No show like a Mo show


TV REVIEW: The Saturday Night ShowRTÉ1, Saturday; MoChannel 4, Sunday; Dispatches: AfghanistanBehind Enemy LinesChannel 4, Monday; HorizonBBC 1, Wednesday

IT’S NEVER a good sign when a chat show host can’t get a word in edgeways for the first 10 minutes of his first interview. And as these things are planned to within an inch of an autocue, it hints that maybe the producer of RTÉ’s new Saturday night chat show was more than a little nervous about the host, Brendan O’Connor. His established TV persona is that of a snarling, superior grump, so giving him a stand-up routine to open The Saturday Night Showwas an odd decision. Of course US chat show gods Letterman and Leno do it – hilariously – but that doesn’t mean everyone has to.

O’Connor stood in his three-piece pin-striped suit like a well-upholstered banker, reciting jokes that were as old and limp as last week’s lettuce. Talented mimic Oliver Callen – he has a slot on Gerry Ryan’s radio show – was the first guest and he can take off some our political luminaries to the last inflection. The trouble is, he hadn’t the material to sustain his seemingly endless monologue. A mimic without a good script is brilliant for the two seconds it takes you to register that he can do the voice, and then it all becomes tedious.

The other guests were Peaches Geldof, famous for being Bob’s daughter, followed by solid-gold veteran troupers Linda Martin and Twink, and then the plain one from the Corrs, brother Jim who has developed a wonderfully odd line in global conspiracy theories.

It’s really difficult to get a handle on what demographics this show is chasing and why O’Connor seems so reluctant to actually engage with his guests. Twink did a better interview with Jim Corr than O’Connor did.Though really, raking over the guest list and remarking that “goodness, doesn’t Linda Martin look amazing?” is all beside the point. The real question is, why? It must be carved somewhere in stone out in Montrose that RTÉ has to have a Saturday night chat show. Why else would they persist? Friday night’s Late Late Showline-up is often dreary proof that there aren’t that many even moderately famous people passing through Dublin of a weekend who are willing to be interviewed, and when it comes to local talent, there’s only so much of that to go around. So any Saturday chat and entertainment show, unless it’s got a creative new format – and O’Connor’s one felt old on its first night – is always going to be the poor relation. And what is the point of picking a presenter known for shooting from the hip if you won’t let him aim at something?

The plush-looking set is nice, though.

MO MOWLAM was known for her plain speaking. She called Tony Blair and Bill Clinton “babe”, took off her wig in the middle of tense political meetings and had a good scratch, cursed like a navvy, liked a drink and never bought into the petty protocols that surrounds high office. One thing she didn’t speak about – and certainly not to Blair, her boss – was her terminal brain tumour which was already diagnosed when she was appointed secretary of state for Northern Ireland after the 1997 election.

She died only five years ago and she was such a well-known, instantly recognisable politician that part of the fascination in tuning into Mo, the two-hour biopic about her, was how Julie Walters was going to pull it off. She doesn’t look like her, is smaller and has a different voice but, in what is bound to become an award-winning performance, Walters somehow became Mo Mowlam. Actual footage from the streets of Northern Ireland were cut into the drama, some of the discussions leading up to the Good Friday Agreement were re-enacted, but the politics were almost the background (a good thing too as they were a little sketchy – the Irish government’s role, for example, got barely got a mention) though politics did provide some of the few comic moments in this affecting drama. John Lynch and Eoin McCarthy played Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness as a suspicious, monosyllabic double act, while Adrian Dunbar created a po-faced Trimble, having the vapours at Mowlam’s vulgarity. The “shinners”, as she called them, were constantly power-playing with Bill Clinton, while Trimble preferred plotting with Peter Mandelson (“silly old queen”) played by Steven Mackintosh.

It was above all a story about a woman’s battle with incurable cancer and her relationship with her beloved husband Jon (David Haig). In a devastating scene towards the end, Mowlam, now ousted from Cabinet and visibly much sicker, is visited by her doctor who tells her that her tumour, located in the part of the brain that controls personality, could have been growing there for decades. “‘Good old Mo’,” pleaded Mo, much reduced and vulnerable in her nightie, “‘larger than life Mo’. It could all be because of the tumour. Which part of me is real and which part the tumour?” Unsurprisingly, Mo achieved the highest audience for a Channel 4 drama in more than eight years.

IN THE CHILLING first scene in the documentary of the week, Dispatches: Afghanistan – Behind Enemy Lines, four extremist Islamic fighters are sitting in a circle on the floor of a grubby building, busy with sticky tape and wire, all fingers and thumbs and with confused instructions for assembling a roadside bomb. “We can destroy a big American tank with a $50 bomb,” said one, and there was much talk of “driving out the infidels”.

This one didn’t work. Later, at the side of the road from Tajikista, the scene was as spine-chilling as the mist that obscured the bombers’ vision of their moving target, a coalition forces supply vehicle. The raggle-taggle group of fighters were philosophical about their failure.

“Jihad has become the duty for all the Afghan nation because the foreigners and unbeliever countries have attacked us,” said their leader in the bleak province in North Afghanistan. They’d try again another day. “Today or tomorrow we’ll be martyrs,” said one young fighter in such a matter-of-fact way that you were left in no doubt that plans to buy off the insurgents in Afghanistan is a flight of western fancy.

Backed by support from the locals, who pay their taxes not to the fragile new government but to the insurgents, the film showed how local Taliban-backed forces in North Afghanistan are growing and how the barren land is destined to become the new warzone. Fighters come from Islamic countries as far away as Chechnya to help, and the UN-funded hospital and school are now in the control of the insurgents. The quiet, observational-style documentary was made by award-winning Afghan journalist Najibullah Quraishi who embedded himself with the insurgents for two weeks until they became suspicious of his motives.

“Hey, Mr journalist,” one taunted. “If we give you a gun, will you fight with us?”

“My gun,” said Quraishi in a calm voice that must have hidden some fear, “is my camera.” For his safety, the commander bundled him into a van and instructed him to leave. Quraishi did, but came back to film scenes in the morgue of dead Afghan policemen – proof that the roadside bombs did eventually hit one of their targets.

Forever young: The race is on to slow down the ageing process

Wednesday night at 9pm and the choice was between a Horizondocumentary on BBC 1 about ageing and Channel 4's Embarrassing Bodies. The latter is a new run of the series where a team of photogenic doctors - including the wonderfully unshockable Irish doctor Pixie McKenna - treat various illnesses, though it's a mystery how someone can be so mortified about some condition or another that they won't go to their own doctor, yet is prepared to drop their pants when a TV camera is turned on. Advance publicity revealed that the non-shock docs would be dealing with a bent penis; as that is not something I might develop anytime soon, I opted for Horizon because it feels as if the ravages of time have begun to, well, ravage. The process of ageing is a major scientific frontier with unimagined riches available to the lab that develops the first pill to slow down our body clock. Two scientists showed why the multi-million antioxidant industry is bunkum - all those expensive creams and blueberries are nothing more than pricey comfort blankets. Another scientist researched 100 centenarians to try to find the secret to their long lives. Thirty per cent smoked for over 40 years, there wasn't a single vegetarian in the group and just one athlete. The common denominator was good genes ("it's 80 per cent genes, 20 per cent environment," said the scientist), a strong personality and a lack on interest in personal health. "If you view yourself as someone who is going to fall apart," said no-nonsense scientist Dr Ellen Langer, "You're going to fall apart."