Wednesday 26 October 2016

TV Review: BBC means more to some of us than Irish TV culture

Countdown To Life: The Extraordinary Making Of You
Countdown To Life: The Extraordinary Making Of You

THE Staceys, my older and only sister assures me, were among the first families in the Iveagh Buldings in New Bride Street to have a television set.

It was rented, like those of most people living in the flats, from the legendary Harry Moore on Dawson Street and fed by a communal rooftop aerial that seemed, to the eyes of a small boy, to be as big as the Eiffel Tower.

I haven’t pressed my sister on the finer details, but since I didn’t materialise until 1962, nine months after RTE Television had begun broadcasting, it’s probable the television set was a member of the family before I was.

One of the many advantages of being a Dublin kid back then was that we could receive BBC1 and one of the ITV network channels, HTV. This was replaced by UTV when the cable service came on stream in the 70s; the upside, however, was that we were able to watch BBC2 for the first time.

Countless viewers “down the country”, on the other hand, were limited to just RTE, which for many years came on air at teatime and usually closed down well before midnight.

To be honest, I can’t even imagine what that must have been like. The Late Late Show  was staple viewing in our home, as in most people’s, while my mother liked The Riordans and Tolka Row and a few other RTE offerings.

But in the main our taste was for British television, and especially the output of the BBC: the wonderful drama series and comedies; the groundbreaking, sometimes hugely controversial, single plays; the epic wildlife documentaries; the adult-themed foreign-language films (on BBC2) that you simply couldn’t find anywhere else on television and certainly wouldn’t have encountered in Irish cinemas choked by the heavy hand of the Church-fearing film censor.



The BBC was a formative cultural experience for many of us, more a part of what we are than the ghastly parochialism of the GAA , the dreary repetitiveness of traditional music or the token nationalism of plastic politicians.

Like any broadcaster, it has its faults; its handling of the Jimmy Savile affair was a catastrophe that did untold damage to its reputation. And yet, the very real possibility that David Cameron and his cabinet cohorts might just get away with destroying the BBC as we know it is a deeply distressing one.

Any government that seeks to eviscerate a broadcaster capable of making something as great as Countdown to Life: The Extraordinary Making of You, which began on BBC2 on Monday, is guilty of cultural vandalism.

Presented by Michael Mosley and exploring the hundreds of seemingly small, but actually momentous and literally life-changing, developments that combine to make a human being, this three-part series is stunning, gold-standard television.

The computer graphics showing what happens to a foetus inside the womb during the first eight weeks were simply amazing. Sometimes the recipe, so to speak, goes awry.

Mosley met some extraordinary people, including a man whose heart is on the right-hand side of his chest, 14 siblings who were born with six fingers on each hand because of an excess of protein, and New York model Melanie Gaydos, whose teeth and hair were damaged after something went wrong during the gestation period. Not for a single second did any of this feel cheap or exploitative.

This is the kind of television only the BBC could or would make. If the Tories get their way and the BBC is shrunk, stripped of its creative autonomy and — the ultimate Thatcherite dream, this — chopped up and packaged into Sky-style subscription services, it won’t be making very much more of it.

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