The dramatic, the dull and the defamatory

Thu, Dec 29, 2011, 00:00

It was a year of the good (the presidential debate, Love/Hate, Downton Abbey), the bad (Prime Time’sdefamation disaster, TV3’s investigative strand) and the baffling ( Mrs Brown’s Boys,Craig Doyle), writes BERNICE HARRISON

AT THE start of the year, at the start of the presidential election – heck, even at the start of the programme when the candidates filed past Pat Kenny to take up their place on the stage, no one could have predicted that The Frontline’spresidential election debate would be the most compelling TV programme of the year. There were massive floods that night – which cynics like to suggest was responsible for so many people being indoors glued to the screen – 900,000 viewers, that is – but that wasn’t it at all. It was the drama of watching a man’s ambitions and dreams slipping though his fingers like mercury. Seán Gallagher’s face was a study of confusion and anger. Michael D didn’t win the debate that night but he won the presidency because of it.

Current affairs served up several other top TV moments worth watching over and over – Wendi Deng, Rupert Murdoch’s wife, didn’t just stand by her man but took a swing at the man who threw a pie at him in July during the UK parliamentary hearing into phone hacking; William and Kate’s wedding was like Hello!magazine on screen, a slightly guilty pleasure, but one to watch, even if only to see the dress; and while there were many standout moments during the official visit of Queen Elizabeth to Ireland, the scene that still sends a frisson of pride down the spine was when, on a sunny day in May, a smart Capt Thomas Holmes stepped forward to welcome Banríon Eilís to the Áras.

The TV story that will run, and run deep, until next year was the fall-out from Prime Time Investigates – Mission to Prey, the defamation of Fr Kevin Reynolds. It fatally undermined the credibility of RTÉ’s flagship and previously unassailable investigative news strand. How the investigation into the sequence of events that permitted such a basic journalistic mistake plays out will be one to watch.

Sky Atlantic arrived (to Sky subscribers) with great fanfare in February, promising quality drama and Mildred Pierce, Todd Haynes’s remake of the 1940s movie classic was my must-see, as was The Borgias,Neil Jordan’s luscious-looking vision of the papacy in the 15th century, with Jeremy Irons playing the corrupt pope.

Whodunnits were big: Zen(BBC) the super-stylish adaptations of Michael Dibdin’s crime novels; Kidnap and Ransom(ITV), with Trevor Eve as the convincing ransom negotiator in a South African caper; Case Sensitive,an adaptation of a Sophie Hannah novel and a worthy successor to Prime Suspect; and Corp + Anam(TG4) a gritty four-part drama written and directed by Darach Mac Con Iomaire, set in Galway, about a reporter busy chasing a story without realising the story is getting closer to home and starring Maria Doyle Kennedy.

Standout dramas included Appropriate Adult(UTV), Neil McKay’s two-part drama telling the story of Janet Leach, Fred West’s “appropriate adult” during the court proceedings, which starred Dominic West, who looked unnervingly like the mass murderer. Stuart Carolan’s Love/Hatehardened up a bit to deliver a much more convincing and at times terrifying portrayal of a Dublin drug gang.

Whydunnits were a difficult matter: why did the crime against comedy Brendan O’Carroll’s Mrs Brown’s Boysbecome the success it did and earn a recommission from the BBC? Why do TV3 persist in trying to develop an investigative journalism strand invariably prefixed with The Truth about . . .with much breathless reporting and dramatic delivery but without anything ever being uncovered? Why does RTÉ persist in trying to find vehicles for Gráinne Seoige (even a sports quiz, for heaven’s sake)? Still on Seoige, I think we’d all like to rub from our memories the horror that was Lughnasa Live, the programme that was supposed to celebrate a great Celtic festival but just ended up looking like a collection of miserable people trapped in a field.

The same goes for Craig Doyle, whose The Social(RTÉ2) was quite the most ill-conceived programme of the year. And finally, why did someone think that sending chief reporter Charlie Bird, a man who found Washington an uncomfortable experience, to follow in the footsteps of one of our great heroes, resulting in the unintentionally hilarious Charlie Bird on the Trail of Tom Crean?

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THREE HITS

Downton Abbey(UTV)

Julian Fellowes’s brilliant historical romp. Who cares that the dialogue was corny, that it was packed with historical inaccuracies, and that the twists were flagged in screaming semaphore ages before they happened – it brightened a dreary autumn.

The Killing(BBC4)

Hit crime series from Denmark. Both the first series, which aired for 20 nail-biting, compulsive-viewing weeks from January, and the second, which started on BBC4 in November, were unmissable. One of the few dramas where the costume – her Scandinavian knit – became nearly as talked about as the plot. The US version, screened on Channel 4, was brilliant too.

MasterChef Ireland(RTÉ2)

The formula was familiar to anyone who has seen the BBC or Australian version, but RTÉ made a high-quality home-grown version. Unlike other reality TV, it didn’t try to recruit a collection of “good telly” oddballs. The people who made the final were serious about cooking. Winner Mary Carney and presenters Dylan McGrath and Nick Munier were superb.

THREE MISSES

Charity ICA Bootcamp(RTÉ)

Three formidable ICA matrons put a gang of glory hunters (a random selection of Irish “celebrities” – some of whom we’d never heard of before) through various domestic paces. The live final was particularly grim.

The Story of Ireland(BBC, RTÉ)

This big-budget series presented by journalist Fergal Keane promised much but was rather self-important. While it coverered a great deal of ground (literally: Keane walks in and out of just about every shot), it felt more like a Junior Cert textbook brought to the screen than the landmark series promised in the publicity.

X Factor(UTV, TV3)

It’s lost its fizz. The new judges, Kelly Rowland, Tulisa and Gary Barlow, settled in, and we came to love Kellys exuberant (though slightly frightening at first) comments such as “you put it down grrrl”, but the talent was lacklustre.