Entertainment TV & Radio

Monday 23 September 2019

Grim tale of abduction a dramatic victory for RTE

Single-Handed: The Stolen Child


In my review of 2007, I commended the drama Single-Handed, which RTE screened as a two-parter last March and whose screenplay by Barry Simner managed to be both taut and suggestive. Set in a west of Ireland coastal community, it featured Owen McDonnell as a young garda who uncovered all sorts of lies and deceits in the place where he was born and learned that his father, just retired as the local sergeant, was up to his eyeballs in the murky goings-on. I was struck at the time by the persuasiveness of this dark story, which offered no easy comforts, never lurched into melodrama and featured outstanding playing from all the cast, not least McDonnell in the main role.

The film was so good that it merited development into a series, but it's taken almost a year for Simner to provide us with Single-Handed: The Stolen Child (RTE1), another two-parter set in the same community and featuring the same principal characters. Screened this week, it enshrined most of the virtues of the first film -- an intriguing storyline, convincing dialogue, a real sense of the importance of place in people's lives, first-rate playing -- though in the end its impact was lessened by revelations that were too thin to be satisfying.

It began with a snatched toddler and most of the film's time was taken up with garda Jack Driscoll's continually frustrated attempts to solve the mystery of his disappearance, though when he finally did so it was all a bit of a letdown -- his paternal grandparents had simply taken him to save him from the irresponsibility of his drug-addicted parents.

Two sub-plots were woven into the story. One of them, about a teacher who'd been hounded out of the locality because of unfounded rumours of paedophilia, was a half-hearted affair and only seemed there to engineer a sudden and too convenient death at the close.

The other, more satisfyingly, concerned the retired sergeant's appearance before a tribunal investigating garda malpractice. This was meant to remind us of the shameful McBrearty case in Donegal and it did so in engrossing court scenes dominated by Ian McElhinney, whose performance as the sergeant was even more malevolent and mesmerising than in the first film.

It was hard to take your eyes off him whenever he was on screen, though the quiet authority and contained emotions that McDonnell brought to his own role confirmed my view of this actor as a performer of rare presence, while Charlene McKenna was outstanding as the bewildered young mother.

Overall, this wasn't as arresting as its predecessor but it was a superior drama all the same and Anthony Byrne, replacing the first film's Colm McCarthy, directed it with the same unfussy assurance.

The three-part Sense and Sensibility (BBC1) began with a young woman being slowly stripped and seduced, which I don't recall either from the Jane Austen novel or from Ang Lee's film version, but as the adaptor was Andrew Davies -- the man whose mission in life is to sex up the classics -- I can't say I was surprised.

Happily, he pulled in his petticoats after that and rewarded us with a spirited and jolly retelling of how the three Dashwood sisters lost their fortune and were turfed out of their stately pile by the machinations of their nasty sister-in-law (the splendidly venomous Claire Skinner) and their spineless brother.

Saved by a distant relative (Mark Williams giving new meaning to jovial gusto), they encountered the quietly smouldering Colonel Brandon (David Morrissey) and handsome cad Willoughby in their new straitened abode on the Devonshire coast.

The girls, especially Hattie Morahan as Elinor, were a treat, too, and I look forward to renewing their acquaintance in the final two episodes. And if Davies introduces any more scenes of how's-your-father, I suppose we can reflect that if Jane were writing today she might have everyone going at it like hammer and tongs. Or maybe not.

Jack Doyle: A Legend Lost (RTE1) offered us the cautionary tale of the Cobh-born boxer who had oodles of sex, lorry-loads of lolly and crate-fulls of celebrity and then blew it all through drink, gambling and an inordinate sense of himself.

Younger viewers would never have heard of the man and older ones only knew him by repute, but in the early 1930s, when he was barely out of his teens, he was the toast of England and Ireland. Or, as narrator Eamon Morrissey put it: "With the looks of Rudolph Valentino, the voice of John McCormack and the right hand of Jack Dempsey, he was God's gift to boxing."

However, 40 years later, just before his drink-induced death at the age of 65, he was just "another forgotten Irishman dying penniless on the streets of London".

Gerry Nelson's documentary told his story well, though after a half-hour or so I began to weary of the repeated tales of disastrous liaisons, drinking sprees and botched comebacks. Anyway, Patrick Kavanagh caught his predicament in a mere three lines: "...he got tangled in the gown/Of Venus waiting as she would/For the handsome boy who comes to town."

Starting off the new series of No Frontiers (RTE1), presenter Kathryn Thomas went to the South Seas in search of the humpback whale, but this reclusive creature gave her the hump by choosing not to appear. So we got to see Kathryn moping about on a boat for three days instead. Then the whale relented and Kathryn confessed herself ecstatic. I tried to share her excitement.

Meanwhile in Havana, Diarmuid Gavin was driven around in an old Chevvy. He confessed himself ecstatic, too, but he sounded about as excited as I felt. Still, it could have been worse. He could have been talking about gardening.

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