Monday 11 December 2017

When reporters knew their place ...

The Frontline (RTE1) How to Win an Election (BBC4) Cloch le Carn (RTE1) Wild Journeys (RTE1) The Delicious Miss Dahl (BBC2)

A newspaper headline advocates the shooting of a banker and building society boss. Irate audience members on RTE1's The Frontline demand the heads of Health Minister Mary Harney and various HSE executives. Prime Time panelists urge the dismantling of the Catholic Church. Is there no respect any more?

Well, not for the people who run the country, anyway, and the ever-growing public contempt for these supposed guardians of our social, fiscal and religious welfare is reflected in the media coverage of our discontent, even if such coverage -- especially on radio and television -- generally opts for the confrontational over the analytical in its furtherance of our complaints.

There's much to complain about, of course, and some of the stories told on The Frontline this week concerning our dismal health system were shocking, though it was hard not to wonder at the point of such an extended collective tirade, beyond letting our ruling politicians know the genuine anger that's out there -- an anger that seemed to have exhausted the audience by the time Ms Harney deigned to arrive in the studio. Or maybe it was just that none of the aggrieved could see the point in trying to dent her famously impenetrable shell.

In the old days, of course, it would have been unthinkable for politicians to even risk the ire of the electorate by sitting in the same studio with them. Indeed, it would have been unthinkable to have impertinent interviewers questioning them on their policies -- as BBC4's How to Win an Election reminded viewers in its entertaining look back at the relationship between British political leaders and the box in the living room.

In fact, until the late 1950s, deference to parliament was such that BBC broadcasters were forced to abide by a "14-day rule" invented by Westminster in which nothing that was due to be debated in the House of Commons could be addressed on radio or television in the preceding fortnight. Even general elections were deemed as out of broadcasting bounds, with the result that the run-up to Harold Macmillan's 1959 victory was hardly covered by the BBC until the outcome was known.

And the politicians themselves remained oblivious to the vote-catching possibilities of television.

All of that changed with the arrival of Harold Wilson, who had shrewdly observed John F Kennedy's embrace of the medium and decided to do likewise -- unlike stuffy old tory Alec Douglas-Home, who was very uneasy in a television studio. Nor was the next conservative prime minister, Edward Heath, at home there. As political chronicler and former Panorama producer Michael Cockerell noted: "The TV cameras didn't like Ted Heath and he didn't like them."

Margaret Thatcher, of course, commanded the medium. Not so Labour's Michael Foot, who, in Cockerell's words, fought his election campaign "as if television hadn't been invented". Foot, though, never pretended otherwise, unlike Neil Kinnock, who boasted to an interviewer: "I only got where I am by being good on television", before losing out to John Major.

But it was left to Tony Blair, taking his cue from Bill Clinton, to fully realise television's potential as shaper and enabler of a carefully constructed and persuasively presented personal image, though the film, mindful of the politics ushered in by this sultan of spin, gave the last prescient word to fusty old Douglas-Home.

Speaking to Robin Day in 1963, he observed: "If you aren't careful you'll get a sort of Top of the Pops contest, and you'll then get the best actor as leader of the country, prompted by a scriptwriter." And that's exactly who Britain got 34 years later -- and will get with David Cameron, too.

This was a film with a story to tell and a point to make. I'm not sure what's the point of RTE1's Cloch le Carn, which has been running in two brief series.

The title roughly translates as "a stone added to a pile of stones", and in the last two seasons focused on such disparate personalities as Joe Dolan, Nuala O'Faolain, Ted Kennedy, Mo Mowlam and, this week, Seamus Brennan.

I've no idea what linked these people in the mind of a commissioning editor or series producer, beyond the fact they're all publicly known and all died within the last few years. So are these belated obituaries?

Certainly their general thrust is hagiographic rather than questioning. "He was full of life and energy," Maire Geoghegan-Quinn recalled of Seamus Brennan. "A political giant," she added. "A kind and gentle man," Alan Dukes noted. "He's sorely missed," someone else said. In between there was a potted history of his career, but to what purpose?

On RTE1's Eco Eye, Duncan Stewart fretted over the plight of the hen harrier, once a common bird of prey in Ireland but now seldom seen. The item was informative, but if you want spectacular nature coverage you'll find it in the three-part series Wild Journeys (RTE1), which this week spent much of its 50-plus minutes following five barnacle geese as they made their long trek from the west coast of Mayo to Greenland via Iceland.

Ross Bartley's camera was with them in all three locations and the images he secured were as exhilarating as anything to be seen in the best wildlife programmes made by the BBC, which is meant as very high praise.

'I've always been interested in food," Sophie Dahl declared at the start of The Delicious Miss Dahl (BBC2), "primarily because I've always been interested in eating it." As distinct, I suppose, from using it as a deodorant or draught-excluder.

The programme actually went downhill from there, not helped by the fact that the series is plainly attempting to offer Miss Dahl as a blonde version of Nigella Lawson, coquettish simpers and all.

But Nigella at least looked at the viewer, whereas Sophie never makes eye contact with the camera, which is actually quite bizarre.

As she playacts around the kitchen (which isn't even her own), she utters inanities so vacuous as to make Nigella seem like Schopenhauer.

But what the heck, she has a famous name, she's some kind of celeb and she's married to some other celeb whose name I'll think of in a minute, so isn't that enough for a BBC cookery series?

Irish Independent

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