Friday 18 October 2019

TV review: We weren't reverential enough in a golden age

Rory Gallagher Irish Tour '74 (Sky Arts1) California Comes To The Whistle Test (BBC4) The Walshes (RTE1)

Illustration: Jim Cogan
Illustration: Jim Cogan
Declan Lynch

Declan Lynch

It was shown on Sky Arts1, but Rory Gallagher Irish Tour '74 felt like art mixed up with archaeology. In fact, when I say it was shown, I mean it was exhibited, like some ancient artefact that someone had tripped over in a bog, that had been cleaned up and restored and put on display in the National Museum.

I have no doubt that at some time in the future this film directed by Tony Palmer will indeed be formally included in the official collection of major Irish treasures, that parties of schoolchildren will eventually gaze upon and wonder what manner of people we could have been?

For a start, they will probably think too highly of us, of our culture and our accomplishments.

I mean, if they think that Rory Gallagher was in any way typical of what was happening in Ireland in 1974, they will probably not be getting an entirely accurate overview.

And that is just the part of the film shot around Cork. Rory and the band played in Belfast too, which at the time had embarked on its own journey back to the Stone Age, and beyond. For Rory even to think of playing there at that time, when he could have been selling out some fine auditorium in West Germany and buying a new Mercedes with the proceeds, must have required an unusual level of heroism.

Rory was a kind of a prince, and his presence at the centre of this film gives it a peculiar nobility, that sense of timeless mystery. Here was a man of genius, an artist of absolute integrity, who emerged somehow from a land full of showbands.

In the outside world of rock'n'roll extravagance he held to this ascetic vision. There are wondrous scenes in Irish Tour '74 of Rory and his band – Gerry McEvoy, Lou Martin, and Rod de'Ath – preparing to go onstage, "relaxing" in dressing rooms that have the feel of monastic cells, the only luxury items being a bottle of Bushmills and a crate of stout.

Then they're onstage, the crowd is full of oppressed and delirious youths, and this incredible noise comes exploding out of the speakers: "Tattoo'd Lady..."

In the British museum that is BBC4, they sometimes show their own ancient images of Rory Gallagher on repeats of The Old Grey Whistle Test. This has now become a kind of a World Heritage site, which last week brought us California Comes To The Whistle Test, featuring performances by Warren Zevon, Bonnie Raitt, Randy Newman, Jackson Browne, Judee Sill, Little Feat, Ry Cooder, Tim Buckley, James Taylor and Carly Simon, and the young Tom Waits doing On The Nickel.

We used to laugh at the reverential tones of presenter Bob Harris as he murmured his introductions to the evening's fare. In centuries to come they may feel that, if anything, old Bob wasn't reverential enough.

***

Tony Walsh also seems to belong in a 1970s sitcom, but he is the main man of The Walshes, which concluded its three-part run on RTE last week. Maybe it is the moustache that brings us back to that golden era of TV comedy, maybe it is just because he is a really funny man.

Already I find it strange that Tony, played by Niall Gaffney, has not been universally acclaimed as one those truly rare creatures, a really funny man.

From the moment he arrived on screen he declared to the world that he was one of them, that he just couldn't help being funny even if he tried, and that his time had come.

As Tony Walsh the taxi-driver he is a most unmerciful eejit, but then most of the other members of his comedy family are also the most unmerciful eejits, so it requires a special kind of a gift to emerge as the most unmerciful eejit of them all.

Such men do not come along too often. I think that Pat Shortt is probably the last really funny man to emerge from this country, the kind to whom you could say, "just stand there for a minute Pat and do nothing," and it would somehow be deeply, inexplicably amusing.

They can build a lot more than three episodes around Tony Walsh, for he is the eejit's eejit. In time, he could become the biggest eejit in the whole world.

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