Radio review: No escape from the jaws of the past as a grim year ends
Jim Lockhart hosts a grim chart countdown of the great musicians who died in 2016
George Michael in 2012 – remembered in Final Partings (RTÉ Radio 1, Friday) Photograph: David Wolff, Getty Images
With 2017 upon us, the natural impulse should be to look ahead, particularly after the kidney stone of a year just gone. But this isn’t as straightforward as it seems with so much radio fixing its gaze backwards during the holiday week. In Final Partings (RTÉ Radio 1, Friday), this focus is unavoidable as presenter Jim Lockhart hosts his annual look back at the lives of musical stars who passed away during the previous 12 months, a period to which the word “carnage” can be easily applied.
As Lockhart chats to his panel of guests, the discussion moves in rapid succession through the big names who died, from David Bowie and Prince to Leonard Cohen and George Michael, a late entrant to this unfortunate list. Meanwhile, a litany of other greats – George Martin, Merle Haggard, Louis Stewart – get even briefer coverage, underlining just what a grim year it has been for music. With so many people to fit into under an hour, it’s a wonder the producers didn’t heed Roy Scheider’s immortal advice in Jaws: “We’re going to need a bigger boat.”
Despite that, the informal mood and affectionate tone make Final Partings strangely enjoyable. There’s also the occasional gaffe, which one trusts isn’t a portent of things to come in our newly uncertain world. Panellist Eoin Sweeney starts to tell a story that he admits “could be apocalyptic”. It’s a mistake, of course: he means to say “apocryphal”. Let’s hope it’s just a slip of the tongue if he says it again this time next year.
Another long-departed musical act features in Ken Sweeney’s documentary In Search Of The Blue Nile (RTÉ Radio 1, Wednesday). Thankfully, while the Blue Nile split in 2008, the former members of the enigmatic Scottish electronic group are still alive, allowing Sweeney to interview singer Paul Buchanan and keyboard player PJ Moore in their native Glasgow.
A familiar fixture in student bedsit soundtracks of the 1980s, the Blue Nile enjoyed modest chart success but nonetheless remained something of a cult item. They certainly weren’t driven by chart success. Sweeney, an avid fan, hears how the band’s debut album was originally intended as a demonstration LP for a hi-fi company and discovers why it took five years for them to record a follow-up.
If the physical search for the band doesn’t seem to have been that arduous – the documentary opens with Sweeney chatting to Buchanan in a taxi – they still retain an elusive quality. Buchanan is reluctant to give too much away about his songs: “You’re just looking for a little truth” is the nearest thing to a revelatory statement. The reticence may be down the Blue Nile’s low-key career which was largely spent in the studio. At one point the group burned their studio tapes, an act that Sweeney suggests is unusual. “I’m sure bands have done far worse,” Buchanan replies drolly. Right enough, Led Zeppelin-esque tales of rock ‘n’ roll hedonism are in short supply.
But the documentary has other delights. Small details wonderfully evoke the pre-digital age of the 1980s: Buchanan recalls how they conducted their business from a payphone. And for all the group’s reticence and ingenuous idealism, there’s a nice laconic streak too. The reason for the group’s split, after 25 or so intense years, is wryly summed up by Moore: “How many people do you know who lived in a submarine together and then went home together?”
The Blue Nile may have run their course, but as long as there are devotees like Sweeney around, their shimmering music won’t be lost to history.
The past looms large in The Ties That Bind (RTÉ Radio 1, Tuesday-Friday), but there is little in the way of rose-tinted fondness in Brian O’Connell’s four-part survey of his native Co Clare. Instead, O’Connell takes a landmark academic study of the county, written in the 1930s by American anthropologists Conrad Arensberg and Solon Kimball, and uses it as the starting point in his investigation into how much Clare has changed since.
Quite a bit, is the unsurprising answer. The original study portrayed a tight-knit but extremely poor community where the personal freedoms we take for granted were at a premium, especially for women. After reading the account, O’Connell remarks, “you’d be hard pressed to be nostalgic”. Emigration, however, remains a common thread.
As he interviews farmers, shopkeepers, artists and schoolchildren, O’Connell contrasts their greater wealth and broader horizons with their ancestors. But when he hears how young women seeking prospective husbands are now less interested in how many acres they own than how many Facebook likes they have, O’Connell is ambivalent about the progress we’ve made. “Along with the freedoms we’ve gained, we’ve taken on a whole new set of pressures,” he comments. It may not be the most blindingly original insight, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true.
Using Arensberg and Solon’s volume as a comparison is an original idea but after a while the constant references to the study distract from the real strength of the series – the unvarnished vignettes of contemporary rural life drawn by O’Connell and his producer, Diarmuid McIntyre. Whether visiting a cattle mart or taking a local bus, O’Connell forms a connection with his interviewees and captures a sense of place. And there are moments when the uniqueness of the county come through, as when O’Connell sits in on a traditional music session. As the music floats over the air, we hear a common language, a tie that binds the past to the present and – hopefully – the future.
Radio Moment of the Week: Refugee nightmare
Part documentary, part drama, part soundscape, I Seek Refuge (RTÉ Radio 1, Wednesday) is hardly cheery seasonal fare, but this evocation of a young refugee’s attempt to escape her war-torn homeland is timely as well as quietly terrifying. Scripted by author Donal Ryan, the production is occasionally overegged – mawkish choral ballads detract from its moral core – but its central story combines mundanity, menace and tragedy with an emotional punch.