The minutes pass slowly when you're doing time


TELEVISIONThe prisoners come across as decent and sincere – although those are relative terms, given the setting

A TV and an Xbox in your room, a gym downstairs, dessert after dinner and a prison that looks, from the outside at least, like a country-house hotel: if you dipped into the first part of the prison documentary Life on the Inside (RTÉ One, Monday) last week you could happily rummage around the great box of knee-jerk responses, dust off “holiday camp” and start a prisoners-have-it-cushy rant.

By the end of this week’s, harder-edged second episode, though, the day-to-day dullness of prison life, with its boredom, violence and drugs, was clear. Traolach Ó Buachalla, the documentary’s director, filmed in both Shelton Abbey, an open prison in Co Wicklow, and Wheatfield Prison, in west Dublin, over a year, focusing on six inmates.

Their stories built a picture of prison life; interviews with a sister and a mother gave a window into the effect of imprisonment on families outside.

Ó Buachalla was both lucky and unlucky with the prisoners he chose (or was given by the prison service – that wasn’t clear), because they were articulate, good in front of the camera and open about their feelings. Not that they were wailing with remorse about their crimes – viewers tuning in for that would have been disappointed, and Ó Buachalla’s purpose was to show life inside the prison, not life inside their heads. And as boring and restricting as prison life looked, it didn’t seem to bother the inmates too much; many of those interviewed had been in prison many times.

But nothing much happened to the chosen six through the year, and there are only so many scenes you can watch of a prisoner painting a wall before . . . well, it’s not for nothing that’s a shorthand for tedium.

And fly-on-the-wall documentaries depend on spontaneous things happening to the main characters to give them momentum. The prisoners came across as decent and sincere guys, and in the end I was rooting for most of them, hoping they could turn their lives around – although decent and sincere are relative terms, given the subject matter: one man killed his dad; others were in for robbery.

The wardens were more clear eyed: “We have over 700 hundred men in here,” said Officer Darling, at Wheatfield. “They are not in here for being good boys.” So while cameras showed searches for drugs (a huge and apparently intractable problem in both prisons) and violence (a weapons amnesty at Wheatfield collected a bucket of lethal-looking cell-made knives), the six interviewees seemed removed from all that.

All the same, we saw one man, whom we first met at Shelton Abbey, brought back to Wheatfield and kept in his cell for 23 hours a day for his own protection. It was a situation that posed more questions than it answered, but that potentially revealing story was not explored.

But why the booming, actory voiceover, the curse of so many documentaries? The prisoners told their stories, as did the prison staff, and we heard Ó Buachalla off camera, asking questions – and, it being telly, the pictures have to be trusted to tell the stories too. All the intrusive voiceover did was make Life on the Inside sound at times like a corporate video, a mouthpiece for the service it was depicting, and I doubt that was the intention.

Made on a shoestring

So many documentaries on TG4 come across like labours of love, made on a shoestring by people who’ve stories to tell and who have finally got the funding to tell them. Radharc na Rúise (Thursday) falls easily and satisfyingly into that category. The four-part series, well made and nicely shot mostly in Moscow, set out to explore the link between Russia and Ireland. It was produced by Marina Levitina and Colm Hogan – she’s Russian, he’s Irish – and presented by Feargus Denman, an intense young man who went to Moscow at the age of 18 to learn Russian and returned 10 years later to make the series.

He hunted out pockets of Hibernophiles in busy Irish dance classes – “It was trendy after Riverdance. Now it’s like any other dance,” said their solemn-looking teacher – at a céilí and at the concert of an Irish trad band whose lead singer and harp player is a Russian woman with fluent Irish.

Equally interesting were Denman’s non-Ireland-related conversations in cramped apartments and tumbledown woodland dachas with older Muscovites who have seen immense changes in their lives, such as the artist who fell out of favour under Khrushchev and has lived to have the freedom to make whatever work he likes, and sell it to whomever he wants, and the mother with twin girls living a very different life from the restricted one lived by her parents.

It was a close-up view of ordinary Russian lives: not a common subject for an Irish documentary team. And, on the Irish-language channel, it was Denman’s fluency with Russian that let him get close to his subjects and what made Radharc na Rúise work.

Another gay cliche?

Gay male characters in sitcoms – and there have been plenty of them – tend to be built on cliches that are tired to the point of exhaustion. Think of Rory in Mrs Brown’s Boys, a hairdresser with a fondness for pink jumpers, flappy arm waving and the occasional cravat, for maximum Are You Being Served? campness. But gay women in sitcoms? As rare as a good joke at this year’s Oscars. So in Heading Out (BBC One, Tuesday) is Sue Perkins’s Sara, a netball-playing, hoodie-wearing vet with a ditzy blonde on speed-dial for bootie calls and a fridgeful of yogurt, a lesbian cliche?

I don’t know. Sara is a good character, though. She’s believable as a 40-year-old woman out to everyone but her parents and urged by her friends to cop on and come out because no one’s really bothered one way or the other. There are a lot of set-piece scenes, including a drawn-out gag about a dead cat, and not many laughs – which is disappointing and, let’s face it, not great for a sitcom.

Certainly not as many corny but funny one-liners as Perkins dished up while presenting The Great British Bake Off. But there’s something there. This was a series-establishing episode, with all the clunkiness that comes with it, but the characters are good and the plot has potential. It might be worth sticking with Heading Out for at least a second episode. It could, like the BBC’s Rev, be a slow burner that grows into something good. Maybe.

Ones to Watch David Tennant’s Hardy annual

David Tennant does his intense wild-eyed beardy thing as DI Alec Hardy in the eight-part crime drama Broadchurch (UTV, Monday). As soon as he arrives in the Dorset village, a boy’s murder shakes the sleepy community. Also starring Olivia Colman and Andrew Buchan.

So everyone’s a reviewer, then. In what could be either the most boring show of the week or the most unintentionally hilarious, Gogglebox (Channel 4, Thursday) shows people watching their favourite TV programme and reacting. Caroline Aherne, of The Royle Family, is the narrator, so they’re aiming for funny.

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