Tuesday 12 November 2019

Anything you can do, i can do worse

The Secret History of Eurovision RTÉ1
Ultimate Ulster UTV
Coiscéimeanna TG4
Canal Walks BBC Four

Watching RTÉ1's Sisters the other night, I was bizarrely reminded of the song from Annie Get Your Gun in which the bickering Betty Hutton and Howard Keel boast that "Anything you can do I can do better." Here, though, it was more a case of: anything TV3 can do, RTÉ can do worse.

Sisters was an hour-long account of a notorious crime -- the 2005 murder and dismemberment of Kenyan immigrant Farah Swaleh Noor by the Mulhall siblings -- to which TV3 had already devoted the same amount of time last November in a tawdry series called 24 Hours to Kill.

Writing on that occasion, I deplored the TV3 film's sweaty sensationalism and the same can be said about this week's RTÉ retelling of the grisly tale, which was even more gratuitously lurid in its reconstructions, with constant shots of knives being brandished, hammers being raised, walls being spattered and blood swirling around plugholes -- all of this accompanied by a screeching musical score better suited to the Saw or Hostel franchises.

Writer-director Sarah Share tried to lend significance to this tacky tale by dragging in a criminal psychologist who mused about lost "moral compasses" and the "symbolism" of severing the victim's penis, and there was some earnest fretting, too, about familial dysfunctionality, but none of this waffle disguised the film's own moral bankruptcy.

As the Jedward twins seek to conquer hearts, minds and tin ears in Dusseldorf, you and I might be of the opinion that the contest in which they're competing is a load of codswallop, but apparently we'd be wrong.

That, at any rate, was the contention of Marty Whelan who, as narrator of The Secret History of Eurovision (RTÉ1), asked us to consider the possibility that this 55-year-old songfest is "the story of Europe itself".

The notion of linking the contest's developing history to concurrent political upheavals throughout Europe was intriguing, even if it led to some daft assertions and non-sequiturs, some of which were quite cherishable. For instance, even though German warbler Nicole won the 1982 contest with her aspirational plea for 'A Little Peace', Marty informed us that "on that same day the Falklands war was started".

Jeepers, Marty, the song wasn't that bad.

In the same vein I learned that in the late '80s, with the imminent fall of communism, "Europe was about to change forever -- but not before a young French-Canadian launched herself on the road to superstardom". Or how Celine's power ballads led to the collapse of the Berlin Wall -- that's worth a cultural studies thesis.

And I especially liked Marty's observation about Ireland's 1993 hosting of the event. "While Millstreet was preparing for the big day," Marty solemnly informed us, "the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo was under siege". And no doubt the Skibbereen Eagle had its eye on Slobodan Milosevic.

At almost two hours, the film was at least 40 minutes longer than was necessary, but it was full of such nuggets and of genuinely interesting information, too, even if it chose not to address the fundamental question: why has the contest always been synonymous with musical tripe? Probably even Marty doesn't know the answer to that.

Another question, just as unanswerable, surfaced while I was watching Ultimate Ulster the other night -- why is UTV such a dreary and inbred regional network? As it happened, a possible answer was suggested by the programme itself, which had asked viewers to nominate their "most-loved Ulster showbiz personality".

You might have thought that Van Morrison would figure somewhere in the Top 10, or perhaps Phil Coulter or Brian Kennedy or Liam Neeson or Feargal Sharkey -- you know, someone with a bit of spark and appeal.

Not a bit of it. Instead, dull provincialism reigned in votes for local radio host Gerry Anderson, mirthless comics Frank Carson and Patrick Kielty, camp continuity announcer Julian Simmons and breakfast TV presenter Eamonn Holmes. In first place was a cross-dressing pantomime dame called May McFetteridge -- "virtually unknown outside the parish", as presenter Frank Mitchell conceded, though, as far as I'm concerned, they all should be.

Coiscéimeanna (TG4) is a new series in which political journalist Harry McGee asks us to accompany him as he goes on walks throughout Ireland. This week's opener saw him retracing the steps undertaken in 1798 by General Humbert and his French soldiers in their doomed attempt to help Ireland liberate itself from its British oppressors.

This was as much a history lesson as a walk but it was enlivened by McGee's engaging curiosity, by the knowledgeable contributions of some locals he met along the way and by the arrestingly filmed landscapes of Mayo.

I'm fond of such programmes and have been a fan of Julia Bradbury in her ramblings around England.

Others must like her, too, because now she's got her name in the title and in the first instalment of Julia Bradbury's Canal Walks (BBC4) she led the viewer through eight miles of the Caledonian canal that links Fort William on Scotland's west coast to Inverness on the east.

Alert and interested, both in people and their environment, she makes for a good television companion.


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