Looking back on the media landscape in 2017 it’s good to report quite a few excellent programmes, including some very positive to religious faith, though there are disappointments as well.
One of the programmes that stands out most for me is last June’s BBC drama series Broken, starring Sean Bean as a troubled priest in a northern English city. Created by Jimmy McGovern, it was riveting throughout, intense, inspiring, sometimes disturbing, sometimes heart-breaking, almost always searingly honest.
The episodes written by McGovern himself (first, second and last) were by far the best, whereas the others felt at times like they had axes to grind against the Church and were doing it in a rather unsubtle way.
As well as the religious themes, there was so much depth in the show about mothers and their imperfect attempts to cope with that great responsibility. I loved the intense Confession scenes, there was a marvellously moving First Communion sequence, and a resounding vote of confidence in priesthood at the end.
The ‘regular’ religious shows continued to impress – in particular The Leap of Faith (RTÉ Radio 1) has maintained its high quality under the steady guidance of presenter Michael Comyn. I remember a good episode on prayer back in April and one on the wellbeing of priests in May. I’m only sorry its season is so short. Would You Believe has produced some interesting documentaries on diverse topics, from evil to forgiveness.
BBC Radio Ulster’s Sunday Sequence always has something thought provoking as does BBC Radio 4’s Sunday and The Moral Maze. On BBC One’s Sunday morning slot, there’s a rhythm to the year, with a wide diversity of opinion on the audience-based The Big Questions early in the year, followed by the smaller panels of Sunday Morning Live, and then late in the year more intimate interviews of Fern Britton Meets.
Comfortable and comforting, the ever reliable Songs of Praise continues every Sunday regardless of season – I particularly liked the episode on pilgrimage, focusing on the Mont St Michel in France.
BBC produced some noteworthy one-off projects – back in April Bronx to Bradford: Friars on a Mission told the story of the work of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal in Bradford, while Retreat: Meditations from a Monastery featured three one-hour specials highlighting the contemplative life in three Benedictine monasteries.
Media controversies were the order of the day in the second half of the year – George Hook lost his lunchtime slot just for asking a question – I was uneasy about his approach at the time but I think the reaction was even more over the top.
In a more regular Newstalk shake-up, we lost Sarah Carey’s Saturday morning show Talking Point, which was a pity as it was generally well balanced and open to a variety of viewpoints.
Shane Coleman moved to Newstalk’s Breakfast Show and continues to provide reliable and serious journalism at a time when shock-lite and tabloid-medium is becoming more prominent. Seán O’Rourke is similarly solid on RTÉ Radio 1 with his Today show maintaining high standards. Vincent Browne finally left his Tonight show on TV3 mid-year, which I regretted, and I still haven’t warmed to the double act of Matt Cooper and Ivan Yates that has filled the slot.
I was impressed with some of RTÉ’s one-off documentaries – the year started well with Strange Occurrences in a Small Irish Village, the story of the Knock apparitions. I particularly liked Ministry of Hope in the autumn, which focused on the inspiring work of lay chaplains in diverse contexts – Shelton Open Prison, the Mater Hospital and DCU.
TV3 produced a fine documentary of its own, Ireland’s Refugee Hotel, in conjunction with BBC. The humanity stood out – the welcome of the people and the gratitude of the refugees. Those with reservations were treated with respect, while the newcomers were shown with minor warts and all! Both BBC and RTÉ showed The Vietnam War, probably the best documentary of the year, and not always easy to watch.
Back on the drama front, I thought RTÉ did well early in the year with Striking Out, starring Amy Huberman as a young lawyer, but they bombed with the bizarre Redwater, and their recent crime drama Acceptable Risk, despite a promising start, got rather stilted and eventually irritating.
By contrast BBC’s The Replacement had an excellent run but was let down somewhat by a weak ending. Also on BBC, Line of Duty, by far the best of the police procedurals, returned for a blistering fourth season, with Thandie Newton as the complex and ambiguous police woman under investigation by the anti-corruption unit. BBC’s Damilola, Our Loved Boy was one of the best human interest dramas, telling the story of a how a faith-filled family coped with the murder of their young son.
I was glad to see the return of The A-Word which explores the challenges of parents coping with an autistic son in a respectful, funny, and unsentimental way, though like most of the dramas mentioned, it is adult entertainment, and also like the others, relatively restrained by modern standards.
On ITV crime drama, Broadchurch, returned for a third season in March but while it more than held the attention, with David Tennant and Olivia Colman as great a team as ever, it just wasn’t as good as the first two seasons.
Channel 4’s drama The State gave us an uncomfortable insight into British young people joining ISIS – it was hard hitting and less graphic than one might have expected. On Netflix I was disappointed with US presidential drama Designated Survivor – after a start that saw the entire US government blown up, apart from the designated survivor (Kiefer Sutherland), it became average, and the current season has disappointed even more. Anne With an E, on the other hand, based on the book Anne of Green Gables, was one of the online outlet’s best dramas, again with that warm humanity that endears people to a show.
On the comedy front, I was sorry to see the end of US mockumentary Parks and Recreation. There were some iffy elements but in general it was warm, gentle and quirky. I discovered a new gem, with a similar style, the satirical W1A (BBC). Here the BBC has great fun sending up its own foibles, with timely digs at media jargon, inflated egos, insufferable trendiness, the excesses of political correctness, hipster culture and the inscrutable complications of tech. The bad language could do with some trimming though.
On the head-wrecking social issues, the Eighth Amendment was dominant, and not in a good way. Watching the live coverage of the Citizen’s Assembly and the more recent Oireachtas Committee on Oireachtas TV or RTÉ News Now (both useful for getting the unfiltered versions of things) was frustrating, because I couldn’t help feeling that both bodies were pointless, with the outcome a foregone conclusion. The imbalance on the recent committee was particularly galling.
I’m particularly bothered by what I see as the significant bias in favour of repeal of the Eighth Amendment on several Newstalk programmes. For example, a recent Between the Lines show had four guests showing negativity towards the Eighth and no guest to offer a counter view.
On the Pat Kenny Show there have been very soft interviews on the Eighth with Drs Peter Boylan and Rhona O’Mahony, and while Kenny’s interview with Katie Asccough and the women from the Ending the Silence initiative were largely good, their main thrust was on abortion in general and personal stories, and not nearly enough to redress the imbalance on this show concerning the specific issue of the Eighth Amendment.
Worst of all is Kenny’s recent toying with denigrating terms like ‘anti-choice’ and ‘so-called pro-life’ – no sign of ‘so-called pro-choice’ , or ‘anti-life’ or even ‘pro-abortion’. There’s a big fairness and impartiality deficit here that needs to be addressed as the referendum approaches, as we consider whether we really want to remove people’s rights from the Constitution and thus make it easier to terminate the lives of unborn children, especially those with severe disabilities.
It will be the hot issue for 2018.