Watching The Woman in the Wall (BBC One, Sunday, 9.05pm), the BBC’s baroque and hysterically overcooked attempt at confronting the wickedness of the Magdalene laundries, I can’t help flashing back to An Cailín Ciúin. That Oscar-nominated Irish film signalled its authenticity with a brief but powerful scene in which a solitary Kimberley is placed on a table in a gesture of veiled affection. At that point Irish viewers knew they were in safe hands. Anyone who grew up in Ireland in the 1980s will have understood what the biscuit represented: kindness concealed beneath gruffness, a treat lighting up one of those becalmed Sundays.
Such a moment is absent from The Woman in the Wall for the logical reason that, cast aside, no Irish people were involved in its making. It was written by Joe Murtagh, who is London Irish and, in the footsteps of his fellow hybrid countrymen Martin McDonagh and The Pogues, knows a lot about Ireland while seeming to understand very little. With The Woman in the Wall he has the entirely laudable aim of interrogating Ireland’s disgraceful silence over the Magdalene laundries and the mother-and-baby homes and of holding to account not just the Catholic Church but also the civil authorities that collaborated in their evil-doing.
This honourable mission is derailed by the show’s portrayal of small-town Ireland as a hellscape. (Murtagh is open to the possibility of traces of civilisation having accumulated in Dublin.) It’s full of sweary elderly ladies and bumbling gardaí who seem to have tumbled out of a discarded JM Synge script. The Woman in the Wall doesn’t just fail the Kimberley test. It flunks it with gusto.
There is also a suggestion that the inhabitants of the fictional Mayo town where the story is set believe in the banshee – in 2015, which is when the action begins. That isn’t to say the people of Mayo don’t place stock in supernatural forces. Every summer, despite all evidence to the contrary, they convince themselves they have a shot at the All-Ireland. Yet a drama set in contemporary Mayo contains not a single “Mayo for Sam” reference. You imagine an Irish crew member suggesting to their British bosses that they include such a nod – and receiving baffled looks in response. Who is this Sam guy, and what has he to do with Mayo?
Then there is Ruth Wilson, as Lorna Brady, a woman whom the townsfolk regard as lovably unhinged but who has a dark past, having been shipped to a Magdalene laundry when she became pregnant as a teenager. Wilson is 41, so her character’s Magdalene experiences presumably occurred in the couple of years around 1990. The laundries still existed, just about, back then. But the flashbacks in which a priest takes Lorna away seem to be set in a feverish version of the 1950s rather than the real 1990s, when the church’s hegemony was in freefall.
That same priest turns up dead in the present day in Dublin. His murder is investigated by Daryl McCormack’s stylish Garda detective. He wears an unlikely earring, the BBC presumably unaware three Garda recruits were recently sent home for having tattoos that would have been visible when they were in uniform. Meanwhile, Lorna is revealed to have kept an old woman boarded up in a crevice in her living room. It’s a Lynchian twist that might have worked if the pacing weren’t so stop-start or the blarney so bountiful.
Wilson is a big name. What she isn’t is a natural-born mimic. Her Irish accent runs aground on the rocks of the show’s stereotypes. As with everyone else, she is required to say “me” instead of “my”. And to drop the letter “G” from the end of her sentences, if you’re gettin’ me drift. And then there’s the constant use of expletives by every single character, even the well-spoken woman who wants the laundry survivors to speak about their experiences.
This comes across as a winking way of signalling the natives’ uncouthness and inability to control and properly express their emotions – ancient caricature repackaged for Generation Bingewatch. It’s the Beeb doing The Banshees of Inisherin. Or rebooting its donkeys-in-the-pub episode of EastEnders from 1997.
Murtagh has done his research, speaking to survivors of the mother-and-baby homes. The Woman in the Wall is respectful of their traumas and damning towards the society that looked the other way when they were locked up. But it’s an Irish story – a permanent stain on the State’s reputation – and it’s a shame homegrown drama has shied away from it.
These are our demons. We should be the ones confronting them. You might similarly ask why the BBC isn’t making ripe murder mysteries about the UK’s own adoption scandals, in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, many involving the Church of England and Salvation Army. Or would that be too close to home? The Woman in the Wall is due to air on the Showtime network in the United States, so its cliches will be broadcast across the US, too. American audiences will likely lap it up. Irish viewers will come away with a taste in their mouths that not all the Kimberleys in the world will wash away.