Benjy's back on the farm

Sat, Feb 14, 2009, 00:00

TV REVIEW:‘HIS SUITCASES were found at Kinshasa airport, but nobody knows where he is.” So revealed the wild-eyed Tom Hickey, talking about the mysterious disappearance of his screen creation, Benjy Riordan, the progressive farmer in the cloth cap, whose television family graced our chubby little black-and-white goggleboxes from 1965 until their unexpected axing from the airwaves in 1979.

Actress Aisling O’Neill, daughter of actor Chris O’Neill, who played Benjy’s on-screen brother Michael, presented, in Tea, Taboos and Tractors, a moving and nostalgic portrait of an era when Mass times were altered, dishes wiped and babies tightly swaddled so that the entire country could sit down on the Draylon to discover the happenings the national broadcaster had cooked up for The Riordans of Leestown.

I enjoyed this friendly, simply made documentary, which traced the progress of a nation in the minutiae of an Irish family, but I surprised myself at the depth of my emotional reaction to the archive (very little of which has survived) that O’Neill managed to plunder. I never would have suspected I’d get misty-eyed over Batty Brennan, but I suppose I had simply forgotten how intimately the Riordans, and their neighbours, had entwined themselves around my urban childhood and how the series, temporarily at least, alleviated the relentless march of a dull Sunday night before the shivering inevitability of a convent-school Monday morning.

O’Neill, an easy-going presence, conversed with various pundits, all of whom spoke in a similar vein about the power and plausibility of the series. Fintan O’Toole recalled his grandfather, a country man in Dublin, and his sanguine acceptance of this rural family, whom he never really saw as fictitious, appearing on the box in the corner for half an hour a week. Such was the ultra-realism of the drama that Hickey, a bony young actor who certainly knew more about Stanislavsky than silage, was asked by farmers across the country for advice about the harvest.

At the heart of O’Neill’s exploration was a gentle discovery of the early career of her late father, Chris, who died when he was just 50. And, as poignant as the passing of many of the original cast, it was also moving to see the reuniting of actors who once beat out the pulse of the nation.

In a parallel universe the Riordansare still out there, speculated writer Eugene O’Brien. Maybe he’s right and they are out there, ploughing the stratosphere, bringing in the cows, defying the bishops with a gob full of oral contraceptives, and all, of course, to the tune of a whistling kettle and a nice cup of tea.

Ah well.

CHANNEL 4, unable to resist scratching at one of its favourite scabs, has begun a Toffs and Crims series. First off the stately starting block was The Princess and the Gangster, a nostalgic poke under the royal skirts of Princess Margaret, a woman with a penchant for Martini mayhem who, unlike her headscarfed sister, didn’t quite manage to confine her passions to a bevy of corgis. The documentary, scratchily dramatised by a couple of unlikely-looking actors (the princess costumed in ruched swimming gear or twin-set and pearls), told the tale of Margaret’s encounters, on the playground Caribbean island of Mustique, with west London wide-boy, criminal and part-time actor John Bindon.

Sprinkled with interviews with Bindon’s enforcer-type mates, now chirpily benign but foul-mouthed old geezers in woolly cardigans, and a bony, paper-thin heiress with whom Bindon spent a viciously entertaining decade (and she still has the knife marks to prove it), the programme, with its evocation of those halcyon hard-drinking, sideburned days, was reminiscent of a meaty episode of The Sweeney.

Aside from tales of Bindon chopping off some bloke’s arm with a cleaver and killing another poor chap with a sabre stashed in his patent-leather ankle-boot, there was one facet of the apparently charismatic villain that kept coming up in conversation (so to speak). Apparently, Bindon (there is no other way to say this really) had a foot-long penis, which, we were told, he used to whirl around like a helicopter blade (or hang rows of half-pint glasses from – there was some dispute as to how many) for the amusement of Margaret and whoever else happened to invite him to their parties.

A regular old card, Long John Bindon also made the Princess laugh and laugh and laugh with uproarious little self-penned ditties about her procuring her undies from Marks and Sparks.

But whether he managed to “do the biz” with her before some scandalous tabloid snaps ruined both their reputations remains a matter of speculation among crim and toff pals alike. Oh, the joys of the English class system. What larks, Pip!

Bindon’s one big break as a movie actor came in the cult 1960s movie, Performance, when the authentic crim helped the young actor James Fox immerse himself in the London underworld in breaks between their scenes as fellow gangland characters. The sensitive Fox, we were told, found God very rapidly after a few drug-fuelled nights out with Bindon and his cronies, and put his burgeoning acting career on hold for the next 20 years, preferring to grapple with the Almighty rather than a bunch of heavy London geezers.

EXHAUSTED UPPER-CLASS Anglican vicar Peter Owen Jones, a man who sounds a little like Prince Charles and looks a little like a Home Counties hairdresser, is also grappling with the subject of faith, by means of a mighty continent-hopping trek, in the strangely fascinating series, Around the World in 80 Faiths.

Owen Jones (and his kiss curls) hoved into view in a west African fishing port this week, as his journey brought him to a bloody encounter with voodoo.

“I have a line, and the line has been crossed,” said the nauseous Owen Jones after witnessing a pretty little puppy get its furry throat slashed and several species of the bleating variety being bled in some incomprehensible act of atonement.

Owen Jones may be an irritatingly fey host, but from powerful voodoo to barefoot monks scampering around precarious mountain peaks, to bangled South African witch doctors prescribing solutions to modernity, and lumpen Afrikaners strumming their three-stringed guitars while waiting for the end of the world, he has produced an illuminating, thought-provoking series.

He’ll be chewing the hallucinogenic chat in various deserts for a few weeks to come, and it’s worth tuning in for a spiritual jolt in these challenging times.

tvreview@irishtimes.com

Tea, Taboos and Tractors RTÉ1, Tuesday Toffs and Crims: the Princess and the GangsterChannel 4, Monday

Around the World in 80 FaithsBBC2, Monday

Don't cry for me Eamon Dunphy A tsunami of tears to drive the bailiffs away from our doors

I tuned into The Late Late Showlast week as I’d heard Pat Kenny had invited Cathal Ó Searcaigh aboard, presumably to be bathed in the stringent water of national indignation. However, after some desperately serious eyebrow-arching, it became apparent that Ó Searcaigh was to be replaced by a studio discussion on the state of the economy.

The panel, when it materialised, included a lachrymose Eamon Dunphy (my spell check gets awfully indignant when I write the name Dunphy, the squiggly red underline nudging me like a huffy aunt towards “Dumpy” or “Dingy”). I don’t know if any of you were watching – I tend to imagine, in a paranoid, TV reviewer-ish kind of way, that everyone else is out there in their sling-backs, blowing the last of their recessionary euro on pink champagne and sweetmeats, and that I am the only one who spends their Fridays in front of the box.

Anyway, as the conversation unfurled, Dunphy wept, like a prematurely wrinkled and indignant three-year-old faced with the prospect of bedtime, unleashing a persona so extravagant that he rivalled his own caricature as rendered by the brilliant Gary Cooke of Après Match. Pumping burbling sentiment and summoning the spectre of the bailiff, Dunphy delighted the studio audience who, bored with their parlour game of polite attention, cheered on the mawkish kitsch. Speaking as one with personal childhood experience of bailiffs and their antics (they were obliged to leave the beds and the kitchen table, but hey, it was the end of my piano-playing days), I found Dunphy’s tsunami of vicarious weeping on behalf of us select few who have actually had the front door forced by agents of the State a bit of a laugh.

In the last few days, however, with the courts predicting an “avalanche” of repossessions coming down the line, maybe Dunphy’s outburst can be viewed with a little more sympathy. Hell, along with voluntary pay cuts, maybe profligate suppuration and alarming empathy will become the currency of choice for the nation’s pundits. Pass the tissues there, Dumpy.