questions and Answers RTE1 Prime time investigates RTE1 why poetry matters BBC2 A poet's guide to britain BBC4 changing of the Bard BBC4 SIMON Schama's John DOnne bbc2

John Boland

Despite the promise of its title, there's nothing remotely amusing about the current RTE1 series A Little Bit Funny, in which various over-exposed comedians are given free rein to tell viewers how great they are.

First up was Twink, a woman whose thirst for self-publicity far exceeds her pantomime talents, while this week it was the turn of Brendan O'Carroll, a man so untroubled by self-doubt that his guarantee to any punters who may dither about going to his latest Mrs Brown concoction is: "Buy a ticket and we'll make you laugh."

He hasn't always made the critics laugh, but then his answer to that is strictly monetary. "Do you know," he told awestruck presenter Marty Whelan, "they're the only people who come to the show who don't have to pay. The people who pay into my show night after night -- they're the critics. When they stop coming I'll change the way I write. The critics can go and kiss the butt-end of my bum."

Well, I'd rather not do that, though I will vow to miss next week's edition of A Little Bit Funny, which features Belfast funnyman Frank Carson -- it's the way he tells them that sends me shrieking from the room.

The Meaning of Life, which came to an end on RTE1 this week, got more religious in thrust and tone as it progressed, culminating in a bizarre encounter with writer and filmmaker Neil Jordan, who grew more and more bemused as Gay Byrne's questioning became more and more concerned with matters of faith.

Asked near the outset if he believed in God, Jordan replied "I don't know really", adding the notion that "all religions are absurd, aren't they?" But this didn't deter Gay from his apparent mission to make this doubting Neil see the light, persevering with such queries as "Do you think your religion might return to you on your deathbed?" and "Do you think there's a day of reckoning?" and asking what Jordan might say to God at the gates of heaven.

To such questions the filmmaker said: "I really haven't got a clue" and "I don't know, Gay". At one point he confessed that "every time I'm in a plane and it's hit by lightning I bless myself", to which his interviewer responded with a triumphant "Hah!", as if Jordan had just revealed a basic faith in the Catholic Almighty rather than a reflex reaction to imminent catastrophe.

The crimes of the Almighty's clerical representatives on this island were under discussion in Questions and Answers (RTE1), and I listened with mounting impatience as Fianna Fail's Noel Dempsey defended his Government's deal with the clergy over child abuse. But my feelings were nothing to those of Michael O'Brien, the questioner in the audience who had occasioned the minister's response. Beaten and raped as a boy at the hands of the Rosminians in Clonmel, he was contemptuous of Mr Dempsey's "mealy-mouthed words" and delivered a furiously eloquent speech that left the politician speechless and, I would hope, properly shaken.

Prime Time Investigates (RTE1) was intent on shaking all of us about the victims of our current economic calamity, and indeed there was much in Barry O'Kelly's report that was depressing -- not least the fates of a group of men about to be let go from a building company that couldn't provide them with any more work.

We heard, too, about an insolvency expert whose skills aimed to help those facing liquidation and bankruptcy. As it turned out, he also was facing the same crisis, about which he chose to appear heroically sanguine. Others were less stoic about their predicaments, though I found it difficult to wholly empathise with a man whose €24m Dublin property portfolio was about to be grabbed back by the banks -- a crisis for him, no doubt, though building a business on huge borrowings is always a dangerous exercise and can't be compared with the shattering experience of those thousands of people who, through no fault of their own, have suddenly found that their jobs have been axed.

And I was in two minds, too, about the separated woman whose house is about to be repossessed. She seemed surprised as well as appalled by this, though as she hasn't paid her mortgage since 2002, I couldn't help wondering why she expected a happier outcome. Overall, though, an arresting and distressing film.

You can't turn on the BBC these days without encountering poetry, though not all the films have been worth the viewer's time. Griff Rhys Jones, whose film about Thomas Hardy was so good last year, presented Why Poetry Matters (BBC2), though it was so reliant on irrelevant gimmickry that the question remained unanswered and indeed was hardly asked.

But in A Poet's Guide to Britain (BBC4), Owen Sheers offered an absorbing profile of Matthew Arnold, focusing on his great poem Dover Beach. And in Ian Hislop's Changing of the Bard (BBC4), the Private Eye editor and comic panellist provided a lively and droll history of the Poet Laureateship, which has seldom had a good press. Wendy Cope, who ruled herself out of the running this year, thought that outgoing laureate Andrew Motion had made "a pretty good shot at the impossible" (celebrating the Royals in verse), while Hislop felt that John Betjeman's "amused patriotism" had stood him in good stead in an earlier era.

However, Philip Larkin, who was offered the job on Betjeman's death, confessed that "nothing would horrify him more" and declined. Instead the post went to Ted Hughes, who apparently got on famously with Prince Charles, their friendship based on the fact that both had former wives who, in death, had become "canonised".

This was all very jolly, but the best film in the series was Simon Schama's John Donne (BBC2), a thrilling hour on the life and work of the great metaphysical poet and featuring excellent contributions from critic John Carey and especially actress Fiona Shaw, whose insights into the poems were as provocative and absorbing as her readings. The film sent me immediately back to rereading the poems, which is what all such programmes should do, though few manage it.

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