Belfast Telegraph

Barra's sunny outlook puts history lessons back on track

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

By Joe Nawaz

We really do love a good old look back here don't we? Half-remembered dates, half-understood historical heroes and half-assed murals, it seems we're a society that is addicted to steeping ourselves in history without actually educating ourselves with history.

Narratives are often snugly, smugly linear; grey areas are another term for retirement homes, and convenient folk-tales of societal division have been cleverly crystallised into a segregated truth for those it suits. But enough confusing half-allusion to the poisonous political inheritance of our buffoonish tribal leaders on the hill. While they're currently doing the "contrary-Canute" (a very fashionable dance move of the late 18th century), and thrashing about like demented beached whales, still expecting the long-evaporated tide to come to their rescue, local telly is taking its own look over the shoulder. In time-honoured tradition (is there any other kind?) autumn programming evokes more rose-tinted nostalgia than a madeleine steeped in LSD.

And the great thing about local TV nostalgia is that it's untroubled by anything approaching proper historical context. As a result, it's hard to get sufficiently worked up to shout at the telly, except maybe "oi Mahon, you didn't spend nearly enough time explaining the rich and fascinating history of that 9th century round tower in Armoy." But even then, perhaps that's just me. And what could offer more of a televisual history hug than the nicest man in TV presenting a programme about the north's lost railway lines?

Sometimes weather man Barra Best could be announcing the imminent arrival of a super-tsunami on the Down coast, and you'd make a mental note to thank him, before fleeing for your life.

On Walk the Line he, um, walks the lines of much of the north's great, lost railway network.

The old Downpatrick line is where Barra started this week. Suitably tweeded (and alliteratively conveniently), BBC NI's most prolific tweeter perambulated his way along the rusting, rusticated tracks from Down Royal to the haunting array of "local Stonehenge", the Ballyknowle stone circle to Newcastle.

He gleaned nice bits of train-related trivia en route. For example, did you know that pre-war, all animals were transported by train? Anybody who's taken the Enterprise from Belfast to Dublin will have taken scant consolation in the fact that they found a way to usefully recycle those livestock carriages.

Or fantastically, it was the expanded rail service that finally gave us plebs access to the sandy, mountainside paradise that is Newcastle. One can only imagine the indignation welling up in the plus-fours of the well-heeled weekenders who went there to "get away from it all" as the first trainload of bucket-and-spaders hit the beach. But the most profound feeling after watching this superior slice of nostalgia was bemusement. Sixty years on. Anybody who has been on a train will know how dismal and limited the service is here and how vibrant and extensive it once was.

Speaking of once flourishing local lines, Dan Gordon reminded us this week of one of the great lost polymaths of the north – one Richard Heyward. Did you know for example that the first indigenous Norn Iron film wasn't in fact Good Vibrations, but Luck of the Irish, starring this fascinating pioneer of stage, screen, song and, er, the travel guide?

Unjustly consigned to a dim posterity, in the way that our overpaid swingers of clubs won't ever be, Heyward refused to be pigeonholed either in tribal association or in vocation.

He was as Irish as he was Ulster. He took "the owld orange Flute" up the hit parade (that's not a euphemism, you mucky pups), yet despised "Malone Road Britishness". Actually, I kind of get now why he wasn't schlepped onto a pedestal alongside our current tin-pantheon of "icons".

As I may have mentioned before, we're much more comfortable when our historical figures are black or white. And only then if th ey're white.

Sobering reflection on how people - and opinions - change

In a week of televisual reflection, True North returned with another kind of nostalgia - of the "where are they now" variety.

Film-maker Alison Miller revisited people she'd first interviewed back in 1993, before the first ceasefire, to see how their hopes and fears had panned out in the intervening two decades. The resulting programme was a sobering little existential reflection, reminding us all that time's arrow moves relentlessly on, whether you're on board or not. Ronnie from east Belfast and his childhood sweetheart Kelly had long married and divorced. Ronnie's flaxen mane had also seemed to have declared irreconcilable differences with him. Bernadette, the young mother of twins, who had been the senior stylist in Foxy Lady's – the "perm capital of west Belfast", was now unemployed. More disconcerting than the shock of seeing people age 20 years before your eyes, was the change in their world view. "I'd tell any young person today to get out while they can," said Ronnie.

Bernadette explained how much harder it was to get work around west Belfast these days. And depressingly her Lenadoon estate "hadn't changed in 20 years". It was an effective testimony to ordinary people and their reality within our post-conflict "paradise". Luckily there were a few laughs too. Another important True North story.

Not the best of starts for Sugar's girls

What's in a name, eh? A series of random syllables it seems, if you're on the Apprentice.

Series 10 kicked off this week and the girls and boys began by deciding team names.

The girls plumped for 'Decadence', because hypnotherapist Sarah declared it "elegant and feminine". Nick Hewer had a different take, however: "It suggests decay, decline, even moral turpitude", to which Sarah denied she'd ever been near white spirits. The blokes' 'Summit' wasn't much better. But not to be outdone, the following day, the girls had caved in at the first hiccup, and ironically rebranded themselves 'Team Tenacity'. At least I think it was ironically.

The only thing worse than the names so far have been the terrible pitches. But that's were the similarities with the Irish League end.

Switch on

Gogglebox: (C4)

Noel Gallagher on Gogglebox to combat cancer? No, it’s not “three across” in this week’s Times Cryptic Crossword. It’s a real thing, happening tomorrow. Terrible records, funny bloke. Should be fun. Also tucked away on late night BBC4, The Detectorists surprised me by being both elegiac and amusing. But mainly amusing, thankfully.

Switch off

Grantchester: (ITV1)

Audiences seem to be turning away from Grantchester quicker than a Judy Finnegan tweeted apology. I tried to give the period piece a go, but Robson Green keeps getting in the way.

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