Saturday 24 March 2018

You've started so you'll finish, but I really wish you wouldn't

Now 40 years old, BBC One's Mastermind has always been synonymous with tough questions and forbidding questioners -- initially, Magnus Magnusson, who was quizmaster for the show's first 25 years, and latterly John Humphrys, who has been conducting proceedings since 2003.

Mindful of these formidably unsmiling interrogators, the devisers of TV3's Celebrity Mastermind probably thought Nora Owen a suitably stern Irish equivalent for the role, whereas in reality the former Fine Gael justice minister has always come across as a somewhat prim and dull auntie -- stuffy sister, if you like, to Fianna Fail's Mary O'Rourke, who might at least have provided the show with a couple of laughs.

But if she didn't fit the bill as intimidating questioner, nor did this week's questions exactly tax the brain -- unless, perhaps, you're Miss Ireland winner Holly Carpenter, who thought that the Mounties maintained law and order in France; or tailor Louis Copeland, who identified the comedian known as the Big Yin as "the fella with the beard".

As it happened, some of the contestants made their own stabs at comedy, mostly misguided, as when veteran RTÉ sports commentator Jimmy Magee was asked to name Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore's other government role and quipped "The Minister for Problems". What a hoot, though it was no laughing matter when, asked by Nora if he'd ever considered hanging up his pundit's boots, the 77-year-old retorted "Not at all! I've absolutely no intention of retiring!"

Still, there was a modicum of pleasure to be had from discovering that this perennial know-all didn't in fact know everything -- giving a couple of wrong answers to sporting questions and not being aware that the hero of JK Rowling's books was Harry Potter. I especially liked it when he declared of a sporting query "That's a cracking question" and then gave the wrong answer.

For such gleefully received moments, much thanks; but no thanks at all for a quiz show that, having none of the rigour or tension to be found in its BBC manifestation, seemed an entirely pointless exercise.

I reached the end of Crimes That Shook Ireland: The Serial Murders (TV3) before I realised that in fact it wasn't the end -- that the unnerving story it had been telling would require a second instalment (next Monday) to bring it to a conclusion. TV3 might have informed viewers of that in advance or, indeed, might have suggested to the programme's makers that they edit their story down to a manageable 50 minutes.

That said, it was a strikingly superior contribution to the true crimes genre, atmospherically spooky in its chronicle of how, in the mid-1970s, two English psychopaths, who were on the run for crimes across the water and had also been arrested here, were able to roam the Irish countryside and get two young women into their stolen car before raping and murdering them.

The subsequent confession of one of the men, who's been in prison ever since (the other died recently) was used as an unsettling voiceover to the crimes themselves -- the second of which was re-enacted so disturbingly that I imagine it would have caused great distress to any family members watching it.

In its dank, doom-laden way, Luke Daly's film was grimly compelling -- though not as grim or compelling as Ukraine's Forgotten Children (BBC4), the latest documentary from Kate Blewett, who had previously made headlines with The Dying Rooms, which revealed the fate of unwanted children in China, and with the similarly themed Bulgaria's Abandoned Children.

Those films weren't easy to watch and nor was this account of how one of the Euro 2012 host nations treats its most vulnerable citizens.

Under the Soviet system that ruled Ukraine until 1991, women were encouraged to hand over handicapped infants to the untender mercies of the state, and this practice has been allowed to continue in the intervening two decades -- to the extent that there are now 80,000 such helpless products of state institutions.

Gaining extraordinary access to these institutions, some of which have well-filled cemeteries in their grounds, Blewett revealed conditions that were mostly vile -- "like living under the lid of a coffin", one former inmate put it.

This was as gruelling and shocking a film as I've seen in a long time, which made me all the gladder to seek respite in Grayson Perry's All in the Best Possible Taste (Channel 4), an outstanding three-part series that in its previous two episodes had analysed the decorative and cultural preferences of the working and middle classes.

For his final film, he focused on the upper classes and was just as insightful and mischievous about them -- nodding sagely as a countess loftily informed him of her "shabby chic aesthetic" that "the posher the person the less they have to prove", while himself noting that duty to ancestry didn't leave much room for self-expression.

At the end, he hosted a gallery show in which the six large tapestries he'd been making to accompany the series were unveiled to participants from all three classes. In the manner of his beloved Hogarth, the tapestries were exuberantly satiric, with some of the attendees clearly recognisable. They all professed to admire them and, indeed, they were brilliantly achieved by an artist who has proved to be just as winning when presenting television programmes.

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