Welcome to the wacky world of Irish TV

Where else could you get a minute’s religious devotion and a show in which contestants cook their own takeaways?

Patrick West

Patrick West

Topics Culture

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There is an old cliché that US soap operas are about rich people and British soap operas are about poor people. This, goes the hackneyed observation, shows that Americans are greedy and ambitious while Brits are gloomy yet willing to empathise with the common man. So if soaps are a barometer of a nation’s culture, what do Ireland’s tell us about it?

I always try to catch up on soaps when I am here, principally with the impossible aim of learning Gaelic by osmosis. One of Ireland’s soaps, TG4’s Ros na Rún, is in the native tongue, but it doesn’t feature, as one might expect, storylines about the price of sheep or prejudice against the new Sassenach family that has moved into the proverbial ‘square’. No, it’s less craic and more crack. It has featured stories on assisted suicide, homosexuality and drug running, and in doing so has created a bizarre simulacrum of the Gaeltacht which I suspect is more aspirational than representational.

The only native English-language soap is Fair City, which has been going on the national public broadcaster Raidió Teilifís Éireann (RTÉ) since 1989. Like the programme which is understood to have inspired it, EastEnders, Fair City has had as its remit the willingness to tackle Challenging Issues such as rape, homosexuality, abortion and incest.

One can only assume that the RTÉ producers have risked tackling such topics to promote or reflect the feeling that Ireland is no longer a backward and censorious nation. Ireland is going through one of its periodic spasms of anti-clericalism at the moment, compounding the argument that if you don’t openly discuss matters this will result in priests having sex with children. Fair City placed itself at the vanguard of a post-Catholic Ireland that had embraced modernity.

Yet for all its alleged edginess, Fair City can be simultaneously banal. One of this week’s stories is an ongoing game of Risk in the pub, in which the otherwise hardnosed businessman Louie Gleeson (Alan Devine) complains that someone stole his three armies from Venezuela. Elsewhere there has been furore at the community centre after a youth party got out of hand when alcohol was smuggled into the event. Someone lets off a fire extinguisher! Two teenagers are even caught snogging in a back room! Forget EastEnders, this makes Hollyoaks look dangerous.

The giveaway is the opening credits, which should put anyone off pursuing the programme any further. Filmed in a kind of day-glo sheen, they feature smiley, happy people cycling through a park, accompanied by some cheery light musak that wouldn’t be out of place at the beginning of a day-time television chat-show. It’s like watching an advert for shampoo or tampons.

The most striking thing is just how very English Fair City is. All the templates that the likes of Coronation Street or Emmerdale employ are replicated here. The focus is a pub and there are teenagers and pensioners to please both ends of the audience demographic. People break up fights and say ‘what’s going on here?’ a lot. Alongside the mandatory shyster Louie, there is the bullying Zumo Bishop (Patrick Fitzpatrick), who is part of a thuggish family like the Mitchells in EastEnders. There is the gullible idiot, the Father Dougal-lookalike Damien Halpin (Maclean Burke), and the luckless old man Bob Charles (Bryan Murray), who recently stole money off a kid with cancer. The storylines are just as forgettable as Corrie or Emmerdale, the acting possibly even worse.

Dallas or Dynasty this is not. Ireland during the postwar period sought to stress its ties to the United States, as John F Kennedy’s visit here in 1963 demonstrated. More recently Ireland has emphasised its affinity with continental Europe, in contradistinction to its unhappy historical association with Britain – although this has somewhat diminished since the Euro started to go down the toilet. Fair City is one indicator that its cultural ties remain to a degree with England. This is a pity, especially as, not for the first time, the Irish are apeing the worst aspects of English culture.

* * *

Irish radio is almost entirely dreadful. With the exception of RTÉ’s superlative Lyric FM, which manages both to be as cerebral as BBC Radio 3 and as populist as Classic FM, radio stations here are indistinguishable, consisting mostly of pop music interspersed with witless phone-ins. Of course, ‘witless’ prefacing ‘phone-in’ is a redundant amplification.

So I couldn’t tell you what station I was listening to on Wednesday night when the subject matter was the relevance of the Angelus on RTÉ1. For those not in the know, the Angelus is a Catholic devotion, and in its

The secularists are still not happy. They want to be rid altogether of a broadcast that has been going for half a century. They say it doesn’t reflect the face of an Ireland in which there are many faiths and in which a great deal of people have no religion at all. Apologists for the Angelus retort that Ireland is historically, and remains culturally, a Catholic country, and that many who remain actively religious cherish this daily call to prayer.

I can’t quite decide whose side I’m on. RTÉ is state-run, and I believe in the separation of church and state. Yet I don’t think you can abolish the past, or cleanse the public sphere of all vestiges of your culture in the name of progress, or of that ghastly concept, relevancy. People can be too literal-minded at times.

What really irked me about one secularist caller was that he claimed the Angelus was ‘offensive’ to non-Catholics, especially those from ethnic minorities. Really? I like to think non-Catholics and atheists are a bit more robust than this. Can someone find a minute of the telly going BONG! BONG! offensive? Come on, lie down. Have a cup of water. You’ll feel better in a bit. It’s depressing when fellow atheists display such babyishness.

* * *

Wednesday saw the concluding episode of Take on the Takeaway on RTÉ1, a series in which contestants sought to replicate their favourite fast food in the kitchen. This week we witnessed a County Dublin couple attempt to recreate a beef vindaloo from their favourite Indian restaurant. Previous instalments have seen other guests mimic Chinese food, Thai chilli and American burgers.

How refreshing to see takeaway food lauded, especially at a time when we Brits are making such a silly fuss about it. It is also apposite. Unlike Britain, Ireland has its own indigenous fast-food chains, namely Supermacs and Abrakebabra. Unlike Burger King and McDonald’s, with their saccharine-tasting burgers and weedy fries, these outlets serve fine greasy, starchy, salty fare: kebabs, tacos, chips with curry sauce. It’s ideal post-pub food.

It’s a shame these chains are barely-known abroad. Yesterday in Dublin’s Baggot Street I witnessed two sets of tourists walk past a branch of Abrakebabra and into Burger King next door. I almost felt compelled to intervene. They really missed out on a unique culinary and cultural experience.

Patrick West is a freelance writer. He was formerly spiked’s TV and radio columnist. Read his blog here.

spiked‘s current TV and radio reviewer David Bowden is away.

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