Television: Belvedere, Ballymaloe and Brian Cowen’s hard-neck life
Documentaries on boys’ schools and a cookery school, and an examination of a former taoiseach
Bursary boy: David Zaworski featured in ‘The Scholarship’, which hit a perfect observational balance
Many private schools offer scholarships. Most are based on academic or musical excellence, but Belvedere College, the all-boys Jesuit school in Dublin, looks beyond schoolwork to social, economic and educational disadvantage and to parental motivation when it chooses its annual recipients. There are very personal forms to fill out, home visits and interviews with parents and child. Parents with money, however, have only to write a cheque.
The Scholarship (RTÉ One, Monday), a two-part observational documentary, followed the process in 2011; maybe it was because The X Factor is back – sobbing, a tragic backstory, rubbish talk of life-changing journeys – but I tuned in fearing the worst. I was wrong. The film – its director, Kim Bartley, was heard occasionally off camera – hit a perfect observational balance between warmth for the participants and cool pragmatism.
This was helped by the apparent integrity of the scholarship-awards process and by the film not getting involved in the cul de sac of a debate about the existence of private schools. The parents were candid about their own educational shortcomings, their desire to get the best for their children and their pragmatic belief that Belvedere was the key. The five boys interviewed were articulate, impressive and hopeful.
The school, which bravely allowed the cameras into the lengthy meetings at which teachers assessed the applicants, was equally honest and pragmatic, noting that a Traveller candidate would need strong shoulders to carry the flag of being the first from his background at the school, and a Polish applicant might not integrate because the school had experience of eastern Europeans keeping to themselves.
The applicants proved too difficult to whittle down from the shortlist of 17, so the eight golden tickets were picked out of a hat. Next week we’ll see if any of the boys filmed made it. They wanted it so much, I hope they did.
Belvedere costs about €5,000 a year, which is small change to the chaps in Harrow: A Very British School (Sky1, Wednesday). That school’s annual fees are €36,000, and a top hat and straw boater are part of the uniform. The documentary series, which follows a handful of first-year boys over a year, was predictable: the wealth; the elitist bubble the boys live in; the whiff of privilege from every surface; the archaic rules. But it’s pacy and not as reverential in tone as other British documentaries about their ancient institutions. One episode is probably enough, though; nothing much is going to change at Harrow, which is the whole point, and the programme was already getting repetitive by the end of the hour.
If there hasn’t been a documentary before – and I can’t remember one – on the life, drive and amazing vision of Myrtle Allen, the question is why, with so many other food programmes clogging up the schedule. The many contributers and archive footage in Myrtle Allen: A Life in Food (RTE One, Tuesday) showed what a force of nature she has been since she set up Ballymaloe House and changed the image of Irish food at home and abroad. This documentary was a good start, and it worked because Allen, at a sprightly 89, was such a presence in it, as she clearly still is in the business she established.