Even women of a certain age can spot a good actor when they see one


Of course Gabriel Byrne is just a stud muffin for us ladies to lust after between hoiking up our support tights and lathering on the wrinkle cream – or so Leo Varadker suggested this week – but actually even, ahem, women of a certain age can spot that he is a rather fine actor.

In Secret State (Channel 4, Wednesday), this week’s big new drama series – a four-part political thriller inspired by Chris Mullin’s A Very British Coup – he’s Tom Dawkins, a decent, thoughtful, moral deputy prime minister who is thrust into number 10 when the prime minister’s plane is apparently lost over the Atlantic. There has been a devastating explosion at a US-owned refinery in northern England – there’s lot of CGI in Secret State – and, as Dawkins takes the helm, conspiracy theories grow as evidence multiplies of big business controlling government.

A journalist with an inside source (Gina McKee) tips Dawkins off that the oil company knew the risks – texting him “whose plane” – and her character pops up at random intervals with clunky plot exposition. She’s not the only one. Dawkins’s ex-wife appears, out of the blue, to “remember what happened in Bosnia”, which was annoying and puzzling at the time but, presumably, will make sense next week.

And just as you’re wondering why the journalist with the juicy source doesn’t just write the story instead of giving all her best info to Dawkins, you start noticing all the other things that don’t quite make sense, not least the surveillance. In a heavy-handed nod to Spooks, and to lay on the thriller aspect, Dawkins and his confidant, a boozed-up former intelligence officer, are under secret surveillance.

Obviously, having been glued to Homeland, I’m an expert on covert surveillance, but I can’t figure out how the spook at GCHQ (Ruth Negga) is getting all those recordings of their every conversation – even when Dawkins is out jogging, for heaven’s sake – when there are no wires or microphones anywhere.

It’s Byrne’s first starring role in a British TV drama, and he’s convincingly British and prime ministerial, although he does rather a lot of moody staring off into space when you’d rather there was action or even dialogue. But he does superbly convey the character of an idealist coming face to face with a powerful political and business nexus. Worth watching for the super cast and the sheer glossiness of it all – if you can get by the clunky scripted signposts to what happens next.

Neanderthal, moi?

Dara Ó Briain has become one of the go-to guys for making science accessible on TV, and in his new show, Dara Ó Briain’s Science Club (BBC Two, Tuesday), the comedian is hosting another chatty, entertaining series, this time filmed in a warehouse in front of a young audience and with cool-looking boffins taking an aspect of science to go at from various angles.

The opener looked at genetics and hereditariness. “The most important event in human evolution was the invention of the bicycle,” said the renowned geneticist Prof Steven Jones, explaining that people no longer had to have sex with the someone from their own village: they could go farther afield. Planes, trains and cars further helped spread our genes around – a good thing, he said, as genetic diversity is the raw material of evolution.

In a report by Ó Briain’s sidekick, his fellow comedian Ed Byrne, we learned that at one point, after Homo sapiens emerged from Africa but before they ran the Neanderthal out of Europe, a bit of interspecies mating went on. Both Byrne and Ó Brian gamely had their genes tested to see if there was a trace of Neanderthal lurking in there, and it revealed levels in the two Irishmen’s genetic make-up that they may not be bragging about, Ó Briain at 3 per cent and Byrne at 3.2 per cent.

No-frills show

RTÉ’s new daily afternoon show, Today, comes live from Cork. Its predecessor used to come live from Dublin – but, funnily enough, the presenters never thought that was worth mentioning. But from Cork? Well, it’s name-checked quite a lot. From an audience point of view the programme comes from the telly; it shouldn’t matter where it’s filmed.

Although Today is new, it’s very familiar. RTÉ’s last afternoon magazine offering had Maura Derrane doing the sofa-friendly stuff – health, beauty, fashion and food – before handing over to Claire Byrne and Dáithí Ó Sé, who rattled through newsy stories with a panel of often baffled-looking guests. The content is the same, but Byrne has moved on to more serious things – she’s on Prime Time from the new year – so from Monday to Thursday (the presenters change on Friday) it’s Derrane and Ó Sé doing a cut-price mash-up of the previous two programmes from behind a puzzlingly large desk in a pink, blue and white studio that’s as bright as a dental surgery.

The show is as no frills as the name, wearing its low budget like a badge of recessionary honour. When guests can’t come to the studio – in Cork – they’re interviewed in what appears to be a badly lit photobooth, their faces looming down on Ó Sé and Derrane from a giant screen. They’ve lost that daytime-TV staple of a kitchen in the studio, replaced by filmed inserts of well-known chefs cooking in their own kitchens. “Every afternoon we’ll have some simple family-friendly food,” said Ó Sé, peering at the autocue like a man deciphering an optician’s chart before adding, “Or, in other words, some shtuff you’d like to cook yourself.”

On Monday, Bullyproof’s David Coleman talked so much that his fellow panellists were like ornaments, but by Wednesday there was more chat from a different set of panellists – about US elections and cancer. It’s dull, though. Today looked as if it had been churning it out for years, and not in a good way.

Kitchen boy wonder

Today had tasty daytime competition from Junior MasterChef (BBC One, Monday-Friday), where Donal Skehan, our TV-kitchen boy wonder, is the latest Irish talent to cross the water. He’s the new judge on the young version of the cooking competition, and he’s as friendly and kind as it’s right to be when the chefs are about 11 years old. The comedian and writer Sharon Horgan provided an upbeat and warm voiceover – and, yes, I know that by name-checking all the amazing Irish people on UK television this week I’m starting to sound like the mammy in the Kerrygold ad moaning about us exporting all our best stuff, but it’s unavoidable.

Ones to watch: Love/Hate and Sculpting Space

Scoby trackies, drug deals, sex and violence: Nidge is now the main man in Love/Hate, which returns for a third series on RTÉ One on Sunday.

If that doesn’t appeal, you might prefer to tune into Colin Dunne: Sculpting Space, a documentary tracing the journey of the acclaimed Irish dancer from his childhood championship days to Riverdance and his critically admired solo work. It’s on Sky Arts tonight.

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