Tuesday 23 January 2018

John Boland: Commuter stories worth the journey

The Commute RTÉ One Cloch le Carn RTÉ One Louis Theroux: America's Most Dangerous Pets BBC One The Story of Film: An Odyssey More 4

Despite all the trumpetings that were heard from Montrose about its autumn schedules, RTÉ One appears to be showing fewer programmes -- and certainly fewer of any substance -- than in any year I can recall.

Absent are the Hidden History and Arts Lives strands of former years and in their place are . . . well, nothing really, unless you count such lazy replicas of foreign formats as Secret Millionaire, dutiful updates by Richard Curran and George Lee of previously aired economic analyses and the odd one-off documentary that arrives unencumbered by any relevance or purpose -- the recent Mayday at Fastnet Rock being a perfect example.

Mostly, though, RTÉ One's schedules have been crammed with programmes we already saw in the last year or so -- this week alone has been dominated by repeats of The Limits of Liberty, What Have the Brits Ever Done for Us? and What's Eating Ireland?

They're just the lengthier programmes. Most of the half-hour shows are reruns, too, nowhere more bizarrely than in the case of Feargal Quinn's Retail Therapy -- given that the economic situation has got a lot worse since this series was filmed two years ago (and first aired soon afterwards), are these enterprises still benefiting from their mentor's advice, or are they even in business? Such reflections, though, were plainly only of concern to the viewer, RTÉ being blithely content that 30 minutes of scheduling had been dealt with.

Given this mania for outdated repeats, you can expect to see The Commute being re-run in two years' time when the fortunes and careers of all its interviewees will probably have radically changed. Here was that increasingly rare RTÉ thing, a documentary of topicality and substance made by someone (producer/director Philip Gallagher) who knew how to give narrative shape and emotional impact to a variety of disparate stories -- and in such a way that the viewer was always engaged, despite the overlapping nature of what was being told.

"I love my job and I love my family," said midwife Margaret, from Clonakilty, "but unfortunately the two are not in the same place." That was the essential story of all the other interviewees, too, though Margaret's propensity for tearfulness made hers the most immediately affecting -- that and the fact that the only job she could find was in a London hospital, where she works all week before returning home to her husband and seven children in west Cork.

The Irish health service, she observed, was "in a long, long, dark tunnel" and she envisioned making the arduous commute "for quite a while to come". At least she gets to see her family every weekend, unlike former builder Matt, from Ballymote, who only gets home from his London building-site job every five or six weeks. He'd miss his daughter's birthday, he said, because it would be in midweek.

Then there was Brian from Westmeath, who was captain of the county hurling team but had to do all his training at the London school in which he taught, while Limerick-based John felt guilty at the domestic burden being shouldered by his wife while he commuted to his Dublin job.

The last word, though, was left to Margaret, who recalled that in the 1950s, and for the same reason as herself, her father was obliged to emigrate to London, where she was born. Eventually they escaped, leaving her now to reflect that "after all his hard work in taking his family out of there, I go back".

Cloch le Carn, RTÉ One's series of half-hour tributes to recently deceased people of note, returned for a new season with a commemoration of actor Mick Lally, who died last year. As in previous programmes in the series, there was little attempt at analysis or judicious assessment -- instead, we were told that Lally had a "magic quality", a "considerable intellect" and a "great compassion" and that audiences loved him -- all undoubtedly very true but hardly riveting.

There was passing mention of a "dark side" but that wasn't explained and anyway didn't seem to amount to much because then we heard about a "good man" and a "decent man" and the "simplicity" and "truth" of his acting -- mostly luvvie talk from thespian colleagues, though the actor's widow and son were affecting.

In Louis Theroux: America's Most Dangerous Pets (BBC Two), the faux-naif presenter found himself, as usual, in the company of people whom he could slyly mock. This lot were especially revolting and thus easy targets, not least tiger-owning redneck Tim, whose declared affinity with wild creatures is such that "I have no respect for people, I refuse to trust any human being on this planet".

Not even your wife, asked Louis, of the woman standing beside them. No, not even her, said Tim, whose idea of fun is to keep slapping his caged wild cats in the face. They love that, he asserted, though the viewer kept hoping one of them would prove otherwise.

Mark Cousins, who presents The Story of Film: An Odyssey on More 4, delivers his apercus in a voice that's both mannered and laboured, but the labour is one of love and what he has to say is often marked by real insights. This week he'd reached the American cinema of the 1970s and his focus on Altman, Scorsese, Schrader, Coppola and Peckinpah featured lots of intriguingly arcane facts and fascinating behind-the-scenes detail. A terrific series for movie buffs.

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