Television: ‘Mad Men’ back on song, and hard times in ‘Happy Valley’

A peak performance by Peggy Olson, Bafta beckons for Sarah Lancashire, and John Lonergan shows his mettle as a mentor

Sat, May 31, 2014, 01:00

Lancashire has to be the least vain actor on television – the camera is merciless in its close-ups of her post-traumatic lethargy. “Is she mental now?” her grandson asks. Her condition nearly sunders her relationships with her son, her ex-husband, her colleagues and her sister Clare (a superb Siobhan Finneran – their dialogue throughout the series is natural sisterly shorthand).

It’s all in contrast to the fizzing panic of the bungling kidnappers. And there’s the further contrast, running through the series, between the beautiful Yorkshire valley, often filmed from the air, and the bleak drug-fuelled hopelessness on the ground that the police deal with every day – or, as Catherine puts it, sympathetic and frustrated at the same time, the “numpties off their face on skunk”.

This episode is like a pause for breath, setting up next week’s finale, primarily by letting one of the kidnappers, Tommy Lee Royce (James Norton), emerge from being a two-dimensional raping, murdering psycho into a damaged man you’re never going to care about but with enough about him to make you wonder. It’s gripping stuff.

The Family Project (RTÉ One, Monday) is one of those series where the idea is so cringy on paper that you’re tempted not to bother. It’s described as a series were “celebrities” – we’re not talking Kim and Kanye: they’re Irish celebrities, which could mean anyone who’s been on the telly a few times – “help parents help their kids learn in a fun way”.

But because it’s sponsored by Nala, the organisation that supports literacy, you know its heart is in the right place.

TV producers here fish in a very small pond, and the first celebrity mentor is John Lonergan, who’s not exactly media shy and who has already done this sort of thing – in RTÉ’s John Lonergan’s Circus.

But working with 15-year-old Aaron, from Inchicore, we see why he was chosen: he’s a natural at interacting with teenagers. Aaron has Asperger’s syndrome and dyspraxia, so his social skills aren’t great, classwork is difficult and his concentration wanders.

“It’s absolutely crucial for parents to accept the reality of their child,” says Lonergan, a former prison governor. “Everyone is good at something.” Not a bad message for parents and students in the week before our insanely pressurised Leaving Cert.

Aaron can be obsessional, and his big thing is 20th-century Irish history, so Lonergan turns that passion to the lad’s advantage and suggests he try out as a tour guide at Glasnevin cemetery. It might also give him an idea of a career and more of a reason to get the head down at school.

Walking the talk

Aaron gets huge help from his fantastic mother, grandparents, aunt and his teachers in a mainstream school. (I think this is where the Nala message comes in, although this isn’t clear.) Lonergan’s role is as a motivator: his belief that imparting self-esteem in a child is the most vital lesson.

In the end, Aaron delivers a talk for his family at Éamon de Valera’s graveside perfectly, with eye-contact interaction, the lot, so his “journey” is lovely and worthwhile, much like the series.

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