Television: Need help clearing the educational hurdles? Call champion jockey Johnny Murtagh

A programme on literacy, The Family Project, and a series about amateur dramatics, Simply Am-Dram, proved surprisingly engaging

Sat, May 25, 2013, 01:00

It was reading that Mary O’Rourke was one of six “inspirational mentors” in The Family Project (RTÉ One, Monday), helping a family “struggling with life’s many challenges”, that initially put me off this new six-part series. I know she’s a media performer, but could someone cocooned against the recession with one of Irish life’s greatest luxuries, a ministerial pension, have anything to offer a regular family? (Except hard cash, obviously.) But having watched the first well-made episode, with the champion jockey Johnny Murtagh as the mentor, it’s not what I expected. It’s so much better than that.

Instead of a subtly exploitative Channel 4-type reality show in which a media hound “helps” underprivileged civilians for a bit of self-serving publicity, The Family Project is made with the National Adult Literacy Agency, so it’s about educational challenges. This was immediately made clear in the first programme; Ronan O’Donoghue, its director, shows a sure-footed skill when it comes to putting people together and getting them to open up about their problems.

So Murtagh was matched with Wes Doyle and Linda Farrell and their five children in Clondalkin, in Dublin. The Doyles are horse mad: Wes established Clondalkin Equine Club to help kids in the area care for their horses. Murtagh explained that he dropped out of school even before Doyle, who at least sat his Junior Cert, and that, like Wes, he has five children. Crucially, though, the jockey – whose enthusiasm and optimism for the project were clear – admitted that “it’s embarrassing at times having to ask people, ‘How do you spell that?’ or, ‘What do I write here?’ and the one regret I have is not giving school my best shot.”

The two men visited each other’s stables – Doyle’s a couple of sheds in Naas, Murtagh’s a yard. “It’s paradise here,” said Doyle. It wasn’t just the men bonding, which they really did appear to do; Murtagh brought Doyle’s 11-year-old son – who, although a natural maths whizz, is already messing at school and in real danger of following his father in being an early school-leaver – to a CoderDojo for a computer lesson. Apart from the confidence it gave, it showed him possibilities the family didn’t know existed.

By the end Doyle had engaged with his supportive local education services and signed up for a Fetac course in stable management. The impact on the rest of the family of Dad getting back into education was already obvious. It was a well-told, engaging story. And Murtagh was a proper mentor, simply encouraging. “I’m gone past the stage of saying I know everything. So if I need help, I ask for it,” he advised. I might even give the Mammy O’Rourke episode a look.

The six-part Simply Am -Dram (RTÉ One, Friday) followed the progress of local groups as they attempted to qualify for the Broadway of the amateur-dramatics world, the annual All-Ireland Drama Festival, in Athlone. Luckily for the programme’s director, Declan Powell, three of the groups he had been following over the previous six months made it to the final. Carrie Crowley’s voiceover talked about amateur dramatics being as important in some communities as the GAA – and if there was any doubt, the winners of the final, Kilmeen Drama Group, from west Cork, were welcomed home with bonfires, a street reception and a presentation in the packed local hall.

Over the course of the series we met the most unlikely luvvies – farmers in Leitrim talking about character development, and a salesman in Kildare who not only acted but wrote the play – and for dramatic flourishes it was hard to beat the sole adjudicator in Athlone, Brian Marjoribanks, resplendent in full Scottish dress uniform – kilt, sporran, the lot.

Power captured the fun, commitment and sheer hard work of a winter spent competing in regional competitions in the hope of qualifying for Athlone. And if this was the actors’ first time in front of the camera, they managed to be completely natural.

There were some “characters”, of course – it is a programme about amateur dramatics, after all – but Power didn’t ham it up. From the first episode the ones to watch included glamorous, dramatic Lurlene Duggan, the director from Prosperous Drama Group, in Co Kildare. “There are lots of people on your shoulders getting you over the finishing line. Good luck – now I need chocolate,” she said as her pep talk before her group went on stage at the final.

Kilmeen’s director, Tim Coffey, looked and sounded more like a hurling manager but was passionate about his performers. At the end, with the trophy in hand for the play and another for himself as best director, Coffey said, smiling, “This is as good as it gets. It’s just brilliant.”

Then the credits rolled, and we learned that Coffey, a man in his 50s, passed away earlier this year; the series was dedicated to him. From what we learned of him over the series, he would have appreciated the dramatic timing of Simply Am-Dram ’s editor.

As someone who always assumed, admittedly without thinking about it very much, that seahorses were like unicorns – mythical creatures ripe for Disneyfication – the appearance of the marine biologist Kealan Doyle in RTÉ’s Seahorse Man , in 2010, was a revelation. At the time he was living in a remote cottage in Galway, trying to breed these bizarre fish. The new film, Save Our Seahorses (RTÉ One, Monday), took a deeper look at Doyle’s crusade to save the seahorse. It’s the use of them in traditional Chinese medicine that is driving the species to extinction. The best estimate is that they will be gone in 20 years; 120 million are needed every year just to satisfy the demand for traditional Chinese aphrodisiacs.

Doyle is an interesting man to watch, not only because he’s a compelling storyteller, and passionate about his subject without sounding bonkers, but also because his solution isn’t some woolly ecowarrior approach. It’s commercial. If he can do what China has tried and failed to do for more than 50 years – breed seahorses on a vast scale – then demand will be satisfied by small fishing communities that he will teach to farm seahorses.

He got access to Chinese pharmaceutical companies because they see him as a man with a solution to a looming commercial problem. John Hurt narrated the film, which gave it a David Attenborough-like gravitas.

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