Patrick Freyne: Judgmental TV at its very best

At Your Service: The Brennan Brothers tackle Irish hospitality in a very Irish way

Francis and John Brennan are ‘At Your Service’. Photograph: RTÉ

Francis and John Brennan are ‘At Your Service’. Photograph: RTÉ

 

Imagine Francis Brennan emerging out of the mist like an unholy hybrid of Mary Poppins, Miggeldy Higgins and the Littlest Hobo in order to deliver a gentle opinion about a cafe, hotel, B&B, gin joint, brothel or communal village food trough.

This is the premise of At Your Service (RTÉ 1, Sunday), part of a particularly Irish subgenre of judgmental television programmes in which we get to watch our pantheon of household gods – Dermot Bannon, Majella and Daniel O’Donnell, Dr Eva Orsmond, Socky – pronounce upon the health/ renovation/ business/ fashion choices of that infamous shmuck, the man next door.

In this instance, hotelier Francis Brennan is pronouncing on those in the hospitality industry and the ideal subject of the programme makers is a half-mad hillperson, who fires frozen pies at starving locals through the windows of a rusty van (the height of cuisine in Kildare when I was a boy).

Francis is, technically, one half of a twinset known as the Brennan Brothers. However, for most people the “brothers” bit is silent and the “Brennan” bit is pronounced “Francis Brennan”. This is unfortunate for poor John Brennan, who is very likeable but has his excitability dial set at “four” and not at “11” like Francis, who is, as we speak, probably getting in a flap about wallpaper.

“I’m just as God made me,” I imagine John intoning into the mirror while considering an attention-grabbing image change. “Maybe in the next series I’ll come back with a striking eye patch or a generic ‘foreign’ accent or naked from the waist down.”

Scratch that, on closer inspection he’s done all three this season and yet Francis still stole focus.

A ‘character’

Francis is what we in Ireland call “a character”, which traditionally means that the Christian Brothers have failed to crush someone’s spirit. He has snow white hair like a happy sheepdog, a pocket square that changes colour over the course of an episode and a voice that shifts pitch like a haunted theremin. He keeps his spectacles on a string around his neck and peers through them on occasion to examine the sins of mankind or a nice piece of cake.

He is also the host of a strange show called Francis Brennan’s Grand Tour in which he takes a busload of Irish naïfs who’ve never seen an en suite or tasted a spice or missed the Late Late Show and drives them through an exotic land and, if I get my way as an amateur TV commissioner, a conflict zone (I’m not being mean; I genuinely think Brennan could deal masterfully with this situation).

Although Francis and John seemingly reside in the opulent and grand Park Hotel Kenmare where they are pictured at intervals discussing the affairs of man like the Gods of Olympus, they apparently never travel by car and are always depicted arriving and leaving on foot, like Hercules or Jesus or Bruce Banner. At the end of tomorrow’s episode (spoiler alert for those of you who are watching this as though it were a HBO drama), they even whistle and do a little jig as they saunter on down the road. Which is fair enough.

Brennan doesn’t always use his legs though. Oh no. Sometimes he just materialises in a manner that objectively scares the s**t out of people. “Hello!” he says at one point in the middle of last week’s episode, in a voice pitched at the top range of human hearing. “Oh my God!” cries that week’s victim, Julie Kiersey, having not known he was in the room.

Kiersey, of the coincidentally named Kiersey’s Bar and Tea Room in Kilmacthomas, knows that something metaphysical is afoot. “Please God, Francis was sent to me for a reason,” she says early on, possibly forgetting that she applied to be on the show and that Brennan didn’t just turn up randomly looking for work like Michael Landon in Highway to Heaven (though this would also be a good premise for a drama).

It won’t be easy, Francis warns her. “You’ll have grey hairs like me,” he says, tapping her on the arm as he anticipates the changes ahead.

Small talk

Another thing: Francis, like your best and worst neighbours, speaks entirely in mystical eruptions of small talk. This is, despite the lies spread by West Brits and Gaeilgeoirs alike, the true language of our people. So there’s “The weather has been grand and dry hasn’t it?” and plenty of random: “Oh hoo hoo!”s and “How are ye?”s.

Francis says these things charismatically with deep feeling and it will be a long time before the Facebook algorithm manages to replicate the intonation. Suffice it to say, such apparently meaningless exclamations grease the wheels of our culture and can be found in the Tain and in Beckett.

I’m not going to go into too much detail about the make-over itself because unlike Room to Improve, which this show replaces in the Sunday schedule, it doesn’t come with wailing and gnashing of teeth. Nonetheless a slightly subdued business is, once again, rendered charming by the ministrations of (the) Brennan (brothers).

There’s a bit of a paint job and a clear out and a new bike rack and a mural and the national dish of jelly and ice cream is replaced and there’s talk of quinoa and it’s all in time for the opening of Waterford’s Greenway (the location for Death Race 2018, I believe). Ultimately Francis is politely impressed by it all: “Oh listen, isn’t it unbelievable? Is it the same place?”

To which the only response is: It is, Francis. You’ve been here the whole time.

By the end of the show there’s a party at which both Francis and Julie seem to spiral into a gentle panic at the swarm of curious townsfolk and it ends with Francis behind the counter as though he owns the place. Perhaps he does. Is this all a sophisticated protection racket that will end with the Brennan Brothers burning the place down for the insurance money? The lawyers tell me not.

At the same time, Francis is also strangely detached. Unlike Dermot Bannon, who frequently ends episodes of Room to Improve being stretchered out by paramedics while gibbering about windows, Francis Brennan’s busy energy and giddy chatter belie a certain zen-like serenity. And so, their work done, the Brennan Brothers just wander off into the street where they presumably ascend into heaven. By which I mean Park Hotel Kenmare.

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