Ah, those were the days -- or so I heard
Those Were the Days (TV3)
Filthy CIties (BBC2)
China's Bleak House (BBC4)
More than a decade after RTé first screened Reeling in the Years, TV3 has come up with Those Were the Days, which is another wallow in the past, though without any of the virtues that made the earlier series so compelling.
Firstly, it lasts an hour, which is 30 minutes too long. Secondly, it imposes an intrusive voiceover in place of the drily informational subtitles favoured by Reeling in the Years. Thirdly, it ignores all the political and social events of the year being covered, focusing entirely on popular culture, chiefly pop music. And fourthly it drags in a gaggle of media pundits to offer gratuitous soundbites on what we're watching.
It doesn't help that most of these instant gurus, recruited from Rent-a-Hack, weren't out of their nappies at the time in question. "I vaguely remember The Live Mike," rock journalist Kevin Courtney said in this week's opening programme about 1980. So why was he talking about it? "I was three when the music came out," radio DJ Ger Gilroy declared of the Boomtown Rats's 'Banana Republic'. Who wants to hear the opinions of a three-year-old?
Johnny Logan's Eurovision success with 'What's Another Year' was "a great antidote to what was going on economically", insisted another radio DJ, Siobhan O'Connor. So what was going on economically? Siobhan, who looked as if she wasn't even a twinkle in her mother's eye in 1980, didn't say.
About 10 contributors banged on about how they could never solve the Rubik's Cube, as if anyone cared, while the comments on U2, the Nolan Sisters, Blondie, David Bowie, John Lennon and Dallas were just as fatuous.
There were alternatives to this nonsense, though not from RTé, which hasn't screened a programme of any substance in the last couple of months, seemingly having devoted most of its budget to such half-hour lifestyle twaddle as Roomers, Room to Improve, Off the Rails and How to Create a Garden.
Not that 30-minute programmes can't be substantial and enriching, as Philip King is proving in Spin (TG4), which considers a significant Irish album in each of its six programmes. King, of course, is one of a kind, a fine musician whose lightly-worn scholarship is inseparable from his infectious enthusiasm and his ease as a broadcaster. Any programme he undertakes, whether on radio or television, is rewarding, and Spin is no exception.
Last week he was in Cork to explore the genesis of the incomparable Jimmy Crowley's first album with Stoker's Lodge, and the programme was crammed with fascinating local information and musical insights. This week he teamed up with Paul Brady and Andy Irvine to discuss the making of their superb 1976 album, with a fine contribution, too, from the album's producer, Donal Lunny.
Both of these programmes sent me scurrying back to my LP collection, where I blew the dust off both record sleeves, played the albums and deplored my neglect of them for so many years -- all thanks to Philip King.
In Filthy Cities (BBC2), the first of a three-part series, historian Dan Snow was in London, where he vowed to "get down and dirty in 14th-century grime". He wasn't kidding. Seven centuries ago, the streets of England's capital were paved, not with gold, but a malodorous mixture of mud, animal entrails, rotting fish and human excrement, and for our delectation Snow took all these ingredients and blended them into a disgusting porridge.
Still-surviving street names testified to the city's sanitation problems -- Gutter Lane, Seething Lane, Staining Lane and even Sherborne Lane, which was formerly Shiteburn Lane. Snow detailed the scene with appalled glee, though after a while I felt like leaving the room and taking a deep breath.
Still, I'd opt for the stench of medi-eval London rather than the hell of Petition Village, situated out-side Beijing and the ramshackle home of those coming to the city in search of social and personal justice. China's Bleak House (BBC4), an extraordinary documentary, much of it filmed with secret cameras, followed the plight of justice-seekers over a decade as they faced, not just an implacable bureaucracy that cared nothing for their grievances, but the prospect of beatings and imprisonment, too.
A woman whose husband had died mysteriously in hospital was accompanied on her search for redress by her 12-year-old daughter, who after a couple of years felt compelled to leave and discover a life of her own, not returning until six years later, when she found that her mother was still obsessed with finding out the truth.
Their distraught reunion was emotionally wrenching for the viewer, though it was hard not to marvel at the indomitable spirit of the justice-seekers in their seemingly futile quest.