Television: How do you like your heroes – from history books or comic books?

Review: ‘A Terrible Beauty’, ‘Inside the GPO’, ‘Baring Arms’, ‘Inside Obama’s White House’, ‘Daredevil’

Daredevil: Charlie Cox as Daredevil and Jon Bernthal as Marvel’s gun-toting antihero Punisher

Daredevil: Charlie Cox as Daredevil and Jon Bernthal as Marvel’s gun-toting antihero Punisher

 

‘The only good thing about the anniversary of 1916 is that it’s the same date that Game of Thrones comes back on the telly.” So says one particularly disgruntled friend when she’s asked what she thinks of the deluge of commemorative programming on our screens: not everyone is giddy about the celebrations that are nearly upon us. This week the 1916 documentaries on RTÉ run the gamut from the sublime to the slightly surreal – and remind us that the question of what makes a hero will always be a subjective one.

A Terrible Beauty (RTÉ One, Tuesday) is an eloquent documentary written by Prof Declan Kiberd. A thoughtful consideration of the role of Ireland’s artists and writers in the lead-up to the Easter Rising, it is interspersed with contemporary readings from poems and plays shot in pertinent locations around Dublin, among them the GPO and Kilmainham.

A Terrible Beauty examines the truth behind our romantic notions of a rebellion led by poets and playwrights, on the one hand, and, on the other, the real motivations of writers such as WB Yeats, JM Synge and Seán O’Casey and how large a part their egos played in their writing themselves into history.

It’s fascinating to see the political conversation artists held through their various mediums; this is particularly interesting viewed from the present, when the conversation is less about society and more about the individual.

We see early 20th-century footage from the streets of Dublin and the shores of Aran, showing a society becoming more literate and self-aware, a people scavenging through its legends and history, panning for heroes on which to build a new nation. “An awareness of past events seemed to drive the Irish forward,” one contributor says, airing a hope that remembering the past might galvanise a people and hoist them up. It’s an intelligent documentary that brings a new perspective to old beliefs.

Inside the GPO (RTÉ One, Tuesday) gives us less than half an hour of a strange sort of recruitment ad for An Post, showcasing all the people who are delighted to work there. There’s an undoubted charm to showing these ordinary moments in a great place – we see customers of the eccentric, strange and aggro varieties – no story unfolds and no particular character wins out, except perhaps the building itself. But it’s nice to see so many people enjoying their jobs.

Voiced over by Peter Coonan’s growl, the programme has some gloriously unintentional David Brent moments, such as the branch manager who tells of his race from the bottom of the league of post offices around the country – something achieved by upping mobile-phone sales. Having interviewed everyone in episode one, from the customer-service people at the call centre to the night patrolman to the rather lovely singing cleaning lady Sue, one can only imagine what’s left to be revealed next week. As 1916 commemorative programming goes, this feels a little shoehorned.

From Inside the GPO to having it tattooed across your back. Baring Arms (RTÉ One, Tuesday) is a highly effective short by Colm Quinn that was produced as part of the Irish Film Board’s After 1916 commemorative film-making scheme. It gives us leg sketches and shoulderscapes of Rising tattoos, and the stories of people who bear them. It’s a beautifully shot little gem that packs an emotional punch: men hunch over the tables of tattoo parlours and talk about the reality of their lives in Ireland today, while having Robert Ballagh images inked into their skin. “At the moment the only struggle I have is to make ends meet,” says one young man over the buzzing of a needle.

“People talk so much about what it means to be Irish. What does it mean to be human?” asks one tattoo artist, in one of many poignant moments.

The hope and ideology of tattoos of great heroes are here cleverly set against the reality of the here and now.

If you want a change in focus from the Irish and our ideas of ourselves, a new four-part documentary, Inside Obama’s White House (BBC Two, Tuesday) gives a chance to look at how Barack Obama has aged and how heavy the head is that flies on Air Force One. If you already think of Obama as a hero of our times, this will do nothing to disabuse you of the notion.

Focusing on the first 100 days of his presidency, it shows Michelle lovingly picking lint from his coat before he addresses an audience of thousands; Obama wearing a lei flower garland, and stealing away from a staff picnic to persuade some on-the-fencers to vote for a green-energy Bill; Obama storming a meeting with the Chinese premier; Obama slipping out of a meeting about nationalising the banks for a haircut and a bit of dinner with the family. There’s plenty of humanity here, but by God is it a polished version of it? China and the Republicans are the resolute baddies, and almost everyone who’s interviewed, from Nancy Pelosi to Rahm Emanuel, is a heavy hitter from the Obama camp. But it is insightful television, and the well-intentioned, quick-witted Obama always makes for an excellent West Wing-style subject.

The Netflix series Daredevil returns this week, and season two brings in Marvel’s gun-toting antihero Punisher, played by a largely silent Jon Bernthal, who could rival Jamie Dornan for sexy psychopathic charm. Netflix has been doing a pretty good job of making comic-book fan boys of the most hardened realists. If Jessica Jones was your gateway drug into the Marvel universe then Daredevil won’t disappoint, with its gorgeous cinematography and a true sense of the colour of a graphic novel. (It’s more in keeping with Sin City than the realism of Jessica Jones.)

The trademark breathtaking violence continues – and, begorrah, for the week that’s in it the gang of bad guys in the season opener are red-headed Irishmen.

Finn is over from the old country to get revenge when Punisher takes out his brother. At the wake there are pennies on the dead man’s eyes, and the red-haired fellas are drinking whiskey.

Marvel presents us with one of the last televisual universes, outside of the Land of Trump, where all the city’s troubles are pinned on immigrants. Here it’s the Irish, the Mexicans and the Japanese, with the all-American marines and lawyers left to clean up the mess on the mean streets of Hell’s Kitchen.

In spite of this the Netflix treatment of these hard-drinking, philosophising street-level heroes is eminently watchable. Moving at an oddly leisurely pace for a superhero show, with characters and plots unfolding slowly, Daredevil gives regular consideration to questions of good versus evil and how justice should be measured out. Here is a man who wrestles with Catholic guilt. He even has the odd chat with a priest.

Bernice Harrison is away; television@irishtimes.com

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