Mind your language


BERNICE HARRISON: An CrisisTG4, Wednesday; The Big StoryRTÉ 1, Friday; The PacificSky Movies Premiere, Monday; Mad MenRTÉ1 Monday

If, like me, the only complete sentence of Irish that has firmly lodged in your brain decades after it was planted there starts with “an bhfuil cead agam” and ends with “leithreas”, then you’ll understand the dread of tuning into a sitcom as Gaeilge.

Not that the recent home-grown sitcoms as Béarla have been anything to laugh about (remember the mirth-free zone that was Val Falvey?) but the first episode of An Crisis, a new six-parter from TG4, was laugh out loud funny – interspersed with a couple of knowing sniggers. Even having to read the English subtitles didn’t get in the way and that’s an achievement in itself.

The set-up is standard, old-fashioned sitcom: an office headed up by a shambolic boss and staffed by an assortment of misfits gets a visit from a cost-cutter from head office. In An Crisis, the office is ACT, a below-the-radar government quango with an ill-defined brief that has something to do with the promotion of the Irish language. There’s a national economic crisis and cuts have to be made everywhere, but ACT’s boss, Setanta de Paor (Risteárd Cooper in hilarious form), is confident that because his organisation involves the Irish language, it’s untouchable. (Could TG4 possibly be having a knowing laugh at itself?)

“We’re in great shape, lads,” he reassures the staff before the arrival of sharp-suited axe-wielder Caoimhe (Kate Nic Chonaonaigh) who has already been praised by the minister for her damning report on the Honey Bee Board. “Don’t worry, sure we’ll just do a couple of reports,” says Emer (Norma Sheahan) who for a reason not explained, but daft all the same, brings her baby to work. “It kept us going in my last job for years and years.”

Donncha Crowley captures the stereotype of the jobsworth public servant in Muiris, a grumpy lifer in a bad jumper who sits in the park drinking tea from a flask rather than go into the office a minute early and who spends his days doing crosswords.

There’s no padding in Antoine O Flatharta’s sharp script which has touches of the surreal cutting through the comedy (a parrot who can recite Cré na Cille), and Charlie McCarthy’s experienced direction keeps the pace slick and the jokes nicely underplayed. To prove how proactive he’s been, Setanta organises a viewing of an ACT-funded project, a painfully arty and – surprising for an Irish language agency – entirely silent film. “Don’t let on you’re my nephew,” he whispers to the pretentious young director, but of course he does.

A NEW SERIES, The Big Story,kicked off yesterday with veteran foreign correspondent Conor O’Clery, for decades the Irish Timesman in a long list of hot spots. The idea is for prominent journalists to talk about what they consider to be the biggest story of their career. For O’Clery, as became obvious looking at the reels of archive footage, there was an impressive choice from his Bishop Eamonn Casey and Annie Murphy scoop (“it’s a great feeling to have what nobody else has,” he said, describing the thrill of breaking a story) to his time as one of the first western journalists in the 1980s covering Afghanistan. But the one he picked was 9/11, when he found himself the right man in the right place in his New York apartment with a view of the Twin Towers as the attack happened.

It was an intimate film, shot in his Dublin home where he talked in a coolly direct yet reflective way; he said his first instinct on that day (“I’m no good to anybody if I can’t report the story”) was to call RTÉ radio. Anyone who heard his reports all that day and the following one will remember them for their clarity, but also because while every other voice coming out of New York seemed full of emotion and terror, O’Clery’s was calm, detached even.

Not for the first time in his career he said he was “aware that he should be feeling more than he was feeling”, but getting the story out, as it has been throughout his entire working life, was paramount.

PROPELLED BY the hype – giant posters around the city, full page ads and the knowledge that, at around $200 million (€150m), it’s the most expensive TV mini-series ever made – I signed up for Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks’s The Pacificon Monday night. This column usually avoids expensive cable channels because not everyone has or wants them (and screening a TV series on a pricey movie channel is – and this is the least cynical way to put it – most unusual) but as HBO’s The Pacificcame with such heavyweight Hollywood artillery, it was a must-see. It meant taking on Sky Movies for a month, the shortest subscription – “but it’s a 10-part series, would you not sign up for the lot, what if you like it?” said the woman with the lovely Scottish accent in the Sky call centre who seemed astonished by my frugality.

A companion piece to Band of Brothers, the previous Hanks/Spielberg TV collaboration, it shifts the action to the other theatre of war at the time, the Pacific, where in the wake of Pearl Harbour American forces battled to contain the Japanese threat. The series is based on the documented experiences of three young marines: Robert Leckie (played by James Badge Dale), Eugene Sledge (Joseph Mazzello) and John Basilone (Jon Seda).

Just like the marines, we’re pitched straight into battle in Guadalcanal where the threat from the “Japs” is ever present and the relentless and superbly filmed battle scenes are drenched in blood and underpinned by terror. Think of the visceral violence of the beach scene in Saving Private Ryan– but this time in the damp heat of the jungle where the marines are badly equipped and starving because of lack of supplies. Band of Brothers sometimes seemed sepia-washed, but Spielberg’s colours in The Pacificare vivid, the camera close to the young faces of the marines who hadn’t yet taken on a war-earned swagger. The message – and there’s no escaping that this is a message series – is that war isn’t just hell, it’s chaotic, and injuries are as likely be mental as physical.

In Guadalcanal the marines rarely know where they, or the enemy, are and their ever-diminishing division is constantly redirected by their superior to other battle-lines in the jungle. It’s this sense of chaos and confusion and the sheer pace and noise that made the first two episodes (shown back-to-back on Monday) challenging to watch. Also it was difficult to know who’s who (is that good-looking marine in khaki and covered in mud Basilone, or is that other really similar-looking guy him?); in any series, no matter how big budget, it’s the characters that provide the dramatic hook to make you want to watch the next episode.

RTÉ, which picked up Band of Brothers, was outbid for The Pacific, although what’s the betting it will be the box set number one for Christmas – and maybe that’s the way watch it, like one very long powerful movie and not a series of episodes.

Mad about the boys: Advertising drama takes a break and leaves us hungry for more

A whole world of era-defining style disappeared this week with the end of season three of 1960s advertising drama Mad Men. In a single episode, the writers tied together the entire series, made fans hungry for season four and creatively compensated for what has been a patchy season – nowhere near as consistently brilliant as seasons one and two.

The best scene? Take your pick. For me it was when Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) finally snipped the needy strings that bound her in the dysfunctional relationship with Don (Jon Hamm). Leaving Sterling Cooper to form a new agency, Don needs copywriter Peggy but she turns him down. “I don’t want to make a career out of being there so you can kick me when you fail,” says a newly confident Peggy, summing up their relationship. She later relents when he turns on his famous Don charm, but we’re left in no doubt the ground rules have shifted.

And the fabulous Joan (Christina Hendricks) is back at Roger’s request, just about guaranteeing the success of season four. In the final scene she’s wearing trousers to work: it’s that sort of tiny detail that gives a window to a whole set of cultural rules and changing mores evolving in the 1960s – and what Mad Men is so good at.