Television: High-flyer who crashed to earth – Tony O’Reilly’s airport-blockbuster life

Review: The sports star turned mogul popped up in so many places you’d swear he was Forrest Gump. Then it all went wrong

If a novelist made up the life of Tony O'Reilly the subsequent book review would surely consider it too perfect: the freckle-faced golden boy who becomes a national sporting hero, then has a master-of-the-universe business career, starting with inventing a global brand – Kerrygold, at the age of 26 – before becoming an old-school mogul with interests in oil and media. There he is on first-name terms with presidents: helping to get his pal Nelson Mandela elected, getting Ronald Reagan to promote his Ireland Funds, joking with Bill Clinton, getting a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth (since which he has preferred to be addressed as Sir Anthony). He's like Forrest Gump.

For decades O’Reilly has an annual income that makes the lotto look like loose change – and then, as he skirts his three score years and ten, he’s brought down: an investment in a crystal company leaves him ruined, his business career shattered at his feet.

As narrative arcs go it's a storybook classic. To make it a perfect airport-blockbuster read, there's a dark family secret (his parents, otherwise the epitome of 1950s-Dublin suburban respectability, had not married), two beautiful wives (he gives one of them the ring that Aristotle Onassis gave Jackie Kennedy: does it get any more fabulous?), glowingly perfect children and a vast art collection for his many mansions.

The mastery of Tony O'Reilly: The Real Deal (RTÉ One, Monday) is that it captures all this in a bare hour, balancing coverage of O'Reilly's business interests – possibly with too little detail for many – with an overview of his personal life.


I suspect, though, given the raw material, that it would be difficult to make a dry documentary about the flamboyantly successful O’Reilly, who comes across in the many archive clips of him in his prime as a magnetic, attractive man, the epitome of charm and good company.

David Murphy, RTÉ's business editor, presents in a straightforward reporting style. The film's director, Ann Marie O'Callaghan, use a fascinating mix of archive footage that fills it with atmosphere, capturing an Ireland that's so recent but seems long ago, from grainy 1970s newsreels when several high-profile businessmen were kidnapped by the IRA, and O'Reilly got bullets in the post, to an extraordinary clip of him, as a high-flying 1980s executive – a rare breed in Ireland at the time – shirt off, up on a doctor's table for his medical examination, being quizzed about the stresses in his life.

The Real Deal touches on the way that owning newspapers – particularly in Ireland, with the Independent group, but also in Britain and South Africa – gave him vast power and influence, politically and in business, and how those two spheres were linked. "You were mindful he was a very powerful man if you were a journalist," says one of the contributors to the programme, Siobhán Creaton, in a remark that speaks volumes.

O'Reilly is not interviewed for The Real Deal, and many of the contributors speak of him in the past tense. This gives the film the air of an obituary, a superior version of the sort that all broadcasters keep on the shelf, ready for when a prominent person dies, and obituaries tend to steer towards the positive. O'Reilly's son Tony jnr is there to do the talking in his place, and the family contribute some of their home movies. No greater endorsement from the subject can a documentarymaker have.

You could wring you hands until they fell off wondering why the RTÉ and TV3 schedules aren't packed with satirical shows taking potshots at the events of the day. What there is is the return of The Republic of Telly (RTÉ2, Monday). Filmed in front of an appreciative studio audience, it's a series of sketches with Kevin McGahern as the deskbound anchor man and Jennifer Maguire and Bernard O'Shea as the stars of the sketches. Its brief is to "rip telly to shreds", and as it's made for the newly rebranded channel for 18- to 35-year-olds, you'd think that, even if it isn't sharply satirical, it might at least be on the edgy side of fresh.

In this week's series opener the programmes in the firing line for McGahern's snarky recycled quips are RTÉ2's Drunk and Twink's appearance on Brendan O'Connor's Saturday Night Show, both of which were on months ago. Is there really nothing in the past seven days that deserves a battering (other than Republic of Telly – oh, the hipster meta-ness of it all). Then there's a reference to Duncan Stewart as an RTÉ presenter . At this point I double-check the date, convinced that somehow I have managed to pull up an old episode from the farther reaches of the RTÉ player. But I don't think the player was invented the last time Stewart presented a show.

And the very long 1980s-themed sketch about mammy and daddy Eamon and Bridget getting a phone installed and the priest coming around to bless it belongs to any number of RTÉ shows from the 1980s – and that wasn't a golden era for homegrown comedy. Surely most of the audience don't even remember dial-up modems, never mind getting a laugh out of having a phone installed. As with much on RTÉ2, I can't figure out who this series is for.

There's one good sketch, though – funnier as an idea than how it turns out, like everything else on The Republic of Telly. A cookery show, with Maguire as "Nidgella", is called Love/Hake. I laugh at that one, sort of.

The direct-provision system for asylum seekers is 14 years old, but only in recent months has the extent of its failure been exposed. There's a breathy urgency about The Irish Asylum Seeker Scandal (TV3, Monday), both in the title – TV3 no doubt loves the shock-horror promise of the word "scandal" – and in the rapid-fire delivery of the reporter Ciara Doherty.

But, disappointingly, this documentary says nothing new. It’s more like a news report that grew and grew randomly, as more interviewees were found and more filming locations identified, than a tightly focused film.

It’s a problem that dogs TV3 documentaries. Doherty has clearly done an enormous amount of legwork, found strong interviewees and got the figures, but, probably for budgetary reasons, there’s little sense of a production team digging deeper and crafting a well-argued programme. In its scattergun way, it does show how dysfunctional the asylum system is, but, given the now well-known facts of the situation, it could hardly do otherwise.

Ones to watch: The Divine Miss M

Bette Midler (right) is an unexpectedly loud, outrageous character to be the focus of Alan Yentob's beard-scratching arts slot. Let's hope that, in Imagine . . . Bette Midler: The Divine Miss M (BBC One, Tuesday), he doesn't dampen her high spirits.

From obituaries on local radio to death notices in newspapers around the country, Guess Who's Dead (RTÉ One, Thursday) – which is a brilliant idea for a quirky documentary – sees Ardal O'Hanlon explore our national obsession with death.