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Saturday 3 December 2016

Pat Stacey: Wild Ireland - for once, a travelogue worth the journey

Christine Bleakley is an engaging guide to the country in the excellent Wild Ireland.
Christine Bleakley is an engaging guide to the country in the excellent Wild Ireland.

THE celebrity travelogue is possibly the most degraded television genre of all. Pick a celebrity, supply them with a camera crew and send them off on an all-expen-ses-paid jaunt somewhere exotic to do the kind of things the average stiff will never get to do if they live a dozen lifetimes.

Oh, and don’t forget to pack a script, because most celebs don’t have an awful lot to say that’s particularly interesting or enlightening, or in some cases even coherent.

A few years ago, the BBC sent James May to the stratosphere in a US Air Force spy plane. The best he could manage to say about a trip only a select number of people will ever experience? “Wow!”

Back down here on Earth, or the version of it celebrities in travelogues inhabit, RTE and BBC jointly treated us to three hours of Dara and Ed’s Great Big Adventure, in which comedians and buddies Dara O Briain and Ed Byrne made a 4,000-mile journey along the Pan-American highway. Better than a fortnight in Salou, I think you’ll agree.

O Briain and Byrne clearly enjoyed themselves enormously. What enjoyment those of us watching them enjoy themselves were supposed to get out of it is another matter.

Things tend to get even more gruesome when an Irish celebrity who’s made it big elsewhere returns to cast a fond eye over the oul’ sod, years or even decades after they skipped the hell out of the place.

In the teeth-grindingly awful Terry Wogan’s Ireland, the genial presenter toured the country from which he had, to quote the great sage Gwyneth Paltrow, a “conscious uncoupling” in 1969, kicking up one exhausted cliché after another.

IGNOMINY

Who could have predicted that, of all people, Christine Bleakley would be the one to rescue the celebrity travelogue from ignominy on, of all channels, UTV Ireland?

The Down-born Bleakley hasn’t had the smoothest of times since quitting The One Show on BBC1 to join ITV, which seems to be at a bit of a loss as to how best to use her. UTV Ireland hasn’t had the easiest time of it, either, since coming on air in January. I for one haven’t had many (make that any) good things to say about it.

But the Bleakley-fronted Wild Ireland, which sees her travel the Wild Atlantic Way, a 2,500-kilometre stretch of uninterrupted road that runs along the west coast from Donegal to Cork, is excellent – a travelogue that doesn’t make you feel like you’re repeatedly being smacked in the face with a tourist brochure for half an hour every week.

Not that the series won’t do a lot for tourism; the landscape is stunning and reminds even the most jaded observer of the beauty of the often beleaguered little island we share. But the key ingredient here is the presenter.

She’s an effortlessly charming and enthusiastic guide, as well as likeably vulnerable. When she was faced, in last week’s opening episode (I hadn’t at the time of writing seen last night’s), with the prospect of cliff-jumping 30ft off Slieve League into the water, you never doubted that the height-averse Bleakley’s fear was real, not faked for the cameras.

Better again, the people she meets along the way aren’t used as mere props to add a bit of the dreaded “local colour”. Whether it’s the guy teaching Bleakley how to cliff-jump or the woman who runs a salmon-smoking plant, they’re there because they’re interesting people with interesting things to say, and Bleakley is interested in hearing them say it.

There’s an old saying: “You can’t eat the scenery.” Wild Ireland is an unexpectedly delicious treat nonetheless.

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