Wednesday 22 November 2017

Wartime drama drifts off key

Birdsong Sunday, BBC 1 Who Knows Ireland Best? Friday, RTE1 Room 101 Friday, BBC 1 Tonight with Vincent Browne weeknights, TV3

War! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing . . . wait . . . actually war is a pretty good source of dramatic plots.

But in a way, World War I is the biggest cheat in modern fiction. Want to make your historical drama tragic without proper character development? Throw WW 1 into the mix. Birdsong is such a drama. Without World War 1 Birdsong is basically a long perfume ad featuring attractive people gazing at each other wordlessly in bleached-out sunlight (I'm disagreeing with my colleague Pat Stacey on this one -- sorry Pat!).

The story shifts between pre-war France, where Stephen (Eddie Redmayne) gazes longingly at the young wife of his impotent strike-breaking boss, and the trenches of World War 1, where he's overseeing a group of engineers tunnelling beneath German lines.


In pre-war France, Isabelle and Stephen do a lot of "speaking without words", which is fierce convenient for scriptwriter Abi Morgan. Stephen stares into the middle-distance a lot, like a child who can't see the blackboard at school. This is interspersed with cod-poetic balderdash.

"It's very beautiful here," says Stephen.

"All around us is decay," says Isabelle, not one for the small talk.

In the trenches, Stephen is surrounded by tragic young men posing moodily in cinematic mud to orchestral music (note to self: write a jaunty feelgood WW 1 drama where the participants quite enjoy the war). Even though Stephen has no personality, military engineer Jack (the excellent Joseph Mawle) is soon gazing at him with homoerotic admiration. Only one character seems to be aware of any subtext.

"Have you read Freud?" his commanding officer asks.

"No," says Stephen blankly.

"Pity," says the commanding officer. Then he orders Stephen to go into a dark wet tunnel he doesn't want to go into. Yes. Freud. Of course.

There are a lot of narrative parallels between the two timelines. After Stephen consummates his relationship with Isabelle there's a scene where he's penetrated by a German bullet (Freud again). The pre-war narrative ends with Stephen and Isabelle running away. The trench-side story ends with Stephen being discovered alive amid the corpses. Jack hoists him into his arms and carries him off, much like Richard Gere whisked Debra Winger off at the end of An Officer and a Gentleman. Unfortunately the first episode of Birdsong doesn't end to the strains of Up Where We Belong by Jennifer Warnes and Joe Cocker.

Who Knows Ireland Best? is a cheap-and-cheesy quiz show in which members of different professions compete for dominance before the watchful specs of Derek Mooney. This week taxi-drivers battled models. This probably fits RTE's public service remit as a form of career guidance, or possibly it's an allegory for a post-recessionary Ireland in which we have all been reduced to warring vocational tribes.


Over on BBC1, Room 101 returned with Frank Skinner and a new panel format. Everything is panel-shaped these days because risk-averse TV commissioners think lots of minor celebs are better than one big one. But the old setup was better. The main gimmick (interviewees banishing annoyances to Orwell's Room 101) is now diluted by generic panel-show banter. Still, with Frank Skinner at the helm and panellists like Sarah Millican, it was funny.

Much like Monday's Tonight with Vincent Browne in which John Bowman guested to discuss 50 years of RTE. The discussion reminded me of Megashark vs Crocosaurus (which I reviewed last week). As two broadcasting giants locked jaws (Browne accused RTE of smugness, Bowman disagreed) the other panellists watched like human bystanders in a B-movie. Of course, sometimes Vincent 'Megashark' Browne's critiques of RTE sounded like he was protesting too much. He clearly admires Bowman. In fact, I half expected the programme to end with Bowman carrying Browne back to Montrose to the strains of Up Where We Belong.

Birdsong HHIII

Who Knows Ireland Best? HIIII

Room 101 HHHII

Tonight with Vincent Browne HHHII

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