Simon Delaney’s the king of the castles, but Enda Kenny’s got God on his side

The Taoiseach keeps it all very serious while chatting to Gaybo about religion – until the last five minutes, when he lights up. In his new series about Irish castles, Simon Delaney keeps it all jokey and blokey

History in picture-postcard bites: Simon Delaney in Tales of Irish Castles

History in picture-postcard bites: Simon Delaney in Tales of Irish Castles

Sat, Jun 28, 2014, 01:00

Memo to those who feel like complaining that in The Meaning of Life (RTÉ One, Sunday) Gay Byrne doesn’t come over all Paxman and skewer the Taoiseach with political questions: it’s a religious programme. In the station’s God slot. That’s what it’s about. But because hot political and social controversies, as well as entire election campaigns, can come and go without Enda Kenny giving a TV interview, it’s easy to see why this outing with Byrne will come in for more attention than Sunday night’s holy show usually gets.

So to sum up: the Taoiseach’s God isn’t the man up in the clouds with a white beard. It’s “an energy”, “a force”, “moving through space and time”. (He sounds surprisingly New Agey, trippy even, which jars a little with his conservative look and boyish haircut. Seriously, though: he’s 63. How is his hair still strawberry blond? Yes, this is an interview where your mind wanders.)

He’s not a fan of the institutional church, but he goes to Mass. Byrne presses him on this contradiction, and Kenny’s answer concentrates on the community and spiritual aspect. We learn that he loves his wife, doesn’t regret his landmark anti-Vatican Cloyne report speech in the Dáil (or ditching Lucinda Creighton), doesn’t care about criticism.

Throughout the interview Kenny appears anything but cheery, with his earnest eyes and chin-quivering expression – a look that makes you worry he might burst into tears at any moment – so that when Byrne suggests that he is happy all the time, an optimist, it seems like a jab from a slightly distracted interviewer.

The telltale sign that the Taoiseach is someone who simply hates being interviewed comes at the end. With just minutes to go Kenny smiles and jokes – the question is about his Sunday cycles and what he’d say at the Pearly Gates – and he’s transformed. His face lights up, making for a much more attractive, even charismatic interview proposition.

It isn’t the most engaging hour. It’s tough sticking it out until the end – while cursing the camera operators for focusing in so tightly on the two men that there’s little chance to let your eyes wander over the room, other than to note the pair of fancy (ostentatiously empty) cut-glass decanters on the sideboard. You come away from The Meaning of Life seeing Kenny as a serious man who can speak about his beliefs for an hour in a way that leaves you convinced he’s passionate about them. But you still can’t quite pin down what those beliefs are. He’s a public man you don’t actually know at all – like his interviewer, really.

“History is not my thing,” says the actor Simon Delaney, introducing Tales of Irish Castles (TV3, Sunday) and setting the tone for the six-part series. “All our castles were built by the same bunch, the Anglo-Normans,” he tells us, after they saw off the Vikings, “those big fellas from Scandinavia”. So it’s a jokey, I’m-an-ordinary- bloke-like-yisserselves approach to history. Easy-going and upbeat, Delaney travels around the country visiting the stone-built legacies, and having the chat with historians about keeps and fortifications.

This is history delivered in picture-postcard bites rather than in an honours Leaving Cert essay. And it’s on at teatime – an unusual slot for a new TV3 series – as if to stress that it’s supposed to be as enjoyable as it is educational, something for all the family. And for that, it works. You’ll definitely learn more about our history, and Delaney is easy company.

The tricky thing, though, for makers of modestly budgeted history programmes – especially medieval or Viking-themed ones – is that, these days, big-bucks TV dramas own that period. So unless you’ve a Game of Thrones budget, it’s best to steer clear of any re-enactments or re-creations. The medieval scenes in Tales of Irish Castles, made with ancient computer graphics, drag it to a place of corniness where even Delaney’s cheesy jokes couldn’t bring it.

Orange Is the New Black, on Netflix, is hoovering up the publicity and kudos – and the second series is slick and smart, a glossy US-made drama with brilliant characters but with increasingly soapy story lines and without the edge of series one. Another women’s-prison drama, the Australian-made Wentworth Prison (TV3, Monday), which starts this week, is also worth a look.

It’s a remake of the grandmother of all women’s-prison dramas, Prisoner: Cell Block H, which was infamous in the 1980s for its shaky sets, snarly violence, woeful script and shouty acting. Wentworth Prison is much slicker. Set in a maximum-security women’s prison, the story centres on Bea Smith (Danielle Cormack), a middle-class woman jailed for murdering her abusive husband.

It’s gritty stuff. The sharply drawn characters, including the warders, are well drawn, three-dimensional and superbly played by some of Australia’s finest actors. It’s darker than series two of Orange Is the New Black (which lays on the comedy) but with the same sense of strong female ensemble acting. And it’s unexpectedly underplayed, with episode one ending on a tightly plotted cliffhanger: a smart buy-in by TV3.

Drama of the week goes to the terrifyingly convincing Murdered By My Boyfriend (BBC Three, Monday). It’s a pity it’s screened on the little-watched youth-oriented station: a BBC One airing would give it the exposure it deserves. But the choice of channel is because it deals with domestic violence, and, in the UK, women aged 16 to 24 are most at risk. The one-off drama – top writing from Regina Moriarty – is a fictionalised account of a true story; the names have been changed at the request of the dead woman’s relatives. It follows the four years from when pretty, trusting 17-year-old Ashley (Georgina Campbell) meets and falls in love with Reece (Royce Pierreson) to when he murders her.

Her grisly end is known from the start, so it’s all about showing how the physical and psychological abuse escalates, and how he controlled every aspect of her life – texting her all the time, demanding she took selfies to prove where she was. Murdered By My Boyfriend blows apart many myths about domestic violence. Ashley goes out with her mates, has a job, seems to the world outside her front door to be confident and happy. They are both young and good-looking, living ordinary lives.

It is a compelling and convincing drama, although the denouement, even when you know it is coming, is horrible to watch – all the more so knowing it is the dramatisation of a real murder of a young woman in her own bed. The boyfriend, the end credits read, is serving a life sentence.

tvreview@irishtimes.com

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