2 Things to Watch out for on Irish Television

An Buachaill Gael Gáireach, The Laughing Boy

There was a new documentary feature screened recently on TG4, and a 3 part documentary series on RTE, and both were excellent. 

An Buachaill Gael Gáireach, or The Laughing Boy tells the unlikely if entirely true story behind Brendan Behan’s most famous song. After hearing about how helpful Michael Collins had been to his mother when she had been pregnant with him, the teenage Behan penned the Laughing Boy, in Irish, in his honour.

Twenty years later, he translated it into English and used it as the centre piece for his play, The Hostage. And when that play was then performed in Paris, a couple of Greek ex-patriots saw it and were determined to stage it in Athens. And they commissioned Mikis Theodorakis, the most celebrated Greek composer of the 20th century, to provide the music for their production.

Theo Dogan, right, on his own personal Greek odyssey.

And, improbably to say the least, that adaptation of Behan’s song then became the unofficial national anthem for Greece, after being taken up as the song Greeks sang to protest the military dictatorship that ruled there between 1967-74. So, literally, every single Greek boy and girl grew up singing it in the 1970s and 80s as a symbol of their resistance. 

Directed by Alan Gilsenan and presented by the poet Theo Dorgan, it’s one of the few films to actually benefit by not being too rigid in its structure or focus. Instead, the film is left free to wander and gently meander, as it embraces its sprawling themes. Fusing music with poetry, film and theatre, to explore history, politics and culture, examined and expressed in Irish, English and Greek.

Impeccably realised, it’s a film that, for once, lives up to its lofty ambitions.

The Island is a 3 part documentary series on RTE and the BBC, and it too delivers on its commendable ambitions. So many of these sorts of things reveal themselves to be little more than thinly veiled commercials for the tourist industry. The Island was, impressively, very much a science-led series. 

Liz Bonnin, on The Island.

This, you feel sure, is down to it being presented by Liz Bonnin, who is chalking up an impressive record in popular science programmes for the BBC. It promised and then duly gave us a 1.8 billion year history of the island of Ireland, with an array of wide-ranging  academics and instructive graphics, which were used to clarify and illuminate without ever over-simplifying.

It still looks ravishing of course. But for once, the images are given a purpose and a context.

What a joy to be treated like an adult for a few stray hours.

You can see The Laughing Boy on the TG4 player here:

https://www.tg4.ie/en/player/play/?pid=6311320763112&title=An%20Buachaill%20Gealgháireach&series=An%20Buachaill%20Gealgháireach&genre=Faisneis&pcode=622980

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Apple TV’s ‘Severance’ is the real deal

Apple TV’s “Severance”

Things have been quiet of late, in this the much heralded golden age of television. There has been plenty of perfectly watchable, eminently adequate fodder on offer from the various streaming services and their terrestrial brethren. But very little to write home about. 

So it was with a slight sense of wariness that I sat down to watch Severance, notwithstanding all the noise it’s generated. But for once, that hype was entirely justified. Happily, it’s the real deal.

It’s a high concept, Big Idea series. A nefarious and implicitly evil tech corporation has invented a chip that allows you to separate, sever, your work-you from your home-you. So as you work through the mindless chores at the faceless office where you work, you’ve no idea what you do or who you are for the rest of the day when you’re at home. 

The same neck of the woods.

As you descend in the elevator at the end of the day, the chip kicks in, and you step out on to the ground floor as your home-you, or what they call your ‘outie’. And after you get back into the elevator as your outie the following morning, you emerge on the ‘severance’ floor as your ‘innie’. Completely oblivious as what you might have got up to in between. 

Why would anybody want that? Well, Mark has recently lost his wife in a car crash. And, he figures, at least for 8 hours a day he’ll be spared the bottomless grief he’s floored by during the other 16.

It’s avowedly left of field and off kilter, and veers from the surreally mundane to menacing and back, often in the same scene. Think Charlie Kaufman meets David Lynch, where both have had their wings clipped to rein their flights of fancy in. Which is, respectively, both good and bad.

Everything about Severance is impeccably crafted. The art direction is pristine, the directing, by Ben Stiller, is foot perfect and the acting is exceptional across the board. 

All the gang on the Severance floor.

Adam Scott takes the lead as Mark, and is impressively abetted by Britt Lower, Zach Cherry, John Turturro and, improbably, Christopher Walken, all of whom are outstanding as his increasingly rebellious co-workers. But Patricia Arquette manages to somehow steal the show, as the nearest thing to a plausible and genuinely terrifying realisation of the wicked witch of the West. 

And, rather than addressing them head on, it sensibly flirts around the philosophical questions that it raises about the self, purpose, meaning, work-life balance and agency. Most impressively of all, it builds momentum and raises the stakes continually, thanks to the perfectly meted out parcels of story. And the increasingly compelling cliff-hangers that each episode concludes with.

It might not quite be up there with series 1 of Twin Peaks, and I hope it does a better job than that show did of maintaining its momentum into series 2. But it’s comfortably the best show to grace our screens since Bojack pursued and fed his demons (reviewed earlier by me here).

You can see the trailer for Severance here:

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‘Elvis’, the trailer, plus a film about music made by a grown up

Elvis

What a joy to be able to see the world as Baz Luhrmann does, through the eyes of a 9 year old boy. Many 9 and 10 year olds note what pleasure they get from eating the icing on a cake. And they have the brilliant idea of asking for one made of nothing else. 

But they note their parent’s weary dismissal of that idea, and they spend a few years investigating gastronomy, learning about appetite and acquiring taste. And they come to appreciate that pleasure without pain, light without darkness and euphoric highs without the depths of despair simply cannot be. They are mutually dependent.

The Velvet Underground, Nica and Andy Warhol

But Lurhmann has said, sod that. I’m staying just as I am. And he’s spotted how much we all enjoy watching music videos and movie trailers, and he’s had the brilliant idea of making feature length versions of them. 

So we got Romeo + Juliette, which manages to defang Shakespeare’s play of its tragedy, and turn it into a poptastic costume fest. Then there was Moulin Rouge, which was a 2 hour music video, pure and simple. Likewise The Great Gatsby

Which, I have to confess, I’ve not been able to actually sit through. So it’s perfectly possible that it’s a carefully considered and thoughtful meditation on doomed youth and fin de siècle disillusionment. But I’m going out on a limb, and presuming that it’s just A N Other 2 hour plus music video.

The Velvet Underground and Nico

And now we have 2 ¾ hour movie trailer about Elvis. So, as with any trailer, you get told immediately who the goodies and baddies are. And every line of dialogue is on the nose and means exactly what it says – just like this sentence. And every frame is stuffed full of information, because you’ve only got two minutes to tell the audience about all the different elements in your story. 

Only it doesn’t go on for two minutes. This is kept up for nearly three hours. There’s stuff stuffed into every frame and on every corner of the soundtrack. It’s like watching a teenage boy who’s just been shown what all the buttons do in his editing software. And so pleased is he with all the effects they can produce, that he can’t stop pressing them, repeatedly. And he’s completely oblivious to the reaction of his parents when he shows them what he’s done.

It’s relentless in its blind bombardment of the senses, and the tedium that results is incessant and mind-numbing.

The Velvet Underground

I always admire though rarely warm to the films of Todd Haynes. But his eponymous documentary on The Velvet Underground is an unqualified joy from start to finish. Serious music from an extraordinary collective who came together at a fascinating moment in time. 

Structured in an appropriately left of field way, it’s a quietly intelligent and thoughtful film about a uniquely influential band. Their first album is one of the great works of art of the 20th century. And remarkably, this film does them justice. 

Watching it after sitting through Elvis is like dropping your child off at a birthday party, only to be greeted there by the excited stare of the birthday boy, as he offers you a slice of his solid icing cake. When suddenly, you’re taken by the elbow and gently led out into the back garden, where you’re handed an ice cold beer and a glass of Jameson. And you sit down together and lean back to contemplate the stars.

You can see the trailer for The Velvet Underground below:

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’Conversations with Friends’, more of the same

Conversations With Friends. Yawn.

Like most sequels these days, Conversations with Friends is actually a remake. And on one level, you can hardly blame them. 

After the giddy high that The Tiger King initially produced, arriving as it did in the depths of the pandemic, we gradually realised quite how sordid the whole thing was. The unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable. 

So the arrival soon after of Normal People seemed to provide the world with a much needed palette cleanser. Here was something you could sit back, relax and enjoy in the knowledge that, for the next thirty minutes, your brain would be completely superfluous. 

No bile or vitriol, just polite, keen-to-be-educated and uniformly pretty youths shot against endlessly pleasing backgrounds, as they mumbled sweet nothings about nothing in particular for six glorious hours. 

The only way you could conceivably end up on the edge of your seat would be if you’d sunk so far back into it, you’d inadvertently slipped off entirely to land languidly in a pool on the floor. For many, it was just what the doctor ordered.

Normal People. Which is, like, ironic. You know, like the song.

But now that we’ve all come out of our enforced hibernation, mindless heritage television doesn’t have quite the draw that it did that lifetime ago. And now they’ve produced an exact replica. 

There’s the artistic longing and romantic yearning of youth, the trips back to the parents in the West of Ireland, and the would-be Joycean rejection of old Ireland in favour of continental cosmopolitanism. And all of it centred around the promise provided by the gateway that is the university. Specifically, Trinity College, Dublin.

What’s so baffling, about both Normal People and Conversation With Friends, is how off it all feels. Those parties and soirees with monied students and the would-be litterati, the seminars they go to and the conversations they have wherever they gather, are all clearly meant to evoke a charged bohemia where anything can happen. And out of which, who knows how many great novels and seminal poetry collections will any day now emerge.

But they don’t look, sound or feel anything like the fiercely bright and perennially competitive beacons of youth that they’re clearly supposed to be. What you get instead are what characters like that look and sound like to people who’ve never actually met anyone like that.

Or who met them so long ago, that their idea of what people like that look and sound like is so hopelessly idealised, that the result is entirely lifeless and quietly cringe-inducing.

Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You.

And then there’s the dialogue. Which seems to have been produced by people whose only training was in watching a series of Aaron Sorkin set-pieces with the sound turned down. They’ve never heard what snappy dialogue is supposed to sound like, so all their characters end up delivering a series of one liners devoid of depth, charm or insight. No wonder there’s absolutely no chemistry between the principals. Nobody should have to deliver lines like that. 

And let’s not even get started on the poetry, or that production of the Tennessee Williams play. 

What was so impressive about I May Destroy You (reviewed by me earlier here), and its world of brilliantly bright young things battling with having to navigate their treacherous, threatening and deeply troubled world, was that the programme makers patently came from and inhabited the world they were depicting. So every scene rings effortlessly true. Likewise Can You Ever Forgive Me?, from 2018, and before that, Wonders Boys, from 2000. All of which cover similar terrain, and revolve around a cast of would-be and actual writers.

But, bafflingly, Normal People was a rip-roaring and stratospheric success. So, quite correctly and very understandably, they’ve gone and produced an exact replica, with another six hours (six hours!!) of more of the same. And for that, I’m afraid, we’ve only ourselves to blame. 

You can see the trailer for I May Destroy You here:

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‘A Very British Scandal’, fancy soap, or that’s what an author is

Bettany and Foy in A Very British Scandal.

Anyone who’s done an arts degree will at some point have found themselves cornered by a post-teen as they enthusiastically exit their class on post-structuralism, to excitedly present you with your very own copy of Foucault’s, ahem, seminal essay, What is an author

Which, if you take the trouble to read, you’ll be quietly flummoxed by, as you try to figure out what all the fuss was about.

Fortunately, we’ve all grown up and moved on from that. And similarly, you rarely hear anyone these days referring to the so-called auteur theory. Which is just as well, as it doesn’t exist – try ordering a copy for yourself. 

A Very English Scandal.

What there was was an essay by Francois Truffaut published in a 1954 edition of the Cahiers du Cinema, titled A Certain Tendency in French Cinema. There, he simply said that, given that, obviously, the author of a film is its director, the study of cinema ought to be organised around a pantheon of great directors. And that the least successful film by a great director was always more interesting than the best film from a mediocre film maker. 

Today, the general consensus is that cinema, again obviously, is a director’s medium. But that television is a writer’s medium. Which brings us to A Very British Scandal

You’d be forgiven for imagining that this were a sequel to A Very English Scandal, from 2018. As, clearly, this is exactly what the BBC and its producers want you to think. But it isn’t. 

A Very English Scandal was written by Russell T Davies, who’s one of, if not the most talented writer on these shores. He came to prominence with Queer as Folk, which he made for Channel 4 between 1999-2000, and for then re-invigorating Dr. Who for the BBC, which he did as its showrunner between 2005-10.

But it was with A Very English Scandal, for the BBC in 2018 (reviewed earlier by me here), and It’s a Sin, for Channel 4 in 2020, that Russel got to demonstrate quite how gifted a writer he is. 

It’s a Sin.

And the problem with A Very British Scandal is that Russel had absolutely nothing to do with it. It was written instead by Sarah Phelps, who spent most of her career as a senior scriptwriter on EastEnders

So if all you are looking for is the BBC’s answer to The Crown, this is the show for you. It’s plush and incredibly fancy soap, where the sumptuous budget has been spent on costumes and locations rather than on script or story. 

And in fairness, so impressive are the central performances from Claire Foy and Paul Bettany, who manage miraculously to make two extraordinarily unpleasant individuals appear almost sympathetic, that’s it’s easy to momentarily get lost in the frocks and stately homes. 

But it’s impossible not to compare the two series if you’ve seen them both. And where A Very English Scandal is fleet of foot, dripping with irony and constantly surprising, A Very British Scandal is leaden, pedestrian and entirely, indeed consistently predictable. That’s the difference a real writer makes. And that’s what an author is. 

Still, that distinction seems to have completely eluded our friends from across the water, if the reviews in The Guardian and The Independent are anything to go by. So bully for them. They got away with it. 

So if you want to escape the real world and wash it all away with beautifully packaged and incredibly expensive soap, by all means enjoy A Very British Scandal. But if instead you’re inclined to fire up those cerebral synapses, get yourself a copy of A Very English Scandal and wallow in its decadent joie de vivre.

Here’s the trailer to A Very English Scandal:

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