Friday 23 February 2018

John Boland: Kerry gold -- When childlike Amy mesmerised Dingle . . .

Memories: Amy
Winehouse was at home
on the Dingle stage
Memories: Amy Winehouse was at home on the Dingle stage

Extravagant overpraise is a dangerous thing and I've always thought the reverence in which Amy Winehouse is routinely held to be so excessive as to be counter-productive.

Yes, she was a remarkable talent, with a true jazz singer's feel for the shape and texture of a song, but by the time of her death a year ago, she simply hadn't recorded enough to be ranked among the great predecessors she so admired.

She was also superior to much of her material, whether it was composed by herself or by others. That's also true of, say, Billie Holiday, who could persuade you that a trifle like These Foolish Things was a masterpiece, but throughout her career Billie also recorded many of the undisputed pearls from the great American songbook, and it is through these hundreds of recordings that we can acknowledge her exalted place in the pantheon.

Winehouse wasn't so fortunate (if you can attribute good luck to the unfortunate Billie), and with little more than a handul of recordings to her name, she's largely to be mourned on the basis of extraordinary promise.

That promise was beautifully captured in the 2006 sessions for RTÉ's Other Voices series, which were enshrined in this week's superb BBC4 Arena documentary, Amy Winehouse: The Day She Came to Dingle, directed and edited by Maurice Linnane.

"She came with her spindly little legs and her mental hair and she sang her heart out for us in Kerry", music producer Aoife Woodlock recalled, while Philip King was eager to suggest why this would have been so: "The truth is, there's something very, very special about Dingle, and there's something quite unique about Other Voices."

Well, as one of those responsible for Other Voices, he would say that, but as Philip has long been a truly inspirational figure in the musical life of this country, I forgave him his occasional forays into the verbal stratosphere, even when he suggested that when she came to Dingle the 22-year-old troubled London singer "used her gift to still her trembling soul".

In fact, he seemed to be right. On stage in the tiny Anglican church, she seemed to be having a ball, eliding her consonants, slurring her vowels and teasing the melody lines with unerring judgment as she bent each song to her will; while in interview with John Kelly, she revealed a childlike wonder as she spoke of such musical heroes as Mahalia Jackson, Sarah Vaughan, Ray Charles and Thelonious Monk.

And it was this sense of fragile innocence that had also struck local man Paddy Kennedy, who had been sent to pick her up from the airport. "They gave me the name but I hadn't a clue who the lady was," he recalled. When he saw her coming towards him, he asked her about the whereabouts of her mother because "my first reaction was that she was a child".

After that, she returned to London and to the beginnings of a fame whose pressures would kill her a few years later. But this lovely film was a poignant reminder of what might have been.

Last Christmas, John Bowman's fine history of RTÉ television, Window and Mirror, was published, and this week's two-part Battle Station (RTÉ One) could be viewed as the screen version of the book.

Fronted by Bowman himself, it made for absorbing viewing even if, amid all the anecdotes and soundbites, an overall point of view seemed to be lacking -- with rigorous assessment sidestepped in favour of the flurry of platitudes and pieties with which current RTÉ executives concluded each instalment.

Still, there were many tidbits to savour in this chronicle of RTÉ television's uneasy relationship down through the decades with church, state, Gaelgeoirs and various other lobby groups and factions.

For instance, there was the list of RTÉ undesirables that had been compiled at the request of Archbishop John Charles McQuaid by the Knights of Columbanus -- these included James Plunkett ("left wing"), Shelagh Richards ("divorced actress") and Carolyn Swift (not only a "divorced Jewess" but also the producer of "indecent plays").

And there was justice minister Padraig O'Morain who, in the recollection of Fianna Fáil colleague Des O'Malley, had been "foaming at the mouth" over the criticism of gardaí in the Seven Days probe into moneylending -- a controversy that incidentally resulted in reporter Bill O'Herlihy being hurriedly shifted to the sports department, for which he'd now undoubtedly thank his erstwhile bosses.

On Weather Permitting (RTÉ One), metereologist Gerald Fleming enthused extravagantly about "the peoples of the world coming together for the common good" -- this observation occasioned by the simultaneous daily release of fact-finding weather balloons around the world.

There was other evidence of hot air in the film, too, much of it emanating from Charlie Bird as he excitedly recalled covering various natural calamities caused by inclement weather, but overall the film, directed by Gerry Reynolds, was both sprightly and informative -- even if no one got round to explaining why we're having such a diabolical summer.

Still, we did learn how former weatherman John Eagleton reacted to such things. Reporting constantly on dismal prospects "would wear you down", he said. "I enjoyed working in RTÉ, but I've no desire to go back there." Anyway, he added, "it's for young people". Cue the weather babes, which the film duly did.

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