Walking on a thin wire

Sat, Jul 4, 2009, 01:00

TV REVIEW: Father and SonRTÉ1, Monday; Revelations: How to Find GodChannel 4, Sunday; Imagine . . . David Hockney – A Bigger PictureBBC1, Tuesday; Top GearBBC2, Sunday;  

CAN YOU BEAR another mention of The Wirein a broadsheet newspaper? Don’t fret. We’ll keep it brief. Barely a day goes by without some hand-wringing pundit wondering why, here on this side of the Atlantic, we can’t make a series like that David Simon classic. You know how the argument goes. If Dickens were alive today he’d be writing for HBO. The Sopranos is The Divine Comedy of its time. That sort of thing.

The opening titles of Father and Son, a new Anglo-Irish crime drama on RTÉ1, make it abundantly clear that the makers are intending to take those American series on at their own game. Fuzzy images of X-rays and newspaper headlines? Check. Credits appearing in apparently random parts of the screen? Check. Gravelly alt-country theme tune? Check. (If late Johnny Cash counts.)

After all that, it comes as a bit of a disappointment to discover ourselves in rural Ireland. This is rather like sitting through one of Maurice Binder’s famous title sequences for James Bond – nude ladies abseiling down giant gun barrels and so forth – and then being thrust into One Man and His Dog. Actually, the experience is stranger than that, because Dougray Scott, playing the archetypal outlaw in insecure retirement, appears to be speaking in some odd alien dialect.

“We’re hoving a berba,” he says by way of announcing his partner’s pregnancy. A glance at the RTÉ Guideconfirms that the Scottish actor is playing a reformed hoodlum from Manchester. Do they mean the Manchester that lies in the centre of the largest continent on the planet Brogdar?

Written by the talented Frank Deasy, author of the most recent Final Suspect, and directed by Brian Kirk, who helmed the fine Irish film Middletown, the opening episode of Father and Son proved to be a reasonably involving piece of work. One of the keys to The Wire’ssuccess was its ability to tie together a multitude of apparently unconnected stories, and Deasy makes sure to scatter the shattered pieces of his own narrative far and wide. In Wicklow, Scott, a latter-day Shane, contemplates an apparently happy existence with teacher Flora Montgomery. In Manchester, the reliably charismatic Sophie Okonedo, possessor of the saddest eyes in acting, becomes even glummer when her nephew gets arrested for murdering a gang member. In Dublin, by talking even slower and more deliberately than usual, Stephen Rea indicates that his mysterious character is almost certainly a very bad egg indeed. By the end of the opening chapter, sufficient of these plot strands have bumped into one another to give the piece coherence, but enough remains obscure to maintain the viewer’s curiosity.

Yet, for all the gritty production design and flashy editing, there remains something slightly off-beam about Father and Son. Did I mention The Wire? Well, that series – we promise never to speak of it again – was rightly celebrated for its very sure sense of place. After five seasons, the average viewer might reasonably feel that, given enough bricks, he could build his own Baltimore without glancing at a map. Deasy appears to have something important and specific to say about gang culture in Manchester, but, filmed largely in Dublin, the series cannot hope to breathe genuine Mancunian air. Even before Simon Delaney pops up as an uncommunicative prison guard, the average Dublin viewer, having spotted familiar roofs and corners, will find his credulity stretched to breaking point. Punters in Lancashire may, I’m afraid, begin throwing pies at the screen the moment they hear Scott speaking fluent Brogdarian.

I WAS REMINDED of Dougray Scott’s peculiar performance while watching Channel 4’s impressively subtle documentary Revelations: How to Find God. At one point in Jon Ronson’s investigation of a particular set of Christian propagandists, a colourless English minister began speaking in very mild tongues. “Krashni, felvor, sumshot. We’re hoving a berba,” he didn’t quite say.

Anybody familiar with Ronson’s work will know that – unlike, say, Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins – he was never likely to plunge a rhetorical knife into the believers’ philosophical entrails. His technique involves making friends with his subjects and, when their guard is down, trusting them to do what such people do when they have enough rope.

It would, anyway, have seemed mean-spirited to start machine-gunning an organisation that prides itself on its niceness. Devised by a neatly dressed, apparently unthreatening man named Nicky Gumbel, the Alpha course seeks to gently persuade spiritually inclined agnostics that Christianity might provide the answers to life’s big scary questions. The process combines lectures and weekends in the country – more like cookery outings than evangelical gatherings – with seminars during which one group of unbelievers fires questions at carefully prepared Alpha operatives.

Much of the first half of the programme played out like an episode of The Vicar of Dibley. The agnostics, whose decision to attend the course surely indicated an openness to persuasion, were treated with a degree of respect, the food looked rather delicious and the lectures were delivered with little brimstone and less fire. Commenting on Gumbel’s own speech, Ronson, a master at sowing seeds of suspicion, remarked upon the leader’s “Tony Blair-like delivery”.

As the documentary progressed, the Anglican chumminess became ever more insidious and one began to wish for an outbreak of snake-handling or witch-burning. At least, you know where you stand with those damp- haired American evangelists in their fetid tents. Indeed, it came as a genuine relief when Sharon, one of the Alpha mentors, frustrated at the attendees’ unwillingness to bend to her will, succumbed to an outburst of gentle anger. Rich, her mild-mannered partner, had just explained how God had once spoken to him on a bus, but members of the seminar seemed unwilling to take this information at face value. Our Sharon, unmistakably Northern Irish in tone and aspect, cast the smiley mask aside and rounded on a dissenter. Glowering like Bernadette McAliskey among RUC officers, she spat: “That’s really patronising.” Everyone looked slightly frightened.

SUMMER IS SUPPOSED to be a wretched time for any television that doesn’t involve balls being propelled over nets, but last week’s schedules contained an abundance of good new documentaries. As well as the John Ronson programme, one could enjoy NASA: Triumph and Tragedy, a fine BBC2 examination of that space agency, and, on BBC1, a very enjoyable study of the durable English painter David Hockney.

A Bigger Picture, made for the Imagine. . . strand, was not, in truth, particularly well made. The voiceover never failed to state the bleeding obvious and the digital photography was often a tad messy. But Hockney emerged as one of the most commendably stubborn of creative English eccentrics.

Forty years ago, with his shaggy blonde hair and mad glasses, he appeared to be animated by the essence of groovy England. Yet, whenever he opened his mouth, his flat vowels and obstinate hatred of pretention revealed his origins as an impenitent Yorkshireman. Recently returned from decades of self-imposed exile in Los Angeles, Hockney seems, if anything, more rooted in the dales than ever. Indeed, standing by the road, a woolly cap clamped on his head, the painter could have been auditioning for the next vacancy in Last of the Summer Wine.

The vast many-panelled work that he constructed – a harsh, enveloping landscape – seemed monumentally impressive on screen and offered a delicious contrast with the light, crisp paintings of his youth. But the greatest work of art on display was Hockney himself. They should stuff him in a jar and place him on the empty plinth in Trafalgar Square.

tvreview@irishtimes.com

Top blokes Those gas-guzzling alpha males riding roughshod over the truth

I can’t drive and I am, on balance, inclined towards the political left, but I still find Top Gear, the BBC’s liberal-baiting, green-bashing, petrol-guzzling motoring jamboree, one of the most engaging mainstream shows on television. There is something irresistible about the unrestrained joy with which the blokey bloke-blokes go about their blokey business.

It is, however, worth noting the hypocrisy that permits the Daily Mailand its pals to ignore the show’s proudly cavalier (that’s a Vauxhall, I believe) approach towards the truth.

Two weeks ago, Jeremy Clarkson, the show’s bluff alpha male, announced that The Stig (right), the hitherto anonymous racing driver who tests the fastest cars, was none other than Michael Schumacher. Nobody quite believed it and, in last Sunday’s show, the boys were already sniggering behind their hands about the supposed revelation.

A few weeks earlier, in an interview on BBC Radio 4, a Top Gearproducer admitted that certain incidents in the documentary segments – a caravan going on fire, for instance – had been staged. Yet the Mailrefuses to call for the head of Clarkson. Could this be because the paper’s right-wing, car-kissing, hippie-burning readership is disproportionately fond of Top Gear?

On that bombshell . . .