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TV View: Rich tapestry the gift that keeps on giving


William Crawley’s Imagining Ulster covers territory already mined extensively in previous cultural documentaries

William Crawley’s Imagining Ulster covers territory already mined extensively in previous cultural documentaries

BBC Northern Ireland

William Crawley’s Imagining Ulster covers territory already mined extensively in previous cultural documentaries

What must your average modern-day settler make of local television? What clues might they glean about this odd land in which they've sportingly chosen to put roots down? It's fair to say a cocktail of Number 2s, Rare Breed and Julian Simmons might send out messages so mixed it would blow an Enigma machine.

They'll witness paler facsimiles of successful shows from across the water - from cookery and travel to minor personalities (personality in the showbiz sense of course - Tim McGarry has bags of personal charm) going on televised explorations about this, that or the other. They'll boggle at the trilingual provision in a region where everybody essentially sounds the same from the outside. Perhaps most of all, they'll probably think that we find ourselves endlessly fascinating. Largely thanks to an endless parade of historical investigations about "us". Call it self-obsession, insecurity or - deep breath - an ongoing project to reassess and reshape formerly contentious historical narratives into a shared past, but there's a hell of a lot of looky-backy programmes on these days.

Unlike Fox News' Bill O'Reilly's highly publicised foray into watching the Troubles on TV, our latest migrants would have no problem confusing this with their reality. In fact, the latest history of "us", repackages the past 500 years in a way you could see as the training video for Northern Irish citizenship in some scary dystopian future.

The good news about Imagining Ulster is that it's got an undeniably epic sweep - examining a land "shaped by many languages, faiths and cultures". It's also helmed by William Crawley - a reassuring amalgam here of Simon Shama, trendy vicar and a favourite old cardigan. Crawley is no slouch at these sort of light, liberally tinged reflections. When he stood in frequent, pensive silhouette against obligatory dramatic backdrops such as Giant's Causeway, it may have mustered the gravitas of an 80s Durex advert, but you knew you were in safe hands.

When he was required to say things like "Presbyterianism in all its diversity" or "Irish vivacity enlivened Scottish gravity" he maintained his deadpan tone.

The bad, or rather old, news was that the "many shapes, faiths and cultures" amounted to - by my count - two-and-a-half, perhaps three at a stretch. "Are we Irish? British? Northern Irish? Ulster Scots?" he ruminated aloud. It's not that there weren't illuminating moments. It's always informative to know, especially if you've come here to live, that "our" emblem is a bloodied, severed hand. And the fact that Queen Victoria saw the town of Belfast as typically Irish, amusingly reminded me of my days studying in England, where they don't care whether we're Ulster Protestant or Belfast Catholic-Muslim - it's all Irish to them.

Like it or not, most people aren't walking about perfectly hybridised versions of former Gaelic and Scots settlers. It's so much more complicated and interesting than that. It's not that programmes like Imagining Ulster don't have merit, but repeatedly and loudly bashing out this dull culturally binary tattoo across the airwaves when in fact the two sides presented here could be separated by the mere width of a coin, seems like a kind of televisual Tourette's.

Getting good vibes about local voices heard on a bigger stage

It was kind of exciting to see the advert for Good Vibrations on the BBC the other day.

After all, the locally sourced movie about "godfather of punk" Terri Hooley was, until the Bafta-winning Boogaloo and Graham, the most acclaimed film from round these parts. It's a bloody good film too, that wisely decides to opt for printing the legend. I may be crippled with a nagging sense of cultural self-doubt, but seeing the trailer for its first TV screening on Saturday reminded me that there's always a surreal quality to witnessing something of local standing making it onto grown-up, "proper" media. Like watching Jamie Dornan talk Holywood about Hollywood on American chat shows, or seeing Boogaloo and Graham do the double of winning at the Baftas plus not being categorised as a Northern Ireland programme on BBC iPlayer. You always feel initially that here's been some mistake, before it sinks in that local folks can make global waves without resorting to swinging a golf club. Or just swinging.

The fault is purely one of my own making of course. Ever since I heard Kenneth Branagh was from Belfast, and before I learned that Daniel Day Lewis wasn't Irish, I automatically assumed that for anyone to make it to the big time from here, you had to "spake proper".

After the shock comes the thrill, that outside of the usual Troubles-related exports, our voices are reaching a wider-audience - and increasingly often without subtitles.

Keeping calm and carrying on in the gurning face of Vernon

Important things I learned when flapping about the shallow-end of the TV pool this week...

Thanks to the One Show I found out that frugal actor Richard E Grant keeps merely a toothpaste and a roll-on in his bathroom.

It was also a revelation to discover that Danny Dyer beats Katie Hopkins in naff-celebrity Top Trumps.

Most exciting of all, I discovered that I should probably apply to be on new ITV quiz 1000 Heartbeats. It's not what you think; contestants aren't forced to watch back-to-back episodes of the Nick Berry nostalgicop vehicle and then fight it to the death for a crystal vase armed with little more than a rolled-up Radio Times and a disorientating rage. Rather, you try to keep your heart-rate low to buy more time to win money. The ingenious part of it is having Vernon Kay gurn at you while you attempt to keep calm and carry on.

But they won't have reckoned on the stash of beta-blockers I keep for such emergencies. And I was seriously considering becoming the Lance Armstrong of Daytime TV quiz shows. Until I saw the prize money.

Switch on

Rare Breed is crazy informative, farming fun for the post-agricultural generation! At least I think that’s what they’re called. This week nematodes did battle with weevils in defence of the humble strawberry. Did you watch Martin Clunes in Arthur and George? It was superior low-brow Sherlockian fun, ingeniously eked from the eminently high-brow Julian Barnes novel.

Switch off

Fortitude appears to have petered out in a way that would make Peters everywhere consider legal action. Not much happening very slowly in glacial austere settings; could be a typical day at Stormont. I’m not saying to switch off Banished, Jimmy McGovern’s penal Antipodean saga, I’m just saying don’t give anything away before I get a chance to catch up tonight. Deal?

Belfast Telegraph