Saturday 20 January 2018

This bare-faced cheek was a real education

Horizon odd man in In treatment

john boland

What's the problem with nudity? That was the question posed this week in BBC2's Horizon series and it immediately invited the reply that there's no problem with nudity beyond the fact that, like many other things, there's a time and a place for it -- BBC's place for it being in the Tuesday schedules and its time being 9pm, just after the no-bare-bodies watershed.

Those of us who were suckered into watching it by its title were offered further encouragement by the prefatory voiceover which assured us that we were "going to see a lot of our volunteers -- in fact, all of them. You could say we're hanging out with Horizon."

Then the narrator got all earnest, which is the price BBC2 viewers have to pay if they want to ogle tits, bums and dangly bits. What, he asked, stops us undressing in front of anyone other than ourselves or chosen loved ones?

Well, in order to answer that question, eight volunteers were about to face "an unforgiving 48-hour ordeal" that would provide an insight "into what it means to be human and naked".

And furthermore they would be monitored by a "team of psychologists" led by Dr George Fieldman, who was "a specialist in the evolution of social and sexual relationships".

In other words, this was to be serious stuff, not a just gratuitous flashing of body parts in order to boost BBC2 ratings.

Then, five minutes into the film, everyone got their kit off. Or, rather, four of them did, while the other four sized them up through two-way mirrors. Most of the strippers and the voyeurs confessed to a fair degree of discomfort and the narrator assured us that it had been "a pretty unpleasant experience" for all concerned.

However, 39-year-old Phil, interviewed while naked, rather undermined that assertion by cheerfully declaring: "I don't have a problem standing here -- otherwise I wouldn't be here, would I?" That was telling them; though Dr George wasn't having any of it, insisting that everyone was much more stressed when naked.

He needed to do that because he had various theses to pursue about embarrassment, shame and the survival of the species. These led him to Finland and Kenya and Florida and California, where he quizzed various anthropologists and other experts about skin and fur and sweat glands and clothes.

To be honest, he lost me about half-way though, but I stayed to the end just to see his volunteers finally coming to terms with nudity by painting the naked bits and bobs of their companions.

It was all incredibly educational and I can't thank BBC2 enough for the privilege of being allowed to watch it.

Hugh Leonard, who died just over three weeks ago, was the subject of this week's Arts Lives profile, Odd Man In (RTE1). Filmed last year, it spoke of him as if he were still alive and one was left to ponder that a hurried re-edit might have acknowledged both his passing and who was with him at the very end -- matters that most viewers had already read about in newspaper accounts of his death.

Otherwise, the film was generally engaging, if that adjective can apply to someone whose personality was as combative and contrary as Leonard's. Gate theatre director Michael Colgan had to keep asking himself "Am I talking to him or am I fighting with him?" -- a question that quite a few of us pondered down through the years.

Indeed, it's a pity Leonard didn't live to hear Fintan O'Toole's contribution to the film. As a theatre critic, O'Toole -- like myself -- frequently incurred the wrath and ridicule of the dramatist as expressed in his Sunday Independent column, yet here was O'Toole giving him his due both as a courageous journalist ("one of the bravest and most ferocious critics of the IRA") and as a playwright -- in fact, I thought he was excessively kind about such clumsy political satires as The Patrick Pearse Motel and Kill, while UCD lecturer Emilie Pine was also generous to a fault about Leonard's stature as a dramatist.

In an interview recorded some months ago and included in the film, the man himself was self-deprecating about the work and defensive about the friends he had alienated.

He said he could only think of two people in which there was "no ending to the row".

I know the two men he's talking about and I'd add myself to the list, though he had obviously ceased to regard me as even a former friend.

In these final interviews he appeared so stricken by illness, so vulnerable and so eager to make amends that it was impossible to reconcile him with the man who in earlier years had written viciously and hurtfully about those who, for whatever reason, came to displease him -- not just journalists like myself, whose access to newsprint nearly always gave us the final say, but those people who, far removed from bylines or headlines, were gratuitously wounded by him and had no comeback. I wonder what they made of the film.

Gabriel Byrne recently won a Golden Globe for his starring role in the much-praised HBO series In Treatment and, courtesy of 3e (the rebranded Channel 6), Irish viewers can now make up their own minds about it, though I haven't quite done that.

Running for 30 minutes nightly, the series features Byrne as a psychiatric therapist who, faced with four patients each week (one per night), seeks counselling himself on the fifth night from another therapist.

The man deserves it because after spending sessions with screwed-up Laura, uptight Alex, unhappy Sophie and warring spouses Jake and Amy, I came to the same conclusion Myles na gCopaleen arrived at about Abbey Theatre plays -- there wasn't a laugh to be got out of any of them.

You could say the same, of course, about the headbangers in Macbeth but at least they get to spout some memorable lines and do unspeakable things to each other.

Here, though, all you get are angst and anger, which makes sitting through it something of a chore.

Gabriel Byrne, though, is really very good at looking both sagely solemn and earnestly solicitous.

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