Life, hope and Led Zeppelin on the front line of the Irish health service

Television review: ‘Keeping Ireland Alive: The Irish Health Service in a Day, ‘Victoria’ and season two of ‘Narcos’


Of the many people we meet in RTÉ’s new documentary series, Keeping Ireland Alive: The Irish Health Service in a Day (Monday, RTÉ One), it’s the neurosurgeon I can’t get out of my brain.

We find David O’Brien at 7am on May 31st, greeting his patient Brendan Flanagan, a Dublin bus driver, from whose spine he will remove a lump as though it were the prize in an arcade claw machine. O’Brien explains the procedure in a professional, personable and reassuring way. Then he asks what music Flanagan would like played during surgery: Led Zeppelin? “Stairway to Heaven,” O’Brien says, laughing. “How appropriate.”

Oh, it makes me wonder.

This eight-part series opens with the kind of statistics it would rather avoid: every day 200,000 people access the Irish health service, 80 people die and 200 babies are born. It adds some figures of its own, deploying 75 cameras to 70 locations over 24 hours.

Gliding past the politics around healthcare, the programme says that it pushes “past the headlines to tell the human stories”. It’s an admirable undertaking and an incredible logistical achievement. But not even a fly on the wall can remain impartial.

They strike gold with O’Brien, who will indeed rock out during spinal surgery, demanding, “Who’s the man?” of his colleagues and later requesting high fives from his patient after (very successful) surgery. But O’Brien is what the health service needs and an emblem of the programme: someone who can empathise enough to treat his patient as a human being but not so much that he cannot do his job.

These may be also the talents you need to make the series, to consent to be in it and to watch it: a precise balance between investment and detachment. The level of access is startling and sensitively handled. You become absorbed in the stoic drama of a woman whose husband has Alzheimer’s (we see her in a rare moment of tranquillity alone in a park, while her husband sings with a Young at Heart choir) or another woman’s unswerving support for a husband suffering with advanced myopathy.

You see people’s pain, physical and emotional, yet the programme won’t dwell on it. If it’s exhausting to watch it’s because there are so many harrowing human stories that they threaten to turn back into a cloud of statistics and a list of conditions, despite the laudable efforts of the story editors.

The title accentuates the positive, and every case in the opening episode concludes with optimism. Yet the makers of this mass-observation documentary know that adequate funding and resources, and even conspicuous comforts, are few. It’s there for you when you need it, they say of the health service. Let’s keep it that way.

When the crown is finally placed on Victoria’s head it is clearly meant to be a defining moment in ITV’s new historical drama, yet it’s hard to see it as anything more than a visual gag. There it sits, several bejewelled stories high and roughly twice the size of its wearer, like a layer cake balanced precariously on a bobble-head doll.

Most of Victoria (UTV, Sunday) is occupied with an 18-year-old monarch’s desire to be taken seriously, but it’s hard to say if the show shares her conviction. For a start, if Queen Victoria were as sensitive to monarchical and gender politics as the show suggests she would be understandably miffed to find herself played by Jenna Coleman.

It’s not that Coleman, so finely featured that she could make porcelain weep, is weak in the part. Her Victoria hardly ever blinks, which Coleman uses to suggest something like indomitability. But the show will dwell on images of her feet dangling from the throne, have her kneeling beneath her dead father’s portrait to say, “I’ll do my best, Papa” and generally adore her like a doll.

To ram the point home, every time the drama’s writer, Daisy Goodwin, is in need of an overladen metaphor Victoria is shown fondling a small poppet with its own crown: the girl who would be queen.

The most preposterous parts of the plot are actually historically accurate. Lady Flora Hastings, a lady-in-waiting, really was hounded for a suspected illegitimate pregnancy, but her distended belly instead pointed to a fatal tumour.

Victoria is lost somewhere between hagiography and pop psychology: a protofeminist firebrand who wears her daddy issues on her sleeve; a progressive figure whom the camera treats like a moon-eyed hatstand. It’s a coming-of-age tale where the age will be named after her, yet, from its politics to miniature dolls, this Victorian drama must first cut its queen down to size.

As the second season of Netflix’s terrific crime drama Narcos begins, two Colombian soldiers trade nervous rumours about Pablo Escobar. One has heard that the drug-cartel leader was shot 20 times and had his ashes scattered across Medellín. Undeterred, he rose from the dead to murder his assailants while they slept. If you’ve watched any of the wild first season that doesn’t sound implausible.

After all, we’ve seen Escobar build up an international drug trade through bribery and violence, become the richest criminal in the world, win a seat in the Colombian congress and atone for nominal misdeeds by building his own luxury prison, La Catedral – from which he escapes during a firefight. (And you thought Nidge was wily.)

Narcos introduced itself last year with a note on magical realism: “When a highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something too strange to believe.” That, I hoped, would be its style: gunfights with bullets turning into rose petals; Pablo siring 19 sons all called Pablo; women given three-dimensional, rounded characters, and other such fancies. Instead the show insists that Escobar’s audacity actually twisted reality into something beyond the sensational.

Without any character to rival him, the riveting actor Wagner Moura knows it. He grounds Escobar with the eternally glum face of a friend bearing sad news. The news is that he must kill you. I gave up fact-checking the more outrageous details of Narcos – if anything they toned certain things down – because you couldn’t make this stuff up. The writers are just like those awed soldiers. With Pablo you stay out of his way.

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