It was just an illusion


TV REVIEW: Aftershock: Ghost LandRTÉ1, Sunday; Aftershock: Where To Now?RTÉ1, Monday; The FrontlineRTÉ1, Monday; High Street DreamsBBC1, Monday; Derren Brown InvestigatesChannel 4, Monday; The TudorsTV3, Monday

THE STRONGEST VISUAL in Aftershock: Ghost Land, the first in RTÉ’s continuing series of themed programmes exploring post-boom Ireland, was the picture of the so-called “ghost estate” in Longford. It was like a scene from one of those Chernobyl documentaries. Empty houses rotting away, broken pavements, no street lighting, rubble everywhere and pools of water that you just knew stank to high heaven.

Except there were some people living there, young homeowners who were trapped paying premium mortgages to live in an unfinished estate where sewage bubbled up outside their door in houses they knew were worthless because they were unsellable. Ronan Kelly, who made Ghost Land, is a radio documentary producer with a particular skill at getting people who have never been before a mic to open up, as in his interview with Dubliners Mark and Tracey who bought at the peak and who are now, due to unemployment, facing serious problems with their massive repayments.

Any normal (non-banker) person could see that repossessing the house from under them and their young children would be pointless – they were the clearest argument yet for some scheme to help distressed homeowners. But where Kelly’s documentary fell down badly was in not following up on who has key responsibility for these dump developments in Roscommon, Leitrim and Longford: the planners. A builder didn’t just fetch up to a field on the outskirts of a town one day with a load of bricks and start building; he got planning permission. The simple questions for the planners are: how and why?

THE BIG SHOWCASE programme in the Aftershock series was Monday night’s Where To Now?, in which Richard Curran, Dan O’Brien, Justine McCarthy and Matt Cooper presented their solutions to our current economic and political mess. The problem facing the programme makers was that these were essentially polemical essays with no obvious visuals – newspaper articles on the telly. The director’s solution was to get the presenters to walk around a lot – I was quite exhausted for Justine McCarthy – and throw in some clever camera tricks and a stirring soundtrack, but in TV terms they were flat.

Despite this (and it’s a testament to the strength of their argument), two of the presenters managed to convince. Dan O’Brien laid out a list of no-brainer reasons for electoral and Dáil reform (basically, end clientism and all the cute hoor carry-on it brings and introduce a list system to bring in specialists to the Dáil), while Richard Curran dissected our obsession with that handy soundbite, “the knowledge economy”, as our economic saviour.

Curran is the real star of all this. He has bragging rights the size of Greenland (which he seems too modest to use) because in April 2007 he made a TV programme called Future Shock where he called the property crash, said it was going to get worse and unpicked Bertie’s fabulous economic miracle, pointing out that it was a mirage based on a tax break-fuelled construction industry. Curran, a Sunday Business Post journalist, needed thick skin to deal with the ensuing criticism (he was widely called sensationalist – oh for those innocent times) and his argument this week about the nonsense of putting all our eggs in the “knowledge economy” basket made even more sense.

AFTERWARDS, Pat Kenny’s Frontline programme discussed the four presenters’ proposals – though by that time you’d need to be a masochist to stay tuned to hear even more depressing news. One audience member’s comment did break through, however, and harked back to Richard Curran’s questioning of the obsession with the “knowledge economy”. “We need to make things that people want to buy,” he said, simply. He was largely ignored.

FOR ANYONE WITH a mind to follow that man’s advice and look to make something, High Street Dreamsis essential viewing. The idea is that two proven business people – marketing genius Jo Malone and serial entrepreneur Nick Leslau – work with people who have ideas but don’t know how to bring them to market. It’s not Dragon’s Den, where it’s as much a kiss-up to the dragons as it is a help for budding business people; here it’s all about the product, not the mentors. (Though I initially tuned into just to see Jo Malone – whose story about inventing a mega-successful luxury global perfume brand with a very Irish name has to be fascinating.)

In the first programme (of six) they chose two small-scale food producers and mentored them for three months to see if their products had potential. The food sector is the most competitive one to crack and, according to Leslau, supermarket shoppers take just three seconds to decide which brand to buy. Because of volumes, getting stocked in a supermarket is the holy grail.

Mr Singh had been making his hot chilli sauce in his garden shed for 25 years, and it was a small family business with the seven Singhs sticking on labels in their front room and chopping chillies while watching the telly.

Roland and Miranda were much posher, young farmers who left jobs in the City to raise Angus cattle and make handmade burgers. They were passionate but a bit naive, with only their farmers’ market experience to guide them. After rigorous mentoring and market research (lots of setbacks and tears), their pitch to Sainsburys was successful. Seeing the elderly Singh jump to his feet in excitement, his red turban bobbing, when Asda said they wanted to stock his sauce would bring a tear to your eye faster than the hottest chilli.

ONE BUSINESS that seems recession-proof is anything to do with psychics. In Derren Brown Investigates, the magician followed scouse medium Joe Power for a week as he went about his 40-quid-a-pop business of talking to the dead. On day one Power, with his flat cap and builder’s bum, was a mixture of cocky (he is the number one medium in Liverpool, after all) and awestruck at meeting Brown, whose fame he clearly wanted to emulate. As the week went on and Brown picked away at Power’s act like a schoolboy picking a scab, the tension between the two men was nearly unbearable. Power was impressive in the beginning, getting the details right when telling his first client about her dead mum and the man she used to buy eggs off (really, if someone could contact the dead for you, you’d hope they’d say something a bit more cosmically important). Power didn’t mention, though, that his sister lives next door to the client. With another woman, the spirit guide revealed she drives a Mini (oh, those dead grannies and their knowledge of car makes) and Brown, his eyebrow arching up his forehead, quickly pointed out that Power had been spotted motoring by the Mini-driving woman earlier that day.

As Power’s dreams of rivalling Derren Brown’s glittering career faded with every passing minute, the Merseyside medium got more defensive and difficult, and the build-up of tension between two made for fantastic TV. Brown suggested that Power is a dab hand at “cold reading”, an old music hall trick whereby the client gives personal information without realising it and where if the medium gets a detail wrong, he simply blames the spirit guide at his shoulder. Even in the psychic world there’s someone to blame.

Sex, lies and historical inaccuracies Another romp around the boudoir for horrid Henry and his harem

It’s in its fourth season, it’s a mini-industry in Wicklow and costume designer Joan Bergin must be exhausted picking up awards for it. Yes, The Tudors– including the most unlikely Henry VIII in the history of film, Jonathan Rhys Myers – is back. It’s 1540, and Henry has taken on his fifth queen, the beautiful teenage Katherine Howard, a girl with a past ready to catch up with her, played by Tamzin Merchant (right, with Meyers) like a southside young one who has just stepped out of her Uggs. Not too many minutes pass before the newlyweds have their fantastic, award-winning kit off. London is in the midst of a heatwave and hunky groomsman Thomas Culpepper (Torrance Coombs) has the hots for the new queen. As racy goes, it’d give Cougar Town a run for its money. Stressed-out students hoping to get a few pointers for an upcoming history paper will be disappointed – or maybe not. And incidentally, Showtime, the US TV station which commissions the series, cautions that episode one contains “rape, nudity, violence, adult language, adult content”. An examination of the dissolution of the monasteries it ain’t.