Television: Meet the Walshes, the latest creation from the BBC-RTÉ mammy machine

Graham Linehan’s much-hyped new comedy gets off to a bad start, but Gabriel Byrne’s ‘Quirke’ redeems itself in the end

Modern family: Niall Gaffney, Philippa Dunne, Amy Stephenson, Rory Connolly and Shane Langan in ‘The Walshes’

Modern family: Niall Gaffney, Philippa Dunne, Amy Stephenson, Rory Connolly and Shane Langan in ‘The Walshes’

Sat, Mar 8, 2014, 01:00

Restaurant reviewers have a rule that they don’t barrel in, fork and sharp knife at the ready, on opening night – it’s only fair to let the place settle down first. So when considering a drama serial, should a TV critic weigh in on episode one or wait until it has finished, the storylines have been completed and the characters have developed?

I go for the first option, because it takes so long for anything to reach the screen that it’s reasonable to expect it to arrive fully formed – even more so when it’s accompanied by lashings of hype. Sometimes this means being prepared to swallow my words and backtrack later, which I hope to be able to do when The Walshes (RTÉ One, Thursday) finishes, later this month.

The three-part sitcom is directed and cowritten by Graham Linehan and the young Irish comedy troupe Diet of Worms, and produced by RTÉ and the BBC. The troupe also make up most of the cast. Looking at their previous work, I suspect it’s more their show than his.

And because Linehan, who also wrote Father Ted and The IT Crowd , is a comedy genius, you’re likely to have a Pavlovian response, getting your happy face on as the opening credits roll. For me, it stays there for most of the show without once breaking into a laugh.

The Walshe s is an old-fashioned domestic sitcom mixed with the over-the-top acting of a sketch show; it comes without a laughter track or a studio audience. (The latter has become popular because of Mrs Brown’s Boys .)

The show centres on a west Dublin family made up of Irish mammy Carmel (Philippa Dunne), a taxi-driving messer da (Niall Gaffney) and adult children Ciara (Amy Stephenson) and Rory (Rory Connolly). Ciara’s boyfriend is coming to meet the family. They think he’s a doctor (he’s not), so da drops his pants and shows him his piles and mammy goes overboard with dinner.

It makes you think about how Irish mothers are portrayed in BBC-RTÉ sitcoms. In Mrs Brown’s Boys it’s a man dressed as a foul-mouthed old woman; in The Walshes a very young woman with only a bad wig and a worse jumper to age her goes over the top with a culchie-mammy routine.

The final episode of Quirke (RTÉ One, Sunday), another three-part series, is excellent, a proper, tense crime drama in which Quirke (Gabriel Byrne) and his sidekick Insp Hackett (Stanley Townsend) get to the bottom of the grisly way young April Falls met her death. The episode is written by Conor McPherson, and unlike the first two episodes, in which the story dragged, the acting was patchy and the dialogue was clunky, this one is paced perfectly. The social mores of 1950s Ireland are carefully woven into the tense multistranded plot; grey old Dublin is nearly a character, contributing so much in its moody, beautifully shot way. And Quirke, the troubled Dublin pathologist and part-time sleuth, emerges as a truly complex and fascinating character, capable of carrying a much longer series of 1950s-set whodunnits.

In the interests of transparency I’ll declare myself an Irish-dancing mammy – the BBC-RTÉ mammy machine could do a spectacular number on that one – with a receipt for a hideous wig in my purse and a dread of the €1,000 solo dress (and that’s cheap). So I tune in to Jigs & Wigs (RTÉ One, Thursday) expecting the worst. Coverage of Irish dancing tends to be on the snooty side, and the dread is not helped by the cheap-shot subtitle for this episode: My Big Fat Irish Dance Dress .

This, the first in a series to mark the 20th anniversary of Riverdance and the global interest in Irish dance, follows two Traveller cousins who dance at a school in Bray, Co Wicklow. It’s unusual, they say, for Travellers to do Irish dancing, and even more unusual for a boy, but young Jim O’Brien, much to his mother’s delight, is determined. “There’s a lot of slagging,” says his teacher. “The boys have to be even stronger than the girls.”

His cousin Bridget Connors says, “You feel equal when you’re dancing.” She is persisting with it despite comments from her peers in her community such as, “Traveller girls don’t do that; it’s for country [settled] girls.”

When she shows her ideas for a new dress to a designer of Irish-dancing dresses – they must be coining it, but no money is mentioned – he quips something about My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding , the nasty, exploitative Channel 4 franchise. Thirteen-year-old Bridget is quick to correct him: “We’re Travellers, not Gypsies.”

This well-made and well-considered episode is balanced, and doesn’t obsess about the wigs and the dresses. This augurs well, in that it shows how determined, fit and skilled dancers have to be. The bling gets plenty of public attention, but it’s what’s underneath that matters.

The People’s Debate With Vincent Browne (TV3, Wednesday) is a shouty mess – how could it be anything else? The idea is a cross between Pat Kenny’s old Frontline programme and Joe Duffy’s Liveline, where each month people can vent their thoughts, live, to the nation.

The seats are laid out in the round, with Browne, in the centre of TV3’s impressive new studio, doing crowd control. But the “people” turn out to be mostly party hacks, councillors and would-be politicians. Yes, they are people, too, but it’s not quite what the idea promised. In discussing the success of the Government it quickly goes down well-trodden paths.

All the point-scoring makes for pointless TV. I give up after a tedious hour – it goes on for two – when the by-then warmed-up audience are applauding any populist rant (“the rich are getting richer”) and sneering at anybody with the temerity to say things are getting better.

But the prize this week for repetitive, brain-numbing TV goes to RTÉ’s magnificent blooper on Monday, at the end of Prime Time , when a fragment of the last line of an interview, “Irish Ukrainians, not Russians”, plays out loudly, on a 13-minute loop, over the ads and into the next programme. It is like a subliminal message from our overlords in a sci-fi movie.

I watch the week’s most surreal piece of television for five minutes, mesmerised into inertia, wondering first if my TV is broken and then if anybody from RTÉ actually watches RTÉ, so that they’d see the huge technical snafu, rush in and pull the plug.


tvreview@irishtimes.com

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