Tuesday 23 January 2018

Did you hear the one about RTÉ's missing punchlines?

The best comedy on RTÉ is usually unintentional. There's been nothing funny about the station's recent attempts to make us laugh, but when a set of earnest clerics sought to analyse Irish society in the 1970s the results were frequently hilarious.

I was reminded of this courtesy of The Radharc Squad (RTÉ One), a two-part documentary about the Catholic priests who made more than 400 films in 75 different countries, starting in the early '60s and ending in the mid-'90s, when the unit ceased to function.

Take, for instance, the 1971 Radharc film, The Road to Nowhere, one of those Awful Warnings about how smoking marijuana led to dropping acid, which in turn resulted in a hankering for dirty syringes in public toilets – all of this solemnly intoned by a priestly narrator.

It was like a parody of those scaremongering 1950s Hollywood films about aberrant youth and I guffawed as loudly re-watching it as every sensible young person had done when it was first screened.

In fact, as this week's documentary revealed, the film had been funded by the ultra right-wing Knights of Columbanus, which must have come as a surprise to those who've always regarded the Radharc clerics as so liberal-minded as to be almost anti-establishment.

However, I never regarded them as such and neither did Eoghan Harris, who saw them as pursuing "an ingratiating soft-reform agenda", the basic thrust of which was "Let's criticise the Church a little bit – like maybe Masses are too long, or the sermons could be better".

Harris was the documentary's notably dissenting voice, rightly deeming a fawning film about the dreadful Michael Cleary "an absolute disgrace" and concluding at the programme's end that Radharc's legacy was "a very mixed one".

Yes, it had made fine films from around the world about poverty and injustice and about the efforts of brave and dedicated priests to oppose tyranny and to comfort the afflicted, but much of its domestic output was mealy-mouthed, as in a toothless film about the role of nuns or an uncritical profile of pietistic agony aunt Angela McNamara.

As it happened, the film about nuns so enraged Archbishop John Charles McQuaid that he had its maker, Dermod McCarthy, transferred to a parish in Athy, but one of the documentary's strengths was to reinforce the viewer's disbelieving sense of how times have changed. Was it really only three decades ago that a Catholic despot was able to casually exert such powers? And why did all those priests speaking earnestly to camera appear to sound like parodies of Fr Trendy? Oh wait, that was the other way round.

But if The Radharc Squad had its comedic moments, there've been none so far in the intentional comedy of Irish Pictorial Weekly (RTÉ One). Devised by Barry Murphy, this sketch show enlists the services of 11 writers and 26 cast members, yet between them they can't come up with something that would actually make you laugh.

The show's best moments – the ones when you come closest to giggling – are when it takes footage of Labour leader Eamon Gilmore delivering ardent speeches and replaces his actual words with gobbledegook about budgies and snakes and why he keeps wagging his finger.

But the impersonations of a stern Angela Merkel and a derisive Terry Prone have no punchline, or even point, while the besieged 1916 leaders plotting their pension entitlements probably looked more amusing on paper than it is on screen.

The show is mainly notable for eschewing the potty talk favoured by the general run of RTÉ comedies, so that when it's used the viewer is startled, as when the Michael Noonan character compares Ireland's fate to that of Kate Middleton: "Royally screwed on a regular basis and with little or no protection." Still not funny, though.

Continuing RTÉ One's 90th anniversary acknowledgement of Ireland's Civil War, Michael McDowell presented A Lost Son, which concerned the killing of his uncle Brian by forces belonging to the Free State government of which Brian's father, Eoin MacNeill, was a senior member.

Niamh Sammon's film told the painful story well and McDowell was both an engaged and engaging host, persuaded by the end that the killing of the 22-year-old on the slopes of Ben Bulben was out-and-out murder.

He concluded that the Civil War was "a sordid, wretched thing" which to this day "doesn't make any sense whatsoever".

Few would disagree with him.

BBC4 rounded off its 'Why Poverty?' season with a two-hour probe into The Trouble with Aid – seemingly its main trouble being that, by insisting on non-political humanitarianism, it plays into the hands of corrupt regimes.

Modern humanitarian aid began in the late 1960s when images of starvation in Biafra brought idealistic western doctors rushing to the aid of victims – thereby ignoring the complexities of the civil war that was raging between Nigeria and its breakaway state. In fact, both sides used the world's concern to further their own ends.

The film also looked at humanitarian aid in Cambodia, Somalia and Ethiopia, with Bob Geldof seen by Oxfam's Tony Vaux as "the epitome of the non-political approach".

And the film argued that although he and others did a lot of good, their refusal to become involved in the political realities of their actions was in many ways counter-productive.

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