Television: Of mice and men – how a cartoon drew Billy Connolly and Seamus Heaney together

The comedian and the poet join forces for an animated series of fables that also captures their camaraderie


A creative collaboration between the comedian Billy Connolly and the Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney sounds unlikely, even more so when it’s to make a series of cartoons, but in Five Fables: The Two Mice (BBC Two, Thursday), we see just how it works. The animations are shown with a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at how the project came together. These episodes are more like short arts documentaries, revealing the creative process and the people involved.

The five stories,the first of which is the cautionary tale of a country mouse coming to the city, are based on poems by Heaney, who was in turn inspired by adaptations of Aesop’s fables by the medieval Scottish poet Robert Henryson.

They were made shortly before Heaney’s death last year; he was involved in all aspects of the production, even down to choosing Connolly for the voiceover. Heaney had seen the film Mrs Brown and recognised “somebody with presence and with possibilities other than the wild man doing a comic act on the stage, which is also deeply attractive”.

When the two men meet for the recording, in a tiny Belfast studio, Connolly is overawed. “It’s scary having you sit there,” he says. “Oh, for God’s sake,” replies Heaney, laughing.

Briefing Connolly, Heaney is deliberate about the language and the rhythm of the poetry but not precious. Sitting in the studio or, using Skype, at home, he edits his poetry on the fly, changing lines to improve them.

Nor does he mind Connolly chipping in. “Gobshite” is in Heaney’s original text, but it’s not, says the producer, a word for a children’s cartoon. Connolly suggests “eijit”, and it works. “I’d hate to go down in history as the guy who changed Seamus’s words,” he says delightedly, capturing the mischievous atmosphere that surrounds the two men. “I love him. He’s great. He’s a lot gentler than I expected,” says Connolly. “For some reason I thought he’d be more forward, slightly more aggressive, but he’s a big, gentle dumpling.”

A big, gentle dumpling isn’t how you’d describe Conor McGregor. The Dubliner is wiry and dapper, with a gift of the gab that has taken him into the showbiz-meets-martial-arts world of professional cage-fighting.

Mixed martial arts is savage stuff. From what I can see in Reality Bites: The Notorious (RTÉ Two, Thursday), it’s superfit tattooed blokes in tiny pants trying to knock the lard out of each other between bouts of sweaty writhing on a mat – which isn’t as exciting as it sounds, especially if, like me, you don’t understand the rules and suspect there mightn’t be many.

Notorious – that’s McGregor’s cage name – could be a motivational speaker, and that’s what makes this documentary, which follows him in the months leading up to his glitzy, big-money US debut, work. I like the way McGregor is creating his own mythology, from his three-piece suits, bow ties and hipster Edwardian beard to his musings as he walks through Boston, talking about being “a little kid from Dublin travelling around, seeing the world”.

The story arc doesn’t work out as the documentarymakers plan – McGregor gets injured in his first big bout – but the film, if a little long and repetitive, works because of its charmingly egotistical, charismatic star, one of those rare men who can grow a beard without being in the least bit beardy.

Shetland (BBC One, Tuesday) the BBC’s answer to the popularity of Scandi crime dramas, is back for a new run of three two-parters, with the first based on the novel Raven Black by Ann Cleeves. The central character of the series, which is set on a remote Shetland island, is Jimmy Perez (Douglas Henshall), the local sandy-haired, freckly detective inspector. “You don’t look Spanish,” says a teenager, the scriptwriter pre-empting the viewer’s bemusement.

The body of a teenage girl is found on a beach, being pecked at by a flock of black birds. (Or should that be a murder of crows? The symbolism in Shetland is a bit heavyhanded) For a moment it looks as though this new series will be more Gothic than Gothenburg. But soon the sombre scene-setting takes over, and so, in homage to The Killing , The Bridge and Wallander , everything is grey and washed out, and there’s a quietness about every interaction.

It’s midsummer, so several people comment on the permanent daylight – a Nordic nod too far, I think. The islanders’ conversation is spare and wary, and they’re more suspicious of Perez than he is of them.

The pervading mood captures why “insular” is shorthand for inward-looking and closed-minded. But strip away the photogenic moodiness and the sometimes impenetrable Scottish accents – Brian Cox as the crazy old recluse could be saying anything – and this police procedural is as challenging as Midsomer Murders .

It’s not all excitement and exploration for astronauts. There’s the business of getting the dinner on, hoovering every Saturday morning and putting out the rubbish (although the bins float themselves out if pointed in the right direction).

Astronauts: Living in Space (Wednesday), which kicks off Channel 4’s excellent Space series, is in part broadcast live from the International Space Station. This first programme shows what three astronauts, Rick Mastracchio, Koichi Wakata and Mike Hopkins, do during their six months in orbit. It’s amazing – this programme creates many layers of wonder – to see them brushing their teeth and know they’re floating 400km above you.

Dermot O’Leary anchors the series from ground control in Houston. (I’d prefer to see it presented by the other Brian Cox, professor of astronomy. O’Leary is a bit too X Factor .) The action focuses on the experiences of the men in space and the weird challenges of living at zero gravity.

The trio have neighbours, three Russians who work in another sector of the giant craft. They drop by on Thanksgiving for a meal of reconstituted food and some chat about the view. Australia is flat and boring-looking, says one Russian. Even more boring than Africa, chips in another.

My guess is that joking in front of camera and doing entertainingly impulsive things aren’t high on the job spec for astronauts, so the three are level-headed, deliberate and earnest – Bowie-strumming Cmdr Chris Hadfield, it seems, is a one-off. That works perfectly in the lab but is maybe less of a wow on TV.

Still, the programme captures the out-of-this-world wonder of what they consider just a job.

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