Belfast Telegraph

A chink of light in our darkest days

The programmes to watch... and the ones you really want to miss

By Joe Nawaz

The familiar dystopian buzz of the Stones' Paint it Black splutters into life, grainy black and white images of rubble-strewn edifices, crying children and grim-as-Hades soldiers looking over their shoulders. Meanwhile a monk self-immolates before the cameras, in an incendiary indelible protest at brutal state repression. Well, scratch that last bit actually (we don't "do" those kind of clergy in Ireland), but as for the rest, you'd have been initially forgiven for thinking that UTV were about to give us their long-awaited Vietnam War retrospective.

One half-expected The Doors' rubbish The End to kick in as a helicopter hovered over a paddy field. But with the reassuring and much more welcome sound of Dennis Tuohy introducing the Troubles I've Seen, it was quickly clear that this was an altogether more localized, ahem, Paddy field of conflict we were to give the old sepia nostalgia treatment.

The introductions rolled: "We tried to being the horror of what was going on in people's homes," went the introductory voiceover as footage of Bono and Hume and Trimble holding hands flashed before our eyes, making one start that there perhaps even greater horrors than that admittedly troubling image during the 30-year conflict.

Yes the Troubles I've Seen, now in its second series, has eked out more incriminating recollections of the armed conflict – our very own "Troubles" as we never tire of telling American tourists – than Castlereagh Interview Centre surely ever did. OK, I know it's essentially a vehicle to big up UTV, and stick their tongue out across Ormeau Avenue at Broadcasting House and triumphantly trumpet an august alumnus of English and anglicized warzone reporters that includes Trevor McDonald, Gavin Esler, Nicholas Witchell and Gordon Burns.

In fact, the king of the Krypton Factor said as much when he, possibly unscripted, said: "Viewers watched UTV News WAAAY over the BBC News".

Luckily the programme makers had the diplomatic sense to cut before he added "nananananana" and blew a raspberry at the camera.

That said, it is an engaging series, which suggests that tragedy plus time plus amazing film footage equals a queer sense of nostalgia.

We're a society much given to looking back, and what better medium to conduct that warm, gooey observation of a rather horrible time than through than the assured vowels of the (mostly) men of the newsrooms?

Former editor of this paper Ed Curran took us back to where it kind of began (there's no available footage of The Plantations people – at least not at UTV), the courtroom were Gusty Spence and two accomplices were on trial for the Malvern Street Pub murder of Catholic Peter Ward.

Curran explained the novelty back in the 60s of going to a murder trial in Belfast.

"It was unheard of. I was just fascinated staring into their eyes."

It was a profound watershed for journalism in Northern Ireland, and it was poignant almost, with the benefit of hindsight, to realise that for Curran as for the rest of the population, nothing would ever be the same again. But it wasn't all doom and gloom, earthy anecdotes about flying fish taking out careless journos, playing cricket on the roof of UTV with Trevor McDonald, Gordon Burn's enormous 70s collars and footage of old school reporter Jimmy Robinson's remarkable "the way we used to talk" utterances outside the courthouse as Spence and his cronies were being sentenced were little slivers of light amidst the blasted beige gloom of the still endlessly intriguing shots of a Belfast that was both naggingly familiar and yet so utterly alien.

Alf McCreary described how, perversely, "The Troubles" benefitted at least one small section of society – as journalists became essential chroniclers of our suddenly visceral history or "regional reporters suddenly doing a national job" as he put it. "It was exciting professionally," he admitted. "You suddenly had a bigger audience."

What UTV wouldn't give for that now with this actually engaging and curiously affecting slice of "us past".

A slice of Ramsay Street in Carrickfergus

I'd forgotten Neighbours was even still a going concern until I saw Susan from the show, aka Jackie Woodburne, on This Morning the other day.

Susan and Karl were a going concern last time I checked, which must have way been back in my early 30s. So I was shocked to discover they'd been divorced and got back together several times, that she'd lost her memory, survived a plane crash and is about to be stuck with Lou in a killer storm. Yes, Lou is still there too.

Most shocking of all was the revelation that Susan was originally from Carrickfergus. "I wonder if the mayor knows who you are?" teased foxy Philip. Cue fiddly-dee music and a TV appearance so awkward it looked like the work of a very skilled comedy actor – but it was the Mayor of Carrickfergus, Charles Johnson.

"She's famous here," he said, struggling with the cue card clearly being held just above the camera and looking like somebody who'd just remembered he'd left the oven on.

"She's so famous here she's the first person to be awarded the Carrickfergus plaque, which is here on this wall," he added as his tense shoulders barely allowed a flourish of the arm as the camera jerkily pulled back to reveal a green plaque on a wall. "Jacqueline even has has her own range of commemorative tea-towels and mugs."

Craggy Island eat your heart out.

A journey to, not from, Hell

What could be worse than the standard journey from hell, I hear you cry? Fear not, Channel 5 have the answer. Rather than dwell on mere common-or-garden journeys from hell, they've gone straight to the very worst journeys from hell, in a peril-porn show called, you've guessed it, World's Worst Journeys from Hell. In it we had the likes of reckless Sergei who was stupid on a motorbike and ended up "not 30, but three per cent" likely to recover.

Luckily he recovered 100% and just in time to tell us over poorly composed melodramatic chords how "I haven't ridden on a motorcycle since. I mean, I've sat on one, but that's it." Gripping stuff ...

Switch on

People With Jokes (BBC 2)

The People With Jokes series is a rather lovely, occasionally filthy series that’s been enjoying a welcome rerun of late. Boffins With Jokes was no exception. Nobody made the “proton walks into a bar” joke. So I can still pass it off as my own.

Switch off

Celebrity Big Brother (C5)

“Emma Willis presents the action as another famous housemate is shown the door,” promised the blurb. It lied. There were two of them. And nobody seemed to know who either of them were. “She used me for a showmance,” blurted the bloke. Quite.

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