Friday 16 November 2018

Television: Amber was postponed several times – now we've an idea why

Sandyford skyline: Eva Birthistle and David Murray as Amber’s estranged parents Sarah and Ben Bailey.
Sandyford skyline: Eva Birthistle and David Murray as Amber’s estranged parents Sarah and Ben Bailey.

John Boland

The mystery drama Amber, which ran for four consecutive nights this week, was made in 2011 and was originally due to be screened by RTÉ in the autumn of 2012. Then it was scheduled for last autumn and was deferred yet again. So what was the problem?

Despite the €160 annual licence fee RTÉ receives from all of us, the station's ongoing funding crisis was cited as the main reason, though it's hard to see why this would hinder the transmission of a series that was already in the can and merely had to be broadcast.

It's as if RTÉ had developed misgivings about its overall quality, but that seems unlikely given the dross that our national broadcaster has been more than happy to foist on lrish viewers in the name of original drama down through the decades – and also given the fact that Amber has already been screened in a number of other countries.

You can see why it proved of interest to an international market, its story of a vanished girl and of what might lie behind her disappearance having a frightening resonance that transcends local boundaries. The unsolved mystery of Madeleine McCann's disappearance immediately comes to mind, but so do scores of other such cases, – including those of Annie McCarrick and Jo Jo Dollard.

And the series was at its strongest when it explored the grief and bewilderment suffered by families in such circumstances – I was reminded of the first season of the Danish drama The Killing, which devoted almost as much of its attention to the trauma endured by the missing girl's parents as it did to what had happened to her and who caused it.

But The Killing didn't neglect the latter, either, and at the end provided us with the dramatic satisfaction of learning what had happened to the girl and who was responsible, whereas Amber, after four episodes in which we were encourage to ponder who the perpetrator might be, finally opted to go nowhere, thus cheating us of our basic desire for some kind of dramatic resolution, no matter how ghastly that might be.

Up to then we'd willingly tolerated some ongoing defects (over-extended scenes, contrived confrontations and a few scenery-chewing performances), but the central mystery had remained compelling and it wasn't until the end that we discovered we'd been provided with enough red herrings to fill a trawler.

Amber herself in the person of Lauryn Canny was a haunting presence throughout, Levi O'Sullivan was affecting as her younger brother and Dan Li was poignant as illegal immigrant Charlie, whose attempt to do the right thing proved catastrophic for him. I liked, too, the device of constantly returning to the same days and seeing them from a different perspective each time.

But the ending, which broke a time-honoured dramatic pact with the viewer, was such a cop-out that everything preceding it went for naught. Indeed, if RTÉ really did have misgivings about screening this series, I'd have readily understood.

By contrast, the three-part Play Next Door (RTÉ One), in which a documentary preceded a drama, turned out to be a winner. I've already written enthusiastically about Fiona Looney's sojourn in Thurles and the play she fashioned from her time there, and I was also absorbed the following week by Patrick McCabe's occupancy of a Castleblayney ghost mansion, in which he set a characteristically surreal tale of republican skulduggery and betrayal.

This week's writer was novelist and broadcaster Deirdre Purcell, who was required to spend a month in the splendid old Bray Head Hotel, which I vividly recall from family holidays of my childhood, though it was in a Putland Road house that we more modestly stayed. In those years the hotel seemed to have an aura of Edwardian grandeur, and now it seems even more of its era – "like a place frozen in aspic", the author declared as she nervously pondered the task of writing her first play.

Fittingly, she came up with the notion of inhabiting the hotel with an old actress, long past her theatrical days and suffering from early dementia as she wandered the long corridors. There were echoes here of Norma Desmond and Baby Jane, but Purcell treated the character with tact and sympathy, while the dilemma of her son and his wife was well caught, too, if somewhat conventionally worked out.

Certainly the makers have been on to an interesting idea here and should be encouraged to come up with another series in which writers are sent to chosen locations and then required to deliver the dramatic goods.

The Musketeers (BBC One), which is very loosely based on Alexander Dumas's classic swashbucklers, is a romp and if you like romps you'll have a field day here. All the actors speak in estuary or Cockney accents, but what the heck, they're all gorgeous. Indeed, Luke Pasqualino as d'Artagnan is such a dish that if I were differently inclined I'd fancy him myself. The women, all heaving bosoms, aren't bad, either.

In the second season of The Bridge (BBC4), Swedish detective Saga's inability to relate to other human beings has become a running gag and a very amusing one, too. There are lots of creepy subplots as well and I've become completely hooked.


'Girls' still showing how it's done

The opener to the third season of Girls (Sky Atlantic) featured a terrific showdown in a coffee shop with Hannah's boyfriend Alex and the woman he'd recently dumped. I wouldn't dare print the dialogue here, but the tirade by the jilted woman and her friend was so ferocious as to be alarmingly funny.

Certainly this new season of Lena Dunham's scabrous comedy seems to be holding its nerve, its four young women still intent on putting up with the tacky fantasies of tacky men as they pursue fuzzy notions of fulfilment in the city that never sleeps.

Dunham herself has been coming under attack for touched-up enhancements in a Vogue photoshoot, but there's nothing touched up about her persona here, which is bracingly naked, both physically and psychologically.

Irish Independent

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