Saturday 14 December 2019

TV: Pope love-in's piety brought me back to simple times

Faithful pose with pictures of the canonised popes in Rome
Faithful pose with pictures of the canonised popes in Rome

John Boland

Would you believe? That's been the question raised over the past decade by RTÉ1's weekly religious series of the same name, and for an increasing number of Irish people during the same period the short answer has been: No.

Actually, the series is better described as quasi-religious because for much of the time it seeks to conceal its pious intent by covering topics that are as much of sociological as of spiritual interest. But every so often it shows its true concerns – as in its extended Easter Sunday film about the devotional nuns of St Mary's Abbey, which, though quite engrossing, was basically an hour-long promotional appeal aimed at unfulfilled women who might swell the abbey's dwindling congregation.

I didn't mind that because I prefer my religious programming when it does what it says on the tin – that is, preach religion – rather than when it attempts to fool people by pretending to be something else. And perhaps for that reason, I experienced a cosily nostalgic glow while watching last Sunday night's hour-long discussion about the canonisation of popes John XXIII and John Paul II.

This featured in RTÉ1's Beyond Belief strand (Would You Believe? Beyond Belief? What's next – Hard to Believe?) and had as its host Mick Peelo, without whose reassuringly earnest and sincere presence no religious programme (quasi or otherwise) would be complete.

There was reassurance, too, in the studio set, which brought me back to all those religious programmes of earlier decades, as did the meekly attentive studio audience who, not being invited to do otherwise, maintained a respectful silence as the six panellists mulled over that day's canonisations.

A little bit of irreverence was permitted in a filmed insert, with reporter Emmet Kirwan performing an enjoyably cheeky turn as he explained how "the poster boys and girls of Christianity" got to be canonised, but the only irreverence on the panel came from Glenstal abbot Mark Patrick Hederman, who thought the whole canonisation malarkey belonged to "a culture out of date" and the "greatest contribution" made by the former Pope Benedict was "to retire".

Otherwise, though, traditional piety prevailed, and for most of the hour I felt I was back in the Ireland of my childhood, when God was ineffably good and the holiness, wisdom and actions of his religious enforcers remained unquestioned.

Hinterland (BBC4) addressed the cruel realities of those times in its storyline about a girl who'd been sadistically abused in a care home.

Here, though, the setting was rural Wales rather than Ireland, and the story was a fictional one – the first of four standalone films in a Welsh-made crime series that looks set to be every bit as arresting and absorbing as any of the Scandinavian noirs we've all come to love.

Richard Harrington is brooding cop Tom Mathias, who has returned to his homeland after a decade with the London metropolitan police and who in this opening story was tasked with finding out why an elderly woman had been battered to death and thrown down a gorge.

The ominously stark landscapes were brilliantly filmed, but what I most liked was that the makers got on with the intricate story of what had happened, leaving the viewer to become properly acquainted with the principal characters as events proceeded. And I liked, too, the humanity shown at the end by Mathias towards the traumatised killer, which provided a little coda of genuine pathos about lost lives.

It was a long way from the cold savagery of Fargo (Channel 4), which continued to intrigue and frighten in its second episode. Not such a long way from Fargo, though, was Happy Valley (BBC1), which lifted its main kidnapping plot strand from the Coen brothers' original movie, though here the abduction took place in the wilds of West Yorkshire rather than Minnesota.

This six-part series looks like being a winner, too, creator Sally Hawkins reuniting with her Last Tango in Halifax main actress Sarah Lancashire, who here plays a 47-year-old policewoman who's lively and sardonic despite all her domestic and romantic woes.

Again it's the humanity of the characters that's notable, so that it's impossible not to feel for Steve Pemberton's financially-strapped middle executive, who suggests to a local drug dealer a kidnapping that he immediately regrets but then can't prevent. I'll be staying with this engagingly intriguing series.

By contrast, the opening instalment of the three-part Prey (UTV) was in a more familiar bleakly brutalist mode, with dour cop Marcus accused of murdering his estranged wife and son and having to go on the run to prove his innocence. John Simm is the main player here but comes across as too glum to encourage the viewer to worry about his predicament.

Bingo Nights (TV3) visited various bingo halls throughout the country and talked to some of the players, callers and owners. In rural Galway, 82-year-old life-long pioneer Micheal and wife Angela turn up every weekend at the local hall. "We're out here in the heart of the country and it's lonely", he said. "And if I couldn't get to bingo, I think I'd be dead long ago."

Other interviewees in this pleasant if hardly riveting film were just as passionate about the healing social powers of the game.

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