Masterpiece? More of a curate's egg. And as for Brian and Pippa . . .


TV REVIEW:‘THE NATION has its shortlist,” said Mike Murphy in a portentous kind of a way in his introduction to Masterpiece: Ireland’s Favourite Painting (RTÉ1, Tuesday). I suspect I wasn’t the only one idly musing that I didn’t even know there was a longlist – and who is this “nation” he’s talking about, anyway?

Arts coverage on RTÉ television is minimalist – or, to be less arty about it, shockingly scant – and this campaign to pick Ireland’s favourite painting is its first big idea in arts coverage this year. Murphy explained that 100 paintings had been nominated by curators and other professionals as well as by the public. (When? How many people voted?) In the documentary we saw a committee whittling the longlist down to 10. The criteria weren’t clear. The paintings didn’t have to be Irish or even State owned; the only apparent common denominator was that they are all on public view.

The slick documentary explored in a jargon-free way – mostly through interviews with art experts – the history of each painting. It was as comprehensive as it was interesting. I could have watched Sean Scully wander around Italian churches talking about Caravaggio for the entire hour.

So that was the programme: lovely to look at, accessible and as well made an hour of TV as you’d expect from Alan Gilsenan, its director. But it didn’t feel like the exciting start of an inclusive campaign, a genuine shout-out to the public to engage with an idea. At the end Murphy mentioned how to vote as a sort of by the way: by postcard and on the show’s website, no Twitter or Facebook options cluttering up the tasteful presentation. And surely screening the programme so late at night reduces the audience to a niche group of already interested viewers and not a broad sweep of the population that “the nation” implies. The timing also excludes children. The shortlist will be further discussed on The Works, another far-from-prime-time television arts show.

TO PROMOTE THEprogramme, and maybe broaden the potential audience, Murphy went on Brendan O’Connor’s Saturday Night Show (RTÉ1). Ryan Tubridy, on The Late Late Show (RTÉ1) the night before, had Pippa O’Connor and her husband, Brian Ormond – famous because he tweeted a photo of her scantily clad backside. More proof that the guest lists on the two chatshows are increasingly interchangeable. You’d have the hands wrung off yourself thinking about the way The Late Late Show has become an irrelevant shadow of its former self. Pippa is a model, Brian a TV presenter – and Michael Parkinson in his heyday couldn’t have dragged an interesting nugget out of them.

Brendan O’Connor, before he interviewed Murphy about Vermeer and Jack B Yeats, was on more familiar ground chatting to Amy Childs, one of his typical guests – someone you may not have heard of and aren’t particularly interested in anyway. Childs, the perma-tanned star of The Only Way Is Essex, talked about her expertise in vajazzling – that’s gluing diamonds on waxed pubic areas – but when quizzed on cosmetic surgery she said, “I don’t want to talk about my boobs now,” before quickly adding, “I was a B and I went to a D.” We’re not talking Frost and Nixon here.

THE DOCUMENTARY-MAKERLouis Theroux is back with Extreme Love (BBC1, Thursday), two new films, made in the US, exploring the impact of medical conditions on sufferers and, more particularly, their families. This week it was autism (next week it’s dementia), which, explained an exhausted mother of seven-year-old autistic twins, is a “neurological disorder of which there is no known cause or cure”.

Theroux specialises in intimate observational documentaries in which he spends great chunks of time with his interviewees. We’ve seen him being comfortable and confident with everyone from neo-Nazis to death-row inmates. When talking to severely autistic teens, though, he seemed outside his roomy comfort zone. He asked questions; they ignored him. He walked into a room; they walked out. He wanted to talk about something; they talked about something else. All behaviours their parents had learned to live with, but unnerving for an interiewer.

A mild-mannered sort, Theroux looked upset and horrified to witness the physical abuse some of the mothers took from their unpredictable children. One boy was sweet and calm one minute, a raging ball of aggression the next. “Shall I get a glass of water?” he offered as both his mother and his father, now smaller than their teenage son, tried to restrain him as he lashed out uncontrollably. “This is the reality,” explained the mother, answering the unspoken question of whether it is right to film the scene. “You have to show this.”

The extreme love of the title is Theroux’s description of the parents’ approach and what he called “their small miracle in their ability to keep going”. And they left him “feeling a respect bordering on awe”. The teachers’ patience and dedication were something to see.

What will have made Irish parents of autistic teens wide-eyed with envy and frustration is Developmental Learning Center – Warren, in New Jersey, where most of the filming took place. One of the most innovative autism schools of its kind, set on a swanky university-style campus, it allows specialist one-on-one intervention to help autistic children from the ages of three to 21.

THE CONSUMER SHOW(RTÉ1, Tuesday) returned last week for a second series with the same presenters, Eddie Hobbs and Keelin Shanley, but it was a dull start, with too much time spent bogged down in an insurance product – about as fascinating as pensions – and a long, not very interesting item on a Cork family’s shopping habits.

This week was very different, though, much pacier and more varied, with an item on cereal that made installing a candyfloss machine in the kitchen look like a better breakfast option. And, astutely predicting the water fiasco this week, the show installed a meter in an average family house a month ago and measured usage, so they could guesstimate an annual water cost – something the Government has been strangely reluctant to do. Working on the assumption of a free allowance, and similar water prices to those elsewhere in Europe, Hobbs suggested an annual bill of between €120 and €300.

Also this week was a taste test – of baked beans – with Darina Allen and the comedian Brendan O’Carroll. “Eating cold beans,” said Darina in her jolly-hockey-sticks sort of way, “reminds me of boarding school.” “Me too,” quipped O’Carroll, mischievously. If a programme can make tasting beans entertaining, it’s on to a winner.

Get stuck into . . .

Steven Spielberg’s new series, Smash (Sky Atlantic, tonight), about the search for a star to play Marilyn Monroe on Broadway, is like Glee for grown-ups. It stars Anjelica Huston, Jack Davenport, Debra Messing and the former American Idol favourite Katharine McPhee.