Thursday 22 March 2018

Television: Journey through time with travelogues old and new...

Road to ruin: Bypassed meandered all over the place
Road to ruin: Bypassed meandered all over the place

Damian Corless

With both the holiday and the TV repeats seasons upon us, TG4 raided the vaults for an episode of the 1979 RTÉ travelogue The Green Linnet, in which two beardy men, Barney McKenna of The Dubliners (banjo) and Tony MacMahon (accordion), chugged along the motorways of Europe trafficking diddly-aye music across international boarders. Until they got to the Pyrenees customs post with non-EU Spain, that is, where they were refused entry.

This was a travelogue unlike any we might see today. There was almost no jovial banter, scripted or unscripted, and the derring duo seemed to have little interest in their surroundings, which appeared to be just an arbitrary succession of backgrounds for a non-stop barrage of instrumental ditties. Turned away from Spain, they simply pointed their van at nearby Andorra instead. It's all good, was the can-do attitude.

In Andorra, not knowing any Catalan tunes, they played a Welsh-Breton number on the grounds that it was sort-of European and that was close enough. You got the impression that RTÉ could have saved a packet by shooting the whole thing in Barney's back garden. He'd have been just as happy and we'd have learned just as much about our continental neighbours.

Bypassed (RTÉ1) was a brand new travelogue, but again one which confounded expectations. The premise was to take a ride along the roads less travelled between Dublin and Limerick since the joining up of the N7 motorway, which now bypasses all points from Naas to Annacotty. The promo trailer which had been on heavy rotation for a week featured Monasterevin chipper owner Luigi Lafrate vowing to open 24 hours a day if needs be to counter the drop in passing trade, but the programme turned out to be no catalogue of hard luck stories. Instead, with a couple of exceptions, it was an upbeat account of upbeat people just getting on with it.

Bypassed filled the slot normally held by Prime Time or Prime Time Investigates, but it felt much more like an extended episode of that most genteel magazine excursion Nationwide. Like the old rural road network it traced, the programme meandered all over the place, never stopping anywhere long enough to provide the viewer with more than a glancing impression.

For Monday's Tonight With Vincent Browne (TV3), Fine Gael nominated Senator Neale Richmond to take the poisoned chalice of facing down the show's host in the wake of Enda Kenny's latest injury sustained by shooting himself in the foot. Some hours earlier at Dublin Castle, the Taoiseach, metaphorical egg caked on his face, had been forced to stand there and take it as the DUP's Arlene Foster shot down his plan for a cross-border Brexit forum, not least because the Irish Government somehow hadn't bothered to mention it to her in advance.

Browne demanded of his Fine Gael guest: "Why didn't they check with the DUP before they floated the idea? It was just another cock-up."

"I wouldn't refer to it as that," countered the FG man.

"Of course you wouldn't," retorted Browne. "You're a Fine Gael Senator. It is another cock-up."

This combativeness is Browne's Unique Selling Point that, love him or loathe him, makes him the special one of current affairs broadcasting. Like a Messi or Ronaldo, when he's in the mood he's just unplayable. The political parties can send out their best, fully expecting the Spanish Inquisition and media-coached up to their oxters, but there's still no effective defence when it gets all mano-a-mano.

The professional time-wasters of our political class know that the default setting of just about every interviewer is deference. They know that if they go out there and spoof, spin and filibuster long and hard enough, the average interviewer will bow to good manners and time pressures and move on with a sigh to the next question. Browne doesn't do deference, and the open-ended format of his show means that his adversaries rarely have the option or running down the clock. Like the head of Saint Oliver Plunkett or those bog bodies in the National Museum, Vincent Browne is a bit scary (okay, very scary), but a national treasure nonetheless.

Hosting a Panorama special entitled Why We Voted To Leave (BBC1), Adrian Chiles visited the English West Midlands on a mission to give the lie to the view that the pro-Brexit vote was a backlash from "the thick and the ignorant". This viewer was left with the suspicion that well before the end of the programme Chiles realised he'd backed a loser. No-one interviewed had a racist bone in their body, and no-one had any problem with foreigners, as long as they kept out of England. One businessman was especially warm in his praise for the foreigners he'd voted to keep out. The Poles, for instance, are a "great" bunch, and he should know because he currently employs 20 of them at highly competitive wages in his midlands factory.

Channel 4's remit has always been to give a voice to minorities, so it was only a matter of time before, it seems, they invited serious documentary ideas from a cohort of horny adolescent schoolboys. The result was Life Stripped Bare (Tues) which could and should have been titled How Low Will You Go to Get on the Telly? Fancying itself as an episode of Horizon for people who aren't going to waste time watching something as boring as Horizon, this examined the relationship between nude exhibitionists and their material possessions. Happily, there's no space left here to elaborate.

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