Plenty of hot air on Hook but little fire

Sat, Oct 13, 2012, 01:00

WHEN IT COMES to courting controversy on radio, the ability to spew bile is an important component of the on-air provocateur’s arsenal. Listening to George Hook last week, however, one wondered whether his habitually dyspeptic disposition was now of the more literal variety.

On Wednesday’s The Right Hook (Newstalk, weekdays), the presenter’s spiel was regularly punctuated by breathy pauses that bore more than a passing resemblance to suppressed burps, giving the impression that he was suffering a particularly bad dose of indigestion.

Trapped wind or no, Hook seemed relatively subdued, but his guests ensured there was still plenty of gasbagging. Michael O’Keefe, a consultant ophthalmologist, was first up, speaking about the funding crisis in the health system. He was clearly well acquainted with the problems caused by financial shortfalls – hospitals were “down to the bone”, he said – but when it came to answers, he was more vague.

O’Keefe desired “root and branch” reform of the public hospital system, entailing more “productivity” and getting staff “back to work”, which sounded more like rhetorical soundbites than practical solutions. He made some salient points about wasteful use of hospital materials, but O’Keefe’s opinions chimed with the anti-public-service attitude that is often the default setting for radio discourse on the fiscal crisis.

Hook’s next guest, the financial adviser Eddie Hobbs, really let off steam. After indulging in wooden banter about Mattie McGrath TD mixing Playboy with Time magazine in a Dáil debate – it was, he said, a “fraudian slip” (sic), which may have been a Freudian slip of his own – Hobbs got stuck in. He fulminated against the effect constant prebudget speculation had on public confidence – a fair point, though his outraged description of putative tax measures as “robbing money off people” was telling.

Hobbs then turned his ire towards potential cuts to fee-paying schools. This, he suggested, was a tactical move by Labour, appealing to the “prejudices” of voters, but was “economic gibberish”. Hobbs reprised the frequently aired contention that parents were subsidising the State by relieving it of maintenance costs. The State, he said, would be saddled with these expenses if such colleges closed. While he rightly highlighted the sacrifices middle-income parents make to pay fees, framing this as altruism was a stretch. And he ignored the possibility that an argument could be made on grounds of universality – that the State should not support a sector that effectively elevates some children above others – rather than hard economics.

Hook largely ceded the field to his guests, lobbing softball questions rather than challenging their assertions.

Even faced with personal criticism, he sounded uncharacteristically resigned. When one text called him a “greedy grumpy right-wing mouthpiece”, he let it pass without comment. If Hook, in his normal grouchy mood, is prone to wearying rants, his more passive persona was less entertaining. With luck the fire in his belly hasn’t gone out yet.

There was more style than substance to Was Dracula Irish? (BBC Radio 4, Monday), a tenuously themed documentary presented by the novelist Patrick McCabe. He sought to find out if the fictional vampire’s roots lay not in Transylvania but in the Ireland of the early life of its author, Bram Stoker. But his evidence was pretty slim.

Speaking to academics, McCabe heard that Stoker might have heard an ancient Irish myth about an indestructible blood-sucking chieftain; that his fascination with the “undead” may have originated with mummified remains in the family crypt; and that Dracula’s need to lie in Transylvanian soil was a possible reference to the land issue in Ireland. All in all, hardly a convincing case.

By the end, the novelist’s gift for self-consciously heightened language was the main thing carrying the programme. “Sight nor sound could I find of an incisor-bearing monster fearful of garlic,” was one typically mannered flourish.

In conclusion, McCabe said Stoker had probably used many influences, including his Irish background, to create his “Victorian melodramatic trash-pulp epic”. For all the pleasures of McCabe’s exaggerated oratorical style, the documentary seemed like a long-winded way of stating the obvious.

McCabe’s pitch-black tales of small-town life came to mind when listening to Drama on One: The Bacon Slicer (RTÉ Radio, Sunday), Andrew Fox’s play about homicide, hypothetical and otherwise, in a rural community. When Declan (Donal O’Kelly) tells his old friend Brian (Owen Roe) about his wife’s infidelity with the titular supermarket employee, the pair ponder the possibility of lethal revenge. As Brian, a self-centred middle-aged man who lives with his doting mother (Eileen Colgan) – “42 years living together and she still can’t get it into her head that I don’t like mustard,” he laments – expresses growing interest in this plan, a fateful secret from the past emerges, leading to a darkly comic, if hardly unexpected, denouement. The play’s debt to McCabe and indeed Martin McDonagh was obvious.

The winning entrant of this year’s PJ O’Connor award for radio drama, the play came with a twist, being performed live in studio as part of Dublin Theatre Festival. Novel as this was, it was a sideshow to the play’s own virtues, notably Roe’s performance and Fox’s smart turns of phrase. Good radio, after all, requires more than hot air.

Radio moment of the week

Tales of woe are the stock in trade of Liveline (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays), but rarely are they as surreally compelling as the guitarist Brush Shiels’s account of his heart attack. He said that in a “dark night of the soul”, caused by a virus, he spent hours in an open field, nearly causing his heart to give out. His shaggy-dog retelling of his, ahem, brush with death – “the dampness got in me” was his idiosyncratic diagnosis – made for memorable radio.

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