Back in the USSR: Fionn Davenport’s arts show has a red scare

Radio Review: After a slow start, the RTÉ presenter offers a vivid portrait of the Soviet Union

Comedy, the saying goes, is tragedy plus time. The veracity of this proposition is one of the issues on Inside Culture (RTÉ Radio 1, Monday), in a special edition on the centenary of the Bolshevik revolution. But after listening to art historians talk earnestly to presenter Fionn Davenport about the cultural legacy of the bloody upheavals in Russia 100 years ago, another formulation comes to mind: tragedy plus time equals arid academia.

Davenport regularly approaches his brief from refreshing angles, so it’s natural he should look at the 1917 revolution. But initially at least, the programme has all the febrile revolutionary energy of a seminar session on structural Marxism.

The presenter talks to various academics about topics such as avant-garde Communist artist Gustav Klutsis and the pioneering design work of the early Soviet Union. These are intriguing subjects, but get bogged down in arcane detail and opaque jargon, culminating in stirring phrases such as “the work becomes celebrated for its formal innovation and less for its connection to social praxis”. As a rallying cry, it’s not quite “Workers of the world, unite!”

The turning point, ironically enough, comes from the staunchly anti-communist Peter Hitchens, who criticises the film The Death Of Stalin for treating its eponymous subject matter as a comic affair. Despite his reputation as a fire-breathing right-wing columnist, Hitchens in this instance comes across as reasoned and laconic, wondering whether profane slapstick is the appropriate way to portray the demise of a ruler responsible for millions of deaths. As to why Stalin's crimes are less well-known than those of the Nazis, Hitchens drily notes, "we're stuck with the problem that Stalin was our principal ally against Hitler."


Hip-hop fan

Thus moving from the lecture theatre to the wider world, the programme moves on to vivid vignettes of everyday life under communism. Dublin-based Peter Sadowski recalls life as a hip-hop fan in the repressive Poland of the 1980s (“it was like freedom”) , while Russian artist Varvara Shavrova remembers listening to western radio broadcasts amid the white noise caused by Soviet efforts to jam transmission signals. (Feel free to insert your own joke about the desirability of jamming certain Irish presenters.)

Davenport concludes by interviewing Russian-American author Masha Gessen, who paints a bleak picture not only of the past – she likens the experience of Soviet rule to collective psychological trauma – but the present too. It's a fascinating conversation, as Gessen talks about president Vladimir Putin's authoritarian rule resting on a populist appeal to an "imagined past . . . when nothing strange existed in your world, like queer people".

The habitually well-briefed Davenport keeps the interview moving in interesting directions, as well as impressing his guest with his Russian pronunciation. After a shaky start, the show becomes something much more informative and engaging. Revolution is well and good, but steady progress has its virtues too.

The interview highlights how abuse is perpetuated and hushed up

The passage of time can't lessen some horrors. On Tuesday, sexual abuse survivor Amy Barrett appears on Today with Sean O'Rourke (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays) following the conviction of her father, former soldier Gerry O'Keefe, for raping her when she was a child. Barrett's account of her five-year ordeal is chilling: O'Rourke warns that the "very distressing" content "may not be for young ears", which may underestimate the sensitivities of older listeners.

Under control

Barrett keeps her emotions firmly under control as she describes her father’s “routine”, recalling her “physical pain” and her confusion. “I thought this is maybe just what dads do,” she says. (O’Keefe also sexually abused Amy’s younger sister Melissa.) Mercifully, there isn’t much graphic detail: when O’Rourke says that “I don’t want to put you through any more pain than you’ve had to endure”, he is greeted by a brief but telling silence.

The interview highlights how abuse is perpetuated and hushed up. “Dad was such a controlling person that you wouldn’t cross him,” Barrett says. She comes across as incredibly resilient, but is also starkly honest, talking about how she still loves him. O’Rourke, sounding thrown by this, asks an unusually cack-handed question: “Would you visit him?” No, comes the answer, “not unless he could really say sorry from his heart.” Barrett’s story is, alas, sickeningly familiar, but her grim insights assure the interview avoids gratuitous voyeurism, even if her pain clearly remains.

Considerably less edifying is the bunfight hosted by O'Rourke on the long-delayed Public Health (Alcohol) Bill, as Eunan McKinney of Alcohol Action Ireland clashes with Patricia Callan of the Alcohol Beverage Federation of Ireland about proposed curbs to the advertising and sale of drink. The battle lines are predictable, with McKinney favouring more stringent measures while Callan opposes curbs to the multibillion euro industry she represents.


That said, Callan’s stance is strikingly pugnacious, going beyond the usual drink industry mantras about preferring education to restrictions. Using tactics used by other besieged industries from tobacco to fossil fuels, she highlights findings that go against otherwise overwhelming industry, citing one report that “moderate drinking actually improves your chance of a longer life”. “People consume alcohol in their life, they’re happy, they’re balanced,” she says.

Perhaps Callan should have tuned into O’Rourke’s show on Monday, when roving reporter Paddy O’Gorman hears from a young man outside court in Gort who has escaped imprisonment for a drunken misdemeanour. “I think drink is a massive problem for people like me,” the man tells O’Gorman. Or, as McKinney puts it the next day: “We have a public health crisis.” Callan’s reply is as curt as it is blinkered. “We do not.” Faced with this, you have to laugh or else you’ll cry.

Radio Moment of the Week: Dobbo’s wobble

Former television news anchor Bryan Dobson is settling nicely into his new berth on Morning Ireland (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays), even if his outsized onscreen image looms so large that in his new, less stentorian environment he sometimes calls to mind an aircraft carrier put on fishery protection duties. But there are reassuringly human slips. On Monday, he discusses sexual harassment allegations in the theatre and cultural world with the director of the Arts Council, who he introduces as "Orla Brady". All good, except that Orla Brady is an Irish actor. Dobson's guest is, in fact, Orlaith McBride. If Dobbo blushes at his mistake, we don't see him.