Television: A three hanky job in John Hinde country

A programme about the decline of traditional craft, ‘In Good Hands’, was poignant, a comedy about suffragettes was funny, but the childcare exposé ‘Breach of Trust’ was plain shocking

Touch of melancholy: David and Sally Shaw-Smith, from In Good Hands

Touch of melancholy: David and Sally Shaw-Smith, from In Good Hands

Sat, Jun 1, 2013, 01:00

There was always a touch of melancholy about Hands, David and Sally Shaw-Smith’s award-winning documentary series about the decline of traditional crafts, but the first episode of In Good Hands (RTÉ One, Friday) was close to being a proper three-hanky job. For the new series Shaw-Smith is revisiting six sets of craftworkers he first filmed more than 30 years ago. Even then, he remarked that their skills were slowing dying out.

In Ardara, in Co Donegal, he went in search of the MacNeilises, three bachelor brothers from stunning-looking John Hinde country, and documented their hard-working way of life and superb skills. Back then two of the brothers were weavers who supplied Magees of Donegal from a shed next to their cottage while a third kept house. Only one brother remains – and is living elsewhere – the cottage is broken down and the weaving shed, like Miss Havisham’s house, has become a cobweb-covered still-life, eerily frozen in time, with the remnant of a bale of tweed still on a loom.

The desolate scene was intercut to great effect with scenes from the original Hands programme, which were full of life. For the few handweavers who remain in the area, work is uncertain. Demand is down, and power looms have taken over. As Eddie Doherty, a weaver, remarked, where once there was a loom in every house, young people in the town nowadays wouldn’t even know what a loom was. The look back included a peek through the evocative black-and-white photographs in Shaw-Smith’s family album, which showed a gorgeous, cool-looking couple touring the country with their three young children in a green Volkswagen camper van. More reminders that it’s not just craft skills but lifetimes that pass quickly.

Even before it was broadcast, Prime Time’s A Breach of Trust (RTÉ One, Tuesday) was the programme of the week. For days before the broadcast the investigative programme into the mistreatment of children and breaches of standards at childcare facilities had already prompted media commentary and a public outcry.

The programme was a resounding return to form for the broadcaster’s investigative unit – and evidence of what a well-funded, thorough programme can do. The shocking images of mistreatment – take your pick, there were so many of them – were hard to take. The drop-off to the creche – any creche – on Wednesday must have been fraught with anxiety, suspicion and white-hot anger at yet another example of the dangers of light Government regulation. The national conversation in recent weeks has been clogged with circular, shrill debates about protecting the unborn, but this programme was a stomach-churning example of how careless the Government can be when children are already out in the world.

Even so, there was balance. The Prime Time people made clear that during filming they saw many examples of good care and that the problems were not necessarily to do with individuals but to do with a lack of training, poor management and a regulatory system that seems to have been put in place for show rather than for sanction. By showing the ineffectiveness of HSE inspections in the sector, it made it clear that parents have little in the way of official protection in the face of widespread bad practice – and that it doesn’t matter how modern the building is or how cute the furniture.

The dispassionate tone of Oonagh Smyth, the presenter, as she delivered the facts – though, puzzlingly, there was no naming and shaming of the creche proprietors – was perfectly countered by the worried, caring voices of the undercover reporters who did their investigative jobs so well.

The film was followed by a studio discussion hosted by Claire Byrne in which all the contributors, experts in psychology and childcare, were women. As someone who could bore for Ireland about the predominance of men on discussion panels, it seems churlish to complain about an all-female studio. But it sent out a message that childcare is a women’s concern. And it’s obviously not.

You wait for one suffragette programme to come along and then two arrive – and even though this is slightly difficult to imagine, one of them, Up the Women (BBC Four, Thursday), is a comedy. The setting is Banbury church hall in 1910, where Banbury Intricate Craft Circle hold their regular meetings. (There has been an outbreak of tapestry elbow and haberdashers’ knuckle.) One of the members, Margaret (Jessica Hynes, as hilarious here as in the BBC’s Twenty Twelve), has been to London, got caught up in a suffragette march and returned to the church hall determined to persuade her fellow needlewomen to rise up.

She meets firm opposition from Helen (Rebecca Front – it’s a top cast), who cautions the women against joining “the flat-fronted, bottom-heavy spinsters”.

Margaret gets some of the best lines. Sceptical about the new-fangled electricity in the church hall, she declares: “Where’s it all going to end? Electric hats? Electric shoes? Electric chairs?” and she comforts physics whizz Helen with: “I know it’s hard to accept. You read all those books for nothing.” It’s knowing and innocent at the same time – a great combination for a laugh.

There’s something of Dad’s Army about Up the Women – which, in comedy terms, is a very good thing indeed. And while it’s filmed in front of an audience, the producers don’t seem to have pumped laughing gas through the vents, so there are no machine-gun bursts of hysteria. A very promising comedy – and that’s a rare thing to be able to say.

Clare Balding’s Secrets of a Suffragette (Channel 4, Sunday) was made to mark the centenary of one of the defining moments in suffragette history, and it made for compelling viewing. Balding, who can do no wrong in TV land at the moment, had known from an early age about Emily Wilding Davison stopping the derby in 1903, because she’s from a horsey family and knows people who are still furious with that damn woman who wrecked a perfectly good horse race.

With a help of a team of forensic experts who remastered archive footage – astonishingly, there was newsreel footage of the event – she showed that the suffragette icon Wilding Davison wasn’t on a suicide mission when she stepped into the path of the king’s horse and was fatally injured. Instead, she was trying to tie a scarf in the suffragette colours on the animal.

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