Television: A painful return to the Sligo scene of the crime

Review: ‘Where I Am’, ‘Horizon: OCD – A Monster in My Mind’, ‘The Late Review’

The subject tells the story:  the American writer Robert Drake in Where I Am, on RTÉ, about the 1999 attack, in his adopted home of Sligo, that left him with brain injuries

The subject tells the story: the American writer Robert Drake in Where I Am, on RTÉ, about the 1999 attack, in his adopted home of Sligo, that left him with brain injuries

 

As mottos go, “get better or get bitter” is a good one. Robert Drake says that choosing the former has made all the difference, although the American writer has more to be bitter about than most. In 1999 he was left brain injured after an attack in his adopted home of Sligo. It made headlines, as did the subsequent trial that saw two local men, Glen Mahon and Ian Monaghan, sentenced to eight years in prison.

I felt a twinge of shame watching the hour-long documentary Where I Am (RTÉ One, Thursday). I can’t remember the crime at all: it blended in with all the other horror headlines and got forgotten.

There was the added attention-grabbing element that Drake, who was 35 at the time, was gay. In court the defendants’ “homosexual panic defence” suggested that they thought Drake was coming on to one of them, so they lashed out. At the trial Drake’s partner, Kieran Slevin (the pair were a committed couple), was referred to as a “self-styled” partner, a description loaded with the sort of judgment you’d hope never to find in a courtroom.

The outline narrative of Where I Am is to follow Drake, who must now use a wheelchair, back to Ireland for the first time since the attack. He says he wants “to see how the last decade has been for them” – his now free attackers – “compared to how it has been for me”.

That doesn’t happen. We find out much later, when Drake is in Sligo, that Mahon and Monaghan refused to be interviewed. This throws Where I Am off its axis, as its original purpose has been diminished. There is never going to be an answer for Drake, or for viewers, about why they did it.

Ultimately, however, Pamela Drynan’s beautifully made, unflinching and sensitively edited observational film finds its own purpose. It shows the impact of the tragic event and the contrast between the urbane, handsome literary American, who was about to publish his first novel, and the brain-injured wheelchair user with a carer who has spent the intervening years recovering. It’s also a study in the power of forgiveness – Drake says he forgave the men soon after it happened – and one man’s strength in the face of dreadful adversity.

Drake moved in Dublin’s literary circles, and there are several thoughtful interviews, including with Colm Tóibín, Declan Meade and the late Dermot Healy (possibly his last filmed one). Crucial to the success and power of the film is that Drake speaks throughout. His voice is halting, in a near monotone that seems often to come with brain injury. It’s a superb decision by the film-maker to have the subject narrate his own story.

OCD – A Monster in My Mind
It’s curious the way some medical conditions become punchlines. OCD is one, as shown simply at the start of the eye-opening Horizon: OCD – A Monster in My Mind (BBC Two, Wednesday). It opens with a vox pop on a typical British high street, everyone cheerfully owning up to being “a bit OCD”: “I’m always cleaning, can’t stand an untidy kitchen”; “He likes his books neat, oh yeah, real OCD”. And then, over the course of the hour, the psychologist Uta Frith shows the condition in all its raw misery, and the attempts, with behavioural therapy and, now, neuroscience, to cure it.

There’s placid-looking Sophie, who can’t see a knife in a drawer without wondering if she has in fact picked it up and stabbed someone. When she makes a cup of tea for a friend she worries that she has added bleach to it. Then there is Richard, who must wash his hands every time he touches any surface. He wipes down his car before every use, like a forensic investigator dusting for fingerprints.

Repetitive actions, we learn – one man counts his blinks, all of them – are to stave off something worse. Several OCD sufferers whom Frith talks to believe that if they don’t do a series of sometimes peculiar, repetitive actions their entire family will die.

Seen like this, OCD looks terrifying and exhausting. We sit in on a session of cognitive behavioural therapy, a talk therapy that has proven to help. More interestingly, perhaps because it is new, we see a Dutch surgeon implanting electrodes in an OCD sufferer’s brain to stimulate the neurons that some neuroscientists now believe can help override the anxiety.

“OCD presents us with a paradox,” says Firth, who is a methodical guide to a complex mental condition – definitely not one that is casually thought of as simply a fondness for a damp J-cloth. “It suggests that mind and brain can be at odds with each other. Most of us forget it’s our brain that produces our thoughts; patients with OCD feel utterly responsible for their brains.”

Late Review
I’m not sure why TV schedulers believe that August is a nothing month, not worth bothering with except for the odd new programme surrounded by repeats. So kudos to TV3 for making an effort with its nightly Late Review (Monday-Friday), which had a different presenter every week. But it feels more like a low-key chat show than a lively review of the day’s or even the week’s events.

And the lack of new or younger voices is disappointing, both in the presenter’s chair and the guests – Pat Rabbitte, Paul Williams, etc. If you can’t try out people in a late-night, low-audience slot in August, what hope is there of anyone new getting a start?

The regular Vincent Browne stand-ins Tom McGurk and Ger Colleran have firmly set TV personas, although it was good to see Colette FitzPatrick branch out from the newsreader role and making a solid job of it, even though she had to suffer through the noisebox George Hook in an interview initiation rite on a par with root-canal surgery. This week’s presenter, Ivan Yates, shows how well his easy-going, unconfrontational though robust interviewing skills transfer from radio to TV.

But what is with the Stygian gloom on the set? It looks like Browne took all the 100-watt bulbs with him when he went on holidays and left a single energy-saving number – which Yates has to turn off as he leaves the building. Late Review really does look that low budget. More light and bit of heat next time, please.

tvreview@irishtimes.com

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