Greek tragedy for Athina
The Richest Little Girl In The World (ITV, Tuesday) Later With Clare McKeon (Network 2, Wednesday) Let Me Entertain You (RTE 1 & BBC 1, Sunday) Bill Bryson's Notes From A Small Island (ITV, Sunday)
Funny, isn't it, how social class determines whether a lecherous bloke be called a playboy or a sleazebag? Promiscuity at sufficiently upmarket addresses, on private islands or on yachts the size of battleships and the gossip columnists are talking "playboy". The same carry-on in a normal housing estate and the local gossips are talking "sleazebag". Anyway, gossip gurus, Nigel Dempster and Taki assured The Richest Little Girl in the World that Thierry Roussel has always been a playboy.
They weren't joking. Thierry married Christina Onassis and in 1985 they had a daughter, Athina. But there were tensions and the unhappy couple divorced in 1987. Christina died the following year, aged 37. Despite the billions she inherited from her da, Ari, Christina had a grim life. Being called "thunder-highs" in the world's society pages didn't help, of course. Having a self-described "weakness" for playboy Thierry wasn't a great move either. He had, after all, told her to slim down if she wanted to marry him.
As prenuptial arrangements go among the billionaire set, relative pauper Thierry got the juicy part of the deal: Christina dutifully slimmed-own and, vows exchanged, our man fattened-up his bank balance. Cynics and begrudgers said all along that he had seen the writing on the cheques but playboy Thierry insisted he just wanted to live well with his new wife. He persuaded her to buy a new plane and convinced her he needed a pad in Paris on the Avenue Foch (apt for a playboy, I suppose). During three years of marriage, she gave him almost $60 million pocket money. Even the commando wing of the "because I'm worth it" generation would have to be impressed with Thierry's sense of self-orth.
But it was the sort of arrangement that was always going to end in tears - especially as the 60 million dollar man continued playboying with his long-ime Swedish squeeze, Gaby, a former model. When Christina decided on divorce, she paid Thierry $10.3 million in a down-ayment and agreed to supply him with $1.2 million a year for the next 18 years - totalling another $30 million or so for our friend. But the vast bulk of the $3 billion Onassis fortune would go to Athina. Then Christina died, Thierry got custody of his daughter and married Gaby.
The Greeks, appointed by Christina's hand-written will to outvote Thierry on the trust fund set up for Athina, were not best pleased. Now there is an escalating war between the Greeks and our pal. Athina, at 14, is less than four years away from inheriting the jackpot. The Greeks have been rumbled spying on poor Thierry - looking for evidence of drugs, orgies and/or adultery. But they haven't found anything, which, when you think about it, suggests that either they are Mickey Mouse spies or Thierry has become a Mickey Mouse playboy.
Still, Thierry is fighting back by using the media. Hence this strangely voyeuristic but peculiarly engaging documentary: HELLO! magazine crossed with Agatha Christie. As a peek into the lives of the super-rich, it was oddly comforting because so many of the principals were truly appalling people. Living in anything above Skid Row, you'd have to feel lucky not to be as wealthy as they are. But there were undeniable elements of Greek tragedy about it too. The Onassis family, for all their money, clearly had more bad fortune than good.
Consider this: when Athina was two, she liked hearing Baa Baa Black Sheep - so Christina bought her a flock of sheep. (Just as well the child didn't get hung up on Dumbo the Elephant or "Free" Willie the Whale.) What a start in life, eh? Sad, really. Today, Athina lives with Thierry and Gaby in Switzerland and, for security, is driven a different route to school each day in an armoured car with two SAS-trained minders. Her daddy has told her some things. "I want to forget the name Onassis," she says. "It's the cause of all the problems." The Greeks are less impressed than ever. Athina talks about burning all the money. Dream on, little girl.
Perhaps the clarion irony of this documentary was the stress placed upon the security and secrecy surrounding Athina being broadcast to millions of viewers. But revenge is a very Greek business and clearly Thierry has decided that if he plays the game in the open, he'll be better protected from a sneaky manoeuvre. If the programme confirmed anything though, it did show once again that, beyond a relatively modest point, human values and tastes almost always diminish (though there are exceptions) as material wealth increases. The grating muzak soundtrack was - deliberately or otherwise - appropriate.
Other rancorous liaisons - the Eamonn Casey/Annie Murphy and Michael Cleary/Phyllis Hamilton love affairs - were revisited on Later with Clare McKeon. RTE went big on this gig, slotting in Annie's return as a news item and flogging the show with plenty of promos. Fair enough, I suppose. Even if it takes only one affair to have clerics deemed "playboy priests", the traditional taboo against Catholic priests engaging in sexual relationships has not lost all its power.
But really, because of the high profiles of both Casey and Cleary, media attention has turned both of their love stories into a form of showbiz - transubstantiation with a television twist. There were two other women, Olive Power and Gail Grossman-Freyne, on the show. Both of them had married priests (albeit less well-known priests) and both seemed happy in their ongoing relationships. Their inclusion, was, in fairness, an attempt to balance the show (subtitled Women and the Cloth) but inevitably the attention centred on Annie and Phyllis, especially Annie.
"Can you remember the moment you clapped eyes on Eamonn and you thought `wow'?" Clare asked Annie. It seemed bizarre. Okay, we can all remember many times clapping eyes on Eamonn Casey and thinking "wow" . . . but not quite in the way implied. Anyway, this first question to Annie was a rare moment of light relief. After that, she seemed on edge, remarking that now, with hindsight, she wished she "hadn't said as much . . . I wish I had done it more dignified". Once the story broke, of course, that was always going to be next to impossible.
Annie dealt with The Late Late Show incident (when Gay Byrne told her that her son Peter would be fine "if he becomes half the man his father was") by admitting to her obvious anger at the remark. She was particularly irritated however by Byrne "looking down on her". Whether she meant physically or idiomatically wasn't clear but we could make up our own minds. The most riveting moment of the evening, though, was when Annie spiked Phyllis's approving account of "the real Michael Cleary".
"Michael Cleary was cruel to me," she snapped. "He roared and said I had to give up the baby." Phyllis attempted to defend her late lover on the grounds that he had to act as a chosen mouthpiece for the hierarchy. It was all rather sad. These tales of love, lust and huge hypocrisies have dramatically accelerated change in Irish society in this decade. That is their legacy and so be it. The details, though understandably crucial to the women involved, have sounded sordid and prurience-promoting for some time. They didn't sound any less so this week. Clerical celibacy, not the affairs and hypocrisies of individual clerics, is the serious issue now.
There was unbridled aural cruelty on Let Me Entertain You, the new amateur talent contest from RTE and BBC Northern Ireland. It sounds like a screamfest on speed and is full of fiercely orchestrated, manic merriment. The studio audience emits the sort of edgy delirium you might expect if the Nazis were running Butlin's. You don't see any floor managers with cattle-prods but . . . Anyway, it's presented by Gerry Ryan, never a shrinking violet, but even the Montrose Motormouth himself seems barely adequate to the decibel levels required.
Given the guff of Louis Walsh, it might have been renamed "Let Me Humiliate You". Louis, the person responsible for giving us Boyzone, was a kind of non-voting pundit on the show. The talent, such as it was, was variable. (What do people expect from amateur shows: The Beatles, Pavarotti, Bob Dylan?) Perhaps some of the contestants need to be told a few home truths - but then, which of us, Louis and Boyzone included, don't? Anyway, Louis steamed in . . .
"I wouldn't give up the day job yet," he said of the eventual winner (chosen by a panel of quarantined audience members). "I'm not a big fan of guitar bands. I think U2 can sleep pretty soundly in their beds," he proffered on the next act. "He'll do very well in karaoke," said Louis of a solo singer. Maybe there was a slight tongue-in-cheek element of parodying the tough, showbiz manager type in all this. Certainly, the semi-delirious audience appeared to expect these kind of remarks. But for the amateur talent involved, it did appear insensitive to the point of cruelty.
It's a different matter with seasoned (and in showbiz, often grossly overpaid) pros. But steaming into acts, for whom any television appearance is like an Academy Award, is not necessary. Still, it's of a piece with the coarsening of society we see all around us. Not that some showbiz staples don't remain: the winner was Kelly Brown, a 20-year-old singer from Co Down. Kelly belted out I Feel Like a Woman.
Wearing a pair of drumskin-tight trousers, she reaffirmed one of showbiz's enduring values: look the part and worry about the details later. Louis Walsh, of all people, should know about that.
Finally, Bill Bryson's Notes from a Small Island. The second episode of the American writer's stroll around Britain "saluted" (according to most of programme note writers) British hobbies and pastimes. Well, maybe so - but I couldn't decide whether he was being affectionate or patronising (the patronising salute is a vicious one, eh?). Bill nowadays seems to specialise in writing that is a form of castrated nostalgia, albeit intelligent castrated nostalgia. He used to have an edge but it's his new, super-nice, superficially inoffensive style that has made him filthy rich.
Good luck to him. But the Highland Games, competitive pipe-smoking and bingo are rather too minor to use as an observational base to lauch profundities about the British people. He was better in Blackpool, where, at least, he understood the place. Okay, so evocative, even shamelessly sentimental writing about "saucy postcards, `Kiss Me Quick' hats and sugar confections in the shape of a nipple" is easy on the ear if not the most original. It's when he began one sentence: "In the '70s, when a Big Mac was just a large raincoat" you knew he was heading for a shopping mall. Given that sentence, an edgier writer would have been heading for Soho.