Television: Two faces of composure – one defying cancer, the other denying the past

The ‘Morning Ireland’ presenter Áine Lawlor kept cool in ‘Facing Cancer’, but ‘The Disappeared’, about victims of the IRA, had some genuinely chilling moments

Harvesting hope: Áine Lawlor

Harvesting hope: Áine Lawlor

Sat, Nov 9, 2013, 01:00

Difficult subjects make the best documentaries – if the stories are well told – though that doesn’t make them any easier to watch. And maybe it takes a media masochist to sit down in the first grey week of November and watch more than two hours of television about cancer and murder, but Áine Lawlor: Facing Cancer (RTÉ One, Thursday) and The Disappeared (RTÉ One, Monday; BBC Four, Tuesday) made for powerful viewing.

Lawlor has, from presenting Morning Ireland on RTÉ Radio 1, one of the most recognisable voices in the country. It’s quiet and warm, and when she starts her questions, as she often does, with “talk to me about . . .” it’s the opening gambit in a conversation, not an interrogation.

It made for an accessible film about sometimes complicated medical detail. She talked with cancer experts and survivors and chronicled in raw detail her journey from a breast-cancer diagnosis, two years ago, through brutal treatment to a determination to prevent the return of “this sneaky and dangerous enemy”.

The documentary, part two of which is next week, mixed the very personal (we saw her on the operating table getting her ovaries out: how personal is that?) and the general (advances in medical science). Her interviews with other women with experience of cancer underlined that this, as well as being an intimate record of a personal journey, was a journalist’s report on where we are now with treatments that are turning some cancers into manageable diseases, not the death sentence it was for her mother.

Although Lawlor’s tone was pragmatically optimistic, she is no Pollyanna. She wasn’t tripping through a field of daisies chirping about being free of cancer. The final shot showed her in her muddy allotment on a chilly autumn day, picking an apple from a tree she had planted when she first learned of her diagnosis. At the time – it was her only admission of a maudlin thought – she wondered if she would be around to see it bear fruit.

There was no hope in The Disappeared, a finely crafted documentary about the (at least) 15 people in the North who were abducted, murdered and buried by the IRA in the 1970s. Some bodies have been found, but, to the visible grief of their relatives all these decades later, others have not, so this was not a historical analysis but a present-day story.

Through archive footage, the film’s director, Alison Millar, set the scene of a chaotic Belfast in the 1970s where children grew up steeped in violence, and poverty that was as visible as the British army. Reporter Darragh MacIntyre’s interviews with some of the families – mothers, sisters, sons, clutching photos of those who were taken – were desperately sad.

In a further act of calculated cruelty, after the abductions the IRA spread rumours that the missing husbands were spotted in bars and that teenage sons had absconded to England, and a newspaper reported that Jean McConville was back in Belfast. A widow, she was an impoverished mother of 10 whom the IRA suspected, wrongly, of being an informer, so it took her from her flat in Divis while her children, aged from six to 16, clung to her. Two of her children recalled the events in harrowing detail. Nothing wrong with murdering a tout, Billy McKee, the benign-looking founder of the Provisional IRA, told MacIntyre. If he’d been in charge her body would have been left in the open, like many others, as a warning. That chilling interview was one for the archives.

Almost as chilling, but not for the archives, because they already contain so many similar efforts, were MacIntyre’s attempts to get Gerry Adams TD to admit involvement in the IRA. We saw by-now- familiar archive footage of the Sinn Féin president in paramilitary garb at an IRA funeral, and heard allegations by IRA members, notably his friend the late Bernard Hughes and Dolours Price, that Adams ordered the abduction of McConville.

MacIntyre let the images and accusations build his case before looking for confirmation in an interview with Adams. But there was nothing that the Sinn Féin leader hadn’t Tefloned up and denied before. Many allegations, including Hughes’s, had been aired in the superb Voices from the Grave documentary, three years ago, based on Ed Moloney’s book. Adams was almost impassive in the face of MacIntyre’s mounting frustration, while the director kept the camera up close, as if a twitch of Adams’s mouth or a flash of his eyes might reveal a different truth from the one he was articulating.

The film started and ended with wintery south-of-the-Border landscapes where the disappeared are thought to be buried, overlaid with the voice of Seamus Heaney reading his poem Bog Queen. It begins with the line, “I lay waiting”. Atmospheric, certainly, but superfluous. There was no need for the layer of lyricism in this strong film. The interviews with those left behind, and their painfully vivid imagining of what happened to their loved ones, created all the imagery that was needed.

There’s no easy segue from that to the tented silliness of the final of The Great Irish Bake Off (TV3, Thursday), but sometimes you just need a great big dusting of sugar. The home version was well done, sticking (mostly) to the BBC recipe, though it skimped on the number of tasks and the standard seemed lower. The Irish competitors were very much amateur home bakers, while the accomplished British ones seem just a win away from a jammy book deal.

In an act of cherry-topping daftness, the three finalists had to make a “signature bake which should reflect the natural landscape or heritage of Ireland”. The winner, Stephen, made a gingerbread Dunluce Castle stuck, together with gloops of icing and with Shredded Wheat as the roof slates. It looked as edible as a cereal box.

Drippy Dana has moved out and with luck left Homeland (RTÉ Two, Monday), signalling an end to the boring angsty teen subplot that has been killing the series stone dead. It has taken until episode six, but we’ve finally got a proper baddie, the Iranian double-crosser Javadhi. We got the message about just how bad he is with this series’ most shocking scene: his slaughter of two women, one with a broken bottle in a level of screen violence that was quite unnecessary. Echoing Brody’s storyline, he’s in Saul’s custody, and this time it’s personal. Homeland looks finally to be back on the thriller track.

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