Wednesday 21 November 2018

Rose-tinted glasses leave me goggle-eyed

Five Decades of roses RTE1 Cead Seans: Na Fit-Ups TG4 The Rules of Film Noir BBC4

Alice O'Sullivan, the first-ever winner of the Rose of Tralee, recalled thinking before she went on stage in 1959: "God, this is embarrassing". And Kirsty Flynn, winner in 1993, had similar feelings about the notion of taking part: "Never in a million years -- it's just too embarrassing".

As television viewers, some of us have been muttering such thoughts since RTE started broadcasting the event in 1978, though Kirsty didn't really mean what she was saying. "Without doubt one of the best weeks of my life," she enthused on Five Decades of Roses (RTE1). Others agreed. "I will never, ever, ever forget the moment," Orla Burke said of her 1977 victory, while Brenda Hyland thought her 1983 triumph "an experience that will last a lifetime".

Kathy Fox's documentary, screened to celebrate 50 years of the contest, wasn't about to rain on their parade, jettisoning from the outset any pretence of objectivity with her choice of current Rose of Tralee compere Ray D'Arcy as her narrator. And what he narrated was a catechism of cliché that even Myles na Gopaleen might have baulked at.

The '60s, we learned from Ray, had been "swinging," the '70s were "a transformative time," and even if an economic recession "hit Ireland hard" in the 80s, the 90s witnessed "the birth of the Celtic Tiger" when "salaries soared and new homes dotted the landscape" -- a situation that continued in the early Noughties when Ireland became "a jobs mecca".

Having done his duty to the social and economic history of the country, Ray let the five previous winners who'd been selected for the documentary to do most of the talking, and this they did by means of fond reminiscences that were undoubtedly more fascinating to their nearest and dearest than they were to the disinterested viewer.

I'm glad to hear that Orla got excited when she saw a photograph of herself in Tyler's shoe shop in Waterford and that she was thrilled on getting a congratulatory telegram from Charles J Haughey, and I was intrigued to learn that Kirsty only got a job when she left her Rose victory off her CV ("Ironic", as Kirsty observed), but really I'd have been just as contented not to have absorbed such information.

It was only near the very end that you got a glimmer of what the documentary might have achieved. That came when New York's Roisin Egenton recalled the delight of her emigrant parents when she won in 2000. "It meant a lot to them," she said, "because this was the country they were born in and this was the country they had to leave because of difficult times, and to have me representing that country really made them feel they had done good."

That was eloquently said, but she was the only one saying it and it made the viewer keenly aware of the film's missed opportunity to address the real social issues -- emigration, isolationism, parochialism, uneasy attitudes towards women, the lack of alternative cultural outlets and other such matters -- that lay behind the event's appeal. Or, indeed, to entertain any dissenting voices who might have raised impertinent queries about the role of RTE in promoting parish-pumpery.

But, alas, Kathy Fox's brief wasn't to analyse the Rose of Tralee, merely to puff it. This was also the stance taken earlier the same evening by Nationwide, in which presenter Mary Kennedy spent a half-hour slavering over the event.

"The town is en fete," she trilled, before schmoozing Gay Byrne and Ray D'Arcy, the latter all agog that while the Roses of Gay's era had evidenced a fondness for reciting verse, one of this year's entrants would be bringing a snake on stage with her. "From poetry to pythons!" Ray raved at the marvel of it all, offering as his final triumphant thought that old chestnut: "It's part of what we are."

So are lots of other things, I reflected darkly as I gave this year's actual shenanigans a wide berth, opting instead to join Paddy O'Gorman (RTE1) among the holidaymakers in Bettystown. Encountering an extended family of women and children, he wondered at the absence of menfolk. "Did you never take a holiday with your husband?" he asked one of the women. "On my honeymoon," she tersely replied.

A separated man back from 21 years in England had returned because he "wanted to die in my own back yard". Had he never thought of starting another family? "I can't look after myself, never mind kids -- I'm an alcoholic," he answered.

When Paddy and his chosen interviewees weren't chatting, the camera roved around the beach. The visuals were lovely and so was the musical soundtrack, which evoked a vanished age but seemed perfectly appropriate to this place and to its simple recreations.

Cead Seans: Na Fit-Ups (TG4) evoked a vanished time, too -- the period from the 1930s to the 1960s when up to 80 travelling theatre companies entertained audiences throughout the length and breadth of Ireland. Harold Pinter, who wrote a lovely memoir of his time here with Anew McMaster's touring company, was mentioned, but the programme merited a lively hour rather than the somewhat dogged 30 minutes shown here.

The week's best documentary was The Rules of Film Noir (BBC4) in which Matthew Sweet vividly captured the appeal of those great American gangster movies of the 1940s and '50s. Various commentators tried to define the essence of Film Noir in a word, and the main words that came to them were: cigarettes, rain, black, mournful, shadows, Lorre, Mitchum, lipstick, fate, Bogart and guns.

This, as Sweet said, was a world in which "goodness is as rare as natural daylight, the lawyers are all crooked, the DAs are all bent, you wouldn't trust the cops to tell you the time, and the heroine is a predator even when she's playing the victim". And to illustrate his points he showed wonderful clips of Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity; Bogie and Bacall in The Big Sleep; Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past; Burt Lancaster in The Killers; and the great Robert Ryan in On Dangerous Ground.

Then BBC4 screened Murder My Sweet, The Lady from Shanghai and The Big Combo, for which much thanks.

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