Television: Bob Geldof busts his baggage allowance in a poetry-political broadcast

Review: ‘A Fanatic Heart’, ‘Children of the Revolution’ and ‘The Night Manager’

Bob Geldof and Van Morrison in A Fanatic Heart, a biography of WB Yeats

Bob Geldof and Van Morrison in A Fanatic Heart, a biography of WB Yeats

 

‘The 1916 commemoration on O’Connell Street was like a bad North Korea-type military parade with emotionally overblown television coverage” – no, not even Bob Geldof could be that argumentative, that provocative. He isn’t talking about 2016 commemorations – RTÉ’s coverage of last weekend’s national display of confidence was impeccable – it is his jabbing opener to the second part of his polemical biography of WB Yeats, A Fanatic Heart (RTÉ One, Thursday).

This week’s instalment (written by Geldof and Roy Foster) covers the poet’s life from 1916 – giving Geldof the opportunity to recall his teenage revulsion at the 1966 commemorations – to the poet’s death in 1939.

Last week’s first part focused on the poet’s early years as a writer. Here, Geldof’s near hagiography of Willy (as he calls him, which is probably historically accurate but seems plain wrong) continues by arguing that rather than dying for Ireland, like those narcissistic blood-sacrifice rebels, Yeats brought about a true sense of nationhood and real change through his poetry and statesman presence in the new Republic.

Yeats, says Geldof, spent decades publicly railing against the “clerical coup d’etat” that characterised the newly independent Ireland. A detour into the great poet’s personal life is always lively because of his obsession with his sexual prowess and his blind belief in mysticism – this is a man who got married at 52 because his horoscope told him to. But all this has been well-covered in Maurice Sweeney’s fine 2014 documentary No Country for Old Men.

What Geldof brings to this poetry-political broadcast is his bulging address book of celebrities happy to do a party piece, reading snippets of Yeats poems. To name but a few, there’s Bill Nighy, Sting, Richard E Grant, Bono, Edna O’Brien, Ardal O’Hanlon, Noel Gallagher and Liam Neeson: some read twice, some are more irritatingly actory than others.

There’s mischief afoot too: Van Morrison reads a poem directly after Geldof describes the now older Yeats as “a contrary aul’ fella”, Stephen Fry intones “That lively lad most pleasured me” and Shane McGowan recites a few lines about drink (I don’t know from which poem, I couldn’t make it out).

Geldof isn’t a neutral presenter: he is way over his allowance in terms of the baggage he brings to the film, making it in great part as much about his conflicting feelings about Ireland as Yeats’s. For example, of the new State’s kowtowing to Rome, “it was all ‘father, oh father’,” he says, mimicking an old woman addressing a priest, then in his own angry voice: “F**k off, you’re not my father.”

The feelings of the man who co-wrote pop hit Banana Republic are the rocket fuel propelling this always engaging, colourful and starry two-part biographical film.

“The two-year-old who died for Ireland”: not so catchy, is it? Not something you’d want to grab your bodhrán and squeezebox and write a come-all-ye about. I wonder was it shame that made the children who died during Easter Week 1916 disappear?

They weren’t mentioned at all during the 1966 commemoration, says broadcaster Joe Duffy in his terrific documentary Children of the Revolution (RTÉ One, Sunday), and if they are mentioned in history books it is briefly and often inaccurately.

Duffy’s three-year research project came about out of curiosity, to answer what he thought was surely an obvious and already well-answered question: how many children died in the Rising? It turned out no one knew. The radio broadcaster’s meticulous academic research discovered there were 40 children – collateral damage in Easter week. Some were killed by the rebels, some by British snipers, most were innocent bystanders, a few were taking part.

To bring the story to life, child actors re- enact some scenes (and that works because it is a dramatic device that is used sparingly), such as when 12-year-old Madge Veale was shot by British soldiers as she looked out the back window of her house on Haddington Road. She was wearing a green jumper and the soldiers mistook her for a rebel.

Fifteen-year-old Eleanor Warbrook, whose two brothers had already died in the first World War, hit one of the rebels with a stick and he shot her in the face – you can see why that horrific vignette was airbrushed out of history.

Duffy is a big softie. It is clear how emotionally connected he feels to the stories, how real the children are to him. He creates vivid images without the cool distance we are used to when we’ve seen professional historians. Children of the Revolution is a poignant programme, a powerful addition to the story of 1916.

There was always going to be a satisfying, neat ending to the compelling The Night Manager (BBC1, Sunday). It’s not the one in the John le Carré novel but that’s the buy-in when you start watching a glossy espionage TV thriller. Then there is the fact that the baddie Richard Roper (Hugh Laurie) is introduced to us in episode one (of six) as “the worst man in the world”, and his nemesis is the crime-fighting duo of heavily pregnant Angela Burr (Olivia Colman) and the startlingly handsome Jonathan Pine (Tom Hiddleston).

In the series finale, Pine is back where he started at the doors of the hotel in Cairo, except now he is a fully fledged secret agent, not the humble night manager. He has given Roper his comeuppance, stopped the arms deal, blown up the weapons and saved the girl (or Burr did in between some safe-cracking Spooks-like activity).

It’s best to park your implausibility meter, though, from the ongoing plot problem of Roper’s inability to spot Pine as the leak in his organisation (the trouble obviously started when Pine arrived) to just about every scene back in Whitehall, where we are to believe the mandarins are complicit in the arms deal and then get away with it.

Then there’s the big credibility strainer: the tense set piece at the end where Pine, his cover blown, is given free use of the mobile phone. As an audition for the next James Bond though – Daniel Craig has almost certainly hung up his blue togs – The Night Manager has been a perfect vehicle for Hiddleston right through to the last episode where he goes to the casino, orders a vodka martini, kills the one-dimensional Arab character Freddie in the swimming pool and emerges soaking, only to appear in the casino moments later bone dry – although in fairness that was probably a continuity mistake rather than a super spy move.

Ones to Watch: A ‘timberlog’ and a new BBC drama
Not a so much a travelogue as a timberlog: Manchán Magan travels the country finding exceptional specimens of native trees. The first episode of the 10-part Crainn na hÉireann (TG4 Tuesday) looks to the most commonly recognisable of all the trees, the Scots Pine.

There are high hopes for new drama series Undercover (BBC1, Sunday) simply because of the exceptional duo leading the cast: Sophie Okonedo as lawyer Maya Cobbina and Adrian Lester (left) as her husband Nick, who isn’t all that he appears.

tvreview@irishtimes.com

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