Tuesday 23 July 2019

TV Review: Good education as a basic right? Not in this 'pop contest' of a show

Conscientious: Simon O'Donnell, a Belvedere College teacher, who featured on RTÉ's 'The Scholarship'. RTÉ
Conscientious: Simon O'Donnell, a Belvedere College teacher, who featured on RTÉ's 'The Scholarship'. RTÉ

John Boland

Which candidates among five disadvantaged 11-year-old boys would be permitted a free education at the €5,000-a-year Belvedere College, whose distinguished alumni include James Joyce, AJ O'Reilly, Garret FitzGerald, Terry Wogan, Richard Bruton and Adrian Hardiman? Who would be so lucky as to be allowed to share a classroom with the sons of the great, the good and the moneyed professional classes?

That, whether intended or not, was the question posed by The Scholarship (RTÉ One), which ended its first of two instalments on a cliffhanger that might have troubled some viewers: who out of 17 shortlisted poor boys would have their names randomly drawn out of a hat for the eight scholarship places that were available to the applicants?

Would they include Tyrick, who lived with his younger sisters and single mum in Darndale? Or Karl in Drumcondra, whose single mother suffered from ill-health? Or Stephen, the son of Traveller parents out in Priorswood? Or David, born in Poland and living with his sister and mum on the outskirts of Dublin? Or inner-city David, whose father's serious back injury presented financial and domestic problems for himself, his wife and his offspring?

All of them seemed lovely boys, bright and charming, and all of them seemed deserving of a scholarship, but which of them would turn out to be so fortunate? That was what was being posited in a film that seemed to endorse the notion of a good education as a privilege enjoyed by a select few rather than as a basic right for everyone.

I'm sure that the people behind Belvedere's Social Diversity Programme mean well (and the teachers involved in the interviewing process certainly seemed very conscientious and caring), but as presented in Kim Darby's film the process resembled those behind-the-scenes exercises so beloved of televised pop contests, with the family stories of its various hopefuls so plucking at your heart strings that you were willing them on to success.

And what about all the boys who've already availed of this Belvedere project? Were their experiences of the school positive? Did they fit in socially? Did they do well academically? Maybe such questions will be addressed in the second instalment, but they weren't even raised in this opening programme, which struck me as a startling oversight.

I didn't expect much journalistic probing from Myrtle Allen: A Celebration (RTÉ One), which was just as well because there wasn't any. This was documentary as flattery, all of its participants lining up to assure us that the octogenarian chef, country house hotelier and cookery school guru was the greatest thing since buttered scones.

Two of these admirers were her in-lawed cooking inheritors, Darina and Rachel, so a high degree of family schmoozing was understandable, even if they and everyone else in the film seemed so overawed by the culinary sage that they kept referring to her deferentially as Mrs Allen. Indeed, only a mischievous Richard Corrigan seemed willing to suggest a less than reverential attitude.

I'm not saying that Myrtle Allen isn't a remarkable woman, merely that the programme's gushing tone had the feel of an extended tourism ad, and indeed in the closing credits we were informed that the tribute had been made "with the assistance" of Fáilte Ireland.

The first part of Travellers in America (TV3) saw reporter Paul Connolly boldly going where a Radharc team had gone years earlier – into the southern states of the United States in search of the descendants of Irish Travelling communities.

Paul being Paul, though, much was made of this latest quest to find out the truth about "one of the most enigmatic minorities in the whole of the US". He kept telling us how secretive they were and how suspicious of outsiders, though he himself hoped to be greeted "if not with open arms, certainly with tolerant arms", which was a new one on me.

By the end of 30 minutes, though, all we'd seen were the gaudy exteriors of some of their huge houses, and he was forced to concede that "several days later I was still at square one". And while I gather he gained admission to their bling-filled domiciles later, that's where I left him, reassuring myself with the thought that I'd no real need to witness an American version of My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding. I'm sure it was my loss, though.

And it could well have been my loss that the DVD sent to me by TG4 of its much-hyped, hour-long interview with former Taoiseach Brian Cowen only contained the first seven minutes of the occasion. During that brief, though already seemingly interminable, opening section, I learned more than I needed to know about the family pub, butcher's and slaughter house.

However, I didn't get to hear his 'sorry-but-it-wasn't-me-guv' apologia about his calamitous time in office, but newspaper articles had already covered that section of the interview, so I didn't feel I was missing much.

I also tried to watch a preview of another TG4 film, Máire an Chlochán, which seemed to concern the song 'Mary from Dungloe', but as that arrived minus subtitles I can only assume that the programme was fascinating.

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