Tuesday 16 October 2018

Glove story: the day the lord of the ring bewitched Ireland

RTé One got the year off to a very good start with When Ali Came to Dublin, an evocative, informative and wholly engaging documentary that deserved a better time slot than its teatime screening on New Year's Day.

As Ross Whitaker's sprightly film revealed, all the participants had their own good reasons for the unlikely Croke Park contest in 1972 between Muhammad Ali and unknown Detroit contender Al "Blue" Lewis.

After setbacks in the US over his conversion to Islam, his anti-Vietnam stance and his defeat by Joe Frazier, Ali was seeking a career boost abroad, while manager Angelo Dundee was intent on drumming up some much-needed revenue for his famous protégé.

For his own part, small-time criminal Lewis, who'd been jailed for killing a man but released after rescuing the prison warden from a riot, jumped at the invitation to make a name for himself from such a high-profile bout.

Others had their own agendas. Yul Brynner's son Rock, who'd transferred from Yale to Trinity College because he was "looking for a medieval academic environment that wouldn't interfere with my drinking", found that becoming Ali's temporary bodyguard made him "the coolest hippie in Dublin".

And Butty Sugrue, a former circus strongman from Killorglin ("Ireland's Mr Tarzan") who'd been running a raucous Irish pub in Hammersmith, was out for his own glory as a fledgling fight promoter.

These and various other colourful characters inhabited Whitaker's film, which managed a nicely wry tone before finally becoming genuinely elegiac. The organisation of the event had been chaotically amateurish, with some shady hangers-on and with more people wangling their way into Croke Park for nothing than had bought tickets. Ali got his $200,000 fee and Lewis's $35,000 was more money than he'd ever earn again, but Sugrue suffered serious financial losses. He died in his 50s from a heart attack incurred by trying to lift a fridge.

More recently, two of the film's main interviewees, boxing writer George Kimball and RTé's Cathal O'Shannon, have died, while Al Lewis, who has spent the rest of his life coaching underprivileged kids in Detroit, has been afflicted by dementia, and Ali, of course, is suffering from Parkinson's.

But the film beautifully captured a mad, innocent week long ago in Dublin when the most charismatic athlete on the globe revelled in the attention given to him by an eager media and adoring fans – not least of them the great hurler Eddie Keher, who was "starstruck and spellbound" by the living legend he met and who still keeps above his mantlepiece "the only hurley in the world signed by Muhammad Ali".

A lovely film and a refreshing reminder that RTé can screen programmes more meaningful than New Year's Eve night's The Gathering (RTé One), in which festive cheer registered as entirely manufactured and in which vacuous chit-chat with minor celebrities was the penance to be endured by those viewers foolish enough to have trusted in RTé as its host for the occasion. All that kept me watching was the spectacle of Miriam O'Callaghan, who seemed intent on looking and behaving like an ingenue on her way to a debutante's ball.

Happily, the new year period offered some experiences that were more persuasive, though among them wasn't Mrs Brown's Boys (RTé One), either in its Christmas special or in its first instalment of a new series.

While I occasionally find myself guffawing at some of its terrible gags, I mostly think this a bafflingly popular sitcom, especially when its old-fashioned panto style is interrupted by a stream of obscenities. Foul language has its place in comedy (where would BBC Two's The Thick of It be without Malcom Tucker's four-letter diatribes?), but it sits so uneasily in Mrs Brown's otherwise cosy little world that it throws me right out of it altogether.

There was no effing and blinding in Nighthawks Rehashed (RTé Two), but I also found this programme baffling. Two decades after Nighthawks was last screened, I expected the film to provide some kind of context for the 20-somethings and 30-somethings who were too young to recall it first time around, but no such basic service was provided.

Instead, this was a lazy and seemingly quite random assemblage of clips from the original shows. There were a few highlights (Dermot Morgan's pisstake of Haughey, a vicious impersonation of the dreadful Fr Michael Cleary, Giles and Dunphy after a night on the town), but overall it was a lamentably missed opportunity.

Still, there was the excellent Se Merry Doyle documentary, Faoi Gheasa ag The Quiet Man (TG4), about the making of John Ford's iconic 1952 exercise in Oirishry, and there was Mise éire: Lorg na gCos (also TG4), in which George Morrison recalled the making of that landmark Gael Linn film.

And there were a couple of fine dramas: Loving Miss Hatto (BBC One), scripted by Victoria Wood and directed by Aisling Walsh, with affecting playing from Francesca Annis and Alfred Molina as the sad, elderly couple who tried to perpetrate a piano-recording fraud on the classical music world; and the arresting The Girl (also BBC One), with a brilliant impersonation of Hitchcock by Toby Jones, even though the film seemed too intent on portraying him simply as a sadistic and creepy monster.

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