A portrait of a comedian in a deadly serious situation


TV REVIEW:‘BREAST CANCER is not a pink ribbon” is the subtitle of the New York photographer David Jay’s ground-breaking Scar Project – his mesmerising Pulitzer-nominated series of photographs showing breast-cancer survivors and the scars of their surgeries. It could have been the subtitle, too, of Anne Gildea’s moving and honest documentary Breast Cancer: No Laughing Matter(RTÉ2, Monday), because there was nothing cute and pastel-coloured about it.

The Libby McCormack-directed film charted, through footage and video diaries, Gildea’s journey from a diagnosis of stage-four cancer to the day, months later, when she had her breast removed. Gildea is a member of the comedy trio The Nualas, who last year re-formed after 10 years – their slogan: “older, wiser, heftier” – so she’s not shy. But letting the cameras trail her throughout treatment left her exposed in so many ways.

As a comedian her instinct was to make jokes. As her very patient sister, who was at her side throughout, commented with an edge of frustration in her voice, “Every time a camera turns on, you start performing.” Her initial response to her condition was almost blithe, with her endless quips – “I’d say it might be painful to get your breast chopped off. That’s just me” – but by the time she’d been through the gruelling chemotherapy process and was facing the mastectomy, her anguish at the potentially deadly situation was painfully clear.

The film showed how dealing with a life-threatening illness is almost mundane in its day-to-day ordinariness: plenty of shots of hopping on her bike to go to hospital appointments; fitting the treatments in around work; and how lonely, no matter the amount of family support, serious illness is. For a documentary about an illness, it was mostly nonmedical, with no explanation about treatments or drugs. The focus was on Gildea, so that even in her visits to St James’s Hospital it was as if she was the only patient in what seemed an empty hospital, and that jarred.

Breasts are flashed on TV all the time, and often for no reason other than, ahem, titillation – the absorbing and otherwise fantastic Homeland(RTÉ2, Friday) currently wins the prize for the most gratuitous breast-baring scenes – but despite the prevalence of breast cancer and assorted health programmes I can’t recall seeing a mastectomy scar on TV, and it was curiously shocking. Kudos to Gildea for allowing such an honest, unflinching film to be made about a terrifying time of her life. “I feel I’m out of the woods,” she said at the end. “I’m lucky.” You’d have to hope so.

TV PROGRAMMES CAN raise awareness of all sorts of issues, and I bet there’s been a surge of interest in Irish-dancing classes after Got to Dance(Sky One, Sunday), when the extraordinary and mesmerising Prodijig, a troupe made up of ex-Riverdancers, won the fiercely competitive competition and £250,000. But no programme – no matter how flash – could enthuse us to speak Irish (an entire station devoted to the language can’t), though that’s not stopping two series, TG4’s leaden An G-Teamand now Bernard Dunne’s Bród Club(RTÉ1, Monday), from trying. All they reveal in every scene is the truth: that most of us can hardly remember more than a cúpla focal of what was so badly taught at school. And we couldn’t be bothered anyway.

Dunne is a natural, charismatic presenter, however, and he comes across as passionate about Gaeilge. It’s a campaigning series attempting to get 100,000 people to sign up to use the Irish they have, and the first programme threw the kitchen sink at it – a Come Dine with Me-style evening where the participants were supposed to speak Irish but looked mortified and barely had any words; well-known faces telling why they’re so passionate about the language (to which you can only say, well, good for you), the Dublin Gospel Choir singing a U2 song on Grafton Street (brilliant, but how’s that going to change anything?)

Dunne went on Brendan O’Connor’s Saturday Night Show(RTÉ1) to encourage people to sign up – he’s willing to suffer for the cause – and reported back to his production team that “only 500 people from the half a million watching the show signed up; it isn’t a great turnaround”. To encourage people to speak, the former Mr World Kamal Ibrahim will take off an item of clothing every time the club hits a membership milestone. As of yesterday, on the programme’s website he was staring at the camera fully clothed but with his fly down. Buntús Caintethis ain’t. If this was the fat-fighting series Operation Transformation, which had 50,000 viewers signed up in the first week, Mr World would be in the buff by now.

THE BASIC SET-UP of White Heat(BBC2, Thursday), an enjoyable though slight new drama series written by Paula Milne, has a satisfying familiarity. Six former flatmates get together nearly five decades after they first met – the seventh flatmate has just died – and their collective history, complete with complex relationships, life-changing events and old grudges, is told in flashbacks. The cast is knockout. It’s two casts, really: one for when they were young, with Claire Foy, MyAnna Buring and Sam Claflin; and one for when they’re older, with Juliet Stevenson, Lindsay Duncan and Sorcha Cusack.

The first episode starts in 1965, when they are students full of idealism in a Britain on the cusp of change (Winston Churchill’s funeral is in episode one), and it’s all miniskirts and marijuana from then on. The social and political history is the backdrop, but the relationships provide the drama.

IF THERE WAS a Ron Cooney in every school, the country would be a far better place. His belief in the transformative power of playing music – to motivate, inspire and help children from a disadvantaged area realise they have options – made Ballymun Lullaby(RTÉ1, Tuesday) one of those rare documentaries for which the term warm-hearted was invented. The basic story of Frank Berry’s film was the collaboration between Cooney’s Ballymun Music Programme, the composer Daragh O’Toole and the RTÉ Concert Orchestra to make a record. When they did it at the end, it was a joyous stand-up-and-cheer moment. But it was also about Ballymun’s community spirit, how the great high-rise hope of modern living became media shorthand for deprivation, Cooney’s own commitment, and the triumph of spirit in three chatty and wise students: Tara, Darren and Wayne. “It’s not about the music,” Cooney said, and Berry’s superb documentary explained what he meant.


Get stuck into...

Suranne Jones and Lesley Sharp resume their partnership as friends and down-to-earth coppers for the second series of the excellent crime drama Scott & Bailey(UTV, Monday) – like a Cagney & Laceyset in Manchester.