Small screen hits and misses

Brendan O’Regan reviews 2014 on TV and radio

So, another year down, with more changes on the media landscape, more political confusion, some fine documentaries, continuing media bias in some areas and bright bouquets of hope here and there.

April saw the end of RTÉ Radio 1’s God Slot, produced by Gerry McArdle. I loved some items, didn’t like a few more but always looked forward to having something interesting on a Friday night. RTÉ Radio’s religious coverage seems to have switched to Sunday mornings on RTÉ Radio 1 Extra.

From what I’ve heard so far, Sunday Spirit is well done and covers a wide variety of religious topics and services and is ably presented by Michael Comyn. Unfortunately, Radio 1 Extra is not that conveniently available, though you can catch it on Saorview TVs, internet radios, PCs/tablets and DAB radio if you’re lucky enough to live in an area that can receive digital radio… still wondering why that’s not rolled out to the whole country.

Would You Believe continued in short runs in the Sunday night slot and two of my favourite episodes were the moving A Claddagh from Manuela episode in February, about the young student murdered in Galway, and School for Love, back in April, about the Cistercian nuns in Glencairn Abbey, Co. Waterford. Joe Duffy’s Spirit Level has returned to RTÉ 1 television in its old Sunday afternoon slot and that’s welcome, though I think it needs a bit of a jizz up… with more music, and a livelier use of the studio audience.


There were lively audiences on the monthly People’s Debate (TV3), those enjoyable bear-pit experiences hosted by Vincent Browne, which started last March. The programmes, however, are probably too long and overly inhabited by politicians.

BBC Radio Ulster’s Sunday Sequence is one of the more thorough shows dealing with religious, social and ethical issues, and recently Audrey Carville of Morning Ireland has joined the team. Tuning in here gives you a different perspective on matters Irish… down south we tend to be too insular.

Also flagshipping for religion on BBC are two very strong programmes – early in the year we get the Big Questions (BBC 1) hosted by Nicky Campbell, featuring another lively audience and even fresher perspectives, and in the autumn Sunday Morning Live, which varies between studio panel discussions, interviews and outside broadcasts. Though it’s still in the intro collage, they’ve dropped public participation by Skype, an innovative approach that I miss.

I’ve enjoyed some marvelous one-off documentaries, especially three offerings from RTÉ 1 – One Million Dubliners was a very human story centred around Glasnevin Cemetery, The High Hopes Choir, a two-parter showcasing two choirs for those affected by homelessness and No Limbs, No Limits, the story of Joanne O’Riordan. Inspiring stuff.

Decidedly uninspiring is the media bias that continues on certain current affairs issues, particularly the abortion and same sex marriage issues. Twice the Broadcasting Authority has upheld complaints of bias on the latter matter (guess on which side!), once against RTÉ Radio 1’s The Mooney Show, and once against Newstalk’s Breakfast Show. Newstalk in particular is at fault on this one, with what amounts to virtual campaigning. For example, presenters routinely using the term ‘marriage equality’ in relation to the upcoming referendum – thus swallowing uncritically the language of one side of the argument.

Whatever the reason, those opposing same-sex marriage legislation are not being heard effectively. They are probably not well organised, are rarely welcome on media debates and are often isolated when they appear.

I’m not convinced that the damages RTÉ paid over the ‘Panti Bliss’ affair on the Saturday Night Show back in February have had much of a cooling effect.

You’d be hard pressed to find balanced debate on this issue, but it’s most likely to be found on the Marc Coleman Show on Newstalk, Sunday nights (bring back the weeknight show!) and on Today With Sean O’Rourke on RTÉ Radio 1. With the referendum due in the spring it’s incumbent on the media to get their act together, challenge both sides of the debate equally and remain neutral themselves.

On the drama front there have been a few noteworthy efforts. The year started with a high-profile dramatisation from the History Channel – The Bible was a bit ropey on the Old Testament, but picked up considerably with the story of Jesus. I think the producers must have felt the same as they released a film, Son of God which expanded the New Testament footage.

The third series of Sherlock on BBC showed how to effectively modernise an old story and, though I didn’t like everything about it, I thought it was absorbing.

The Missing on BBC One has been particularly good, and at the time of writing I’m anxiously awaiting the final episode. This tale of a missing child moves slowly and is character driven without sacrificing a thrilling plot. The flashbacks keep you thinking as layer after layer of the story is peeled back, with startling discoveries. James Nesbitt and Frances O’Connor excel as the parents, though the Nesbitt character can be a pain.

This year we saw more of the Father Brown stories from BBC, based on the character, but not the original stories, of G.K. Chesterton. Mark Williams is fine as the priest-detective but I found the stories limp with too much of a modern sensibility superimposed.

To some extent, ITV’s Grantchester suffered from similar problems, but James Norton was in fine form as another clerical sleuth battling with crime and personal demons. The cleric in BBC’s Rev had more than his share of personal demons and in the last series earlier this year had to fight off marriage problems and troubling church finances.

I had a bit of a love/hate relationship with that series – it was unnecessarily crude at times and took predictable and easy stances on social issues, but I thought its heart was in the right place. Rev. Adam Smallbone, played by Tom Hollander, was vain and weak but he prayed quite a bit and fought for his parish. In one striking episode, he was in a particularly bad state, undergoing his own Good Friday experiences (a point hammered home rather unsubtly by the imagery) when God (in the person of Liam Neeson!) appeared in order to encourage him.

The year ended in a tangled mess of political and social controversies – the water charges held the limelight for weeks – thousands on the street ignored, late night Dáil sittings, political tension… sound familiar?

It was telling that in all the commentaries I heard, no one drew a parallel with the pro-life marches of the previous year.

Social justice

Two social justice issues dominated in December – the issue of homelessness shot to prominence with a death in the street, and then that disturbing Prime Time special on the abuse of residents in a Mayo care home for people with intellectual disabilities had a huge impact, with Irish society yet again having to confront another of its demons.

But this was no case of historical abuse, rather something awful happening in 2014 and perhaps ongoing. ‘Awful’ isn’t strong enough to describe the atrocities committed this year by ISIS/ISIL in the Middle East – social media were abused by ISIS with those beheadings, but social media was ahead of the mainstream in revealing the terror.

Looking forward, on January 1 we get a new TV channel, UTV Ireland. Is there any hope we might get a station where there would be fair debates, unbiased presenters, a variety of viewpoints, some new faces to the fore, strong family programming, freedom from relentless pursuit of social agendas? Somehow I doubt it, but I’ll suspend judgment for now.

Ongoing news

Finally, watch this space for ongoing news of the positive treatment of Pope Francis in the media. He has made many Catholics proud and challenged many more, on the left, right, top and bottom of the Church.

One thing I’ve noticed in media coverage is how it often happens that what Francis says is given the most liberal interpretation possible, while what Benedict said was given the most conservative interpretation possible. Fascinating times and I doubt if anyone can guess what surprises Pope Francis has in store for us in the New Year.