Monday 20 November 2017

Televsion: We heard the pipes calling 127 times and we still call for more

Joe O'Shea

'Oh Danny Boy!' The lilting, lachrymose ballad that has been murdered by a million tearful drunks in every backroom bar from Clontarf to Chicago.

And one needed a very high tolerance indeed for The Derry Air to get through Danny Boy – The Ballad That Bewitched the World on RTÉ One this week.

This primetime offering set out to tell the story of an old Irish ballad that became an anthem for the Irish diaspora (a word that we heard almost as often as we heard the pipes calling from glen to glen, thank you, Mary Robinson).

And while it was an entertaining jaunt through the unfamiliar story of a very familiar song, its principal achievement was in managing to play 'Danny Boy' roughly 127 times without causing you to put your foot through the family flat-screen.

It helped that there are so many versions of the song, recorded by some of the greatest interpreters of popular music of the 20th Century, from Elvis and Johnny Cash to representatives of (as Terry Wogan is fond of saying) "that breed of Irish tenors which is known and feared throughout the world".

It also helped that what has been a song worn very thin by endless hearing still retains a huge emotional punch, especially when we heard the stories of the Irish-American firefighters who perished in the World Trade Centre attacks on September 11, 2001.

The Catholic Church in New York had, in their infinite wisdom, tried to ban the singing of secular songs at funerals shortly before 9/11. But as we heard from one of the firefighters who survived and had to bury hundreds of his fallen comrades, no bishop was going to tell a church full of Brooklyn Irishmen who run into burning buildings for a living that they couldn't sing 'Danny Boy'.

A smart use of archive footage, interesting talking heads (including Brian Kennedy, who pointed out that it's actually a very difficult song to deliver) and unusual versions with intriguing back-stories helped to make this very entertaining, engaging TV.

The joyous Jackie Wilson version, a slow, soulful and soaring RnB take on the old Irish ballad, was a genuinely show-stopping moment. It made sense that a song that means so much to the Irish forced to leave their native land could also resonate with an African-American audience.

And in an age of increasingly fragmented TV habits, when RTÉ has to compete with scores of channels, many of whom have vast resources or can target very specific audiences (just take Discovery Shed, the channel devoted to men in sheds), this could be the future.

A co-production with BBC Northern Ireland and an hour of TV that could easily be shown on US channels, Danny Boy tells a uniquely Irish story with international appeal. There are thousands more stories like this out there. Told with wit and genuine passion, they represent a very rich seam for any domestic broadcaster to mine.

Now, if you have ever lain awake at night, wondering why we don't have more TV series where drug-addled former Madchester music icons examine the great questions of the universe – the History Channel and Shaun Ryder on UFOs this week answered all your prayers.

Shaun, one-time frontman of The Happy Mondays and famous for his elephantine drug consumption habits in the 1990s, has been given a series by the (we must assume) ironically titled History Channel to travel the world in search of UFOs.

As the man himself explained, he has been fascinated by extra-terrestrial life since he saw, as a young man, "a ball of light whizzing about in the night sky as I stood at a bus stop".

Given the possibilities of what Shaun saw in the sky in the 1980s and 1990s, it's a wonder the History Channel haven't commissioned him to do a series on Queen Victoria's brief stint as a unicorn-riding superhero.

There is a lot of this kind of guff going on out there in the further reaches of the satellite-TV universe. Actor Morgan Freeman has done three seasons presenting a show about black holes and alternative universes, presumably because Morgan Freeman saying "the unknowable mysteries of the universe" with that voice sounds really cool.

It is very much niche TV. Commissioning editors reckon Shaun Ryder still has a bit of mileage in him with 30 to 40-year-old male viewers, those guys are probably into UFOs and stuff, so why not put the two together? It won't win any awards but, hey, it will get solid numbers with a demographic liked by advertisers.

However, it is hard not to like Shaun, as he rambles around the US and other parts, talking to bemused Air Force colonels and UFO "experts", for whom one of the new mysteries of the universe is obviously; "who the hell is this Limey with the crazy accent?".

And who knows? Maybe by the end of season two, Shaun will have actually solved the greatest remaining mystery of our times. We could have a season finale where Shaun welcomes the first extra-terrestrial visitors to our planet with a rousing rendition of 'Kinky Afro'.

If you think that sounds silly, Shaun Ryder on UFOs is probably not for you.

Danny Boy – The Ballad That Bewitched the World is still available on the RTÉ player, rte.ie/player

Shaun Ryder on UFOs – History Channel, Monday nights and repeated throughout the week.

Irish Independent

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