Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 16 September 2014

Joe Mahon ploughs a gently beguiling furrow

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

Joe Mahon on UTV's Lesser Spotted Ulster
Simon Laird

It's very hard to derive any pleasure from, let alone preserve an objectively critical eye on, television at the moment. If the gogglebox, in all its flickering, blinking hue and cry, holds a mirror up to us in any way, then right now the reflection isn't one you'd open the front door to.

To (allegedly) paraphrase the fastest man in the world on the subject of all that current running around in Glasgow, TV, in this darkest TV silly season we've had in years, is pretty grim.

And if our broadcast meeja is also a kind of barometer of where the perceived cultural norm can be located, then it seems that we've been designated as patsies who'll swallow anything.

From endless and eye-poppingly distorted critiques of foreign parts (I mean, Dungannon really isn't that racist, for goodness sake), to dismal repeats of repeats repackaged as fresh produce with Trevor McDonald, it's all more perplexing than the train of thought that plonked an Israeli banner within spitting distance of a KKK flag.

Of course in TV, as in most things in life, context is king. For example, when I came home the other night to find a housemate cheering on the swift execution of a double Arabian, it might have been the final straw, but rather it was a shamefully baudy act of support for the talent on display in the Commonwealth Games gymnastics semis.

It was also the week where Richard 'Ali G' Madeley backing Good Morning Britain was breaking news (he's confident the long forgotten breakfast show will eventually succeed. I know you were wondering). And in THAT context, where was the hiding place in the schedules these past seven days from the horror, the inanity, the repetition, the gymnastics? There was only one answer – Lesser Spotted Ulster (UTV). Joe Mahon has been ploughing a gently beguiling furrow for longer than anybody knew furrows could be either gentle or beguiling. Amidst the nonsense, Lesser Spotted Ulster proved an engaging oasis.

It's one of those programmes that's been quietly going about its business for so long now that it's probably taken for granted or condescended to in a manner usually reserved for tat like Cash In The Attic. But Lesser Spotted... is a rich treasure trove of local historical investigation and Joe is an amiable, engaging and intelligent guide – like a rural Terri Hooley, whose tipple of choice is good, clean country air. Last Friday he made the first of two visits to Caledon in Tryone, whose inhabitants are called, brilliantly, Caledonians. Once a 19th century hive of construction and industry, it's now restored to its Georgian glory.

William Beattie was the local guide who showed Joe around, from the oldest of only eight Beam engines in Ireland ("A 5ft stroke on it, 17 strokes a minute") to the old school set up by Lady Caledon, which insisted on schooling 20 Protestant and 20 Catholic girls together ("integrated education by design almost 200 years ago") this was a splendid, blissfully context-free delve into the past of another small Ulster village.

"The savage loves his native heath," said William of that inexorable pull of your home soil, and you know what? I understood why Lesser Spotted Ulster has been on our screens for a decade-and-a-half.

A respite from the rubbish, as Usain Bolt definitely didn't say, but definitely would have, if he'd watched Lesser Spotted Ulster.

Historical look at plummy thoroughfare was right up my street

It's a cracking second series of The Secret History Of Our Streets (BBC2), which began with a Scots tribe who sound more like Terry-Thomas than Rab C Nesbitt – the residents of Moray Estate in Edinburgh.

With names like Andrew Laird and sporting more tartan than a Braveheart battle scene, the householders of the poshest street in Scotland were as far removed from the buttock clencher that was the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games as Daniel Day-Lewis is from Ireland.

Simon Laird, for example, was like a slightly Scottish Boris Johnson. Brigadier Allan and Joy Alstead were onto their 30th-odd house, and Joy's tennis partner, when she grew up in the Raj, was called Ramsbottom. "Well he was Ram something," she explained, "and he didn't seem to mind being called Ramsbottom," she added in that unwittingly racist way that's actually rather endearing.

As they went about ruminating on the history of the Edinburgh thoroughfare and the demise of the upper-class Scottish, there was more variety of plum on display than could be identified by your average botanist. And like all the programmes in this series, it was a rich, non-judgmental and rather touching biography of a people, through the place they've called home for generations. And it certainly put supposed local "posh" like Cultra into proper contrast.

Beeb needs someone who Pax a punch

It's weird. You turn on Newsnight (BBC2) expecting a booming "Weeeeellll", and instead there's a David Tennant's 10th Doctor lookalike, slumped on a swivel chair looking for all the world like he's just taken the animal tranquiliser ketamine.

I refer, of course, to the BBC's economics editor Robert Peston and his alarmingly relaxed and tie-free guest occupation of the hallowed Newsnight hot seat.

I could have sworn he was swinging his legs on Wednesday night during the Middle East special.

He's just keeping the seat warm for Evan Davis, of course, but is there anybody left at the Beeb with the growling old school gravitas of someone like Paxo?

Switch on

Northern Soul: Living For The Weekend (BBC4)

Like a big telly-ostrich I was on a history trip this week, if only because the present was becoming so very unpalatable. So it was Northern Soul: Living For The Weekend on BBC4 and The Stuarts on BBC2 for me. Next week, as the song says, back to life, back to reality.

Switch off

Commonwealth Games (BBC)

I know I know, the noble field of sporting endeavour, and all that. But it's very hard to muster enough enthusiasm for the B-movie Olympics action to sustain beyond the slew of local boxing medals. Which are great. Obviously.

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