Poetry and emotion
The Green Fields of France (RTE 1, Monday)
Lipservice (TnaG, Tuesday)
Money Box (Network 2, Sunday)
Alan Davies: Urban Trauma (BBC 1, Wednesday)
Described by a perky continuity announcer as a "visual poem", Alan Gilsenan's The Green Fields of France merged an intensity of images with a fusillade of feelings. In combination, these emitted a ghostly, plaintive sigh from the no-man's land that is forever the first World War. It was documentary of sorts, but not as we know it, Jim. As an impressionistic lament, its target was not primarily the intellect but the sensibility of viewers, prodding at our capacity to feel and imagine the hell of it all.
The war of 1914-1918 has been divisive here. It was an imperialist war, its soldiers quite literally cannon fodder in the causes of the dying, imperial world order, which blew itself to shreds in trench warfare. Footage of excited Irish soldiers massing in Dublin's O'Connell Street evoked a world long gone, yet unavoidably familiar. Footage of desolate Irish soldiers squelching about in rat- and lice-infested trenches, by the rims of water-logged bomb craters, evoked another world entirely.
The idea to have writers John Banville, Peter Fallon and Frank McGuinness voiceover extracts from first World War writers Francis Ledwidge, Tom Kettle and Patrick McGill was perhaps seductive to Gilsenan but, at times, confusing for viewers. Overall though, Gilsenan's characteristic assault on consciousness, using starkness, repetition, period and contemporary music, ultra-charged images (crucifixes, massed headstones, solitary trees on sunset horizons) had a lyrical quality, which made this one of the finest Irish-made programmes this year.
Still, there are dangers with such an approach. Having, for instance, John McCormack sing over moving (mechanically and emotionally) pictures of Irish soldiers prescribes a very particular mood. It is not so much a prompt as a cattle-prod to feeling. Do you end up feeling (presuming reasonable emotional balance to begin with!) like you ought to feel or just like the documentary wants you to feel? Does it matter? In this case, perhaps not, but never forget what Hollywood has done to the Vietnam War by making a Doors soundtrack almost compulsory in films on the subject.
Old film of putative, Union Jack-waving belligerents from comfortable-as-ever, south county villages, Dalkey and Blackrock and of posters in which the Germans are referred to as "Fritz" and "Bosch", reminded you that pre-independent Ireland just indulged in more British forms of prejudice. Now we can hear the pejorative "Brits" in place of "Fritz" - no difference in intent, just in scale. It was clear, too, that the old footage described a more Christian world - ideologically, if not ethically - than now exists.
Hearing letters full of beseeching prayers and juxtaposing long shots of crucifixes with long shots of electricity pylons, emphasised the gap between then and now. Mind you, splicing John McCormack, June Tabor and John Field with a raw, electric blast of Metallica rather risked the mood. Somehow though, the driving rock did not sound excessively egregious. The 8mm camera - another Gilsenan staple, often splendidly moody in his Home Movie Nights series - humanised the impressionist perspective. Again, this was a less than subtle prompt to feeling, but justified.
Because the memory of the first World War has been so divisive in Ireland, it could be argued that a more straightforward treatment (so long as it was made from an Irish perspective) is more pressingly necessary. Maybe . . . but even with undisputed facts, context invariably colours meaning to the point that, politically, people believe what they want to believe anyway. Clearly, Alan Gilsenan believes that the estimated 35,500 Irish men and women killed in the war deserve a reappraisal. He's right, of course. But their legacy, no less than that of the nationalists of the 1916 Rising, has long since been hijacked.
This film, full of poetry and graveyards and the past - archetypes of the first World War really - was not a radical reassessment of the period. But, in using such regular oral history techniques as personal letters and seldom seen footage and placing them in what was, in essence, another Alan Gilsenan multimedia production, it did create a voice from the killing fields. That voice was not quite, as the publicity for the documentary suggested, the sound of emptiness. It was a voice laden with melancholy and ultimately, with disbelief. It asked: how could such pointless butchery have been allowed? After all, the first World War solved nothing.
So, it remains unbearably sad and, in Ireland at any rate, a barrier between unionism and nationalism. In recent years, there have been moderately successful attempts to lessen its divisiveness. The Green Fields of France, in promoting the human above the political, will add to the drive for reconciliation. The rampant mechanical age, which made so many of the millions of victims of the first World War invisible to their killers, buried feeling along with bodies. The quiet exhumation of emotion - not the denial or the triumphalism or the shrill, preachy rants heard from some quarters on the subject - is healing. Fine TV.
The Ireland which grew out of the Celtic Revival, 1916 and de Valera was the subject of Paul Mercier's engaging Lipservice. Set in a north Dublin secondary school during oral Irish exams, it was a kind of Roddy Doyle meets Peig. Sean McGinley was the examining muinteoir, the sort of testy Gaeilgeoir who features prominently in Leaving Cert nightmares. Some of the dialogue was hilarious, some of it rather predictable.
Holding up a pen to one of the students, McGinley probed for its Irish name. "Mala?" chanced the candidate. "Ni h-ea," said McGinley. "Peann?" said the young Dub, running out of options. And so it went, the encounter ending up with the student advising his examiner to "tog go bog e agus na bi dana". It was the addition of the equalising, almost patronising, wink which made the scene hilarious. Another bloke spoke French instead of Irish and a girl just read from a scarcely concealed page.
One fella, unable to understand that he had been told his oral exam was concluded, continued to rabbit away in pidgin Irish. "Ta an modh conniolach an ath ar fad," said another. Lists of names of pop bands and footballers were sprayed around to fill the voids. "Is maith liom Prodigy, Radiohead agus na Sneakin' Pimps," said one girl. Another listed off "Schmeichel, Neville, Pallister, May, Irwin, Butt, Keane, Beckham, Giggs, Cole . . . " It was the State's official policy on the Irish language crashing into 1990s popular culture.
But it wasn't merely about bilingual slapstick. One lad, having walked away from being examined, was persuaded back. He returned with a story, which had real human power in any language. More fluent in Irish than his classmates, he blurted out that his parents had just broken up. It put the harassment and despondency being felt by McGinley in perspective. It might have been a suspiciously handy device to round off the codology with pathos. But it worked go han mhaith ar fad.
Lipservice, though shown on TnaG, could easily engage a larger audience. Its Irish was, for the most part, canuint north Dublin and at less than half an hour in duration, it skipped along at an ideal pace. Certainly, its treatment of the subject of school Irish was much less coarse than Barry Glendenning's J'Accuse slot on the Leaving Cert for this week's @last tv. Glendenning was largely right in his attack on the exam, but his cracks about Peig burying weirdly-named children was not so much iconoclastic as loutish and smug - priggish whingeing from the perspective of the Celtic Tiger, I'm afraid.
More Celtic Tiger TV on Network 2's new series on financial issues. Money Box, presented by RTE's economics editor, George Lee, featured an interview between Lee and Maurice O'Connell, the governor of the Central Bank. Publicity for the programme described the interview as "exclusive and historic". Perhaps it was but such overblown adjectives seem merely typical of money brokers, some of whom, after all, bestow the humble title of "masters of the universe" on themselves.
Anyway, Lee spoke to O'Connell about Ireland joining EMU, the current financial boom, inflation, high property prices and low interest rates. At one point, O'Connell was asked: "How low can interest rates go?", a pertinent question, but not nearly as crucial as "How low can Irish banking go?". Throughout, Lee used the word "governor" as a form of address. There is something cringingly aggrandising about the continuing media fashion to stick job titles onto surnames. On Questions and Answers this week, we heard about "Minister of State Davern".
Perhaps Road Sweeper Smith or Window Cleaner Murphy will emerge in time. Just don't hold your breath. Still, Presenter Lee can be reasonably satisfied with this opening programme. As well as its interview with Governor O'Connell, it included a "Fantasy Fund" item, in which volunteers invest on the stock market. John Boylan, sorry, Investor Boylan, a beef and dairy farmer from Monaghan, was first up. Not that I could tell, but he appeared to know his oats in relation to farming money.
There was also a commendable piece by reporter Eilis Brennan about the problems of renting property in the cheaper end of the Dublin market. Let's hope that Reporter Brennan will continue to invest her time in stories of low finance. Money Box concluded with a soap box slot, in which Emma Jane Hoey from Carrickmacross, Co Monaghan, outlined the problems faced by unemployed people. Speaker Hoey got to the heart of matters by recognising that the rich have never had it so good in Ireland. That ought to be Money Box's constant refrain.
Finally, Alan Davies: Urban Trauma. The star of the too cutesy Jonathan Creek acted out 50 minutes of stand-up comedy on Wednesday night. Certainly, this was among the more dramatic stand-up routines of recent times, with Davies interspersing laconic wit with melodramatic acting. His jibes at the accents and speech patterns of British Airways pilots ("always called Roger or Clive'`) were splendid. His imitation, however, of a Delhi belly-suffering tourist in India, with "stuff bucketing out of both ends" was not just graphic but gross.
Perhaps best of all was his surreal monologue about Tina Turner being steered by remote control from the edge of the stage. It was rivalled, though, by his satire on the notion that men fancy thin women. "Men like fat women," he said. "Doing it with a skinny woman is like having sex with a toolbox." It was a mixture of bawdiness, surrealism (his cat conversations are very, very strange), melodrama and, what matters most, acute observation. If the highlight of the week was a "visual poem", this was visual and verbal stand-up - like a very rude Marcel Marceau with the laid-back wit of a contemporary, yarn-spinning comedian. Vulgar, but powerfully funny.