Television: In a flap about flippers? Take a leaf from Maureen Gaffney’s book
The psychologist’s self-help series is as sincere as teaching extras from ‘Flipper’ to talk is barmy
The girl who spoke to dolphins: Margaret Howe at the house in the Virgin Islands in 1964. Photograph: John Lilly Estate/BBC
The most sensational thing to happen on TV this week – it made the front page of six newspapers – is that Eamon Dunphy used the F-word twice before realising he was on air during a punditry session on 2014 Fifa World Cup (RTÉ Two, Tuesday). So it’s a slow week for television, or maybe for the World Cup – I’m mostly not watching, although it’s hard to avoid – if Dunphy’s swearing and, on the BBC, Phil Neville’s boring commentary style and Thierry Henry’s cardigan are making the news.
Before I tune into How to Be Happy (RTÉ One, Monday), I can’t help thinking that the summer scheduling of the psychologist Maureen Gaffney’s two-part series is a little unfortunate. Deepest, darkest November would seem more appropriate. But it’s a smart, well-considered and competently delivered concept. The first programme is framed in a lecture style, with Gaffney, a brilliant communicator, talking to her audience. This is interspersed with personal experiences from contributors – let’s face it, talking about being unhappy, on telly: that’s brave – and expert opinion from US psychologists, who all have eerily soothing, talk-you-down-from-a-ledge voices.
How to Be Happy is pitched firmly in the self-help category, without the mawkish preaching but with the same sense of bossy empowerment. And a head-sorting series is a welcome alternative to the fatty glut of programmes dealing with weight loss. “It pays to take happiness seriously,” says Gaffney, because there’s scientific evidence that happy people live longer, healthier lives. The secret to happiness isn’t about how rich or good looking you are: it’s mathematical. To be happy you need three positives for every negative in your life. To figure out how many positives you have, count the simple things you can be grateful for. Or, as was sometimes said in simpler times, count your blessings.
Building a happy marriage is trickier. The secret is a ratio of five positives to one negative, but Gaffney’s no-nonsense style makes it all seem blindingly obvious and attainable. The participants in the lecture hall go off with happiness-inspiring homework. They must each week write down three positives in their life, meditate – “it’s not just for hippies,” says Gaffney – and practise random acts of kindness. Easy so.
There was a classic moment in the 1970s BBC show That’s Life, fronted by Esther Rantzen, that involved a dog that could “say” sausages – simpler times indeed. You had to buy into the show’s exuberant daftness to hear the mutt say it instead of regular breathy barking. It was huge at the time. I think of that while watching the superb documentary The Girl Who Talked to Dolphins (BBC Four, Tuesday).
In the early 1960s a respected American scientist, John Lilly, has the idea that he can get dolphins to talk, as they’re great mimics and have bigger brains than humans. The space programme is in full swing, and someone decides that if Lilly can get dolphins to speak English it will be handy when we need to communicate with extraterrestrials. So, with Nasa funding, he builds a house on the Virgin Islands with a ground-floor pool and sets about teaching three limelight-friendly dolphins – they have been extras in Flipper – to speak.
Things quickly turn countercultural when a young assistant, Margaret Howe, decides to flood the upper levels of the house so that Peter the dolphin can come up and live with her while she teaches him.
The archive footage shows how deeply earnest but barmy it all is. He’s a frisky young male, so she keeps sending him downstairs to the pool in a lift, so he can mate with the female dolphins. But that becomes a bit of a chore, so, as the voiceover delicately puts it, she decides “to relieve his desires manually”. “It was very precious, it was very gentle,” says Howe, now an elderly woman. “It was sexual on his part, not on mine; sensual, perhaps.”
The porn magazine Hustler reports on their unusual relationship, but Howe still can’t understand the fuss, and by then Lilly has discovered LSD. He gives it to the dolphins, but that doesn’t make them chat, either. He appears on TV shows wild-eyed, wearing a racoon hat. The credibility of the hypothesis is shot, and in 1966 the project ends.
This fascinating film, with its breezy 1960s soundtrack, interviews with some of the people involved and archive footage, captures a trippy, optimistic slice of the era when Lilly’s quasiscientific project was brought down not by sex but by drugs. And the dolphins never learn to speak.
Bóthar go dtí an White House (TG4, Tuesday) explores how straight-off-the- boat Irish immigrants helped shape American politics. It opens with Richard Croker, who in the late 19th century ran Tammany Hall, which means the Cork man effectively ran New York – and was one of the richest men in the state. Known as the master of Manhattan, he was skilled at managing votes, at helping newly arrived Irish emigrants, and at all kinds of money-earning corruption.
TG4 is good at these historical documentaries, which condense complex stories into digestible narratives. Croker’s story is not as well known as some of the others in this series, but, with its low-key dramatic re-enactments, the documentary brings Croker’s story vividly to life.
The Auction House (Channel 4, Tuesday) is yet another behind-the-scenes series – they’re the new cooking shows. This one is a three-parter filmed in London in the aptly named Lots auction rooms. As a concept, fly-on-the-wall series work best when there’s something mysterious about the industry they’re exploring, but auction houses are fairly straightforward: they sell old stuff. And the shows need a big character that you love or hate.
The grumpy boss at Lots Road Auctions thinks he’s hateful. “I’m dictatorial, I’m offensive to a lot of people,” he says, sounding as if he’s trying too hard to be a baddie for the camera. Lots is in Chelsea, so the clientele is very posh, and there’s a small fascination in seeing gaudy, expensive tat – a life-size gorilla, a lip-shaped red-leather sofa – that sits alongside the “brown furniture” that the boss reckons has had its day.
Customers include Michael and Craig, an eccentric couple who live surrounded by auction-bought antique clutter and are flogging a pair of china rabbits so that gummy Craig can get new teeth, and Lili and Sam, willowy blondes who are furnishing Lili’s new mansion and are drawn to a giant gold sculpture of a vagina. These diverting, cameo performances are a contrast to the dull, everyday business of Lots, and they just about make The Auction House worth following, though three episodes seems a high price to pay.