The way to conduct debate


TV Review: The boffin-like Eddie Hobbs this week began peeling back the skin of modern Ireland and gorging on the stinking innards. His new series, Rip Off Republic, is Hobbs's examination of why Ireland has become so stratospherically expensive, and with some people spending the GNP of a small African kingdom on a ladies' day hat while the rest of us cut the end off the toothpaste tube in an effort to meet the mortgage, this is a timely contribution.

In an effort to illustrate the inequity of the social contract individuals make with the Government, Hobbs interspersed his stage presentation at the Helix with footage shot in a school classroom, where, using a big scissors, he demonstrated the cruel realities of taxation (the predicted tax revenue for 2005 is €35 billion). He should come with a PG rating.

In the first programme of the series, Hobbs focused on the cost of housing, 60 per cent of which is attributable to the land our homes are built on.

This land, according to Hobbs, is the property of perhaps eight or nine land-mass owners, a number of whom can apparently be found at the races propping up the hospitality tent with a handful of your elected representatives. With a Government levy of more than €11,000 on each house built in Dublin, including the "art form" successive Irish governments have made of stamp duty, it soon becomes clear why you won't be joining them.

Cement was another sticking point for Hobbs. A ton of cement in Ireland, he told us, costs almost exactly twice as much as a ton of cement in Germany.

Then there were the shopping trolleys, with Ireland's basket of groceries costing on average 20 per cent more than its European equivalent. Hobbs tried to unravel the complexities of the Groceries Order, which prevents traders in this country from passing on to consumers the discounts obtained from suppliers, an outdated piece of legislation that the Retail, Grocery, Dairy and Allied Trades Association (RGDATA) and Irish Business and Employers Confederation (Ibec) appear to be clinging on to with their well-manicured fingernails.

Hobbs's examination of the "dark angels of big politics and big business" makes for compelling and relevant viewing, but he needs to get out of the Helix and into a studio. This is complex information, for which an overhead projector on a stage is woefully inadequate. The least this man deserves is a swingometer.

The quality programming continued on RTÉ with unseasonal alacrity as we went behind the scenes with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra in The Symphony Sessions. This four-part series began with the orchestra rehearsing the music of Bernstein and Ravel under the guidance of the vivacious pianist and conductor, William Eddins.

The warmly informal Eddins described his method of preparation for simultaneously playing with, conducting and listening to an orchestra: he memorises the score, teaches himself the concerto, then plays from memory while listening to the radio and chatting with his wife, thus dividing his brain into separate sections. "The goal," he said, "is to make it look cool."

Of the 89 permanent members of the orchestra we were introduced to French horn player Tom Briggs, who has been in the RTÉ NSO for 43 years and is not looking forward to his impending retirement, and his violinist daughter, Melanie, who said she'd wanted to be a harpist but opted for a smaller set of strings because the instrument wouldn't fit in her dad's car. Tom described "the pleasure of being part of an orchestra that has been growing in stature", and another player enthused that "with a good conductor, you feel you have achieved something".

The music was wonderful: there was the loneliness and sleaziness of Bernstein's On The Town: Three Dance Episodes ("Remember," Eddins said to the woodwind, "you're a great New York lover") and Eddins's own mesmeric playing in Ravel's wistful Piano Concerto in G Major. The series continues for the next three Mondays and is a joyful antidote to the prattle and hum.

Whistling all the way to the bank are the ex-gay ministries popping up all over the US, which offer a unique makeover: gay to straight. Sad to be Gay was a documentary about a personal journey undertaken by David Akinsanya who, after more than 20 years living as a gay man had decided that the lifestyle was not for him and that he wanted to "become straight" in order to marry and father children.

Akinsanya had a lousy childhood: abandoned at birth, he grew up in a care home, where he was sexually abused by older boys and a male employee. He idolised his absent father and resented his absent mother. He had his first consensual gay relationship in his early teens, but gay relationships had always bitterly disappointed him, he said.

Describing himself as non-promiscuous, he went on to explain, with touching if misguided optimism, that he has sex on first dates anyway and then laments when the guys don't stay around.

"I find a lot of gay men are really shallow," he said. "Once they empty their balls, they lose interest in me." Akinsanya recognised, however, that two weeks without sex at the Love In Action residential centre in Memphis would be a challenge.

Central to the documentary was the nature-or-nurture debate. Did the damaged relationships in Akinsanya's childhood make him gay? Or was it simply that the abuse he suffered led him to doubt himself on such a deep level that he ended up yearning for the certainties of a fundamentalist ex-gay group? Exactly why Akinsanya, who is not religious, chose to explore his dilemma in the high altitude of a God-fearing, Bible-bashing Christian American organisation (where socks under sandals, self-loathing and an absence of facial hair were de rigueur) remained a mystery. It was tempting to think that this extreme experiment was undertaken simply for the sake of good television.

Akinsanya didn't last the scheduled fortnight in Memphis. When a preacher who was alleged to be a paedophile came to lecture the God-fearing group on the evils of homosexual behaviour, he got into his hired jeep and fled. He had, however, experienced a kind of catharsis at the group sessions, weeping when he spoke of his past to the small band of men and women in skirts and slacks and well-ironed rayon shirts, who used words like "acting out" and "shame" and "struggle" to describe their sexual predilections.

"We love you, David," the group chimed in an expression of solidarity after each revelation (having been warned by their facilitator that the words "I love you" did not necessarily express emotion). There are more than 120 ex-gay ministries in operation in the US.

Advertising billboards depicting shiny-faced changelings sprouted like giant mushrooms along the dusty freeways as Akinsanya sped out of town. Back in the UK, hanging out with his numerous friends and his godchildren, Akinsanya seemed calm and at ease with his sexuality. The emotional unburdening he had experienced appeared to have released him from some of his more compulsive traits, and he was enjoying a little reflective celibacy, content to wait for the right man to come along.

As if airport security, global terrorism and rising sea levels weren't enough to put you off your two weeks in the sun, we now have Package Holiday Undercover, the tapas of disaster, the ouzo of stress. It's really not funny. It started gently enough, with a building site in Turkey that many families had paid about £3,000 (€4,360) to endure a fortnight in. The delights included wet and smelly carpets, live electrical cables, no restaurants, some over-friendly JCBs, and one beer tap for more than 1,000 guests. All this, however, paled into insignificance compared with a report from Thailand about a British teenager trampled to death by a rampaging bull elephant at one of the country's abysmal and cruelly unnecessary live animal shows.

Light relief came with the tale of Lisa and Tim, an over-optimistic couple who dragged their reluctant mothers to Mexico to watch them get married (Lisa and Tim, that is, not the mothers). After a tetchy flight, however, Lisa lost her temper with her prospective mother-in-law while they were queuing at immigration, and made so much noise she was threatened with deportation.

The nuptials never took place in the end, due to a misspelling on Lisa's passport. She and Tim dressed up anyway and cantered around Cancun in a horse-drawn carriage, Lisa's white-blonde ringlets as stiff and uncompromising as her smile. Let's hope the mothers enjoyed the duty-free.