Saturday 18 November 2017

Bláthnaid goes to Brussels – but EU'll need an interpreter

In TG4's new satirical sitcom, Crisis Eile, Bláthnaid Ní Chofaigh plays a bossy, overbearing EU commissioner who arrives in Brussels with a sense of haughty entitlement – played with such assurance by this queen of RTé daytime television you'd think the role was made for her.

Scriptwriter Antoine Ó Flatharta and director Charlie McCarthy could have had some fun with this, but unfortunately the gags in the opening episode were so broad and so flat that the opportunity was missed.

And so when Ní Chofaigh's character, Maeve Kelly Clarke, gave pride of place on her office wall to a portrait of her adored political dad, viewers were irresistibly reminded of Beverley Cooper Flynn and father Pádraig, but the filmmakers did nothing with such tempting possibilities.

The dialogue ranged over three languages, but for those of us gobdaws not fluent in Irish subtitles were only sporadically employed and so perhaps a few good jokes were missed. But there'll need to be a lot more and they'll need to be a lot sharper if viewers are to keep faith with this sitcom.

Just before the opening credits of Utopia (Channel 4), a voiceover warned that the violence in this first episode was graphic, "which some viewers might find disturbing". The warning was reiterated at the end of the final ad break, after which came one of the most unpleasant scenes I've witnessed in a television drama.

It lasted for almost five minutes and it involved chilli powder, sand, bleach, a teaspoon, two goons and a man's eyes. If you weren't watching, you don't really want to know any more, and if you were it was probably with your gaze half-averted, as mine was.

Frankly I thought the scene entirely gratuitous as we'd already learned just what these goons were capable of – the episode had begun with a chillingly matter-of-fact slaughter in a comic bookstore that didn't even spare a young child who was cowering under the shelves.

Brilliantly staged and shot, this pre-credit sequence was genuinely unsettling, as was the labyrinthine story that followed, which concerned a mysterious comic book that brought peril to anyone inquiring about its whereabouts. Indeed, the torture victim was a comic-book fan who'd been laughed at by his nerdish companions for indulging in conspiracy theories.

I've no idea where the series will go from here, but already there are enough elements – involving sinister state mandarins, a suicidal ministerial secretary and a feral young boy – to ensure a captive audience for next Tuesday's episode. Certainly for a series called Utopia, I've seldom watched anything more unnervingly dystopian.

By contrast, the two-part Spies of Warsaw (BBC4) was reassuringly old fashioned, perhaps too much so for its own good. Yet if this adaptation of Alan Furst's espionage thriller was frequently clunky, with action scenes that abruptly ended long before they should have been over, the sense of Poland as a fragile entity soon to be "crushed like a walnut" by Hitler and by Stalin was poignantly evoked.

David Tennant was persuasive as the dashingly cool French military attaché performing all sorts of top-secret derring-do, Janet Montgomery was the alluring woman with whom he became besotted, and there were lots of interesting minor characters in a drama that relied for its effectiveness on tension rather than bloodletting.

Bloodletting, though, was at the core of Armed and Dangerous Ireland (TV3), in which intrepid investigative reporter Paul Connolly outlined the easy availability of lethal weaponry among our local badasses.

Paul made something of a meal out of his quest, confiding that for the previous five months he'd "embedded" himself in the country's "black market weapons trade", causing this viewer to wonder why none of these dangerous characters recognised him from his various high-profile TV3 probes into criminal skullduggery.

But some of the responses he elicited were chilling. One young contract killer, when asked what it was like to wield a gun, told him: "It feels like you're the only person on the planet and you've control over everyone around you." And to a query about whether Ireland was now more dangerous than before, another replied: "You better believe it, and if cops aren't carrying guns in the next 10 years they're going to be slaughtered."

Perhaps what's needed is a country of no-nonsense citizens like 78-year-old Phyllis McGee, who was attacked in her Donegal home last week and who told Miriam O'Callaghan on RTé One's Prime Time that she regretted there had been no one around with a gun as she'd "loved to have seen" her assailants "lying dead in the street – I would have enjoyed it".

Well, that's one response and no doubt would be favoured by the gun lovers of Orlando, Florida, who on the main evening news told RTé One's US correspondent Richard Downes exactly what they thought of any proposed curbs on their right to bear arms.

Only in America and only there, too, the savage sentences meted out to even the most minor of offenders in the US's much-vaunted war against drugs would be celebrated. This was the subject of Storyville: The House I Live In (BBC4), a despairing documentary about the injustices and cruelties inherent in a system that equates punishment with success.

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