Communion isn't all about money - just don't tell the kids


TV REVIEW:IF I HADN’T seen Catholics: Men(BBC4, last Thursday), the first of three films about Catholicism, I probably wouldn’t have chosen to tune into Catholics: Children(BBC4, Thursday). Well, maybe I would, but only after I’d girded myself for an hour of damage and despair.

But having seen Richard Alwyn’s documentary about men in their final years of formation (or study) before priesthood – the diverse group included a former heavy-metal roadie and a one-time City lawyer – and been fascinated by Alwyn’s patient, intimate approach as he teased out questions of faith and the concept of “a calling”, and tried to understand the draw of Catholicism, I was intrigued to see how he’d look at children and the development of a Catholic identity.

These films don’t come with any directorial or editorial baggage, and they’re not made for a broadcaster in a country where Catholicism is the predominant religion, so they don’t assume knowledge. Instead there’s a simple curiosity and an open-minded approach.

His starting point for the Childrenfilm was the Jesuitical “show me the child of seven and I’ll show you the man”. Beginning in Lent last year, he filmed the 33 children of the tiny St Mary’s Roman Catholic primary school in the picture-postcard Lancashire village of Chipping. He focused on the six children preparing to make their first Communion in the summer.

The school day started with French conversation, moved on to the children’s individual prayers – “Hello, God, thanks for the blackbirds I saw on the way to school” – and then the standard curriculum, as well as religious instruction. For the six, Communion classes were given by volunteers – all mothers – who attempted to explain the mysterious-at-any-age concept of the Eucharist.

The film captured the fidgety boredom of seven-year-olds and their wide-eyed wonder at just about anything. The gruesome stories they must absorb about the Crucifixion and the difficult concepts such as Ash Wednesday’s “from dust you came and dust you will return” all seemed so at odds with the small, sunny world they lived in and their natural innocence.

The local parish priest, Fr Anthony Grimshaw, an avuncular character in his 70s, had a strong presence in the school, reading to the little ones on his Kindle and delighting in the continuity of three generations being involved in the church. It was a poignant, uplifting film that went some way in explaining how the roots of Catholicism are sown early and deep.

Northern Irish drama had a good week, with Terry George’s Academy Award for The Shore, a delicately balanced piece of work shown with prescient scheduling on BBC1 on Oscar night. On the same channel that evening was Primetime: On the Water’s Edge(BBC1, Sunday) the result of a BBC Northern Ireland initiative to help local writers new to TV. Despite a strong performance by Andrea Irvine as the central character, however, this won’t be winning any awards. Written by Dean and Glynis Hagen, it centred on Beth (Irvine); desperate for a baby and about to embark on another round of IVF, she discovered by chance that her husband had a child and had for the past seven years been living a double life.

What could have been an interesting exploration of family relations and secrets and lies was all surface and as grey as the Bangor it was set in. The only three-dimensional character was Beth – and the trouble with creating a strong central female character, giving it to the best actor in the cast and letting the story revolve around her was that other characters spun so far out on the periphery that they disappeared. The director’s overuse of a hand-held camera, jittering around the place, which was supposed to make everything feel gritty and immediate, just induced a faint headache.

As this column operates pretty much on a need-to-know basis when it comes to technology, and being a townie with an ugly satellite dish on the back of the house, I haven’t felt the need to gen up too much on Saorview – but, worryingly, it seems from Ear to the Ground(RTÉ1, Monday) people who should know are as much in the dark. A vox pop in Dungarvan revealed that while most had a vague clue that something is happening in October – the switch from analogue to digital – they didn’t quite know what they’re supposed to do about it and whether it’s anything to do with them anyway: a big fail for the ad campaign that’s been running for ages.

One of the programme’s three reporters, Ella McSweeney, set out to explain it – and in the long item did so, simply and clearly, even if it came across like a public-service information bulletin rather than one of the slick magazine features that make up this always interesting programme.

The series makes a convincing effort to reach beyond the farming community, and this week it did an item on our First World fetish for good-looking vegetables – a fancy that seems fine when you’re mindlessly filling your trolley but shockingly wasteful when the reality is explained.

Helen Carroll interviewed a farmer in front of a massive hill of potatoes that were unwanted because they look a bit wonky. Twenty per cent of his potatoes are judged too ugly to leave the farm for the processing plant, he said, and those that do can expect to be whittled down by a further 30 per cent because the washing process – apparently we’ve got so beyond ourselves we won’t buy spuds with muck on them – has revealed blemishes that the supermarkets find unacceptable. That’s 50 per cent wastage of perfectly edible, tasty food.

Following on from that, Darragh McCullough reported on farmyard greenhouse-gas emissions, which we have to control to meet Kyoto Protocol guidelines: Irish farms produce about a quarter of our greenhouse-gas emissions. A dairy cow produces as much methane a year as an average car, so scientific moves are afoot to try to alter diets and farming practices to reduce emissions. “The problem is not the farting from these guys,” said McCullough. No shilly-shallying around with “rear emissions” or other euphemisms. They’re an earthy lot on Ear to the Ground.As the breathalyser contraption strapped to a cow’s back to monitor methane output revealed, it’s the nonstop belching that’s the problem.

Get stuck into . . .

In a week of new programmes, the uplifting Ballymun Lullaby(RTÉ1, Tuesday) – originally a cinema release – about children learning to play and perform music, just might get sidelined. Worth a look.