Television: The thin blue line between plods and plodding

Review: An original TG4 thriller and the always gritty ‘Scott & Bailey’ bring life to old formulas. But ‘Lewis’ is just old

Tense: An Bronntanas

Tense: An Bronntanas

 

Halfway through the first episode of An Bronntanas (TG4, Thursday) there’s a gripping scene, out at sea, that hauls what had been an amiable enough drama away from the brink of soap territory and places it firmly in the contemporary-thriller category. And a good-looking, well-produced, decently budgeted one at that.

A three-man rescue craft attempts to get to a small, stricken boat – you’d get seasick just watching the waves. When two of the men eventually get aboard, they find a dead woman and a drug haul. This is where the thriller engine revs up.

The two, a ne’er-do-well (Owen McDonnell) and a shady, chiselled-face foreigner (Janusz Sheagall), find the million-euro haul and quickly decide to keep the drugs and let the woman sink to the bottom of the sea.

We already suspect that the foreign guy isn’t an innocent abroad – clues drop like stones in a bucket, such as when he disconnects the radio on the rescue boat a little too ostentatiously. (It might have been better if the programme’s director, Tom Collins, had given viewers more to work out for themselves.)

All they need to do is persuade the ne’er-do-well’s good brother (Dara Devaney) that his share of the haul – the bronntanas, or gift – could solve the problems of the insolvent fish factory that his late father left him. What could go wrong?

An Bronntanas, an ambitious five-parter filmed in a small village in the west of Ireland – the scenery is stunning – has set itself a sombre pace and atmosphere, and the dialogue is spare.

It’s not quite at Scandi-noir levels of minimalism, but it has some of the same quiet reticence. And its writers – Collins, Paul Walker and Eoin McNamee – establish enough plot strands and strong characters to set it up as a tense, low-key thriller, with the familiar setting adding to the appeal.

Just as An Bronntanas takes its inspiration from reports of drugs being brought in off the west coast, Scott & Bailey (UTV, Tuesday), one of the most convincing crime dramas on TV, borrows its authenticity from real-life stories. Instead of showing signs of flagging after four series, the female-led cop show – think Cagney & Lacey in Manchester – is getting more solid.

The strength at the heart of this always- gritty series is the believability of the three central characters: DI Scott (Lesley Sharp), DI Bailey (Suranne Jones) and their brittle, terrifying boss, Gill Murray (Amelia Bullmore). Its showrunner, Sally Wainwright – also responsible for Happy Valley and Last Tango in Halifax – has created complex coppers who are so well realised that you quite happily believe they live outside the series when the cameras stop rolling.

This final two-part storyline of the current series concerns the discovery in a remote farmhouse of a number of vulnerable men being exploited as cheap labour by the monstrous farmer. While that’s going on there’s the complex relationship between the three policewomen to be mined for emotional punch – a key element of the series, mostly surrounding the tricky dynamic between colleagues who are also friends, and the way all-consuming careers affect women’s personal lives.

The day-to-day police business is realistically low-key, more plodding plod work than car chases and shoot-outs. Neasa Hardiman, the programme’s Irish director, keeps the tension up in a pacey, gripping episode in which everything – relationships, careers, the investigation – seems set to implode at any minute. I’ll be sorry to see it end next week.

By comparison, the new series of Lewis (UTV, Friday), puzzlingly brought back for another run, looks bored with itself and its-crime-by-numbers yarns – the shifty one is always the culprit – and the grey-in-every-way Lewis (Kevin Whately) has become a curmudgeon-lite version of his old mentor, Morse. The “new Lewis” – it feels as if the baton is being passed yet again, this time to Laurence Fox as Hathaway – is the least believable copper on the box.

That said, Det Moynihan comes a close second with the shockers he’s given as lines in this week’s buzzin’-drivin’-ridin’ episode – not much else happens – of Love/Hate (RTÉ One, Sunday). “Do you love him?” he asks Siobhán, his loose cannon of an informant, about scumbag Pauly in another of their improbable scenes. At which point she could have said, “Sure a guard won’t ask me that,” because, really, a guard wouldn’t ask her that.

Whenever RTÉ broadcasts Reeling in the Years, its archive compilation, the viewing figures are huge; similarly, the BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? is one of the most globally successful TV formats. There’s something magnetic about nostalgia, even if it’s not your story. So An Lá a Rugadh Mé (TG4, Tuesday), whose title translates as Ireland on the Day I Was Born, is a clever idea because it mixes elements of those two formats.

A well-known person reveals the day he or she was born – okay, maybe the format won’t sell in Los Angeles – and that day’s newspaper is leafed though for interesting stories. It sounds static, but when archive footage and sleuthing from the birthday guest are added, it’s lively enough.

The show, presented by the Irish Times journalist Harry McGee, takes the stories in the first episode from the Irish Independent – now there’s impartiality for you.

The broadcaster Evelyn O’Rourke, who was born on March 8th, 1972, is its first guest. She gets the rugby commentators Jim Sherwin, Edmund van Esbeck and George Hook around a table to chat about the cancellation of the Five Nations tournament; it was one of the worst years in the North, with Bloody Sunday in Derry, and the burning of the British embassy in Dublin both getting international attention, so first Scotland and then Walves refused to come and play. Fear was the reason given, but the three wiley commentators suspect that the strength of the Irish team might have played a part in the decision.

O’Rourke follows up on one of the most sensational domestic items of the day: the baby Craine story. Her mother had left her in her pram outside an office on Mary Street in Dublin where she had some business – quite the norm at the time, apparently, although unimaginable now. When she returned, the pram and baby were gone.

O’Rourke meets the Craine family, including the baby – now a woman of her own age – and it’s a five-hanky trip down memory lane. Like Reeling in the Years, but with flesh put on the bones.

tvreview@irishtimes.com

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