Television: Gyllenhaal dips her toe in television; Norah Casey puts a foot in the grave

Maggie Gyllenhaal is terrific in ‘The Honourable Woman’ while ‘Way to Go’ looks at death in a roundabout way

Sat, Jul 5, 2014, 01:00

But before we get to these fascinating women, there are lengthy detours to a medieval history lesson, archive pictures from a wake, funeral directors washing their hearses, and a stonemason carving letters into a gravestone. A central premise of the programme, presented by Norah Casey (her husband Richard Hannaford died in 2011 from cancer), is that Irish people are great talking around death, in a “did you see who died” sort of way, but not good on a personal level when it comes to talking about dying. Unfortunately the film does just that: it spends too much time faffing around in history and graveyards when the more interesting story is in what the contributors have to say about dying, and what the health professionals can reveal about end-of-life care.

Way to Go is disappointing on a production level. The intrusive, bland music, random shots for atmosphere, and talking-head turns from George Hook, Marian Finucane and Gabriel Byrne to add a big-name gloss it doesn’t need, make the programme feel at times like a corporate video. And it is made in association with the Irish Hospice Foundation. Assisted suicide, for example, as a “way to go” option is not explored, while much time is given to a hospice in west Dublin that at the time of filming was not in full service due to lack of HSE funding. At other times, when talking to contributors living with death, this is powerful and enlightening television.

The period drama The Paradise (UTV) portrayed working in a Victorian shop as a couple of frills short of being glamorous. But as Dr Pamela Cox, in the second part of her social history documentary series Shopgirls: The True Story of Life Behind the Counter (BBC Two, Wednesday), points out, at the start of the 1900s, shopgirls were live-in servants, with horrendous working conditions and few rights. By mid-century, though, their status improved in the newly emerging, more egalitarian department stores such as Marks & Spencer and John Lewis.

The series is full of fascinating nuggets such as the story of suffragette shopgirl Gladys Evans, who in 1912 followed prime minister Asquith to Dublin where she set fire to the Theatre Royal to prevent him speaking; her friend, meanwhile, took a (poor) shot at John Redmond’s car. With every brilliantly researched and delivered scene, Cox makes you wonder how shopgirls became a pejorative term.

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