In gangland, Alzheimer's can seriously damage your wealth

Sat, Dec 8, 2012, 00:00

TELEVISION:A drama about a crime boss with the disease has great performances but soon descends into cliche

Alzheimer’s disease in TV dramas usually features a very old person shuffling around in slippers and putting the house keys in the fridge – but a gangster with the condition? That’s new. And it worked in The Fear (Channel 4, Monday-Thursday), a drama shown over four consecutive nights and starring Peter Mullan as Richie Beckett, a crime boss in his early 60s.

He’s still profiting from his control of Brighton’s seedy sex and drugs underworld, but now it is with the veneer of respectability: the trophy house, the boutique hotel, the gallery-owning wife, and rounds of golf with the chief of police. But his memory and reasoning are slipping, and brutal events from the past keep flashing though his head. He’s prone to violent outbursts that he instantly forgets. “I haven’t laid a finger on anyone in 15 years, and I’m not going to start now,” he says convincingly just minutes after we’ve seen him assault a cyclist in a road-rage incident.

While he’s trying to control his thoughts, a turf war breaks out with the arrival of a gang of Albanians intent on taking over his patch. And as soon as they appear, with their shiny polyester shirts, gold necklaces, eye-gouging violence and “how many girls you want?” dialogue, The Fear veers from the intelligent authenticity of Mullan’s performance deep into stereotype territory. And could Brighton’s police be so dim as not to know that a bloody gang war had broken out, what with the street shoot-outs and the arson? The copper who stopped Beckett’s car missed the severed head in the boot and the gun on the back seat. But Mullan’s performance, as a man slowly and painfully realising that dementia is taking hold, was powerful and nuanced; he’s the reason this drama was compelling despite the corny gangsta scenes.

“Do you write ‘Dear Edge’ or is it ‘Dear The Edge’?” wondered Thomas Kochs, the general manager, as he set out to write the welcome note for one of his guests in the entertaining documentary Inside Claridge’s (BBC Two, Monday).

A handwritten card is one of the things you get when you pay north of £6,000 a night for a room at the London hotel. That and superluxury art-deco surroundings, discreet service and, if you throw a few more grand a night at it, your own butler. One guest, a Japanese pop star booked in for a month, requested that a jacuzzi be installed in her penthouse. Others spring for an entire room redecoration, a stinking-rich take on Oscar Wilde’s apocryphal “either the curtains go or I do”.

The scale of wealth that passes through the door of the hotel is extraordinary and unapologetic. The documentary’s maker, Jane Treays, had access to the five-star hotel for a year, following Kochs to New York as he drummed up business, and interviewing staff, who all protested their lack of envy for their well-heeled guests. “I feel sorry for them,” said one maid as she plumped up pillows in an £8,000-a-night room. “All that security: they’re not free.” Really, though?

We got to see the annual visit of the Melchors, octogenarians from California who have been coming for more than 40 years. They were welcomed with a kiss by their usual butler, Michael Lynch, a Limerick man who has been at Claridge’s for more than 30 years, and left their suite only twice during their 16-day stay. In a question that seemed designed to try to get a rise out of the unflappable Kochs, Treays asked if he ever thought it might be the elderly couple’s final visit. He allowed himself a flickering grimace of distaste before saying, in his measured Germanic way, “No, let them enjoy their visit.” Poignantly, it was to be their last; the end credits noted that Mrs Melchor died a few months later.

It’s a “thoroughly British institution” was the mantra from all, as the Tricolour flickered outside, a sign of Celtic Tiger swaggering investment. Watching it made you feel like a grubby urchin pressing your nose against the window of the palace, and it did deliver lively stories, though none was, disappointingly, particularly juicy. And for all its apparent openness and fly-on-the-wall quality, this first instalment of three was like being trapped between the unquestioning pages of a glossy travel magazine.

Like the writer Gerry Stembridge, one of the contributors to The Radharc Squad (RTÉ One, Tuesday), I don’t remember watching a single Radharc documentary, because they had the whiff of religiosity about them and the series had an Irish name – not cool viewing, he observed, when you’re a teen. Radharc began in 1962 and, 400 episodes later, was cancelled in 1996. The documentary strand, presented and produced initially by Catholic priests, covered a wide range of social and cultural issues and was filmed in 75 countries. It was instigated by Archbishop John Charles McQuaid, who, wanting to ensure some control of this new-fangled medium, dispatched two priests to New York for TV training. So when they began making Radharc they weren’t quite the wide-eyed amateurs described by former president Mary McAleese.

It was a way for McQuaid, as Diarmaid Ferriter said, to get “his own people into RTÉ”, although the people who worked on the series were at pains to point out how visionary and independent-minded it was, particularly under the first two members of the “Radharc Squad”, Frs Des Forristal and Joe Dunn. RTÉ was “the civil service in the 1960s”, said Fr Dermod McCarthy, noting that Radharc was the first independently produced programme on the station.

“They didn’t get a wage, they weren’t paid,” he said, perhaps not a little disingenuously, as presumably their bosses in the Catholic Church paid them.

The clips from the 1960s showed well-made films with subjects ranging from the winner of tidy-towns contests to homelessness in Dublin and the famine in Biafra – but seen from this distance their agenda pulsed through like a heartbeat. And so the priest presenter asked the homeless man if he went to Mass, and the nun on the missions in Africa – or “at an outpost of civilisation and Christianity”, as the priest presenter described it – talked, unchallenged, about the way the African women “don’t want education for their children . . .They’re very backward, father.”

It would have been more interesting if Radharc Squad’s director, Ruán Magan, had looked more deeply at the relationship between Radharc and RTÉ during those 30-plus years: this documentary is, after all, made to mark RTÉ’s 50th anniversary.

The Radharc documentaries were undoubtedly well-made, important pieces of early Irish TV. A closer look behind the scenes might have been more enlightening.

Ones to Watch Final straw for ‘The X Factor’

The extra €1 levy on a bottle of wine seems a particularly cruel blow for those of us who, because there’s a preteen in the house, have to sit through the X Factor final tonight (UTV, TV3), the last gasp of this year’s dreadful series. It has between scruffy busker-type James Arthur, nervy Jahmene and cruise crooner Christopher.

Thursday night cook-offs: The finals of both MasterChef: The Professionals (BBC Two) and MasterChef Ireland (RTÉ Two).

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