Who'd have thought the Irish drink so much? Everyone, actually


TELEVISION:The stand-up routines were a treat, but Des Bishop brought little new to the subject of drinking in Ireland

With his short back and sides, buttoned-up shirt and scrubbed face, there was something of the missionary about Des Bishop in Under the Influence (RTÉ One, Thursday). And it wasn’t just the way the comedian looked. He doesn’t drink alcohol – hasn’t since his problem drinking at 19 encouraged him to go sober – and with the shouty zeal of the convert he seems convinced that “the Irish” cannot drink in moderation and that everyone is busy being a stereotypical drunken Paddy.

No one would deny there is an alcohol problem. And few don’t already know that below-cost selling, widespread availability, pervasive advertising and sponsorship, and our cultural tolerance of problem drinking are all to blame.

Bishop explored all these issues in his series – without bringing much new to the subject – but where the message became difficult to listen to was in its endless, blanket blame: all those sweeping statements, both from him and from his fellow-comedian contributors, that began with “the Irish are . . .” and “Irish people drink . . .”, as if we are all staggering around our towns and cities at 4am.

“Because for the Irish, a blackout is a destination at the end of a night’s drinking”: it’s the sort of glib line that works in a stand-up routine but reduces the credibility of a series purporting to look seriously at a difficult subject.

Bishop got stuck in among the crowds during Arthur’s Day. He’s not the first to think we’ve been had by clever marketers about that one, but his style is to proclaim things as if he’s the first to think them.

He went out with an ambulance crew on a Saturday night in Temple Bar and, guess what, saw a lot of drunk punters. And, yes, all advertising is designed to get us to consume more of a product. If he stood back from the obvious and really explored the why of what he was seeing, Under the Influence might have been more enlightening.

Bishop’s comedy routines, which featured in each programme, were very funny, though, and while so much of the series was watchable, the often smug, preachy tone was hard to take.

Quietly thrilling

When a TV thriller revolves around a terrorist threat and a British secret service man’s lone mission to unravel the deadly plot, you’d expect cracking dialogue, fast action and at least one macho shoot-out. So Complicit (Channel 4, Sunday), written by Guy Hibbert, was an unusual type of drama. Once you accepted that everything was going to unfold quietly, at a nothing-much-happens pace – Complicit’s low ratings suggest it was bit too slow and long for a Sunday night – then every minute was absorbing, piecing more of the jigsaw together.

And that included much of the first hour, when the unfailingly good David Oyelowo, as the low-ranking MI5 agent Edward Ekubo, spent most of his time in an anonymous office staring at grainy surveillance footage and taking notes. It made counterterrorism look as exciting as insurance.

His three year’s work monitoring – it bordered on obsession – a suspected London-born terrorist led him to believe that Waleed Ahmed (Arsher Ali, in a complex, subtle performance) was set to launch a ricin attack on the UK. Without solid proof, though, he couldn’t convince his superiors – delivering shades of Homeland mixed with Spooks, a satisfying combination which fuelled paranoia that he was treated differently from his colleagues because he didn’t go to Oxbrige and was black.

The moment when he confronted the suspect in a Cairo jail was riveting. The two debated, with ferocious conviction, faith, nationality and freedom in a single scene that probably had more dialogue than 10 other scenes put together.

Ekubo then, with no moral qualms – another quiet, calm decision – stepped outside his brief and ordered the torture of the prisoner. The end, in his mind, justified the means. Except that the intelligence so brutally won was wrong. A perfectly paced, thoughtful, very modern drama.

Out of Africa

Meet the Izzards (BBC One, Wednesday and Thursday) was a mix of Who Do You Think You Are?, celeb travelogue and popular-science programme – which is a lot of stools to fall between. So instead of a genealogist leafing through dusty ledgers tracing a family tree (my favourite part of genealogy programmes, actually), we got the comedian Eddie Izzard spitting into a test tube and a cool young geneticist, his sunglasses perched on his head, tracing his genes to various tribes and places across the globe.

The voiceover kept telling us how groundbreaking the science was, how Izzard was the first person in Britain to do this and how amazing it was for him to discover that, 10,000 generations ago, his family were living in Africa.

So he headed to Namibia, and it looked stunning. He posed with tribespeople and painted their nails with his stash of bright nail varnish – they were a little mystified by that part – and spoke in wonder about how they were related to him. Which was fine but not easy for a viewer to identify with, as it was rather a long time ago and there was no direct line. We’re all from Africa originally, just DNA soup.

Then he jumped more than 100,000 years, when the DNA profile pointed to a Viking connection. He visited two elderly British women who may have been his cousins, and the geneticist estimated they were related but 100 generations ago, so there wasn’t the heart-warming business of swapping anecdotes about pillaging Uncle Erik to break the silence over a cup of tea.

It was all too abstract, too difficult to relate it all to Izzard or to see him as other than a celeb on yet another TV jolly.

“We’ve covered 200,000 years of human history in episode one,” intoned the voiceover as if it were a good thing – and that was just with his mother’s side of the DNA tree. Thursday’s programme was all about the DNA inherited from his father.

Not mincing his words

On Panorama (BBC One, Monday) pink goo oozed from giant mincers, unidentifiable bits of meat piled up in monster vats, and bloody carcasses, of both horse and cow, swayed from hooks in giant processing plants. Amazingly, that was only a little less difficult to stomach than the interview with Malcolm Walker, CEO of the supermarket chain Iceland. He was dismissive of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland’s vigilance. “That’s the Irish for you,” he said with a smirk. “We don’t test for horsemeat. We don’t test for cat or dog either.”

Good luck winning over Irish shoppers after that.

One to Watch Checking up on the physical toll of rugby

What does it take to become a top rugby player – aside from skill, brawn and a lack of squeamishness about scrumming? One thing for sure is that the professional sport takes a punishing physical toll on the players. The Ireland and Ulster winger Tommy Bowe shows how it’s done in the sports-science documentary Tommy Bowe’s Bodycheck (RTÉ One, Sunday) as he makes his return from injury only to have his hopes quickly dashed as he suffers another, more serious injury.

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