Monday 15 July 2019

Dreaming of a different life in other places and other times

Swapping homes is illuminating, but exchanging jail for freedom is quite another, writes Cathal MacCarthy

RTE's Living The Dream on Monday featured Mary and Peter Ward swapping their delicatessen in Nenagh for a stint on a Parmesan farm in Italy. Think No Frontiers meets The Restaurant and A Place In The Sun for a threesome and you're pretty well there. Italy looked ravishing and the Wards were good grafters and had a bit of a cut about them. When the locals charged with serving the Irish dinner proved to be slow, Peter could be heard asking Mary the Italian for "quicken it up". "I don't know," sez she, "P45?"

As it happens, I had always though that a catalpa was a type of Italian courgette or one of those fierce Abbey productions starring Fiona Shaw as a Greek harpy. I know now.

It's probably a bit premature to predict that you won't be seeing anything better on RTE this year (you know, with the whole autumn schedule of Seoige & O'Shea still to come), but I'm going to say it anyway. You won't see anything better on RTE this year than Hidden History: The Catalpa Rescue. The story of how six British soldiers convicted of membership of the Fenians were rescued from Fremantle Prison in 1876 by an international conspiracy of their American, Australian and Irish comrades was of a complexity and tension that age had not withered one bit. It was superb and the inclusion of the Aussie novelist Thomas Keneally to give the background colour supplied the Schindler star quality. It was Keneally who supplied the Killer Phrase as he described the painstaking reassembly of the Fenian crew that had been detailed to break James Stephens out of jail. "It was an Ocean's 11 job," he smiled.

Only one question remains. Where, in the name of a dingo's daggy didgeridoo, is Hollywood? Leonardo Di Caprio as Prisoner Wilson, Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Prisoner Cranston, Paul Hogan as Detective Roe, who suspected something was afoot, Graham Norton as one of the Perth militia who followed the escapees out to sea. It writes itself.

Now imagine this delivered in the promo voiceover whispered fiercely by Colin Farrell. James Breslin was the Fenian agent who smuggled the note to the prisoners that first alerted them to the fact that deliverance was at hand. It read: "Those who have not forgotten you are close by ... the door of the tomb is ajar."

Spielberg couldn't bate it.

Ah, history. So much more interesting than today. Graham Norton was the starting point for this week's family tree as investigated by BBC1's Who Do You Think You Are? and the answer was a descendant of Rotherham planter-farmers who probably took part in a massacre of croppy suspects at Carnew Castle in the aftermath of 1798. I've tried Norton and I can't ever say it worked. He always struck me as a kind of bargain basement version of Julian Clary and tellingly Norton's career waxed as Clary's waned in the aftermath of the latter's infamous -- and televised -- remarks about performing a sexual act on Norman Lamont. So Graham Norton was a diet of fluffy phones, vibrators and lewd websites that generally left me glassy-eyed and wondering "so what?"

And yet there was something patently sincere as we watched him trail around Belfast and Ballymena searching out the background that had left him still feeling "not quite up to scratch when it came to being Irish". The revelation that his great-grandmother had four children while unmarried without being ostracised left him feeling reassuringly jolly, "genuinely nice people ... a little bit easy ... a little bit slutty".

This was a programme that several times hinted at the long-overdue task of shifting the southern Protestant persona onto the shrink's couch for a good, long chat about mild forms of identity schizophrenia. And it did it while giving us a couple of nice lines along the way.

Norton stood in front of a UDA mural on the fearsome Sandy Row and noted how afraid the art had made him during his visit to his grandparents during the Seventies. The camera panned the gruesome hooded figures depicted and we heard, "it's neatly done, I'll give them that -- for terrorists. They like a straight line."

We all like a straight line. And Norton gave them to us.

Declan Lynch is on holidays. His column will return next week

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