Television: Incoming! Recruits under fire – from their own effing superiors

Review: ‘Recruits’, ‘Garda Down Under’, ‘The Genius of George Boole’; ‘University Challenge’

Drop and give me 20, grunt: Irish Defence Forces trainees at the Curragh boot camp, in Recruits

Drop and give me 20, grunt: Irish Defence Forces trainees at the Curragh boot camp, in Recruits


You come into work one day and your boss puts his face in yours and roars, “You look like a f***ing bag of shite.” Do you a) tell him to f**k off, he’s not looking so hot himself; b) phone HR and lodge a complaint; or c) pick a point in the middle distance and stare at it without blinking.

If it’s the last one then maybe you, too, could make it in the Irish Defence Forces. It takes more than that, although this is the robust approach that the surprisingly potty-mouthed NCO training staff in Recruits (RTÉ One, Monday and Tuesday) take to their charges. (Their language is surprising only if you’re a civilian or have never attended a hurling match.)

The two-part documentary follows 40 Army recruits during their 17-week training. The attrition rate is high: by week six 15 of them have given up, and these are people who made it through a rigorous recruitment process. Recruits is filmed in the Curragh, and the training involves so much tough physical activity, from punishment press-ups in the yard to gruelling belly crawls through the camp, that it makes all those boasty Iron Man competitions look like school sports days.

“You’re in the Army now,” an NCO shouts at the assembled recruits, and it’s a testament to the success of the “no backchat” training – the Army seems obsessed with backchat – that not one of the fresh-faced recruits quips, “Was it the khaki uniform we’re wearing that gave it away?”

Beneath the profanity you can see that the trainers are sorting out the ones who can hack it from the ones who can’t, instilling rigid discipline and an ability to take orders while making sure that those who remain are so bonded that they’d fight for each other. And by the end of the second part, on Tuesday, they are all that.

Recruits condenses the four months of training, as well as visits home to interview mammies, into two hours of TV, so there’s much we don’t see. And we don’t know whether those effing and blinding NCOs have simply watched one too many drill sergeants in Hollywood war movies – which I suspect they have.

But as an observational documentary that gives insight into a process that most of us will never experience, Recruits works. And those scenes of the quieter moments in the dorms, or in Lieut Ralph’s office, where he doles out warnings to those lagging behind and kind advice to those considering leaving, give it extra authenticity.

I’m weary of behind-the-scenes series that come across as promotional films – we’re looking at you, The Gleneagle – but Recruits doesn’t soft-soap it. Yesterday was the closing date for applications to the Army, and I suspect that more than one would-be soldier, having seen Recruits, spent the week wondering if it was too late to take the form back.

Given the number of people who have emigrated over the past few years it’s surprising that more emigration stories haven’t made it on to television, what with the medium’s insatiable demand for human-interest stories. Having watched the first episode of six of Garda Down Under (RTÉ One, Wednesday), I think I know why. A breezy series like this can only broadly sketch both the reasons why someone leaves and the life they have now, so as a viewer you’re left with more questions than you’ve seen answers.

This series covers a particularly niche emigration story: former gardaí who joined the police force in Perth in Western Australia. Recruitment of police officers is so difficult that the force recruits from Ireland and Britain. There are plenty of shots of surfers and golden sands, and the credits thank Western Australia Police, which I suspect is thrilled with this addition to its recruitment drive.

Why no one closer to hand wants the job I don’t know, but the Irish recruits we meet – guys in their late 20s and early 30s – are delighted. They are drawn by better money, sunshine, a swimming pool in the yard, career advancement and, according to more than one, a break from poor morale and worse conditions in An Garda Síochána.

That’s worrying: morale in Ireland must be bad if policing fighting drunks and domestic disputes in the dusty outback town of Kununurra (which makes Templemore seem like a throbbing metropolis) is more attractive than pounding the beat here.

Again, this is hard to say definitively, as there are simply too many unexplored variables in each ex-garda’s story. I had hoped for a more forensic look at this chapter in our emigration history. But this is only episode one, so maybe it will go deeper.

Kathryn Thomas’s voiceover gives Garda Down Under a bouncy, holiday-show feel. And, aside from the moaning about local taxes and high rents, most feel that the grass – parched though it is – is greener on the far-flung other side.

The Genius of George Boole (RTÉ One, Tuesday) is an academically minded film that mixes Boole’s maths (impenetrable to most mere mortals) with the historically accessible (his life in Cork 200 years ago, nicely re-enacted). All of this is underpinned with repeated reminders of why Boole is vital to our digital world.

There would be no Google or microprocessors or artificial intelligence without Boolean logic, and we’re told this in various ways and repeatedly by computer geeks, mathematicians and the country’s digital champion, David Puttnam (whose Cork neighbour Jeremy Irons is the film’s voiceover).

I believe them: they’re so sincere and serious. But no matter how well made a film is about something as intrinsically complicated as Boolean mathematics, there will always be some black holes of incomprehension for general viewers, and that gets frustrating.

Albert Einstein used Boole’s invariant theory. Several people explain it: the film really tries to draw us in, and I still haven’t a clue. That’s just the sort of nugget that might come in handy for University Challenge (BBC Two, Monday). That series’ arrival underlines the back-to-school feeling seeping into the schedules as stations begin to shake off summer’s repeats and dish up new programmes.

And congratulations to Queen’s University Belfast, which beat Sussex this week without causing Jeremy Paxman, the quizmaster, to roll his eyes once.

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