Friday 20 April 2018

Radio: Poking a trusty blackthorn stick in the archives

Carlow-born William Desmond Taylor
Carlow-born William Desmond Taylor

Damian Corless

Bowman: Sunday (Radio 1, Sundays, 8.30am) is an early morning ramble in which John Bowman wanders wherever the fancy takes him, poking his trusty blackthorn stick into the archives for items of interest. The long-running series has come to resemble Longfellow's little girl with the little curl. When it is good, it is very good indeed, but when it is bad, it is horrid.

Not to suggest that Bowman has ever made a bad broadcast in his life. It's just that some episodes get stuck so far up their artsy remit that the average listener can feel like Captain Willard as he journeys uneasily up the river of Hell in Apocalypse Now.

Last Sunday's show, happily, was all fun and frolics. It began in the summer of 1985 with a visit by Conor Cruise O'Brien to Ballinspittle, where Our Lady was allegedly moving in mysterious ways. As he surveyed the faithful at the grotto, O'Brien, in his plummy patrician tones, came across as a Lord of the Manor reflecting sadly on the bovine ignorance of his peasant tenants. It was 30 years ago, but it could have been 200 years back. Jaw-dropping.

Following an item dwelling on the vital statistics of Molly Malone, the late philosopher John O'Donohue returned to champion the nobility of the peasantry. 'Peasant', he mused, was one of his favourite words. Bowman assembled a spellbinding collage of O'Donohue clips. A discourse on how a genius ant could never perceive "a non-metaphorical horse" (and who could argue with that?) was followed by a happy meditation on death: "There's a great aul fiesta time ahead." It was soul-food for breakfast.

For Carlow-born William Desmond Taylor, a bullet put paid to the fiesta time he was having as a kingpin of early Hollywood. Taylor's murder in 1922, which knocked a fortune off the stock market value of the movie business, was examined by Steve Punt (Punt PI, BBC Radio 4, 10.30am, Saturdays). Taylor went to the States to farm, but gravitated to Tinseltown where he acted in dozens of silent movies and directed superstars like Mary Pickford. His was an incident-packed life. He left behind an ex-wife and baby daughter with no forwarding address, until they went to the pictures and the mother leapt up, pointing at the screen, screaming: "That's your father!!!" Such was the intrigue of Taylor's private life that there were over a dozen suspects for his unsolved murder. They included wealthy socialites, drug dealers and top actresses, including regular Charlie Chaplin co-star Mabel Normand.

Played by Gloria Swanson, the central figure in Billy Wilder's ageless classic Sunset Boulevard is called Norma Desmond. The name, a mash-up of Mabel's surname and Taylor's middle name, was chosen to echo the anarchic Wild West atmosphere of Hollywood in its infancy.

For many of us today, the Royal Dublin Society is a sundial that marks the passing of the seasons, from the Spring Show, to the summer Horse Show, to the bright lights of the annual midwinter carnival. But carnivals were far from the minds of the founders of the RDS, as we heard on A Curious Society (Newstalk, 7am, Sunday). An offshoot of the Dublin Philosophical Society, the RDS was the hub of the Irish Enlightenment, devoting itself to the advancement of "agriculture, arts, industry and science".

A meeting place for the finest minds in Ireland, the RDS was a font of innovation. In 1771 it kick-started an early Buy Irish campaign, offering incentives to businesses to source their materials at home. At the time, for instance, despite the fact that half the country was covered in cheap and plentiful turf, the fashionable classes preferred to pay high prices for coal from England for their fireplaces.

A Curious Society traced the migration of the RDS from what's now the Bank of Ireland on College Green, to Leinster House, and on to its current location in Ballsbridge. The elitist activities of the society sometimes aroused hostility in the broader populace.

After the hurricane dubbed the Gaoithe Mór (Great Wind) devastated Ireland in 1839, the Dublin Evening Post took a swipe at the society, saying it wasn't "worth a straw" if it couldn't furnish the Irish public with "a complete and minute account" of how such disasters occur. Tall order.

Liveline (Radio 1, Mon-Fri, 1.45pm) showed that the fabric of society hasn't fully unravelled. A woman told Joe Duffy of the panic that struck her elderly mother when they realised that Kildare's Sunday game, about to start, wasn't on RTÉ. She made her way down the village "hopping over gates" in search of a TV with Sky Sports 5. At house 13 she finally hit it lucky. They were told to hurry in, and everyone shoved up one in their seats.

"And did you know them?" asked Joe.

"Not really," said the caller.

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