TV View: Michael Smiley, Jamaica Inn and Fargo
The programmes to watch... and the ones you'll really want to miss
SMILEY'S RIDE THROUGH HIS PAST ABSOLUTE JOY
It's often said of our verdant little corner of the isle that you have to go away to truly appreciate its singular charms. Certainly, my happiest times in Norn Iron were just after returning from a decade of living "across the water". It's not long, though, before reality bites hard, and you're back to cursing the Good Friday licensing laws and marching men in ill-fitting uniforms holding up traffic.
For actor and comedian Michael Smiley, it's taken him 30 years to come back to the place he swore he'd never return to, and in Something To Ride Home About (BBC1), he appeared to be loving it a degree more than several American tourists on Prozac loosely Sellotaped together.
It's not often celebrity travelogues have anything going for them, usually comprising of a series of painfully set up "spontaneous moments", awkward chats with locals and cheesy voiceovers. And the local varieties often inspire the kind of buttock-clenching normally reserved for spot Customs checks.
Who, for example, can forget Stephen Nolan gooning about the Republic of Ireland last year? Too few of you, I'm assuming, by the current pained expressions on your faces.
But in Something To Ride Home About, the hugely likeable Smiley hopped on a bike for a peddle down memory lane and along the byroads of his life here, before he fled to London back in 1983.
And the first episode was more fun than you'd usually be able to have by yourself. Whether the Holywood man was exploring the physical landscape or the human geography of this place, it was never less than warm, engaging and informative -- the holy trinity or (if you prefer) sturdy tripod of quality programming.
For example, who outside Holywood knew that there were three distinct accents, and living there wasn't just all about "peeling pomegranates"? "That's the Bangor end" sniffed an indignant Smiley. "East of the Maypole it's posh. All judges and multi-millionaires, giving hallions like me a bad name."
It was a kind of zen-peddle-pilgrimage for the cycling nut as he relived former girlfriends, first bicycles, and reconnected with all the things he loved about "here". Stuff we all take for granted, or allow to slide down the back of the sofa of despair, amid all the parochial nonsense.
For anybody who remembers Smiley as the affable drug-addled bike courier called Tyres in the Nineties sitcom Spaced, it was almost a relief to discover that he was almost exactly like that character -- except for the drugs bit, like. Clearly high on life these days, he visited the rather wonderful Lawrence Street Bike workshop in Belfast, had a go on Iain Knox's penny farthing, and remembered when he was dumped for getting too frisky when he snogged.
And, as zesty as bobbing for lemons in a bathful of sparkling Evian, he didn't seem to give a damn about the niceties or sensitivities that have us all tied in linguistic knots here.
"You never know where you stand on the Ormeau Road; could be one thing or another," are words you won't ever hear on local TV ever again.
In the same way you probably won't hear a Holywood native describe the town as being in Ireland any time soon.
Or a man with Markets connections saying "Northern Ireland" as easily as Malone Road nationalists now say Tiocfaidh ar la de dah.
Perhaps you also have to go away to forget our everyday deference to the utter absurdities that abound here. There was a beautiful exchange with veteran photographer and cycling enthusiast Bill Kirk, as he revealed, hilariously and poignantly, that the spot he was snapping Smiley at was equidistant between Ballyallycock (sic), where his mother died, and Ballywhatecock (well, that's what it sounded like) -- where she was born.
The biggest revelation of all was that Michael Smiley is a national/regional treasure, and one of our better cultural exports, which is, of course, why he now lives and thrives in London.
THEY'RE SMUGGLING THE BEER... WE'RE STRUGGLING TO HEAR
There was much outcry this week about the beeb's new smouldering period piece Jamaica Inn. The main problem seemed to be that folks couldn't tell if it was actually smouldering at all, what with more unintelligible mumbling going on than you hear coming out of the average teenage boy's bedroom.
I wasn't going to watch it initially, because I loved the old Hitchcock movie so much.
But, intrigued, I gave it a whirl to see if you really couldn't distinguish the 'Rs' from the elbows.
Sure enough, one actor appeared to angrily exclaim to the heroine Mary: "If you inside nosy bap hat-trick coiffures, eye break errand!"
Smugglers code, I immediately assumed. It's about smugglers, after all.
Playback, ample use of the pause button and a crash course in lip-reading, didn't help, but luckily the subtitles did: "If you decide to open that trap of yours, I'll break your hand!" was the actual line.
Which, to be fair, did make more sense in the context of the scene. It's a growing problem in TV and cinema, apparently.
Advances in audio technology coupled with ever more complexly arranged soundtracks have ironically led to increasing "what the fudge?" incidents on our screens.
The campaign to ease the restriction of diction in fiction starts here ...
YOU'LL HAVE TO GO FAR TO FIND A BETTER THRILLER THAN FARGO
Anybody watch the first episode of Fargo (Channel 4)? If you didn't, you missed a prime example of what it is that makes "aar wee thriller" The Fall so chillingly pedestrian. Fargo was blackly funny, beautifully acted, paced and had that slightly uneasy feeling that you didn't quite know where it was going.
And there wasn't an exploitatively salacious murder of a woman in sight. Well, Martin Freeman's character did batter his wife with a hammer. But you could tell he instantly regretted it, as opposed to licking his lips and then abseiling out a window dressed as the Milk Tray man. And Billy Bob Thornton's deliciously creepy Lorne Malvo is perhaps the most anti-anti-hero in the recent popular history of anti-herodom.