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Tuesday 21 August 2018

Give Dead Money more time

dead money (rte1) horizon: solar storms (BBC2)

IN TELEVISION'S sprawling family tree, programmes about genealogy represent the fastest-growing genre.

The latest arrival is Dead Money, a kind of lovechild of Who Do You Think You Are? and Genealogy Roadshow.

It focuses on brothers and legal genealogists Steven and Kit Smyrl (wonderful surname, that) who specialise in tracking down the heirs to unclaimed estates. For the first programme, they were on the case of Dublin woman Maura Byrne, who lived in Glenealy Road in Dolphin's Barn. Maura, who never married or had children, died after she was hit by a lorry on her way home from mass. She left an estate of €100,000 but hadn't made a will. Although Maura had a wide circle of friends and a lively social life centred on dancing, nobody was aware of any living relatives.

Enter Steven, the researcher who trawls through dusty documents and online archives, and Kit, the gumshoe half of the sibling partnership who does most of the legwork. According to the RTE website for the series, the Smyrls have been tracking down missing beneficiaries in all corners of the world for close on 20 years.

They have an office in Dublin, as well as "a network of researchers and agents across the globe". This is presumably why the brothers made the business of tracking down Maura Byrne's missing heirs seem so, ahem, relatively easy.

Even though we're all savvy enough to know that the donkeywork research for this type of programme is done long before the camera rolls, the various bits of the puzzle seemed to click together so fast it was often difficult to keep up with the biological twists and turns along the way.

Steven traced Maura's lineage back to the squalid slum tenements of Marks Alley in The Liberties. In no time at all he'd picked his way through a forest of dead relatives and located a living cousin, Esther, who is entitled to a share in Maura's estate.

Esther's son, Paul, filled in a few blanks, which led the Smyrls to another cousin Laurence.

As Kit found out when he met him, Laurence had a sad story to tell, which formed the core of this episode. He grew up in an industrial school, believing he was an orphan. Just before his 16th birthday, he was presented with a letter from the widowed father he never knew he had, who wanted to reclaim him. Thus Laurence was reunited with his siblings, all of whom he's outlived, and can claim a 50pc share of Maura's money.

Dead Money is a great idea for a series, even if it's far from original (BBC2's Heir Hunters followed a similar pattern), but the half-hour running time works against it. Everything feels so rushed that there's little time to get an emotional foothold on the story. That said, the Smyrls, with their co-ordinated sweaters and matching shiny pates, are a likeable duo.

Horizon offered us a solar storm in a teacup: a dry and rather tedious hour of largely impenetrable hard science about the everyday activities of the sun, tarted up with swirls of portentous music and doom-laden, "the end is nigh"-type pronouncements.

"When a solar storm strikes," warned the rumbling voiceover, "it could shut us down." Well, it could. But it hasn't yet and in all probability never will. We learned that solar storms, which occur in sunspots, can send scalding plasma hurtling towards Earth. This can suddenly alter magnetic fields, resulting in power shutdowns.

A solar storm in 1989 shut down the power supply of Quebec in Canada for nine hours. Frankly, I've endured worse that than during a stormy weekend in Ireland.

The scaremongering was somewhat undermined near the end by a scientist who said that solar storms, far from being on the increase, are likely to become less frequent over the next 50 years. By which time I imagine my descendants will be squabbling over my meagre estate.



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