Mammies, childbirth and life's wimple pleasures

Sat, Jan 21, 2012, 00:00

TV REVIEW:THERE WAS BRENDA FRICKER explaining how she created her Oscar-winning role of Christy Brown’s mammy in My Left Foot,on Muide Éire(TG4, Wednesday) , and all I could think about was the Irish mammy currently on screen, the other Mrs Brown, Brendan O’Carroll’s bosomy, foul-mouthed creation, and how similar the two women are in many ways: both self-sacrificing, domineering, devoted to their sons, with a small cloud of martyrdom hovering overhead at all times. And that’s the thing about screen stereotypes: like them or not, they are shorthand used to tell the story.

The second of the impressive four-part arts series exploring Ireland on screen, and featuring a who’s who of Irish cinema, was a reminder of how hard done by we are in terms of stereotypes: the gombeen, the fighting drunk, the cruel father and even the feisty Irishwoman – a solo run by Maureen O’Hara – were all mostly created in Hollywood or Britain.

Brendan Conroy observed that plenty of movie characters drink all the time – think James Bond – but it’s usually only the Irish ones who then either get drunk or start spoiling for a row. But the stereotypes are changing as more home-grown work emerges. Jim Sheridan and Colm Meany talked about Roddy Doyle’s Jimmy Rabbitte, an Irish father who was warm and funny and, crucially in terms of overturning the stereotype, nonviolent. And Mark O’Halloran said that in Garage he wanted to make “a serious film about a ridiculous person”, to show that “the people on the periphery need dignity”.

The Hollywood veteran Fionnula Flanagan, nearly the only actor in the programme who spoke Irish, isn’t one for blaming others for how we’ve been seen on screen: “We’re responsible for the stereotypes because we’re willing to take on those roles.”

MAMMIES ARE EVERYWHERE in Call the Midwife(BBC1, Sunday), and I suspect that’s the target audience, too, for this glossy six-part drama set in the 1950s in the East End of London and dramatising Jennifer Worth’s memoirs of her life as a young midwife there.

The publicity shots had the hilarious Miranda Hart in her first straight role, but she doesn’t appear in Call the Midwifeuntil next week. This episode was all about the main character, Jenny Lee (Jessica Raine), with her bee-stung lips and posh ways, arriving to work at Nonnatus House. She assumed it was a small hospital, but it turned out to be a convent full of nuns and midwives who leap on their high Nelly bicycles and peddle through foggy cobbled streets at the first call from a labouring mother. A sort of obstetrics flying squad.

Vanessa Redgrave does the voiceover, and it’s full of Angela’s Ashes-type squalor, misery and poverty, yet everything on screen looks remarkably clean and neat and tastefully retro – even Conchita, in her tiny terraced house and soon to deliver her 25th baby, has a tastefully lit and large chintzy bedroom straight out of Country Living. All the babies are chubby and placid in their hand-knitted cardies and giant prams, and Jenny Agutter as the head nun looks fantastic in a wimple.

The characters are good, with room for development, especially Judy Parfitt’s eccentric cake-scoffing Sr Monica and Jenny Lee, with her “I must have been mad I could have been an air hostess” shtick. Even the locals are of the heart-of-gold variety and, despite syphilis, poverty and death, dish up none of the scowling misery characteristic of modern-day EastEnders.

IF BIRTH ON SCREEN is your thing, stick to the brilliant, often moving and sometimes terrifying One Born Every Minute(Wednesday, Channel 4), the fly-on-the-wall documentary series recording life on a labour ward. The dialogue is better, it’s often unintentionally hilarious – especially the dads who mostly get in the way or sit in the corner eating crisps, muttering about missing EastEnders– and the roaring from the labouring women is much more convincing. And there’s no shouting for a basin of boiling water – inevitably, a line used in Call the Midwife.Just as inevitably, once it was brought it was never used.

EQUALLY DOWN TO EARTH is The Nurse(Thursday), RTÉ1’s strong new observational series following six community nurses from different parts of the country as they go about their work. All are as you’d expect, kind and practical, and it shows how varied the job is: if you think no two days are the same in your work, try being Kathleen Gilheaney, in Co Cavan, who we first meet in this second episode of The Nursein her clinic, dressing the blackened toe of an elderly and diabetic farmer – he arrived on his tractor – and advising him not to worry, that this toe will drop off in due course. Then she hops in her car – all the nurses spend hours in their cars – for a home visit to a newborn whose mother was treated for cancer during her pregnancy.

The patients are as much the stars of the programme as the nurses. The cameras get right into the living rooms and lives of the participants and it’s a reminder throughout that people, even in the most trying circumstances, just get on with it.

IN THE FIRST EPISODE of Borgen(BBC4, Saturday), the Danish political drama from the makers of The Killing, the election was just days away when a dramatic intervention during the final TV debate with the candidates changed the outcome. Really. See, it happens even in fiction.

And if that didn’t draw you into the tense, complicated and superbly acted series – I’d happily believe Birgitte Nyborg (Sidse Babett Knudsen) really is the Danish PM, she’s so convincing – the unfolding plot will. It’s like The West Wingin its heyday, but with subtitles and more tasteful Scandi-chic interiors.

It’s all wheels within wheels: the political machinations, the nexus between media and politics, civil servants manipulating ministers and craven ambition. By the end of each episode you’re in no doubt the political world is a bubble. And the women in Borgen get the best roles: it’s a bit like the always sharp The Good Wifein that respect. It’s two weeks in, but it’s not too late to catch up.


tvreview@irishtimes.com

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