Towering Gabriel Byrne can’t save BBC’s “Quirke”.

Gabriel Byrne as Quirke.

Gabriel Byrne as Quirke.

The must see television of the last decade or so, The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Deadwood, Boardwalk Empire, or for that matter Buffy, Friends, The Simpsons, South Park, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Girls and Louie – even Letterman, early Conan or The Today Show  – all have one thing in common; their writing.

On the one hand it was their ability to draw you in with precisely delineated storylines that stretched across entire series and beyond. And on the other, it was the care and craft that was invested into each and every one of their episodes.

So it’s hugely disappointing that instead of prioritising the scripts for their collaborations on Quirke, RTE and the BBC invested all their time and effort on its sets and costumes. The first of the three feature length episodes had too much plot, the second not enough. The whole thing could be summed up by that advertising slogan from a few years ago;

“we won’t make a drama out of a crisis”.

A series of incidents happened one after the other, without ever amounting to drama. Some of them Quirke managed to piece together, others he all too easily chanced upon.

The eponymous protagonist – whose name was repeated endlessly in much the same way that old school salesmen begin every single individual sentence by repeating your name at its beginning – was played by Gabriel Byrne, who was by far and away the most impressive thing about Quirke. If anything, his towering performance somewhat imbalances everybody else’s.

Jeremy Piven as Ari Gold in Entourage;  happier times.

Jeremy Piven as Ari Gold in Entourage; happier times.

But it was the clunkiness of the plotting and the predictable manner in which each of the scenes unfolded that really bogged the whole thing down. It looked great, but to absolutely no end.

Perhaps I was expecting too much. After all, the man they got to write it, Andrew Davies, is the BBC’s go to man for sanitized and securely safe versions of Jane Austen, And the chap ITV turned to for its replacement for Downtown Abbey, with the monumentally dull Mr Selfridge starring poor old Jeremy Piven, who deserves so much more. Next up, Davis is applying his middle brow metrics to War And Peace. Oh dear.

And the source material is just John Banville in mufti. I suppose really it was exactly the sort of thing one ought to have expected to find at half past nine on RTE1 of a Sunday eve. Not to much The Sopranos,  more the Onedin Line.

Quirke was little more than a slightly darker Downtown with a bit  more swearing and whiskey with an E.

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Weather Forecasts, and What We Now Know in the BBC’s Superb “Orbit: Earth’s Extraordinary Journey”.

Orbit: Earth's extraordinary journeyLast autumn, Kate Humble presented a one-off programme on BBC2 called Will It Snow? The question it asked was, is it possible to make long-range weather forecasts? And the answer was an emphatic No.

Weather patterns are subject to what chaos theory dubbed the butterfly effect. A butterfly beats its wings off the coast of Tokyo and six months later there’s a hurricane in Florida.

The problem is, every time you try to make a set of predictions you need to factor in about a dozen variables. If any one of those variables behaves slightly differently than expected, then that will have a knock-on effect on half a dozen other variables.

And each of those will affect half a dozen other variables, each. Any number of which will eventually come back to radically affect many of those original variables a few weeks or months later.

Any mid to long-range predictions therefore will have been rendered completely useless. And that’s assuming there’s only a slight variation in one of the original twelve. Invariably, there are innumerable small variations across the board.

So whilst it is possible to make accurate predictions over a four or five day period, because you can allow for those slight variations, over anything more than a few weeks those small changes will come to have huge and completely unpredictable ramifications.

This topic was treated in a much more measured way when Humble teamed up with Helen Czerski for their three part series, Orbit: Earth’s Extraordinary Journey. During which, they followed our planet as it made one of its annual orbits around the Sun.

Using various exotic locations across the globe to illustrate the different phenomena they were exploring, they combined exactly the right mix of glossy, travelogue locations and fascinating, sober scientific explanations.

We learnt and were shown how the Earth’s tilt is responsible for the annual seasons, and discovered how it, the tilt, is one of three elements that determine when and why our planet experiences sporadic Ice Ages. Crucially, they kept the science accessible without in any way becoming patronizing.

For not withstanding our inability to ever be in a position to make long-range weather forecasts, for the first time in our history we can provide a scientific explanation for a huge range of the weather phenomena that govern life on this planet.

Though the Earth’s tilt has long been guessed at, it is only now that we understand definitively that it has a 41,000 year cycle, during which it moves from an angle of 24.5 degrees to 22 and back again, and that currently it’s at 23.5°. Likewise, whilst tornadoes and monsoons have long since been marveled at, today we can provide a scientific explanation as to how and why they take place. And although we’re never going to able to say exactly when and where they are going to happen, discovering what we can and can’t predict is the most valuable gift of all that science had given us.

Once again, the BBC took us on a guided tour of what we now know, and how it is that we know it. It’s an area they’ve become increasingly impressive in, and there’s a distinct sense that, as far as scientific programmes on television are concerned, we’re living in something of a golden era.

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BBC’s “Monty Don’s Italian Gardens” Educates, Informs and Entertains, Brilliantly.

Monty Don's Italian GardensWatching Monty Don amble lovingly through some of Italy’s most spectacular gardens is rather like watching Bruno Ganz’s angel experiencing the rapture of finally falling in love in Wings Of Desire.

You feel that here’s a man who’s spent all his life burdened with a passion that he somehow couldn’t quite put his finger on. And the sense of joy now that he’s unearthed it is palpable. This man lives and breathes gardening. And it’s infectious. Or rather, he makes it infectious.

Like all the best ideas it seems obvious in retrospect, and it’s slightly surprising that a programme like this hasn’t already been made. But that of exploring Italy via its gardens is an inspired one. And, like most apparently simple things, he could all too easily have got it horribly wrong. Happily though, Don strikes exactly the right balance between the programme’s different elements.

Water, as is becoming increasingly obvious, is by far and away our planet’s most precious resource. So naturally it was the currency through which the Italian aristocracy expressed its wealth. What better way to do so than by extravagantly wasting it as wantonly as possible? And few things waste water quite like an Italian garden.

Episode 1 was centred around Rome, and as he walked us around the grandeur of the Villa D’Este there, Don put the opulence of the garden into the context of the history and the society that helped produce it. But he never lectures, nor do you have the sense that he’s merely showing off. Instead, he’s simply explaining how something that extraordinary came into being.

It’s not a question of him being interested in history and gardening, rather it’s his conviction that it’s not possible to be interested in one without the other. And watching him elaborate and hearing him explain, it’s impossible not to be drawn in.

Similarly, when in subsequent episodes he talks about food and the produce from the land, it’s not yet another area of interest, it’s all part and parcel of what gardening is all about. It’s all of it born of the same passion.

Crucially though, his enthusiasm is tempered by an intelligence that has the capacity to stop, stand back and calmly survey. It’s an intelligence in other words that’s been molded by experience and understands the need to always take your time before reaching any conclusions. Were he back at Cambridge, one of his more annoying classmates might proffer that his is the perfect mix of the Apollonian and Dionysian urges.

Before ever he got the gardening bug, and after a host of other things, he began work as a jobbing writer, and you can get a taste of his talents and this programme here.

If you missed it first time around it’s currently being re-shown on BBC4 on Saturdays. It’s programmes like this, and people like Don that give the BBC its august reputation. And it’s one of the reasons that it continues to be the yardstick against which all other broadcasters are measured. I hope they appreciate him.

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NPR’s Pitch-perfect “All Songs Considered” Podcast, Your Weekly Music Fix.

At the end of last year, the terribly clever bean counters at The New York Times decided that what the organization needed was to make it more like a traditional newspaper, and less like something more attuned to the 21st century. So they axed nearly all of their superb podcasts, leaving just a skeletal three. And one of those included in the cull was, alas, the excellent Popcast.

So in January of this year I went in search of a replacement podcast for all things musical, and was quickly pointed in the general direction of NPR’s “All Songs Considered“. And despite only tuning in to it for the last few weeks, I can confidently declare it mandatory listening.

National Public Radio is an enlightened attempt in the US to replicate the (at least original) ethos behind the BBC. It’s a non-profit organization and the programmes that are produced there are made by people because they’re the kinds of programmes that they would like to hear aired, and they rightly assume that there must be others who are similarly curious. They are in other words programmes that are made regardless of ratings.

All Songs Considered is the musical version of one of their most successful shows, All Things Considered, and it first aired on the web a little over ten years ago. It’s chaired by Bob Boilen, who created it, and Robin Hilton, and between them they manage to strike exactly the right balance of careful casualness and quiet planning. You get the impression that you’re eaves-dropping on a private conversation, but one that you’re meant to be over-hearing. And the areas that they cover every week with each of their guest reviewers really are all-encompassing.

A recent edition for instance looked at the collaboration between Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood and the veteran avant-garde Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki. Hearing how in awe the former is of the latter, and how unashamedly he echoes him on his soundtrack to There Will Be Blood was a revelation.

In another which focused on electronica, they gave us a taste of the latest project from Joe Goddard, one half of Hot Chip whose The 2 Bears, and yes, they really do dress up and DJ in bear suits, is about to release its debut album.

And it was here too, in an earlier edition again, that I was introduced to the ethereal delights of the bewitching Julianna Barwick, whose album I reviewed here earlier.

Next week they’re previewing this year’s South By Southwest, and the following week they’ll be covering the event proper. SXSW is to music what Sundance is to film. It has in other words become so much a part of the mainstream that referring to it now as being in any way indie is frankly laughable. Nevertheless, it still manages to somehow unearth an undiscovered gem every year.

In 2010 it was Sleigh Bells (whose follow up album Reign Of Terror has just been released). And on this, its 20th anniversary, it’s unlikely to prove any less illuminating. Either way, the best place to keep tabs on it is All Songs Considered’s pitch-perfect podcast, which you can find here.

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“Da Vinci – The Lost Treasure” – BBC

Every now and then, viewers write into the BBC to complain that the only thing Fiona Bruce seems to be good for is striding in and out of shot with those elegant, never-ending legs of hers. They ought of course to be castigating her employers for not making better use of her, instead of laying the blame at the woman herself.

Just what they’re missing by asking her to act as little more than window dressing on the Antiques Roadshow was revealed by the wonderful programme she produced on Leonardo for BBC1. It was made with two ends in mind. First, as an introduction to the newly discovered Salvator Mundi, which was recently revealed as one of Leonardo’s lost masterpieces. And second, as a celebration of the National Gallery’s mouth-watering exhibition of Leonardo’s principle paintings.

Given that the incurably curious Florentine conducted detailed studies of pretty much just about everything, and succeeded therefore in completing only a handful of paintings, the discovery of the Salvator Mundi really was one of those once-in-a-lifetime events. And a painting that was sold for just £45 in 1956 is today valued at in excess of £120 million.

Happily, this coincides with an exhibition of his work that the National Gallery will be putting on between now and February next in London, and which will now include the newly authenticated Leonardo. Almost as excitingly, the exhibition will also provide an opportunity to scrutinize a rarely seen exact replica of The Last Supper that Leonardo so disastrously experimented with, and which began to deteriorate almost from the moment he finished it.

Interestingly, no reference was made by Bruce to the fascinating article in the New Yorker on the laborious and thorny authentication process that the Salvator Mundi underwent (here). David Grann began his typically expansive piece as a fairly standard overview of how a lost masterpiece becomes authenticated. But halfway through, it suddenly morphed into an exposé on Peter Paul Biro, a Hungarian émigré based in Montreal who claimed, enterprisingly, to have pioneered a method of authenticating artworks by revealing hidden fingerprints using his own microscopic photography. Coincidently, the article suggested, he had more than a passing acquaintance with many of the works he successfully “authenticated”.

That I suppose would have been a different programme. As it was, Bruce used the compact hour to confidently and concisely present a crisp overview of Leonardo’s work and life, and to offer up a mouth-watering preview of the National Gallery’s exhibition. The sight of her serenely and authoritatively chatting away in French and Italian to academics in Paris and Florence ought to have been enough to silence her many doubters. Needless to say, it did nothing of the sort, and they all complained in their droves about it.

This programme did exactly what it should have done. It made the exhibition unmissable. And the National Gallery is to be congratulated for embracing an exhibit other institutions might have shied away from.

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