Monday 12 November 2018

John Boland: Actually, Brennan's tour wasn't grand

Francis Brennan's Grand Tour RTÉ One The Social RTÉ Two Now It's Personal RTÉ One

John Boland

The sun's getting to me, complained 21-year-old student Luke after two days in Barcelona. That's the thing about Mediterranean cities -- they tend to be quite hot, especially in the summertime, as hotelier Francis Brennan had already warned Luke and his 15 coach-party companions.

Indeed, he'd gone out of his way to alert them to the difference between sun and shade -- at one point shepherding them from the former into the latter and asking them "Can you feel how cool it is here?" Luke, though, plainly hadn't been paying attention.

So what was flamboyant Francis doing leading a motley crew of Irish sightseers around Barcelona? Beats me, but the official explanation was that, as team leader of Francis Brennan's Grand Tour (RTÉ One), he was embarking on his "biggest challenge ever", hosting "a 12-day epic adventure" from Barcelona to Rome via Carcassonne and Cannes.

Why, though, would viewers want to spend the next six weeks watching any of this? I've no answer to that, either, and the first instalment offered no clues as Francis wandered with his entourage around Barcelona, brandishing an identifying flag on a stick as he went, and alerting them to such sundry objects as Gaudi artefacts and food stalls.

In fact, for all his chirpiness and camp chatter, there was a desultory air to the whole thing, though it didn't help that those straggling along with him seemed as uninteresting as they were uninterested by their surroundings. So what's the point of the series? I haven't a clue.

An even bigger mystery surrounds The Social (RTÉ Two), a sort of chat chow hosted by Craig Doyle, whose previous RTÉ vehicles have been mainly notable for their instant forgettability -- though I can't get out of my mind Ireland's Top Earners, screened in 2008 just when the country was sliding inexorably into economic ruin and in which Doyle swooned over the wealth that had been amassed by Sean Quinn.

After that he was rewarded with a Saturday night chat show, though that was soon replaced by Brendan O'Connor's still-running show, and indeed the quickest way of describing The Social is to note that it makes O'Connor's conversations with slappers and Z-list celebs seem like meetings of the Brains Trust.

"No topic is out of bounds," the continuity announcer warned us at The Social's outset, though it quickly became clear that no inanities were out of bounds, either, as Doyle and his three cut-rate showbiz guests scraped bottoms of barrels on topics ranging from the joys of soccer-victory-night sex to phone apps that can alert men to women's menstrual cycles -- this latter apparently enabling the male either to "steer clear" of the woman or to gauge "whether she's feeling randy". My, how they all chortled, not least Lorraine Keane and Doyle himself.

Immediately after that hilarity, and with the half-time ads looming, the host confided, "I think we should take a little break."

Five years would be fine with me, Craig.

Readers of Ian O'Doherty in this newspaper will have noted that he doesn't do understatement. In this, he's like most columnists whose job it is to offer opinions and who possess an ego that deems such opinions worth hearing. Indeed, I'm evincing those very traits right now.

But the majority of print commentators have the good sense to stay away from the inimical glare of television, which is not our medium, doesn't deal in pleasing paragraphs, has no interest in the niceties of prose, and has the nasty habit of taking the opinion-maker out of his comfort zone and into direct confrontation with those more suited to, and savvy about, the camera's thirst for exposure.

This realisation, though, only came belatedly to O'Doherty, who ruefully observed towards the end of Now It's Personal (RTÉ One) that whereas a week may be a long time in politics, "it's a bloody eternity in television".

He brought it on himself, of course, though he fared somewhat better than Emer O'Kelly had done in the previous edition of this bizarre little series. That, however, was largely because the issue he was confronting -- the intolerance and violence of Islamic fundamentalism -- was of considerably more substance than O'Kelly's rant about stay-at-home mothers as "lazy spongers".

Yet while I share many of his views, his expressions of them at the outset of the programme were so vehement that they ran the risk of being dismissed as a conflicting brand of extremism. This vehemence, though, wasn't apparent during most of his encounters with Muslims in the course of the programme -- indeed, one of them noted how the man in person seemed much nicer and gentler than the strident polemicist of his print persona.

At the end, O'Doherty, who had never seemed at ease throughout the programme, addressed Muslims in a Dublin mosque and pleaded for greater tolerance -- though, the way he phrased it, the tolerance was to come from them rather than him. From their faces you couldn't tell how they were reacting to this fervent advice -- not encouragingly, I would have thought.

Anyway, my advice to most print journalists would be to stay away from spurious television encounters for which they're ill-equipped.

Certainly for those whose vocation involves hunching over a computer screen trying to turn interesting thoughts into elegant sentences, they're unwinnable.

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