Friday 17 November 2017

Subverting the stereotypes

MUIDE EIRE (TG4) ALI: STILL THE GREATEST (ITV4)BUCKING THE TREND: Pat Shortt dignified the role of the village idiot

"THE problem with stereotypes is people start to think they're the norm," said actor Stephen Rea in the third episode of the outstanding Muide Eire.

When Rea said "people", we can probably take it he meant "Americans", several generations who have gleaned their cultural information about Ireland from Maureen O'Hara's fiery, flame-haired colleen in picture-postcard romp The Quiet Man (am I the only person who loathes that film?), John Mills's gurning gobshite in the ponderous Ryan's Daughter and Barry Fitzgerald -- who practically built an entire film career on playing characters a small step up from a gift-shop leprechaun -- in just about everything he made.

Hugh O'Conor, who kick-started his career playing the young Christy Brown in My Left Foot, agreed. American film directors, he suggested, are more likely to expect Irish actors to deliver the kind of walking, blarney-spouting cliche that Irish or British film-makers would never countenance.

What made this episode a particular delight was the way it avoided the obvious targets (there wasn't a clip of the wretched Victor McLaglen to be seen) and instead concentrated on how Irish writers and directors have taken back the much-abused stereotypes -- the cute hoor with the sly wink, the pulpit-pounding whiskey priest, etc -- and subverted them to their own ends.

Top of the stereotype heap comes the self-sacrificing Irish mammy, typified by Brenda Fricker's Oscar-winning turn in My Left Foot.

Director Jim Sheridan admitted he based the character on his own, rather than Christy Brown's, mother: "Silent, very few opinions, always on the side of the oppressed."

The Irish father -- invariably red-faced, violent and perpetually pissed -- has also taken something of a hammering from Hollywood. Brendan Conroy, an excellent actor who's had to play a fair few stereotypes in his time (including loveable halfwit Peter in The Irish RM), noted with amusement how American movie characters can whack back the whiskey without it having any effect whatsoever, yet hand an Irishman a full glass and he ends up drunk and/or brawling.

Not that Irish film-makers haven't been their own worst enemies from time to time. Jim Sheridan, again, seemed to tacitly admit that he'd overcooked the pudding in his film of The Field by making Bull McCabe, boomingly played by Richard Harris, a Lear-like figure who was larger than life -- and maybe too large for a small, intense tale of rural greed and revenge.

The film of Roddy Doyle's The Commitments, however, did a lot to rehabilitate the Irish father. As played by Colm Meaney, Jimmy Rabbitte Sr (who, for reasons of Hollywood character ownership, was renamed Dessie Curley in the sequels, The Snapper and The Van) showed that the working-class Irish dad could be rough around the edges, yet also kind, tender, affectionate and devoted to his family.

Mark O'Halloran and Lenny Abrahamson's superb Garage, which starred Pat Shortt did just as much to rescue the tarnished image of, for the want of a better way of putting it, the village idiot, a character on the margins played for laughs.

"We wanted to pull that peripheral character and make him central," said O'Halloran. "It's the people on the periphery who need dignity." A superb series, this.

ITV4, floating around on the periphery of digital land, is probably not the first channel you'd turn to in search of substantial entertainment. Yet Ali: Still the Greatest, the channel's five-night celebration of the undisputed king of the square ring's 70th birthday, is a treat.

Pieced together from lovingly restored footage, it puts the emphasis on the fights above everything else. Last night's episode, subtitled 'Ali versus Britain', focused primarily on his two epic confrontations with the great, but easily blooded, Henry Cooper, who had the rare distinction of flooring Ali.

The series is let down, though, by host Des Lynam, whose chats with Barry McGuigan are as bland as a glass of tepid skimmed milk. What the series really needs is a Harry Carpenter or a Reg Gutteridge. Sadly, neither is with us anymore.


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