Thursday 22 February 2018

John Boland: Why RTE deserves a tongue-lashing

MisinÉirÍ Radacacha Tg4 Farraigí na hÉireann tg4 Bob Quinn @ 75 tg4 Homeland tg4 fighting on the Front Line Channel 4

Our national broadcaster operates on an inscrutable planet of its own. Over the last couple of months, RTÉ One has been screening a succession of piddling programmes in Irish, a language not understood by the majority of its viewers, who are left wondering why such minor fare isn't being broadcast on TG4 -- which, after all, was created to cater for speakers of the native tongue.

For instance, currently running on RTÉ One is Réabhlóid, which translates as Revolutionary Tales and which is an Irish-language series of half-hour programmes telling the stories of marginal -- indeed, largely unknown -- participants in the Irish war for independence. Why isn't that on TG4 where it belongs?

One answer might be that TG4 is too busy commissioning the kind of programmes -- programmes of substance and general interest -- that really should be on RTÉ One, but of course RTÉ's schedules are so clogged up with slavish reproductions of foreign franchises that it's hard to see where there'd be room for them.

This week alone I watched four TG4 programmes that were better than anything to be seen on either RTÉ One or (though probably needless to say) RTÉ Two. One of them, Misinéirí Radacacha, I'm afraid I came to very late, as it was the last instalment of a four-part series about the work of Irish missionaries in the repressive societies to which they were sent. However, struck by its impact, I went back to the previous three programmes and thought them just as fine.

At the heart of the series were the recollections of priests and nuns about their work in El Salvador, the Philippines and the Brazilian cities of Sao Paulo and Fortaleza. Social inequality and poverty were the linking threads, while the inevitable radicalisation -- sometimes immediate, sometimes gradual -- of the missionaries was a recurring motif.

At a time when the reputation of the Catholic Church in Ireland is at an all-time low, this was a bracing reminder that some of its clerics retained their idealism and integrity while also displaying great courage in the face of brutal despots, along with a real commitment towards the wretched of the earth -- unlike those colleagues who stayed at home to practice their own brand of tyranny.

Vastly different, though no less striking, is TG4's six-part natural history series, Farraigí na hÉireann, which looks at the oceanic wild life around our shores. This week's episode focused on our sea beds and it was to be seen and savoured rather than analysed -- every shot of it was extraordinary in its strange, indeed surreal, beauty. The accompanying narrative in this Ken O'Sullivan production was beguiling, too, though words couldn't do justice to the ecstatic visuals.

Maverick filmmaker Bob Quinn, who left RTÉ in 1969 and settled in Connamara in the early 1970s, is being celebrated in TG4's Bob Quinn @ 75, with two of his early short films screened on Tuesday night. Both of them looked very dated in style and technique, though Fág an Bealach had a creepy fascination.

The subject was an Irish language summer school for teenagers in Ros Muc, overseen by a fanatical Gaelgoir who ran the place like an especially punishing boot camp. Oddly, the tone of the film seemed kindly disposed towards him, though anyone watching it now who was young at the time couldn't help but recall an Ireland that was to be escaped from at the next available opportunity.

Filmmaker Johnny Gogan decamped from Dublin to Leitrim in the late 1990s and Homeland (TG4) was an hour-long celebration of his adopted place, largely through the testimony of Leitrim friends and neighbours, many of them returned emigrants or blow-ins from abroad.

Partly because of my brother, who lives nearby in Roscommon, and partly because of a friendship with the late John McGahern, I've grown very fond of Leitrim, a county that's suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune more than any other in Ireland -- its population steadily dropped from a pre-famine 160,000 to the 1996 nadir of 25,000 and it's always been the butt of snide jokes from people who've never been there and thus aren't aware of its quiet beauty.

McGahern, though, cherished its landscapes, customs and people and immortalised them in his novels, stories and essays. More's the pity, then, that his name wasn't once mentioned in Gogan's film, which was otherwise flawed in not identifying specific locations (much of it seemed to have been filmed around Dromahair, though I'm not sure) and in not revealing the occupations or domestic relationships of some of its interviewees. But there were cherishable moments along the way.

"Snakes with tits" is how British soldiers refer to Afghan women who help male insurgents in their subversive work. I learned this from Fighting on the Front Line (Channel 4), a riveting documentary, which accompanied some of these soldiers on the ground and in the Chinooks and Apache helicopters from which they observe enemy movements and despatch insurgents to explosive deaths.

Courtesy of the film, I watched some of these incendiary deaths -- a distant figure spotted in a far-off field, the press of a button and then, whoosh, a puff of smoke and a body, or at least bits of it, sailing surreally through the night sky.

"What do you think goes through a Taliban's head when he sees an Apache coming?" the interviewer asked one soldier. "Hopefully, a 30-mill bullet," was the reply.

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