TV review: ‘Doctor Thorne’ is a terrific romp, while cricket and GAA trade places

Review: ‘Doctor Thorne’, ‘Dunblane: Our Story’, ‘The toughest Trade’

Greatish expectations: Tom Hollander and Stefanie Martini in ‘Doctor Thorne’

Greatish expectations: Tom Hollander and Stefanie Martini in ‘Doctor Thorne’

 

If there’s one thing we know by now it’s that Julian Fellowes is a dab hand at writing period dramas. It’s not so long since the dustcovers were put on Downton Abbey, and here he is again with Doctor Thorne (UTV Ireland, Sunday), a drama bathed in nostalgia, with fabulous costumes, vast piles near picture-postcard English villages, scheming matriarchs, and endless twittering about money and class.

How close Fellowes has stuck to Anthony Trollope’s novel – one of the Barsetshire Chronicles – I can’t tell, never having read it, but it’s a terrific romp, with the first episode setting the scene at a brisk pace: a drunken bowsie (Ian McShane) confronts a toff named Thorne, for defiling his sister, and punches him; he falls down dead.

Cut to 20 years later and we’re on the lawn of the fabulous Gresham family house, where young Augusta’s wedding is being joylessly discussed. She’s to marry the odious Mr Moffat, whose only appeal is his large wallet – a must-have for a Gresham, as the family is bust. And who better for some robust matchmaking than mama, Lady Arabella (Rebecca Front), aided by her flinty sister, Lady de Courcy (Phoebe Nicholls). The real challenge is to find a match for Frank Gresham (Harry Richardson), who has his sights on the sweet but poor Mary Thorne (Stephanie Martini).

Mary has been brought up by the titular Dr Thorne (Tom Hollander), who tells her that she is his brother’s daughter – the Thorne killed by that blow – and that her mother escaped the shame of it all to Australia. And then another vast house looms into view, and Dr Thorne is visiting the drink-raddled Roger Stratcherd, who – and here’s a turn-up for the books – is McShane.

When he was released from prison he built a vast fortune through the new-fangled railway, and he has made his will leaving all, first, to his son and, if he dies, to his sister’s firstborn. The doctor reveals that he knows that firstborn, and we now see Mary’s prospects in quite a different light.

So the central plot – will the star-crossed lovers Frank and Mary get their happy ending? – is set.

If Hollander is too odious over on BBC One in the tense, superb The Night Manager, then his gentle, upright doctor makes for terrific Sunday-night company.

Twenty years ago on March 13th, Thomas Hamilton walked into a primary school in the small Scottish town of Dunblane, near Stirling, and in three minutes shot dead 16 senior infants – all aged five – and their teacher. Hamilton then turned the gun on himself. Dunblane: Our Story (BBC Two, Wednesday) interviews parents, a survivor, siblings of the children, the daughter of the teacher killed, the school principal and a policemen.

Many of them have never spoken publicly about the event: there is strong sense that these are naturally quiet, reserved people. Still, it is brutally clear from the way they tell their stories that the words have been running around their heads for 20 years.

The documentary style is simple and restrained: they sit, face to camera, against a plain background while a timeline of events is established through superbly chosen news clips. It happened at 9.30am; an hour later Dunblane had already become a global news story, with film crews pitched outside the school gates. One of the most chilling scenes in this relentless, compelling film is of mothers rushing down the street to the school after hearing on the radio that there had been an “incident”.

Mick – the style in the film is first names only – who had been a single father to Sophie since his wife died, two years before, remembers: “People were calculating the odds. The school has a roll of 700, so the odds of your own child being harmed seemed quite low.” But Sophie was killed. Isabel, the mother of Mhairi, who also died, says, “I don’t think it possible after Dunblane to have a life that is completely normal”.

The film is good at establishing how far reaching and long living the tendrils of shock and grief are. So much of how the parents were handled in the chaos on the day seems, with hindsight, cruel. The media was kept informed throughout the day: the public heard the extent of the killing before the parents did.

The head teacher Ron Taylor, seen in clips as a much younger man thrown in the glare of news cameras for comment, says now: “I felt I should have been able to do more, and that guilt lives with me today.”

Dunblane: Our Story is a fitting anniversary tribute, a compelling, dignified film that captures a sensational story in a quiet, deeply personal way. It is impossible to watch without being affected by the random cruelty of it all.

I suspect that many GAA players have, at the very least, rolled their eyes or muttered “big girl’s blouse” on seeing a Premier League soccer player, who earns the price of a house every month, roll around on the ground at the slightest knock. And maybe that’s where they got the idea for the two-part series The Toughest Trade (RTÉ Two, Tuesday). And a good one it is too.

The Toughest Trade follows two GAA players who trade places with professionals from other sports. For week one it is stick and ball, as the affable, screen-friendly Tipperary hurler Brendan Maher swaps places with the cricketer Steve Harmison, of the Adelaide Strikers, for seven days.

Before arriving in chilly Ireland the burly Harmison has seen only a few seconds of hurling on YouTube. Playing for Maher’s club team, Borris-Ileigh, he gets a sense of the interparish rivalry and the passion for the game. In sunny Adelaide, meanwhile, Maher, who knows little about cricket, is put through a gruelling fitness test before he’s even given a bat. He’s pronounced an “elite athlete”, which is not bad for a fellow who can only train in the evening, after his day job as a teacher.

The gulf between the facilities – seriously, could somebody at least give that dressing room in Borris-Ileigh a coat of paint? – and the perks and lifestyle enjoyed by professionals compared with amateurs is laid bare. So, too, are the similarities between the two men in terms of competitiveness and pride in their sport.

Ones to Watch: American president and English Raj

Even before he has gone the dissection has begun. Inside Obama’s White House: 100 Days (BBC Two, Tuesday) is a four-part look back at Barack Obama’s successes and failures as told by his inner circle, including Rahm Emanuel and Larry Summers, and his adversaries.

Competition for our attention on Sunday nights has just got hotter with the return of Indian Summers (Channel 4, Sunday). The action has moved to 1935; the last days of the Raj are in sight, and the wily Cynthia (played by Julie Walters, left) is still scheming.

tvreview@irishtimes.com

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