Television: In the dock – Patrick Pearse and the trial of the century

Review: ‘Trial of the Century’, ‘Ireland’s Treasures Uncovered’ and ‘In the Club’

Aloof or shy?: Tom Vaughan-Lawlor as Patrick Pearse in Trial of the Century

Aloof or shy?: Tom Vaughan-Lawlor as Patrick Pearse in Trial of the Century

 

The intriguing “what if” at the heart of TV3’s ambitious drama Trial of the Century (Saturday-Monday) is to imagine that, instead of having him executed, Gen John Maxwell had tried Patrick Pearse for his role as a leader of the Easter Rising. What transpires on two of the three consecutive nights is a proper old-fashioned TV trial, with pompous barristers, a jury (all male, this being 1916), frantically scribbling reporters, an old courthouse (Green Street courthouse, the former home of the Special Criminal Court, is a gift to film-makers) and solid historical research informing the script.

The first part of Trial of the Century introduces Pearse (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor) in the dock as the lead prosecutor, Sebastian Banks (Andrew Bennett), brings on witnesses to pull the jury’s heartstrings. There’s the mammy whose baby was shot in his pram, and the Dublin coroner who lists the injuries of the children who died.

Pearse’s wily barrister (Denis Conway) advises him that mud, in the form of personal attacks, will be thrown – and so it is. Pearse’s close relationship with Eoin MacNeill is questioned, as is the meaning of one of his poems, easily identified as a love poem to a young boy. Pearse gets his day in part two when he sacks his barrister and takes over his defence. Only a stone would be unmoved by the scene in which he questions his brother and his final speech.

The large cast is exceptionally strong – one actor is more convincing than the next – and it’s a tightly filmed, surprisingly tense and beautifully made production, under the director Maurice Sweeney. (It has to be, with so much taking place in a single location.)

But does Vaughan-Lawlor get Pearse? After all, this is a highly biographical drama. We hear witnesses testify that he’s a little aloof. It’s “hard to tell if it was shyness or superiority”, according to John Redmond; he’s “the kind of sentimental egotist I find hard to tolerate: he saw himself as some sort of messiah,” says Bulmer Hobson; and, more simply, he’s “romantic”, according to MacNeill. Yet we see little of this in Vaughan-Lawlor’s interpretation. His Pearse doesn’t seem a charismatic leader of men, a poetic dreamer inspired by the idea of blood sacrifice – the crux of both the prosecution and the defence. He makes speeches – Vaughan-Lawlor’s stage experience shines through – but this Pearse is more rationalist than romantic.

For the third part of The Trial of the Century a jury of 12 well-known people, led by Pat Kenny, is convened to decide, on the basis of the drama, whether Pearse is guilty or innocent. It doesn’t work; quite apart from being anticlimactic, it’s not credible that any dozen Irish people could shake off the past 100 years and change their politics on the basis of what they have seen in a drama.

There’s also little sense of them being a jury: the 12 sitting around the table make few references to the evidence presented on screen. It’s more like Tonight with Vincent Browne than Twelve Angry Men, and that’s a pity given the inventive quality of the drama that went before.

The Tara Brooch should by rights be called the Bettystown Brooch, which doesn’t quite have the same myths-and-legends ring to it. Our most iconic piece of jewellery – “iconic” is a wildly overused word, but it’s appropriate here – was found in the Co Meath seaside town, getting its more evocative name only later, after a canny Victorian jeweller had made an industry of selling copies and, when Queen Victoria took a shine to the design, saw its potential as a souvenir of Ireland.

These and many other curious facts emerge in the fascinating Ireland’s Treasures Uncovered (RTÉ One, Sunday), a pacy look at a handful of the most treasured artefacts in the National Museum of Ireland. Presented with authority by Dr Gavin Hughes and Ella McSweeeny, it packs a full series of information into an hour – and serves as a guilty reminder that the museum isn’t just for school tours and tourists.

Perhaps the most engaging aspect of the programme is the museum’s current and former keepers of antiquities, Mary Cahill and Ned Kelly. The two reminisce about a road trip they took to Roscommon in 2009, after they heard about a burglary at a local chemist. A safe containing what the chemist called “daddy’s necklace” – an item found in the bog decades before – was missing.

Kelly showed the chemist, Sunniva Sheehan, the antiquarian’s version of a mugshot book, containing photographs of other Bronze Age necklaces, and she quickly picked out a priceless lunula. All were beside themselves until the Garda found the safe’s contents, including a necklace and other gold Bronze Age items, in a skip in Dublin where the robbers had ditched them.

There is one small quibble: why do the makers of an Irish-themed documentary insist on putting traditional music under everything? It just about makes sense when accompanying the lush scenic shots in Ireland’s Treasures Uncovered, but under dialogue it’s more annoying than atmospheric.

It’s astonishing that In the Club (BBC One, Monday) has been recommissioned. (The programme’s name is a shorthand for pregnancy, and the kind of phrase you might have assumed died with Les Dawson.) You would think that the six new mothers would have been too exhausted by the melodramatic, calamity-filled first series to hitch up their maternity pants and go back into the fray.

But here they are in this drama by the veteran scriptwriter Kay Mellor. The half-dozen unlikely friends who met at antenatal class, from the older posh mother with the toyboy lover to the “gymslip” tower-block mum, all now have babies in tow, and some are pregnant again. They’re still bonding and being supportive of each other – it’s quite queasy-making in its saccharine stickiness – and they’re not even covertly judgy and slyly competitive of each other’s mothering skills, which might be more fun and recognisable.

The first of the six episodes relies on viewers being fans of series one: there is no explicit catch-up of who’s who, so anybody coming fresh to In the Club will have to pay attention to know, for example, how the lesbian mother (an always terrific Katherine Parkinson) ended up with the father of her baby, a man who is also the grandfather of the teenage mother’s baby.

In crime dramas, grisly deaths mount up without your paying much attention. Here it’s grisly births: there’s a messy one in a lift and another in a toilet. It’s all a bit soapy for prime-time drama – even if a Monday night suggests the schedulers might have copped that this viewers’ club isn’t one that many want to be in.

tvreview@irishtimes.com

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