Friday 22 November 2019

Comedy classic or classic dud? Jury's out on Linehan's latest

Actress Amy Stephenson as Ciara in The Walshes
Actress Amy Stephenson as Ciara in The Walshes

John Boland

Is The Walshes (RTÉ1), which has been co-created and co-written by Graham Linehan, destined to become a comedy classic or will it be looked back on as a dud, like Jason Byrne's recent Father Figure?

That's a tricky call to make on the basis of a first episode. After all, the opening instalment of Father Ted, which was Linehan's first great success (with co-creator Arthur Mathews), left me pretty cold when it was first aired in 1995 and it really wasn't until the show's second season, when I'd got to know and love the idiocies of its various characters, that I realised I was watching a classic.

And the same was true of the Linehan-Dylan Moran collaboration, Black Books, when it made its debut in 2000, and of Linehan's first solo creation, The IT Crowd, on its initial outing in 2006. I now regard the finest episodes of both shows as manifestations of inspired lunacy.

So what about The Walshes, whose other co-creators and co-writers are the Dublin comedy group Diet of Worms? Indeed, it was they who dreamt up the show's basic setup in a low-budget online series four years ago, which makes it hard to gauge the precise involvement of Linehan – though I would imagine that he came on board to flesh out the characters, tighten up the scripts, invent some gags of his own and, as director, to bring to the show the professional expertise and timing he'd acquired when directing The IT Crowd.

And I certainly did chuckle at some of the antics of this dysfunctional west Dublin family – not least when cringe-makingly in-your-face dad Tony, wrongly assuming that daughter Ciara's new boyfriend Graham was a doctor, dropped his trousers and asked him to inspect an "anal event" from which he was suffering.

Dotty Irish mammy Carmel had her invasively ghastly moments, too, especially when confiding to Ciara's hapless suitor that his girlfriend's volatility might be due to her "monthly visitor", when she could be "a bit tricky", especially in the "three-week lead-up to it".

Neither of these incidents sounds remotely funny when set down in cold print, but there was a daftness to the characters and a deftness to the playing that somehow removed these situations – and some others, too – from the pitfalls of tackiness and made them genuinely funny instead. Indeed, the show was notable for the way it located a kind of benign, if mad, innocence in this hellish suburban family, though I'll reserve any further judgment until I see next week's episode.

Moone Boy (Sky 1), which concerns another dysfunctional Irish family, is even more benignly pitched, though it risks being too charmingly whimsical for its own good. Certainly this week's episode, which involved young Martin and pal Padraig on a rafting adventure, was so lazily indulgent of its characters that it hardly bothered with a storyline or, indeed, any good gags. Chris O'Dowd's fondness for Boyle is bracing, but he's in danger of trying our patience.

Still, I preferred it to Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle (BBC2), in which the over-praised comedian's sardonic stand-up routines were constantly interrupted by earnest one-to-one sessions with co-comic Chris Morris, in which he fretted over the nature and purpose of his persona and material.

Just tell the jokes, Stewart, and leave us to decide how meaningful, or indeed amusing, it all is.

While watching Gliondar and Jigs & Wigs, I found myself wondering yet again about the point of TG4 when RTÉ1 keeps bombarding us with Irish-language programmes of its own. For myself, I'd rather be bombarded by good programmes and ones that don't involve the scrutinising of subtitles, but they're few and far between on RTÉ these days.

Anyway, my dictionary tells me that "gliondar" means "happiness" or "joyousness", and the half-hour series in question takes that to include anything from a passion for rally driving to potato competitions in the Gaeltacht. This week's programme was about aficionados of sheepdog trials and for all I know next week's will be about underwater basket weaving. Who commissions this stuff?

The first instalment of Jigs & Wigs was a good deal better, mainly because this programme about young Irish dancers was enlivened by two lovely Traveller hopefuls – 11-year-old Jim and 13-year-old cousin Bridget, both of them as bright as buttons and both very articulate about their aspirations and misgivings.

Hector Goes Fishing (RTÉ1) was the first in a series of 'Hector Goes...' documentaries, none of which seems to be titled 'Hector Goes on a Long Holiday'. Ah well, I'm sure fans of the hyperactive presenter enjoyed watching him strutting his stuff at the fishmonger stalls of Cork's English Market and on a monkfish trawler off Kilmore Quay.

By contrast, Vótaí do Mhná (TG4) was notable for not indulging the cult of the presenter. Indeed, Keith O'Grady's documentary was positively old-fashioned in its presentational style, relying on the expertise of its interviewees to further its story about the rise of women's suffrage in Ireland during the late 19th and early 20th Century.

Quirke (RTÉ1) came to the end of its three-film run with an episode that was again stronger on atmosphere than on plotting. But I loved its evocation of 1950's Dublin and I thought Gabriel Byrne and Aisling Franciosi were very affecting as failed father and lost daughter.

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