Television: Banged up abroad – a Peruvian drug story that just can’t keep its distance

A documentary on Michaella McCollum Connolly, jailed in Peru for drug smuggling, gets too close to her family for cool appraisal

Visiting time: Samantha McCollum and Norah McCollum in “Michaella, Peru and the Drugs Run” (RTÉ One, Monday)

Visiting time: Samantha McCollum and Norah McCollum in “Michaella, Peru and the Drugs Run” (RTÉ One, Monday)


It’s every parent’s nightmare – or at least those with a vivid imagination: daughter goes to Ibiza for the summer to work and ends up, five weeks later, in a Peruvian jail, banged up for six years for drug smuggling. It’s a classic cautionary tale, which is why Michaella McCollum Connolly’s story, Michaella, Peru and the Drugs Run (RTÉ One, Monday) is so compelling.

She is, by circumstance, a distant presence in the documentary, in the news footage and on airport CCTV at the heart-stopping moment a customs officer goes through her drug-filled suitcases. The closest we get to her is at the gates of the jail, when we follow her sister Samantha and mother Norah as they travel from Northern Ireland on their first visit.

In interviews before and after that visit they express their confusion and shock but offer no insight as to why she did it. Their apparent lack of curiosity seems odd. The Peruvian drugs control staff have plenty of theories. Drug mules are arrested every day in Lima airport, and they’ve noticed a “feminisation” of the trade: young women, poor, with little education, from large families. McCollum Connolly ticks all the boxes, so hers is a relatively ordinary story after all.

Through interviews with the owners of bars where she hung out, we get a good overview of the raucous drug- and drink-fuelled party scene in Ibiza and how easy it is for an unprepared, naive woman to make bad choices there. The picture it paints of McCollum Connolly’s hedonistic time in the tacky resort isn’t pretty but it’s ultimately sympathetic. A Peruvian drugs official suggests that McCollum Connolly’s co-accused Melissa Reid is the leader – although he gives no evidence to back up that opinion.

Maybe spending so much time with her mother and sister made a cool, distanced appraisal of the young woman’s character and actions more difficult for the programme-makers.

McCollum Connolly concocted a transparent lie about how she and Reid were kidnapped and made to smuggle the drugs, but she soon cracked. It took Lance Armstrong (The Armstrong Lie, Channel 4, Monday) a professional lifetime to tell the truth. Made by Oscar-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney, this superb feature-length documentary was originally titled The Road Back; the name-change tells much about the film’s trajectory.

Gibney starts making an access-all-areas film to chart Armstrong’s comeback attempt to win the Tour de France in 2009. We see the cyclist’s phenomenal fundraising for cancer through his Livestrong foundation, his hero status in the US, his repeated denials of taking performance-enhancing drugs, and gruelling shots of the race. And then, in 2013, Armstrong comes clean in a TV interview with America’s mother confessor, Oprah Winfrey, and so Gibney resumes filming – with the same access to Armstrong.

Through interviews with his former backroom team and fellow cyclists, the film exposes Armstrong’s ruthless exercise of his immense power, how he systematically crushed anyone who dared challenge him on the road or over his drug-taking. Gibney also questions himself as a filmmaker: how, despite loud murmurings about drugs, he bought so completely into the Armstrong myth. He became part of the complicit machine that includes sponsors, professional cycling’s governing body, and the millions of fans who needed Armstrong to be a hero, not a cheater hiding in plain sight.

And in all this – a film mercilessly charting one of the greatest falls from grace ever in sport – Armstrong remains apologetic but unrepentant, a chilling character who believes history will judge him differently. “I don’t know what people will think in 20, 30, 40, 50 years. Will the record books still be blank? Or will they look at it in the context that it is and say, yeah, he won the Tour de France seven times.”

If history is ultimately written by the victors, it’s also been written by men, which goes some way to explaining why some extraordinary Irish women are little-known. A worthy four-part series Deirfiúracha na hEolaíochta (RTÉ One, Monday) sets out to tell the stories of four “sisters of science”. The first part focuses on Dorothy Stopford-Price, a doctor who pioneered the introduction of the BCG vaccine and from the 1930s spearheaded Ireland’s fight against TB.

One of the obstacles Stopford Price had to overcome was archbishop John Charles McQuaid, who was suspicious of her health activism mainly because she was Protestant. It’s believed this distrust delayed public TB inoculation in Ireland by 10 years. An archive shot of the archbishop in full regalia blessing an operating theatre tells a complete story in itself.

Stopford-Price seems fascinating and inspiring, and you want to immerse yourself in her story, not waste time looking at random shots of Dublin’s docklands. (Is this to make it cooler? If you’re already watching a documentary, in Irish, about a 20th-century scientist, you’re probably not particularly interested in cool.) The workmanlike style that has presenter Róisín Ní Thomáin repeatedly walking in and out of shot to deliver her pieces is also frustrating.

The feature-length Common (BBC One, Sunday), written by Jimmy McGovern, isn’t just educational – exploring the law of joint enterprise – it quickly becomes emotively polemical at the cost of satisfying drama. The UK law, to help combat gang crime, is ripe with the potential for miscarriage of justice. As one of the characters in Common explains: “It’s about getting working-class scum off our streets.”

Naive teenager Johnjo (Nico Mirallegro) is imprisoned because he unwittingly acts as the getaway driver for a murderer and his cronies. The boy is manifestly innocent but is charged and jailed. It’s wrong in this case – we get it. But McGovern can’t resist plucking the heartstrings and adding another layer of social and political commentary, exploring in lengthy scenes the grief of the dead boy’s mother (a powerful Susan Lynch), her festering relationship with the boy’s father, and her desperation to find the money to bury him. The ending feels cynical and forced, a “that’ll get ’em sniffling into their hankies” scene.

Common is superbly acted and directed but you feel hectored into agreeing with the writer’s viewpoint. Quietly, under all the shouting from the soap box, viewers need some balance to help them make up their own minds.

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