Unparliamentary behaviour in the house? Switch off, senator

Sat, Mar 17, 2012, 00:00

TV REVIEW:HERE’S A TELLY-VIEWING tip for Sen David Norris: next time you see a programme that comes with a warning about “adult situations, strong language and nudity”, don’t expect Little House on the Prairie.

The senator was so horrified by what he saw when he tuned into an episode of Tallafornia(TV3, Friday) that he watched the whole programme and asked for a general debate in the Seanad on Irish standards and values. His speech detailing the goings-on in this particularly grubby episode of TV3’s reality show – and that’s saying something – showed that instead of hitting the off button at the first mention of Nikita’s vajazzle, or her charming repartee – “I still tink you’re a fookin’ hoor and a back-stabbing bitch” – he stayed tuned. So he got an eyeful of a drunken lap dance, some drunken carry-on under a duvet, and seven not-very-interesting young people willingly and mostly drunkenly participating in their own exploitation. Their 15 minutes are nearly up. He told the upper house that he found Tallafornia both compulsive and repulsive viewing. I’m with him on the latter.

If Norris really wanted to see a compulsive and repulsive reality-TV show, then Interviews before Execution(BBC2, Monday) was it. The hit Chinese show – for the past five years it has been Saturday-night viewing for 40 million people – features interviews with prisoners on death row, some just days or even hours before their execution. The perky presenter Ding Yu goes into prisons to conduct the one-on-one interview, in which the subjects are encouraged to tell the story of their crimes and send messages to their families. “Daddy’s sorry,” said one man directly to camera, sobbing, after telling how he killed his wife.

The real message from the state-controlled channel is that crimes will be punished, and Yu, in her chic western clothes and perfect make-up, was crisply aware of her role as moral messenger. The show, which raids the box of tricks of all reality shows, with popping graphics, punchy music and emotional interviews with vulnerable family members, is, she said, “in the national interest”, and “people must abide by the law and never lose control”.

The series was Yu’s idea, and it has made her a star – we saw a child recognising her at a market – but one judge warned that these interviews would take their toll on her if she did them for too long. There was no sign that Yu’s job was causing her too much stress, though. Her interview with a gay man who had killed his mother unnerved her, but only because he was, she said, the first gay man she had met. Anyway, that interview was such a ratings success that she went back to the prison and made three more programmes with him before he was killed.

There are no publicly available statistics on how many prisoners are executed in China each year, either by firing squad or lethal injection, but the death penalty can be given for 55 crimes, including murder and theft. Tax evasion and credit fraud have just been removed from the list. The producer was at pains to point out that the system had become more progressive since filming started: prisoners are no longer paraded through the streets before their execution, for example. The only positive note was the interview with a local judge who bravely suggested that maybe the idea of a death penalty should be reviewed.

The airing of the documentary this week, and the overwhelmingly negative international reaction to it, has led to the cancellation of the series.

This deadly control of citizens was put in some context by the historian Niall Ferguson in the first part of his new series, China: Triumph and Turmoil(Channel 4, Monday), in which he explained how, since the days of the emperors, a system of autocratic, highly centralised control has given the vast country and its 1.3 billion people stability, while social harmony is promoted above individual freedom.

You tune in because, well, it’s China and you can’t help feeling that knowing more about that country mightn’t be a bad thing given the shifting global power axis. Indeed, a new programme, The Lingo, on the CBBC children’s channel, teaches basic Mandarin to four- to six-year olds, so the least the rest of us could do is put up with Ferguson’s dry lecturing style if it means getting a handle on the country.

It’s an ambitious, expensive-looking series but, wandering through busy Beijing streets or being driven through endless high-rise, smoggy cities, Ferguson could be David Attenborough fronting a nature programme. He seems fascinated by the people and places, but he’s distant from them. He doesn’t speak the language, apart from a self-conscious “ni hao”, and on the rare occasions he engages directly with anyone it looks forced and awkward. It’s full of information, though, and later in the series, when he moves on to the newly minted billionaires in China’s megacities – the great hope of the world’s luxury brands – and to the aggressive young nationalists hacking into our computers, things will liven up.

Seán O’Sullivan, the new dragon in this year’s Dragons’ Den(RTÉ1, Sunday), has connections in China and California. When he says this – and he’s not shy – the people pitching their ideas nearly pass away with excitement. He’s rich, supersmart and a global entrepreneur – he invented the term “cloud computing” – and one of the other dragons, Gavin Duffy, called him a geek. This only made Duffy sound like a person stuck in some sad old world where that’s an insult.

Dragons’ Den is on at prime time on Sunday nights, just when you want to be watching a lovely drama rather than a handful of hungry business hopefuls sweating it out and looking for a few bob.

The fun is in seeing the ideas, of course, and the ingenuity – a profitable golf-club rental business genius, a lovely couple presenting their Indian sauces – but this year there’s the extra frisson of seeing how those pitching for a partner and access to the great big world out there look so hopefully at the hot new guy in the room, dreading the moment when O’Sullivan will decline to dance and say the Dragons’ Den equivalent of “Ask me friend, I’m sweating.”

Get stuck into. . .

“I am the reflection of perfection”: The Apprenticeis back, and only an Alan Sugar wannabe who never heard of hubris would dream of saying something like that. Level- headed Jane McEvoy from Kilkenny is the Irish hopeful (BBC1, Wednesday).