Sunday 8 December 2019

John Boland: It's RTE's summer snooze

Cracking Crime RTÉ1
Mildred PierceSky Atlantic
The Night WatchBBC2
The KillingChannel 4

Why do we pay our licence fee? I know, of course, that it's needed to keep the salaries of RTÉ's top presenters at 12 times the national average wage, thus ensuring that they'll continue not only to enthral us with their unique talents but also to give voice to our concerns and speak up on our behalf.

For instance, where would we be without Pat Kenny and Joe Duffy on our airwaves to eloquently expose the iniquities of our economic masters and our social system?

And the fact that, in carrying out these thankless but necessary tasks, the former earns over €600,000 a year and the latter more than half that is something that only begrudgers would mention.

And I know, too, that we must subsidise the lengthy holidays that are required by those who toil so selflessly and fearlessly on our behalf, not least those extended absences that Marian Finucane must take if she's to persist with her gruelling two-day-a-week radio schedule on a mere €500,000 a year.

Still, the licence-fee question still niggles and becomes especially pertinent during the summer months, when a quick glance through the RTÉ schedules reveals that there's absolutely nothing on -- not nothing as in not very exciting or not worth staying in for, but nothing as in nothing.

But wait, what's this? Can it actually be a new series in the RTÉ schedules? Ah, no, it's just another season of Cracking Crime (RTÉ1), one of those murder-reconstruction jobs of which our national broadcaster is so fond, for reasons not disclosed to the hapless viewer. It's competently made but is it worth watching? No, it's not.

Still, for devotees of car-crash television, there's always Mamó (RTÉ1), an Irish-language lifestyle series in which Belfast granny Máire Andrews dispenses her inimitable brand of wisdom in a variety of family and social situations. Last week's opening programme was so out-there that I had high hopes of the series becoming a must-see, so-bad-it's-great show, but this week's offering was merely boring drivel.

The setting was a flat near Queen's University and Mamó took it upon herself to rearrange the lives of its five female occupants. Her theme was the importance of role-playing in human interactions and to this end she instructed the flatmates to stop playing the roles they had automatically adopted (daddy figure, mammy figure, etc) and let others among them take up those behavioural positions.

So the quiet girl became the leader, the lazy one became the cook, and so on. What this achieved eluded me, but it enabled Mamó to talk in psychobabble certainties throughout while the girls stood around giggling and looking embarrassed. The programme itself, made possible by some Northern Ireland Irish-language fund, was a total embarrassment.

Mildred Pierce (Sky Atlantic) is an adaptation of James M Cain's 1941 novel about a divorced woman's determined attempts to make money, find social acceptance and cope with a malevolent daughter in 1930s California. Michael Curtiz's 1945 movie version, which memorably starred Joan Crawford, took 110 minutes to tell the story, but here it's been elongated to five hour-long episodes and with two hours to go it's already outstaying its welcome.

Mind you, it looks wonderful, gets all the right flourishes from cult director Todd Haynes and is brilliantly acted, too, especially by Kate Winslet as Mildred, Evan Rachel Wood as the frightful daughter and Guy Pearce as the dissolute playboy for whom they both fall. But compression into two or three episodes would have removed most of the longueurs.

By contrast, The Night Watch (BBC2) should have been longer. I haven't read the Sarah Waters novel from which it was adapted, but it's clear that in cramming the whole thing into 90 minutes a good deal of complexity was lost, leaving just the skeletal bones of the story -- as happened, too, with the BBC version of Patrick Hamilton's wonderful trilogy, Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky.

This tale of transgressive love (three of the four main characters were gay) in wartime London was told backwards, so that the viewer only gradually learned how the characters had come to such a sad pass.

This was poignantly managed and the playing by Anna Maxwell Smith, Jodie Whittaker and JJ Feild was superb, but it was all so schematic that it was hard to really care about any of them. The film should have allowed us the time to get to know them better.

The Danish series, The Killing, shown on BBC4 last winter, was one of the most absorbing television dramas I've ever encountered. Perhaps if I hadn't seen it I'd think more highly of the American re-make (currently on Channel 4), which, though set in Seattle, seems intent on honouring the dark mood of its Danish predecessor.

But something is missing. Mireille Enos is fine as chief investigator Sarah Linden, but Sarah Linden is not the original's Sarah Lund and Mireille Enos is not the marvellous Sofie Grabol. And the US version's politician, Troels Hartman, isn't played by the mesmerising Lars Mikkelsen.

In brief, this US re-make may be a masterpiece for all I care; it's just not the series which so thrilled me.

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