Television: Six. Hours. From a tent in a car park. What are we at?

‘The Rose of Tralee’ has tried to modernise. But all that’s amazing about it is the number of us who still watch

Winner: Philadelphia Rose Maria Walsh

Winner: Philadelphia Rose Maria Walsh

Sat, Aug 23, 2014, 01:00

For a few minutes, park the labels “bogger bingo”, “old fashioned” and “part of what we are” and consider whether The Rose of Tralee (RTÉ One, Monday and Tuesday) is good TV entertainment. It is, after all, on for six prime-time hours on the national broadcaster’s flagship station. (The BBC stopped showing Miss World decades ago; that contest has long been consigned to the outer reaches of cable TV.) It’s arguable, too, whether it would take place on the scale it does were RTÉ to stop showing it.

This year there’s an effort at modernisation; a borrowing of elements from other entertainment shows. So Will Leahy is a sort of sidekick, reading out tweets and joshing with Dáithí Ó Sé, the host. For online viewers, during the news break Aidan Power presents a look backstage. But The Rose of Tralee is still filmed in a tent in a car park, so the production values match the hokeyness of the competition, from the village-hall stage set to the shaky camerawork and the lighting that manages to be gloomy and strongly coloured at the same time.

There’s less eejiting around from the host. He’s not called on to kiss a fish or milk a cow, as in other years, and he keeps the show flowing – which is a big ask in a live six-hour gig. They let the pageant’s 32 contestants off the hook, too, when it comes to the party piece. Most don’t do one – a sort of blessing, as many of those who do recite woeful self-penned poems. The winner, the Philadelphia Rose, Maria Walsh, doesn’t do a turn at all – a top tip for next year’s contestants.

The Toronto Rose, Katie Blundell, sets out to teach Ó Sé ice hockey and gives him a woolly hat to wear. “I’m collecting Irish sweat,” she says. The interviews are to show the women’s personalities – and, its fans would say, are what make The Rose of Tralee different from other beauty pageants. But they are rehearsed to within an inch of dullness, veering towards the bizarre – which should be entertaining but isn’t.

And so, to pick random but representative examples, one woman’s story is about the time her mother thought she had “gas”, but it turned out to be a pulmonary embolism. Another woman recounts the time her mother tried to fix a lamp and glued a towel to her finger. These are not interesting stories.

The astonishing thing is that the viewing figures are so good. Nearly half the people watching TV at the time tuned in, and no doubt they’ll do it all again next year.

Rarely is the remote control a portal into another space-time continuum. But as RTÉ shows a carefully constructed vision of comely maidens, a flick over to TV3 is like entering a parallel universe. On Tonight With Alison O’Connor (Monday and Tuesday) panels of women – pro-choice and anti-abortion – are discussing the latest shocking treatment of a pregnant woman in this country.

The facts, in so far as they are known, are that a teenage migrant says she is pregnant as a result of rape and requests an abortion. In a sequence of events that could come straight from a dystopian novel, the girl is made continue the pregnancy and then given a major operation – a Caesarean section – to take the premature baby out. The barbarism gives ammunition to the pro-choice side, particularly on Tuesday night, when the TD Claire Daly is strong in her arguments but matched in conviction by the anti-abortion campaigner Caroline Simons. There are lively exchanges, but it feels like a rerun of many other debates, even though the shock of the recent event gives it a new urgency.

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