Charlie's Antarctic expedition leaves Crean out in the cold

 

TV REVIEW:TOM CREAN’S story has everything: courage, endurance, ambition and, at its core, the inspiring story of a teenager who left Kerry more than 100 years ago to become a great explorer. And it’s got the Antarctic, a mesmerisingly beautiful location. What could possibly go wrong? Enter Charlie Bird, traipsing through the ice in a vanity project of such epic proportions that all you can do is secretly admire the neck of RTÉ’s chief news correspondent’s neck and hope that Tom Crean has stopped spinning in his grave.

“Long before he was fashionable for many people, I had this great interest in Tom Crean,” said Bird, letting his ego off the leash and putting us all in our place before he set off. The big idea was in the title: Charlie Bird on the Trail of Tom Crean(RTÉ1, Monday). Except it wasn’t that at all. For a clue to who this two hours of expensive TV was really about, just look who got first billing.

There were so many Mr Bean moments. On the icebreaker taking him to the Antarctic he did a Kate Winslet in Titanic, gripping the railing as the waves crashed around him and his voice-over talked about a force-10 storm. Not that he had to stand there, of course – he could have sat below deck, having an aperitif like the other tourists – but he never missed an opportunity to tell us how much he was suffering for his art.

“I’m trying to understand the difficulties faced by these men,” said Bird, sitting snug in his seat as an aeroplane brought him deep into the Antarctic and close to the pole. If he was so keen, why wasn’t he slogging across the ice with a donkey? That’s what Crean did. And Crean famously didn’t make it to the South Pole – or, as Bird kept calling it, “the very bottom of the earth” – but Bird went there anyway “to complete the journey for him”.

For a presenter of a travelogue he comes across as curiously unsuited to travel. It was bitterly cold, he told us several times (that’s the Antarctic for you), he got a headache and – boohoo – a cold, and the camera lingered way too long on his bare foot as he bandaged a small blister. “Crean must have wondered what he let himself in for, as I am starting to wonder myself,” he said in his toasty padded jacket while being guided along by Ronny, a buff Norwegian who, in answer to Bird’s whiny question about how difficult it was going to be, calmly said: “It’s not a very hard trip.”

It wasn’t entirely Bird’s fault the programme was a shambles: the direction too Charlie-centric and the script poor. Too many shots of the presenter walking across the ice going nowhere in particular and too many close-ups of him obscuring the magnificent icebergs in the background. And too many vacuous lines such as, “This place contains 90 per cent of the world’s ice,” or, “It’s like parachuting on to another planet.”

The redeeming element of the whole enterprise was Herbert Ponting’s 100-year-old footage from Crean’s original trip, which never loses its fascination. There is a superb, inspiring programme to be made about Crean (the BBC did one on Shackleton), but this isn’t it.

THAT MOTHER TERESA, Nobel Prize-winning humanitarian, ever lived in Ireland was news to me and, I suspect, many others, which made Mother Teresa, 123 Springhill Avenue(BBC1, Monday) fascinating viewing. She arrived in 1971 with four other missionary sisters to live in a house in Ballymurphy, a deprived Catholic estate in Belfast. They discreetly brought food to the poor, set up sewing and secretarial classes to provide vocational education for the teenagers, and were warmly welcomed by the community.

But, 18 months after their arrival, they left so suddenly that many suspected they had been run out of town by Canon Murphy, the parish priest, who had throughout their stay done nothing to hide his displeasure at their presence. He was of the view, as one contributor put it, that “we send missionaries there; they don’t send them here”.

Many contributors recounted how rude he was to Mother Teresa and about her work. He is dead now, but the official Church line is that she was not forced out; a letter written by Mother Teresa was produced from the church archives, suggesting she left of her own accord. But locals remembered differently. At the time Sr Eileen Sweeney challenged Murphy about the missionaries’ sudden departure and was told if she didn’t like it she could go too. When she pointed out that she had just signed a contract to teach at the local school, he had that contract revoked, leaving her little option but to leave also.

Fr Des Wilson, who had invited Mother Teresa to Belfast, thought that although Murphy may not have explicitly told her to go, he created an environment “like constructive dismissal” that made it impossible for her to stay.

A well-made documentary, it couldn’t offer definitive answers about why she left, because the key players are dead and the paper trail is incomplete. But it did capture what life was like in this troubled corner of Belfast 40 years ago and how much control the local priest wielded. It was also a reminder that so much of the Troubles was filmed; the archive footage was powerful, particularly the opening shot of a young boy in the community centre belting out the republican anthem The Men Behind the Wire as if his life depended on it.

TOM CREAN’S STORY is well known, but another giant of an Irishman (literally), the Tyrone man Charles Byrne, is less remembered. Charles Byrne: An Fathach Éireannach(TG4, Saturday) told two stories in parallel: that of Byrne, known in the 18th century as the Irish Giant, and Brendan Holland, a modern giant who was on a quest to discover if there is a genetic link between them.

Byrne left Tyrone in 1780, at 20, to seek his fortune in London. The gentry paid to see the 8ft young man, but the pressure of being a one-man freak show, alone in a very foreign city, made him drink to excess. That, combined with ill health and the ominous interest of John Hunter, a celebrated surgeon who was so determined to get hold of Byrne’s body that he had a man follow him in case he fell down dead, led to Byrne’s death at the age of 22. Two hundred years later Holland, then a young man himself, travelled to London, where he was diagnosed as a pituitary giant. He was successfully treated, and although he is still tall enough for people to stare, he is a foot shorter than Byrne.

Science brought the two stories together. A DNA test found that tissue from the Irish Giant’s skeleton (Hunter had got his way) was a match for Holland’s. This was an unusual documentary that successfully and entertainingly blended Georgian history with the present, and combined folklore with the latest genetic testing.

Byrne’s sad story wasn’t so much a story of emigration: it was an adventure that went wrong.


tvreview@irishtimes.com

What not to miss next week 

The Million Pound Drop(Channel 4, Friday), Davina McCall’s live quiz, is nail-biting stuff.

The way it’s set up, it’s hard to see anyone bagging the million, but it’s fun watching them try their luck.