The unsinkable might of Montrose

Sat, Apr 14, 2012, 01:00

RADIO REVIEW:IT MAY HAVE been due to satiety of chocolate eggs or the holiday absence of some of our more provocative broadcasters, but a slumberous atmosphere descended on the airwaves last week. The fact that the current-affairs agenda was dominated by teachers’ and doctors’ conferences didn’t help either. Important as these matters undoubtedly are, hearing policy positions being rehashed daily on the likes of Morning Ireland (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays) did not make for riveting radio.

Of course, there was another big story to jazz up proceedings: that it is 100 years since Titanic embarked on its fateful maiden voyage only seemed to add to the attraction of the event. In fact, as John S Doyle showed during a retrospective It Says In The Papers on Monday’s Morning Ireland, contemporary newspaper stories about the liner’s inaugural journey took second place to coverage of Home Rule debates and rural car accidents, still a novelty in 1912. In a week top-heavy with Titanic-themed shows, Doyle’s item was an understated but timely lesson in how our worldview is coloured by hindsight.

There was little such perspective evident in Titanic Letters (Radio Ulster, Mon-Fri), a series that despite the short duration of its 42 individual episodes had a portentous air. “Titanic,” intoned the actor Ciarán Hinds as he opened the first programme. “Even today, the name conjures up emotion and pride.” Behind the stentorian narration, however, lay the interesting concept of retelling a familiar story through epistolary accounts of the voyage and the fate of those who wrote them.

With a different local celebrity reading each letter, the end result was by turns poignant and jarring. Albert Irvine, an 18-year-old crewman, wrote to his mother about Titanic’s feted unsinkability, only to go down with the vessel; the comedian Patrick Kielty imbued the letter with the right note of confidence and youthful invincibility. Actor James Ellis’s reading of a doomed steward’s affectionate note to his children skirted sentimentality but nevertheless tugged the heartstrings.

Other episodes were less successful. The acerbic observations of American artist Francis Millet sounded less resonant when rendered in the broad Belfast accent of John Linehan aka panto dame May McFettridge. In not revealing a passenger’s fate until after their letter had been read, there was also a manipulative edge to the format. “Who lived and who died in the freezing waters of the Atlantic?” asked Hinds in the first episode, as though he was hosting a ghoulish gameshow rather than a commemorative docudrama. Striking an uneasy balance between sombre remembrance and opportunistic entertainment, Titanic Letters was effective and affecting overall, even if the emotional impact of the correspondence depended on retrospective knowledge.

The question of balance featured prominently on Sunday when Marian Finucane (RTÉ Radio 1, Saturday and Sunday) invited her guests to ponder the current status of Montrose in the wake of the Prime Time Investigates controversy. The columnist David Quinn felt that RTÉ current-affairs shows were often weighted against certain viewpoints – particularly his own conservative Catholic ethos. There was no such cause for complaint with Finucane’s panel, which drew its guests evenly from across the ideological spectrum, leading to predictable battle-lines. Bride Rosney, former adviser to Mary Robinson and one-time communications director at RTÉ, robustly defended the network. RTÉ had never been fully supported by the State, she said, forcing it to seek commercial income while operating in the shadow of a well-funded neighbour, the BBC.

The economist Colm McCarthy, author of the report by An Bord Snip Nua, viewed the broadcaster in a more jaundiced light. The licence fee not only ensured the network’s dominance in television and radio but also meant it got the lion’s share of advertising, thus hobbling effective competition. If that supremacy were removed, McCarthy said, any ideological bias would not matter: it would be a more diverse playing field, akin to the newspaper market. He even mused if a State broadcaster was needed at all. Such opinions may feed into the left’s image of McCarthy as a pro-free-market, anti-civil-service bogeyman, but it was a stimulating rejoinder to Rosney’s equally partisan flagwaving.

But McCarthy’s commitment to vigorous debate seemingly had its limits. As the discussion turned to public-sector pay rates, McCarthy said that hospital consultants were paid less in the UK. “That’s not true,” interjected consultant Dr Joe McKeever. “Well, sorry, it is true,” replied McCarthy. “No it’s not,” said McKeever, “if you want me to explain, I will.” “No, I don’t,” responded an audibly peeved McCarthy.

Turning a deaf ear to a dissenting argument, McCarthy sounded less like a fearless challenger of shibboleths than a thin-skinned academic. Then again, he also helped portray hospital consultants, hardly the most beloved people in Irish life, in a sympathetic light. Now that’s a balanced view.

Radio moment of the week

Normally a home for mildly diverting indie music, Dublin’s Phantom FM last week turned to more traditional yet surprising fare: a radio play. Written and produced by Orla Murphy, IndieWorld (Friday) may have been predictably titled and unevenly paced, but its comic recreation of an ageing DJ’s increasingly frantic encounter with a surly Dublin band combined aural slapstick and astute meta-comedy to produce something different from the station’s default alt-rock soundtrack. Along with The Kiosk, Nadine O’Regan’s engaging Saturday culture show for Phantom, it highlighted, albeit fleetingly, a potential alternative to RTÉ’s arts output.