Thursday 23 January 2020

John Boland: Sadists, vixens and hussies -- it's really a Game of Groans

Horses for courses: Actor Liam Cunningham in the second season of Game of Thrones on Sky Atlantic
Horses for courses: Actor Liam Cunningham in the second season of Game of Thrones on Sky Atlantic

The Sky Atlantic publicity people had assured me that the HBO fantasy drama, Game of Thrones, was "a dark, gritty and complex tale of power, treachery and greed", but on my first encounter with it this week all that I tasted was an overcooked stew comprising scrag ends from Lord of the Rings, entrails of Spartacus: Blood and Sand and giblets from The Borgias, with a soupcon of Camelot sprinkled into the mix for extra flavouring.

Yes, I'm aware that it won 13 Emmy nominations for its first season, which for all I know was a masterpiece, but this week's opener to Season Two registered as strictly for kids -- even if HBO's penchant for four-letter words, full-on sex and in-your-face bloodletting would seem to suppose an adult audience.

But you'd have to be a child, or at least not quite grown up, to care which of the series' seven feuding families got to seize control of the mythical kingdom of Westeros, while only a devotee of daytime cartoons would tolerate the cardboard cutouts that masqueraded as the main characters.

Thus, most of the men were either villainous barbarians or effeminate sadists, while those women who weren't shameless hussies were treacherous vixens.

It was all very handsomely mounted and fabulously photographed (the Antrim coastline has never looked better), but I found nothing in this opening episode to actually engage or excite me, either mentally or emotionally, and I ended up bemoaning the waste of such good performers as Iain Glen, Lena Headey, Aidan Gillen and Liam Cunningham.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, a Traveller was talking about her ex-husband, who thumped her on their wedding day and then lodged a hatchet in her head. Her father had tried to warn her about the guy, who came from the settled community, but she wouldn't listen. "That's what you get for being in love," she said.

She featured in Unsettled: From Tinker to Traveller (RTÉ One), in which American anthropologists Sharon and George Gmelch returned to meet Traveller families with whom they'd lived for a year in the Dublin area four decades earlier.

Nostalgia was the film's dominant note -- not just for the past but also for a lost way of living. And to George Gmelch's surprise, much of this wistfulness came from family members who were only children, or hadn't even been born, when the Americans came to stay in the early 1970s.

"They seemed happier and better times," one young Traveller woman said when gazing at a photo of her parents that had been taken by George. "No drugs, no violence, a better time to rear your children." And another added: "Years ago, people were poor and people were nicer."

There was little violent feuding, either, and not so much drinking in days when Travellers actually travelled, though bad health and early death (with a high incidence of suicide) remain constant -- the Americans, who are now in their 1960s, were dismayed to learn that they've already outlived most of their Traveller contemporaries.

This was an affectionate and affecting film and so, too, was The Then and Now of Muhammad Ali (BBC4), in which David Frost interviewed the greatest of all heavyweight boxers, long stricken but still unbowed by Parkinson's disease.

Much use was made of earlier Frost encounters with Ali, especially an extended session in the Zaire ring just before the 1974 Rumble in the Jungle. On that occasion the boxer was at his most ebullient and boastful, in sharp contrast to today's more reflective man. But then, as he said himself, if you get to 60 with the same dogmatic outlook you had at 30, you've wasted three decades of your life.

In the first instalment of the two-part Modern Spies (BBC Two), veteran investigative reporter Peter Taylor was at great pains to insist that today's espionage business bore no relation to how it was depicted in movies, but the documentary itself was full of shadowy figures, dark rooms and other spy-game clichés.

And it wasn't long before the film started using clips from Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Spooks -- a scene from the latter invoked by the aghast mother of one operative when she learned of her daughter's top-secret job: "Oh, my goodness, you're going to end up with your head in a fat fryer!"

No, but you can end up toppling a country's internet infrastructure, as Russian cyber spies did in Estonia -- or, indeed, toppling a whole regime, as an Iraqi operative (codenamed Curveball) claimed, by drawing up phoney architectural plans of Saddam Hussein's supposed nuclear weapons plants.

So did he not feel guilty about all the slaughter that ensued, Taylor asked him. "My main purpose was to topple the tyrant," he smilingly replied.

In Disasters at Sea: Why Ships Sink (Channel 4), we learned that while the captain of the Costa Concordia may be inviting incredulity by claiming he tripped and fell into the lifeboat that brought him to safety, he wasn't the first naval officer to escape a sinking feeling.

When the Oceanos liner got into insurmountable difficulties in 1991, the crew deserted the bridge without telling anyone and piled themselves and their luggage into lifeboats. Afterwards the captain explained: "When I give the order to abandon ship, I leave. If people want to stay, that's their affair."

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