Television: An Irish mammy blasts stereotypes

In ‘50 Ways to Kill Your Mammy’ Mrs Ashmawy strides through the stunts. In ‘Addicts’ Symphony’ classical musicians grapple with unexpected problems

Unflappable: Nancy Ashmawy

Unflappable: Nancy Ashmawy

Sat, Aug 30, 2014, 01:00

Earlier this summer a researcher from a BBC radio programme contacted me to talk about Mrs Brown’s Boys. Many viewers in Britain, she said, thought Brendan O’Carroll’s creation was in fact a woman, an actual Irish mammy, and what did I think of that?

Silence is not what radio researchers want to hear, but it seemed so weird that I was stumped. Either it was a collective “should have gone to Specsavers” moment or the image of the Irish mammy has gone seriously awry. Nancy Ashmawy might change that. She’s the titular star of 50 Ways to Kill Your Mammy (Sky One, Monday), a new, unashamedly gimmicky and fun action-cum-travel series that sees her son Baz take her on a series of daredevil adventures around the world.

Banter comes easily to the watchable double act. And while her son is hyperactive and full-on, the Dublin woman, a retired nurse, is of the unflappable, inscrutable, “sure we’ll see, it’ll be grand” school of Irish mammying. She turned 71 during the first episode, which was shot in Las Vegas and Los Angeles – so this isn’t a cheap show.

He bigs up her fears, repeatedly, for the camera. She is, he says, terrified of driving, so he brings her for a stunt-driving lesson in LA. Does she back out, plead with her son – it might have been more dramatic – but, no, she’s on for it, “as long as I can reach the pedals”.

After a skydive in Las Vegas he runs to her as she hits the ground. He’s terrified and weeping that maybe he’s gone too far, that it was too dangerous. But she says she’s “grand, grand” and that maybe the cheese sandwich before the jump wasn’t a great idea.

There’s one very strange sequence, at a shooting range in the desert, in which she has to fire a stun gun at Baz. He falls like ninepins. It’s horrible to look at. She doesn’t look too bothered; maybe it’s payback for his wild teenage years. And once she puts down her voluminous handbag, the sight of her shooting off rounds from a huge rifle is hilarious. “Feck it,” says Nancy, unfazed by new experiences in the way only septuagenarians can be, “feel the fear and do it anyway.”

After the “Mrs Brown as a real woman” affair, the opening sequence of Who Do You Think You Are? (BBC One, Thursday) is a relief. Brendan O’Carroll is this week’s subject for family-tree inspection, and we see him, in his golf-inspired man civvies, walking backstage ahead of a performance. He goes into his dressing room as a man and comes out as, ahem, a woman. So that’s clear, then.

Usually, in this phenomenally successful series, there’s the sense that the celebrities have signed up for whatever the programme brings, no matter how far down into the dirty-laundry basket the researchers need to go for a good yarn. But O’Carroll is in control. He has a clear agenda; it’s his show. He wants to solve a family mystery: no more, no less.

His grandfather Peter O’Carroll was shot dead in his shop in Stoneybatter in 1920; the family lore is that he was killed by the Black and Tans. But who murdered him, O’Carroll wants to know, and why?

Several experts later – and sundry strolls around Dublin, with O’Carroll shaking more hands with random members of the public than Bertie Ahern on the campaign trail – he discovers the truth. His grandfather was assassinated by a British counterintelligence spy, named Hardy, because he wouldn’t give up his two sons who were in the IRA. The story is dramatic, but the small slice of Irish and British history is perhaps too niche for a wide audience.

In the opening credits of Addicts’ Symphony (Channel 4, Wednesday), as the camera moves over the musicians playing Beethoven, the words alcoholic, heroin, ketamine, crack and cocaine addict drift on screen over their faces.

It’s an arresting, stereotype-confounding image; rock stars with addictions? Two a penny. But classical musicians? Surely their rarified world is far removed from unbranded vodka and crack pipes. So that’s one perception of addiction (more will follow) that the composer, musician and recovering alcoholic James McConnell turns on its head with his ambitious experiment.

He gathers 10 addicts, all now sober, “really nice people who have f***ed up their lives”, to test the redemptive power of playing music. Over two months they must compose a piece and play it with the London Symphony Orchestra. Many say they were driven to addiction by performance anxiety or fear of failure. Some have been sober for years, some for only a few months, so there’s always a sense that it all might prove too much.

McConnell’s motivation is personal. His own son Freddie, a promising musician, died at 18 of a heroin overdose, and, but for that one “dodgy dose of heroin”, McConnell believes he would eventually have come through his addiction, helped by music. He visits some of Addicts’ Symphony’s musicians at home, their grade-eight certificates proudly on the walls, testaments to childhoods of piano lessons and cello practice – a world away from their honest descriptions of their years of addiction.

We’ve seen these documentaries before. Take an unlikely group of people, teach them how to be ballerinas, gymnasts or brain surgeons – I’ve made that last one up, but it’s only a matter of time – and by the end of the hour they’re performing for their weeping-with-pride friends and family, transformed forever. From the start, Addicts’ Symphony (made by an Irish production company, Big Mountain) doesn’t offer such certainty: it’s not clear until the end whether McConnell can pull it off.

During the rehearsals there’s a fearful nervousness in the air, sometimes a belligerent resistance – and that why it’s compelling viewing. Two musicians leave; Viv says the music is too simple, Catherine hates the group sessions and “all that constantly talking about recovery”. The eight who remain pull it together and play their composition. It feels like something of a victory; certainly an octet of personal triumphs.

And there’s something downbeat and honest about it. Midway through the project, Marco, a violinist who was once a teen prodigy but who put down his instrument for 30 years as alcohol took over his life and who now struggles with sobriety, warns against seeing Addicts’ Symphony in some fluffy, happy-clappy way. “Look at the statistics about addicts. Chances are two of us are going to die from this.” A sobering thought.

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