Friday 15 December 2017

Travellers are TV gold so RTE showing this boxing film is pure opportunism

FOR whatever reason, the people who commission, make and schedule television programmes have decided that Travellers, so long the target of suspicion, hostility and often outright hatred, are hot right now.

Channel 4 is on to its second series of Big Fat Gypsy Weddings, which was a spin-off from a fairly sober documentary.

The first run captured an audience of nine million, was among the channel's largest since coming on air back in 1982, and there was also a Christmas special -- the ultimate TV accolade.

It even produced an unlikely celebrity in the uncompromising shape of Paddy Doherty, who entered the Celebrity Big Brother house in Channel 5's revived first series of the clapped-out reality show and emerged the winner.

But the law of diminishing returns has already begun to operate, among the critics, the general public and some Travellers themselves, not least regarding Channel 4's billboard advertising campaign for the series. The slogan was "Bigger. Fatter. Gypsier".


TV3, of course, got there before Channel 4 with Henry McKean's jaunty, colourful three-parter The Truth About Travellers, which -- although it never quite lived up to its bold title -- offered a sympathetic, less sniggeringly judgemental view of the travelling community.

The same went for RTE1 two-parter Blood Of The Travellers, a serious documentary in which ex-boxer Francie Brennan went in search of the genetic heritage of the Travellers with the aim of finding out if they were once settled people who took to the road, or if so-called "settled people" are actually Travellers who decided to forsake the nomadic life.

And then came Knuckle, British filmmaker Ian Palmer's 10-years-in-the-making labour of love that focused on the Traveller tradition of bareknuckle boxing.

Palmer's film, which was released in cinemas in Ireland, Britain and elsewhere, is visceral, brutal stuff -- as you'd expect the sight of two (usually large, overweight) men beating the bejaysus out of one another would be.

Mind you, if you're familiar with the sight of DVDs of bareknuckle Traveller fights being hawked for a tenner a time at pubs and horse fairs around rural Ireland, there was nothing essentially new in Palmer's film -- except perhaps a tendency to mythologise the practice.

RTE1 screened Knuckle at 9.30 last night, a time at which only adults should be watching.

I'm not in favour of censorship except in the most extreme cases (material, for instance, that promotes the sexualisation of children) but I do question the wisdom of RTE showing Palmer's film in a primetime slot.

Bareknuckle is a theatrical film, and none of us is ever dragged kicking and screaming into a cinema against our wishes.

Yet in all the pre-screening promos for the film, RTE never once indicated that this wasn't a film produced or commissioned by RTE.

I'm guessing many unsuspecting viewers, not fully aware of what they were buying into, might have been shocked by the level and graphic nature of the violence.

Palmer's film is not what you'd call guaranteed box-office or mainstream output. Whether it glorifies bareknuckle boxing is a matter of taste.

My opinion is that it does. Either way, screening it in a mainstream, primetime slot on a Sunday night smacks of opportunism on RTE's part.

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