Saturday Night With Miriam” — RTE

Gen­uine­ly ground-break­ing tele­vi­sion pro­grammes are few and far between, but Sat­ur­day Night With Miri­am which has just con­clud­ed its sum­mer run was that rare thing; an impor­tant RTE pro­duc­tion. What they’ve done is, to take each and every one of the worn and stale traits from those tired and drea­ry ear­ly 1980s talk shows, put them all togeth­er in the one show, and present it as if it were a real pro­gramme. It’s a bril­liant way of fear­less­ly decon­struct­ing and minute­ly exam­in­ing con­tem­po­rary Irish broad­cast­ing, and is a sear­ing indict­ment of the very chan­nel which, to its cred­it, has had the courage to air it.

It’s as if Gra­ham Nor­ton and Chris Evans, or for that mat­ter Conan and Let­ter­man had nev­er hap­pened. But unlike say, Mrs Mer­ton, Alan Par­tridge, or even The Day Today, O’Callaghan and her pro­duc­tion team play the whole thing with a com­plete­ly straight face. You get a seem­ing­ly end­less stream of guests nobody has heard of, who pro­duce a tor­rent of inter­minable and unfun­ny anec­dotes, in the vain hope of man­u­fac­tur­ing their own 15 min­utes, and there’s not a raised eye­brow or excla­ma­tion mark in sight! So instead of an admit­ted­ly hilar­i­ous par­o­dy, what you get is an invalu­able and insight­ful cri­tique of the state of Irish tele­vi­sion as it moves into the 21st century.

Imag­ine if some­thing like this were a real pro­gramme, the show asks. Is this the sort of thing a pub­lic broad­cast­er ought to be offer­ing up as the ser­vice it pro­vides? Isn’t the whole point about pub­lic sec­tor broad­cast­ing, that it strive to find a bal­ance between reflect­ing the coun­try as it is, and explor­ing the bound­aries of the medi­um it uses to do so in? If all you think about are the view­ing fig­ures, this is the sort of thing you’re going to end up with.

It’s com­mend­ably brave of RTE to allow this sort of crit­i­cism to exist on its sched­ule, but it’s vital that they do so, and that they heed the show’s dire warn­ings. And it’s admirably prin­ci­pled of O’Callaghan to feign sac­ri­fic­ing her cred­i­bil­i­ty in this way, by so coura­geous­ly open­ing up the debate about what exact­ly RTE is for. The guise she adopts here is the bril­liant­ly drawn com­ic char­ac­ter she’s been using for her radio show, Miri­am Meets. There she plays a won­der­ful­ly faux-mum­sy inter­view­er so incon­ti­nent with empa­thy and emo­tion, that your only reac­tion is to reach for the near­est kit­ten, tear it limb from limb and gorge on its entrails.

Gen­er­ous­ly, she plays down the com­ic ele­ments here so she can con­cen­trate of pre­sent­ing her sear­ing, not to say self­less cri­tique of pub­lic sec­tor broad­cast­ing, and the urgent need for us all to start think­ing seri­ous­ly about the kinds of pro­grammes that RTE should be mak­ing. Because if we are not care­ful, as she so bril­liant­ly sug­gests, this is the sort of thing we could very well end up with.

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