TV Review: Shock-horror viewing as Bono talks about tax

Gay Byrne reeled in another big fish when he spoke to U2’s frontman. For pure emotion, though, the winner was Davina McCall’s Long Lost Family


The Meaning of Life with Gay Byrne (RTÉ One, Tuesday) rolls around each year without too much fanfare. It’s a jammy enough retirement gig for the veteran broadcaster: a sit-down chat with a well-known Irish person, usually covering well-worn ground and centred around their spiritual and religious beliefs.

It gets a late-night slot – an acknowledgment that it’s minority-interest stuff – and my guess is that whether you tune in depends on if you like Byrne’s style of interviewing. All those cut-away shots of him pursing his lips until they disappear, widening his eyes in mock horror or nodding sagely in approval are not to everyone’s taste.

Or maybe it depends on whether you think people’s religious beliefs are a private matter and not enormously interesting to see laid out before you. I feel that way about the man with the 10-stone testicles who was the subject of Monday’s Bodyshock Special, Channel 4’s highest-rating programme of the week.

But every now and again The Meaning of Life reels in a big fish, such as last October, when the former president Mary McAleese was interviewed at home. Much advance publicity was wrung out if it – her new hairstyle, her support of gay marriage – and viewing figures spiked.

The Meaning of Life hit the jackpot again this week with Bono, and the headlines about the programme were all about his tax affairs. Less than midway through the interview Byrne said, “If I don’t ask you this I’ll be criticised, and if I do ask you this I’ll be criticised. The subject of U2’s taxation arrangements, whereby people are expressing their wonder at what they call your hypocrisy – not my word, their word: hypocrisy – of haranguing us all, and asking us to pay for more international aid, at the same time as you shift your company overseas in order to save taxation.”

It’s U2 behaving like a business, and that’s a “shock-horror moment for a lot of Irish people”, Bono said.

“This thing of the warm, fuzzy feeling . . . I’d like people to get over that. Because that’s not who I am. I am tough, and I may sing from a very private and intimate place, and I make art, but I’m tough-minded and I’m intellectually rigorous, I hope. And I think U2’s tax business is our own business, and I think it’s not just to the letter of the law; it is to the spirit of the law.”

Unless you had your pitchfork at the ready from the off – and Bono does seem to bring out the flinty-eyed begrudger in a lot of people – you have to admit it’s a clear answer.

A philosophical discussion could have followed, and a detour through the Bible, which has quite a lot to say on hypocrisy, might have teased out the issue.

As part of his answer Bono said he had helped bring Google and Facebook to Ireland, which is news, but Byrne let that slide, steering the interview back to religion and spirituality.

The rock star talked with humour and clarity about his childhood, his regular reading of scripture, his belief in Christ, how his family pray, his relationship with his father in his dying days and more.

An hour is a long interview. This one – fascinating and absorbing, with an interesting, thoroughly engaging man – was worth watching.

Don’t Call Me Crazy (BBC Three, Monday) was uncomfortable viewing. Filmed in a secure psychiatric hospital for mentally ill teenagers, it featured patients with a range of debilitating conditions, including depression and schizophrenia. Some had been sectioned under the Mental Health Act; some were there voluntarily.

They included Emma, who had obsessive-compulsive disorder, and Beth, whose anorexia was reaching dangerous levels. The goal of the unit was to cure where possible or, otherwise, to equip the children with the tools they need to deal with their difficulties out in the world.

The programme had good access to clinicians and support staff, as well as the teens, so this wasn’t a glib, reality-shock programme. And the day-to-day experience of the children’s difficulties was harrowing at times to watch, with its outbreaks of violence and self-harm.

Don’t Call Me Crazy is part of It’s a Mad World, a season on BBC Three aimed at dispelling the myths, preconceptions and taboos of mental illness. That is an undeniably good motive, but watching the documentary raised the question I always have about programmes featuring vulnerable minors. How much can these teenagers be said to have given their informed consent about the implications for the rest of their lives of such up-close-and-personal exposure? With luck they will move on from their current crises, but how, in years to come, will they feel about the filming?

Don’t Call Me Crazy was properly unemotional and unsentimental. But Davina McCall and Nicky Campbell’s Long Lost Family (UTV, Monday) goes for the heart strings – and if you’re not shedding a little tear at the end of it, even though you know you’re being expertly played every step of the way, you should check your pulse.

Back for a third series, the programme reunites people who for whatever reason – adoption features large – have been separated. This week’s episode featured Wendy O’Hagan from the Bogside, in Derry. In 1975 her mother had a relationship with an American sailor, Grant Williams, whose naval ship had docked in Northern Ireland. The sailors had been warned not to get involved with the locals – for a while it was starting to sound like a second World War saga – so his comings and goings to his girlfriend’s house were noted. As it was the height of the Troubles, and he was suspected of passing information, he was sent back to the US without warning.

They wrote to one another, but when O’Hagan was born her grandfather began to intercept Williams’s letters. Eventually O’Hagan’s mother gave up, assuming he had moved on, and she subsequently married someone else.

O’Hagan had been searching fruitlessly for her biological father all her adult life. The programme tracked him down to New Mexico. He was thrilled, and they were reunited – managed by McCall, who’s so good at this sort of thing.

It was nice to have a happy ending. Another one’s guaranteed next week. It’s that sort of programme.

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