You hum the tune, I’ll sing the words, and we’ll put in a call to Fáilte Ireland

Glaoch: The President’s Call was a classy production

     Party pieces: the Áras looked fabulous, and the President – joined by Bono, among others – looked delighted

Party pieces: the Áras looked fabulous, and the President – joined by Bono, among others – looked delighted


Ever since RTÉ ’s Lughnasa Live a couple of years ago, which featured Gráinne Seoige presenting from a field surrounded by an audience whose will to live was lying in puddles at their feet, I’ve been more than a little wary of one-off special-occasion programmes made to celebrate our culture. Too phoney, too forced, and the risk of getting it wrong is huge.

But Glaoch: The President ’s Call (RTÉ One, Monday), the Áras arts programme made to mark St Patrick’s Day and to kick off the Gathering, was marvellously different. It got it right on so many levels, though its director, Philip King, was working with some amazing talent. In no particularly order of greatness, the line-up included Bono, Seamus Heaney, Tom Murphy, Christy Moore, Glen Hansard, Lisa Hannigan, Martin Hayes, Iarla Ó Lionáird and The Script.

All were invited to Áras an Uachtaráin to perform a party piece, and some to chat with the President about Irish culture, art, spirit, home – the big subjects.

The Áras looked fabulous, the President delighted, and if it was self-congratulatory then what of it? It had the talent to back it.

It was also a nice counterbalance to the usual handwringing that goes on at this time of year about stereotypes and drunkenness and the ignominy of leprechaun hats. There were bucolic shots of the Áras and of President Higgins and his wife, Sabina, strolling with their dogs in the grounds, and every shot had a quiet confidence.

But it wasn’t really for home viewers, even without the peculiar scheduling, which shoehorned it into the TV no-man’s-land of teatime on Monday. St Patrick’s night was its natural broadcast time, and it was already on YouTube by then, released for the diaspora as a classy piece of marketing.

Had the short behind-the-scenes film that was also released on YouTube been extended, it would have made a fantastic St Patrick’s night programme for the home crowd, who don’t need the best-behaviour, good-room atmosphere of the main programme.

The out-takes are full of humour and warmth: Imelda May asking the President if he minds having his house invaded, the staff getting their photos taken with the stars, the President peering into cameras to check the takes, make-up artists busy with brushes. And there are also lovely impromptu performances, such as Hansard singing Raglan Road , and the guy from the Script almost absentmindedly playing the piano in one of the grand rooms.

In Glaoch , the conversation between President Higgins and one of our great playwrights, Tom Murphy, was a fleeting chat that nevertheless delved into deep and thoughtful subjects and could have lasted an hour. And there was the pleasure of hearing Paula Meehan, who I can’t remember seeing on screen in years, reciting one of her poems. It was a sharp reminder of how little general arts coverage there is on RTÉ television. It’s not as if the material isn’t there.
Hard times for Hitchcock
Hasn’t Alfred Hitchcock suffered enough this year, what with the movie and TV film showing him to be a cruel bully, without a terrible remake of one of his classics, The Lady Vanishes (BBC One, Sunday). The glossy big-budget drama and its star cast, including Keeley Hawes, Gemma Jones, Stephanie Cole and Julian Rhind-Tutt, promised much.

Or maybe it’s a testament to Hitchcock’s genius that he took the novel The Wheel Spins and made a compelling, memorable and complex thriller in which the claustrophobia of a packed train ratcheted up the tension and paranoia in every scene.

This managed to do none of that. The Lady Vanishes was remarkably without tension, even though the lady (Selina Cadell) still vanished on the rattling trip through the Balkans and her flighty young carriage companion (Tuppence Middleton) still spent the hour and half searching for her with only the help of a young student (Tom Hughes) while battling with the other passengers, who claimed that there never was a tweed-clad lady to vanish.

It was hard to pick exactly what went wrong, but from the moment the cast boarded the train there was never a scene where you weren’t conscious that they all had just been kitted in splendid period costumes and were acting their heads off – particularly Middleton’s one-note performance – though Benedikte Hansen as the evil, black-clad baroness was probably the most ludicrous. She could have come straight from a panto instead of the realistic role of the older journalist in Borgen .

Cold w ar cover -up
And from everything that was wrong in a feature-length drama to The Challenger (BBC Two, Monday), a superb piece of TV and top contender as a highlight of the year. William Hurt gave a compelling and magnetic performance as Richard Feynman, the Nobel physicist and prickly maverick who, despite abhorring Washington politics, agreed to come on board the Ronald Reagan -established committee to discover why the Nasa space shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986, killing all six crew members.

Instead of finding scientific rigour and a genuine desire to get to the truth, he found Nasa versus defence-department politicking, the unspoken need not to lose face – “whatever you civilians are told, we are still deep in the cold war” – and a cover-up in the making by a committee headed by a Washington insider (Brian Dennehy playing that terrifying mix of the avuncular and ruthlessness he does so well).

Against the odds, including his own battle with cancer – Feynman died two years after the public hearing into the disaster – he proved that it was simply too cold for the shuttle to fly.

If it wasn’t such a quiet and at times sombre drama you’d be punching the air in one of the final scenes as Hurt faithfully re-enacted Feynman’s stunt before the committee where he put a piece of rubber from Challenger into a glass of ice and showed how it changed and ceased to perform as expected.

Extraordinary hero stories are hard to pull off without sinking into maudlin territory, and this one was especially tricky, because the hero’s action was all in his head. The Challenger , in capturing the complexity of the problem and the simplicity of Feynman’s motivation, and with Hurt’s performance, did just that, though.