Saturday 20 January 2018

John Boland: A hen night in town? someone call me a taxi

hen nights TV3 An téireannach Fáin TG4 Iceland Walk BBC4 Sex, Lies and Gagging Orders BBC3 Page Eight BBC2

There are documentaries and then there are documentaries. First up this week was Hen Nights (TV3), a serious, reflective and thought- provoking analysis of a culturally fascinating social phenomenon. Yeah, right.

Nor, though, did it opt for the comedic approach. Everyone in the film kept mentioning the recent hit movie Bridesmaids. "We're the best bridesmaids ever!" one woman trilled gleefully. "That film should have been us!" Except that the Kristen Wiig movie had a very funny script and terrific performances, whereas here all you got were repeated assurances that everything was "amazing" and "crazy" and occasional shrieking as male strippers shoved their crotches into sundry faces.

"They're all mad," bride-to-be Lorraine said happily of her entourage, who were off to Liverpool wearing T-shirts identifying them as Dildo Denise, Doggie-Style Debbie, Big Jugs Julie and Leg-Over Linda. And at Dublin Airport they all chanted "Cock-a-doodle-do, any cock will do".

All this was probably a hoot for the girls. Unfortunately the makers of the film were under the misguided impression that it would be a hoot for viewers, too, and they likewise imagined that a flapper party in Dublin for Darina and an assault-course afternoon for Philomena would have us similarly enthralled.

This was fly-on-the-wall television without any purpose beyond its glib pitch to a credulous commissioning editor and without any guiding intelligence to give it any semblance of meaning. For this reason, I gave the second night of the tawdry two-parter a wide berth.

By contrast, the Michigan-born Robert J Flaherty, who's widely regarded as the father of the documentary, was all about meaning, even though his cavalier approach to his chosen medium remains controversial 60 years after his death.

On Nanook of the North (1921), a purportedly factual account of the gruelling lives led by Eskimos, he employed actors to play supposedly real people, reshot footage to heighten the drama and reshuffled some of the chronology for extra impact.

On Man of Aran (1934), he was up to similar tricks, and in an interview just before his death he acknowledged that he had been "accused of trying to drown a boatload of wild Irishmen. I should have been shot for what I asked these superb people to do, the enormous risk I exposed them to. And for what? For a film".

Its main actor, Coleman 'Tiger' King, was even more withering. Interviewed years later in the England to which he retreated after his moment of cinema fame, he said he had thought the film phoney from the outset -- or, as he put it: "I knew very well it was bullshit."

And yet that's too simple, as the excellent TG4 film about Flaherty, An téireannach Fáin (The Wandering Irishman), made clear during its engrossing 90 minutes.

Facts sometimes obscure a wider truth -- socially, economically and personally -- and it was this kind of truth that Flaherty, a romantically inclined visionary, was seeking to convey, even when it wasn't always available to him from what actual life presented to his camera on any given day.

Indeed, if his questionable methods remain provocative, that's to the good if it leads viewers to contemplate what constitutes a documentary and what's permissible and what isn't in films that claim to be portraying "real" life and "real" people.

These were among the points raised and addressed in MacDara O Curraidhin's absorbing film.

Another fine documentary was Julia Bradbury's Iceland Walk (BBC4), though here the visuals said it all. "This place is paradise for an avid walker like me," said the presenter, who's already beguiled us with chattily informative canal-bank walks and treks across the Pennines and Yorkshire moors.

She was just as informative here, telling us all about the tectonic plates that cause the country's volcanoes and mentioning in passing that JRR Tolkien had always been fascinated by Iceland -- that, she said, was because the landscape was "the closest you'll get to Middle Earth", and when the camera pulled back and revealed its stark, mysterious beauty it was impossible to disagree.

Hacking into the private lives of Hugh Grant and Kylie Minogue was alright, according to former News of the World reporter Paul McMullen in Sex, Lies and Gagging Orders (BBC3) because they were merely "celebrities" and thus were "justifiable victims in having a free press and a decent democracy" -- this uttered by a man who looks and sounds like a satirist's vision of Grub Street at its least defensible. The rest of the film largely consisted of interviews with Abi Titmuss and Max Clifford. Need I say more?

In David Hare's BBC2 spy film, Page Eight, the politics were as predictable as you'd expect from this dramatist -- anti-Blair, anti-Israel and anti-American -- so thank goodness that a spiffing cast made all the cliches almost irrelevant.

I, for one, chose to regard the whole thing as a masterclass in English and colonial acting, with Bill Nighy and Michael Gambon having enormous fun as seen-it-all, world-weary MI5 operatives, Judy Davis a venomous ice queen out to upset their applecart, Gretta Scacchi a truculent home secretary and Ralph Fiennes a contemptuously thuggish prime minister. What was not to like?

Well, actually, a dopey subplot involving Rachel Weisz and a misconceived passionate kiss between her and Nighy that nearly derailed the whole thing. Neither was it a bright idea to kill off the wonderful Gambon halfway through -- why would anyone do that? Silly bugger, David Hare.

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