herald

Monday 1 September 2014

A trip down TV's memory lane

RTE should erect a monument to The Riordans on the forecourt of its Donnybrook HQ. How about a life-sized bronze statue of patriarch Tom Riordan surveying an imaginary field full of cows and scowling in disapproval at the new-fangled agricultural-college methods employed by his restless son Benjy?

On second thoughts, we could turn the statue of Tom around the other way, so that he's facing the main building and scowling in disapproval at RTE's apparent inability to make television drama as challenging, innovative or just plain good as it did in the 1960s and 70s.

The Riordans, which arrived on air in 1965 and stayed there for 14 years, was unique. It might not have changed the face of Irish society -- though it did turn a remarkably candid eye on rural life and attitudes -- but it certainly changed the face of popular television.

As this lovely documentary recalled, when Yorkshire Television decided to make a series called Emmerdale Farm in 1972, it looked to The Riordans to see how it should be done.

The Riordans, though set in a fictional Kilkenny townland called Leestown, was shot entirely on location in Dunboyne, Co Meath, at the farm of the Connolly family. The documentary's presenter, Fair City actress Aisling O'Neill -- whose late father, Chris, played Michael Riordan, and who made her own TV debut at six months old as the newborn son of Benjy and Maggie -- made an emotional journey to the farm.

And The Riordans' original executive producer, Christopher Fitz-Simons, recalled that the masterstroke was bringing writer Wesley Burrowes on board. It was Burrowes' scripts, which tackled controversial topics such as contraception, that made The Riordans a singular drama.

"It was a matter of annoying people," he said. "If someone said they'd never watch The Riordans again, you knew you had them for life."

"Wesley had the courage to throw himself off the cliff," said Lelia Doolan, one of the an original director. We could with a little of that daredevil spirit these days.

Setanta Ireland's new series Sport Matters is very much a game of two halves, or rather six sixths. The first 10 minutes are taken up with a mini-documentary, featuring Newstalk breakfast show host Ger Gilroy, which sets the theme of the programme -- in this case, sports sponsorship. Gilroy's skewering of the Guinness hurling campaign from a few years ago was sharp and witty.

What follows is a few-blokes-on-a-couch studio discussion -- an unusual format but, on the evidence of this opening instalment, one that works surprisingly well.

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