A TV year of very high quality…and disasters

A TV year of very high quality…and disasters Pat Kenny

In the media in 2018 there were real life dramas and fictional ones, programmes going off and new ones arriving. There were some outstanding shows and some disasters, and a lot of the same old same old.

The first half of the year was dominated by the referendum designed to repeal the Eighth Amendment, and what a sad event that was as we saw how abortion corrupts medicine, politics and journalism.

There was a constant barrage of messages as to how awful the Eighth Amendment was, but virtually nothing on the lives it saved (including, very likely, the lives of some of those campaigning against it). There was almost nothing on the ugly nature of abortion, and no exposés of the money trail involved. No one followed the money!

A narrative was created, and none too subtly, that militated against respect being shown to the unborn but living child and its humanity. On the whole pro-repeal advocates were given soft interviews while pro-life representatives were grilled.

Some shows were worse than others. I thought The Pat Kenny Show (Newstalk) in particular favoured the repeal side. At one point in April I noted five pro-repeal items in a row without any counter balancing, including three pro-choice doctors in a row.

Soft interviews were given on several occasions to Dr Peter Boylan and this practice continued right up to December when the legislation was going through Dáil Éireann.  Pro-choice doctor Ciara Kelly was at the helm of Lunchtime Live (Newstalk), and I found her quite negative towards the pro-life side, e.g. going on about the pro-life posters and getting particularly het up about the Clare Byrne Live show where the pro-life side did particularly well. On TV3’s Pat Kenny Show: Referendum Debate, in late May, I thought the host was frequently negative to the ‘No’ side, including giving out to those ‘No’ supporters in the studio for clapping with the effect  that he couldn’t hear, when in fact the video shows it was the ‘Yes’ side clapping.

The papal visit was another of the current affairs highlights. After the referendum result I think it all felt a bit flat, or maybe it was just me feeling down. Elements in the media created quite a bit of negativity in advance, which probably contributed, along with organisational issues, to low turnouts at some events, though coverage got more positive as the visit got going and there were some special moments – the Pope’s visit to the Capuchin Day Centre, his arrival at Croke Park as Patrick Bergin sang Leonard Cohen’s song ‘Anthem’, and the wonderful music at the Phoenix Park Mass.

It was a good year for TV drama. One of my favourites was the Autumn series Vanity Fair, (Virgin Media and ITV) yet another adaptation of the Thackeray novel. It was alternately funny, touching, sad and cheerful. The acting was excellent (including Olivia Cooke as narcissistic heroine Becky Sharpe) and those introductions with Michael Palin as Thackeray worked really well. Apart from the high technical standards it was given a modern thrust by the inclusion of music of our time at the start and end of each episode.

Next of Kin (ITV, repeated on TV3) was also one of the best with Archie Panjabi superb as the wife of a doctor working in Pakistan.  The third season of Humans (Channel 4), last summer, continued to explore intriguing aspects of artificial intelligence, though wasn’t as positive as it had been towards religious belief. Also in its third season was Unforgotten (July, ITV) and while these stories of unsolved crimes from the past is getting just a little formulaic, it was still tense and marked by a warmth towards its flawed characters.

The Cry was a riveting thriller from BBC, the story of a child’s disappearance. In the second episode I realised I’d read the book, so that spoiled it somewhat. It took me a while to catch up with the supernatural thriller Requiem (also BBC) and that was pleasantly scary with intriguing characters and a plot full of surprises.

Unfortunately a lot of dramas feature gratuitous bad language, ‘adult content’ from restrained to graphic, and quite a bit of agenda pushing. Anne With an E returned to Netflix for a second season and was charming as usual, though from mid-season we were getting sermonising messages in favour of same sex relationships and gender fluidity that were hardly in the source material – the Anne of Green Gables and Avonlea children’s novels from the early 20th Century.

I wondered too if the plot wasn’t being stretched a bit thin, a problem that a lot of dramas suffer from. Keeping Faith (BBC/TG4) was a case in point – a fairly interesting plot about a disappearing husband that might have worked well over four episodes but that became painful with eight.

Irish drama

I wasn’t too impressed with Irish TV drama – the second series of Striking Out, starring Amy Huberman, was not up to the standard of the first. In the Autumn Blood (Virgin Media) promised much but fell flat with a stodgy script, porridge pace and stilted performances. Taken Down (RTÉ1) highlighted important issues relating to direct provision, showed admirable empathy towards asylum seekers, but was peopled by thoroughly unlikeable Irish characters. Recently Death and Nightingales (BBC/RTÉ), while technically proficient (you’d expect no less) brought turgid to a new level. A troubling trend is that so many Irish shows seem to want to outdo each other in terms of foul language and sex scenes.

There were some striking documentary series – The Vietnam War, by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick (Netflix) was absorbing viewing especially if you lived through some of the events described. The awful waste of human life was overwhelming, the personal stories entirely engaging and on the technical level the documentary so well constructed.

RTÉ presented something a bit different at Easter in Jesus – Countdown to Calvary (RTÉ1) presented by the always personable Hugh Bonneville, while, also at Easter BBC gave us The Priest in the Jeans,  an impressive and touching  profile of Passionist Fr Gary Donegan.

Also memorable was Biafra – Misean Dearmadta (TG4), which told the story of how the Irish missionaries in Biafra supported the people there during the civil war.

On radio, RTE’s Documentary on One covered diverse topics – I particularly liked ‘Sisters’, Emma Decker’s documentary on Irish nuns working in US.

Early in the year George Hook returned to the airwaves with his new show Saturday Sit-In (Newstalk) which was entertaining but hampered by not being live and therefore losing a sense of immediacy and even relevance.

Hook finally bowed out at the end of November.  I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with Newstalk Breakfast, but in December the line-up of Shane Coleman and Kieran Cuddihy settled in and thankfully made it much more of a serious news show, but with a little more frivolity than Morning Ireland (RTÉ Radio 1).

In religious broadcasting, The Leap of Faith (RTÉ Radio 1) has been a quiet oasis of calm with some unusual low key stories and interviews with interesting people, many of whom are new voices in the media – I remember fondly the interview with the fathers of two prominent Irish rugby players, Ian McKinley and Jacob Stockdale, and another show highlighting the legacy of Donal Lynch, the young man from Kerry who taught us the value of life.

BBC One had a strong line up for Sunday mornings – with The Big Questions early in the year and Sunday Morning Live in the Autumn. Both shows featured well balanced discussions on controversial topics, and included a range of views we rarely get at home.

Recently there was also a special Advent series on the faith lives of prominent people, with a generous hour given to each programme. On Radio Ulster Sunday Sequence continued to impress with a wide range of topics and a diversity of voices. I remember being inspired by an interview with Sr Helen Prejean, the well know campaigner against the death penalty.

Nationwide (RTÉ1) isn’t a religious show per se but has featured many positive stories, some with a religious flavour. I remember an inspiring show on the Nano Nagle centre in Cork, one on Irish peacekeepers with the UN and in August their programme on Fr John Sullivan also impressed.  The show also ensures that rural Ireland and traditional values in general are not forgotten.

They deserve a home too!