How to stay married for 50 years

Review: RTÉ profiles couples held together by unflagging support and comic schtick

Joan and Pierce Butler tell their story on 'Golden: Our 50 Years of Marriage'.

Joan and Pierce Butler tell their story on 'Golden: Our 50 Years of Marriage'.

 

There are a several reasons to watch Golden: Our 50 Years of Marriage (RTÉ One, Monday, 9.35pm), all of whom have spent at least half a century married to each other.

You might come to the show expecting instructions for longevity in romance, a gauzy view of love to withstand the ages, as though the eight featured couples combined would yield an accumulated 400 years of schmaltz.

But while there is certainly plenty of that, beginning with a slideshow carousel of sepia-toned togetherness, the show is more interesting for its brisk illustrations of a rarer compatibility. The couples are held together, through good times and trying circumstances, by unflagging mutual support or, at the very least, perfectly interlocking neuroses.

What’s more encouraging, though, is that they have each had ample time to practice their shtick. “Darling, am I a sex kitten or am I?” the immaculately presented Joan Butler will ask her warm husband Pierce, often in front of their grandchildren, to his immediate assent. “They say he’s afraid to say anything else.”

Paddy Darcy, a bluff Dublin decorator, still working at the age of 76, is more deadpan when he recalls a promised dowry of a cow and some land: “To this day,” he says, “I never got the bit of land.”

That’s typical of the badinage between couples, either flirtatious or fractious, sexual or argumentative. They can seem like interchangeable substitutions. “Of course you’re not in love with someone for 50 years, are you?” pshaws the fascinatingly frank Lucy Madden, exchanging wary glances with her husband, Johnny, like two people who are very politely trying to defuse a time bomb. “It’s all about sex, isn’t it, being in love?”

The Maddens, who inherited and maintained Monaghan’s impossibly grand Hilton Park estate (“a jolly tiring, wearing business”) are the show’s absolute find, almost performative in their mutual exasperation, as he watches motocross, at an obliviously high volume, while she seethes nearby, living together in wedded hiss.

“We would never contemplate separating, would we?” Lucy announces early, before describing her earlier contemplations of separating.

Other couples are a traditional blend of the sympathetic and stoic, like Mary and Michael Burns, who discovered early that they could not have children and were told, at the age of 34, that they were too old to adopt. “I kept the first tier of the wedding cake for a few years,” says Mary softly.

She herself never knew her birth mother, reunited with her, years later, and a sister, at Michael’s suggestion. “He was my rock then, as well,” she says, “It’s a big rock and it’s getting bigger.”

Director and editor Sally Roden may finally include just too many couples, as though unwilling to excise anybody’s experience. It means we don’t concentrate on any particular relationship, still meeting new people late into the hour.

But it does provide a potted social history of the late 20th century. A couple we meet on identical recliners in Cork admit they conceived a child unexpectedly early in their courtship (she broke the news to him with the words, “The second time worked.”), while a charming Dutch couple, Kees and Anneke Vogelaar, the owners of a Kilkenny apple farm, took to rationing out condoms in their employees’ wage packets – until the parish priest intervened.  

Like many couples here, they have known heartbreak and hardship: the loss of an adult son. Pat and Kathleen Mulcahy, who met and spent most of their lives in New York, have weathered serious injury and the vagaries of ill-health.

And Paddy and Joan, who joshed on the matter of that undelivered dowry, have cared for each other through debilitating arthritis, now dancing.

That’s all a little too complicated for the programme’s conclusion. Having commendably avoided patronising its participants, it still wraps all of its couples into a final rosy montage to the most twee folk pop available, whether it suits them or not.

I looked for my favourite couple within that romantic whirl, Johnny and Lucy, who will never contemplate separating, yet seemed to peer out among sentimental company as if to say, at long last, We need to see other people.

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