Irish people are too polite to make Eating with the Enemy work

Virgin Media’s new show can’t deliver on its promise to pit clashing egos against one another

Mattress Mick features in Eating With The Enemy: The problem with this formula is that it really needs fireworks for it to work as television. Photograph: Dave Meehan

Mattress Mick features in Eating With The Enemy: The problem with this formula is that it really needs fireworks for it to work as television. Photograph: Dave Meehan

 

Virgin Media hopes to give viewers something to chew on with Eating with the Enemy (Virgin Media One, Wednesday). The big idea is that individuals with wildly contrasting views – such as those who think Revenge of the Sith is better than Return of the Jedi and vice-versa – are seated opposite at a socially-distanced table at a hotel restaurant in Dublin and encouraged to have a frank exchange of perspectives. And to even get hot and bothered should the occasion call for it.

The problem with this formula is that it really needs fireworks for it to work as television. But while many of us are only too happy to recreate scenes from Arthur Miller’s The Crucible on social media, in the flesh Irish people invariably adopt a default position of veiled politeness.

If passive aggression was an Olympic pursuit we’re be podium regulars. Pair a Donald Trump-supporter from Kilkenny with a law professor from Drogheda and with family roots in Nigeria, for instance, and chances are they’ll agree to disagree and break bread in peace.

We know this because that’s essentially how things unfold here. Kilkenny Brexiteer Luke indeed clashes with DCU assistant law professor Bashir. However, they also see one another as human beings, and their differences never escalate into an actual shouting match. Which says something positive about human nature but does not make for riveting TV.

Even more telling is the sit-down between Belfast priest Fr Joe McDonald and Dublin drag queen Bonnie Ann Clyde. Fr McDonald says he’s all for civil partnership but that he does not approve of married same-sex partners in church. That’s as fraught as things get, unless you count the moment when Fr Joe is asked his favourite winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race. He’s stumped, though he is familiar with Panti Bliss and Danny La Rue.

The conflict – or lack thereof – is monitored by clinical psychologist Malie Coyne and psychotherapist Richard Horgan. They feed the participants provocative (ish) questions via a tablet and say things like “When two different generations sit down and debate they tend to overgeneralise about each other”.

This is in the context of a tete-a-tete between soft furnishing magnate Mattress Mick (“I don’t consider myself a star – I consider myself a businessman who does things differently”) and libertarian Adam. He argues for a smaller state; Mattress Mick disagrees. But, as with the other back-and-forths, that’s as deep into the weeds as we get.

The only participant who seems to be making an effort to be over the top is “bikini pageant judge” Michael, who proclaims serial killer Ted Bundy his “hero”. Seated opposite him, Becca, whose TV superpower is that she’s thoughtful and normal, grins and bears it. She doesn’t want to discuss his worldview. She just wants to finish dinner and leave.

Eating with the Enemy, which features a wry voiceover from Pauline McLynn, is ultimately neither flesh nor fowl. It isn’t outrageous enough to trade on its promise of pitting clashing egos against one another in gladiatorial combat.

But nor does it succeed as a current affairs debate: I’m not sure, for instance, that the argument for statism vs an untrammelled free market is advanced hugely by Mattress Mick and Adam going at it.

It’s a promising idea that could have done with longer in the oven.

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