Pray you’re not done by Irish Political Weekly, the Savage Eye or Katherine Lynch – by Michael Smith
Zeitgeist followers’ attention has lately been diverted by the high drama of Love-Hate. But the explosion of satire on RTÉ suggests that the national genius has quietly crossed over from mindless cheerleading of property speculation to subversive parodying of sellout politicking.
I had a look at the five native satires broadcast on RTE over the last few months, centring on political satire as advanced by Irish Pictorial Weekly, the Savage Eye and the Mario Rosenstock Show. I’ll park as being more social than political both the uneven Republic of Telly and the phosphorescent Wagon’s Den. I do note in passing that Den consistently reflects the sharp cynicism of the time as where the brilliant Katherine Lynch attacks the celebrity socialite, Lisa Murphy: “You’ve had your breasts done? Where did you put them? In your lips?”. Murphy would later confide to the Sunday Independent, “I tried to laugh it off but it was just too hurtful”. A wounded country will inevitably trade hurt with its ex-icons.
All of the shows are on RTÉ, all assume national-deprecation through a proliferation of pixies, leprechauns and cartoonish fools – some with vomit, most are more or less politically-correct (ie they aim at the most, not the least, powerful) and several are gratifyingly vicious. So far so good.
Irish Pictorial Weekly
Irish Pictorial Weekly is a four-part sketch show that aired from 29 November. Many of its actors served for years on the apparently-now-moribund Après Match, a vehicle which has shaken the nation’s funny bone in various incarnations for nearly twenty years but recently hatched a suspiciously tedious CD, allegedly its “last ever”. Certainly it makes sense to move to politics from soccer once the national team’s performance and outlook both settled into mediocrity, after close to twenty years of focus on the same Taoish, comedically-fecund commentary trio of O’Herlihy, Dunphy and Giles.
The Pictorial Weekly team – including Barry Murphy and Gary Cooke (though not Rísteárd Cooper) from Après Match, Paul Howard (writer of Ross O’Carroll Kelly), John Colleary (Last Orders on the Last Word), Alan Shortt (Bull Island’s Bertie and Cowen), Eleanor Tiernan (Tommy’s comedienne cousin), Colm Tobin (Langerland) and Tara Flynn (ex-Nuala) – has been involved in the highest level of Irish comedy and satire in recent years. In this case the producers have elicited the best from them.
This series had millennial ambitions.
Much use is made of historic newsreel, flashbacks in time, a “reeling in the years” spoof and (the always classic) Gay Byrne. This imbues a sort of transcendence that fires the satire with gravitas. Pictorial Weekly deserve credit for never pulling punches. It helps that, as with Après Match, the accents are always spot-on and nearly all of the lines are witty or resonate. Fine Gael are “one part human to two parts Fianna Fáil”. The opening credits are an invective dream, with the four best quotes of the bust relived in the mouths of the scoundrels who uttered them: “The Irish banks are so well capitalised compared to any banks anywhere across Europe that I am confident…” (Pat Neary), “there was no corruption in this. There was no favours sought, no favours given” (Bertie Ahern) “It’s Frankfurt’s way or Labour’s way” (Éamon Gilmore), “Anglo is not getting another red cent” (Leo Varadkar).
Terry Prone is shown in hideous full flight against a number of incompetent and loathsome ministers. No villain or clown can be sure to escape their mordancy. The programme also aims at all the choicest targets. Better still, the attention to detail is gorgeous. The relentless ‘property player’, who sees himself indeed as “one of the most important players in the last market”, marshalls every one of the business clichés that sprinkle the language of our failed business sector and their media acolytes, the language of “investment opportunities” and feeling “optimistic”, being “motivated, inciteful and shrewd” and “on the upward curve”. This is all articulated through the pinstripe player’s fake-aristocratic “aah” vowels, and peppered with “super”s and the benign, comfortable facial expressions of Ireland’s pampered charlatan upper commercial echelons. Above all dauntless, the player is trying to sell the autographed Mats Wilander tennis racquet he bought for 17000 during the boom to leverage his new business in “Gigabytes”.
We’re invited to pause for the “Angela’s” while the pension sums of six or seven pampered grandees such as Bertie Ahern and Brian Goggin flash before us.
They immortalise a ‘Secret Millionaire’ with inflated ego and prejudices who no-one to whom he has dispensed his mediocre advice, cares about, less still recognises. Sometimes the target is frivolous, but representative, as when they parody the breathlessness and political ignorance of Xposé, with the presenter smiling excruciatingly: “just twelve sleeps until Christmas or if you’re quadraplegic forty-three minutes of home-help”.
Pictorial Weekly does not spare David Mc Williams – usually a media god – with his patronising hand movements and simplistic analogies.
Over the series, we get familiar with a bunch of ordinary-looking civil servants who take telephone diktats from the Minister to close primary care units or primary schools, and then heedlessly go back to pedantic chattering about the mysteries of germs on toast.
A sketch called ‘Austeritea’ plays with the benign warmth of the emigrant in the Barry’s Tea ad, to create a vixen infuriated by the corruption and squalor of what she writes home to her Mammy about. Everything native is suspect and even the Germans come out better.
So, a German bureaucrat complains repeatedly that Ireland is like a parallel universe. He depicts the history of the “pixie heads” in two minutes to the background of Amhrán na bhFiann – drinking, dancing, brawling, revolution, hurling, praying, throwing money away, then calling Berlin for help and prostrating themselves in subservience. He explains that Ireland is the only country where a woman can’t either get a doctor to help her die, or help her to live. Pixie hands. Bejaney.
Pictorial Weekly creates an evocative 1916 with a delirium of bravery in candlelight dressed in Edwardian shirtfronts with inflated country accents, As the cannon in the background sound nearer, the heroes discuss types of “leave” or revel in their allowances regime to the point where they see the shooting of a fellow revolutionary as a chance to get a funeral allowance.
The writers are acutely sensible to the colour of our times.
An amalgam of RTÉ reporters Orla O’Donnell and Vivienne Traynor delivers the always-horrible news from the courts with a characterisic smiling distant resignation as they eyeball the camera and report that the defendant asked, “what are you bleeding look at, me arse?”.
They invent an amalgam of Daniel O’Donnell, Brian D’Arcy, Michael Cleary and a bigot – Dominic Walsh, the voice of middle Ireland. He sings angrily of Daddy kissing Santa Claus; taxing the blacks; and his fears of lesbianism.
Pictorial Weekly highlights the vacancy of much ‘serious’ television by portraying generic interviews – ‘one of those chat shows’ (the American actress selling her movie), ‘one of those programmes discussing issues that affect those rural types’, (everyone finishes up shouting and banging their glasses on the table…etc.
Pictorial Weekly aims too to put things in perspective. So it highlights the ephemerality and self-importance of Prime Time. Why did you do the bad thing, asks the generic interviewer in “Prime Time investigates Prime Time”: “We spoke to a man in the dark”. Prime Time reporters, they note, speak in F Minor, intoning things are a lot worse than they actually are.
THE SAVAGE EYE
Frothier than the subtle Pictorial, the more self-indulgent eponymous Savage Eye takes the form of a fake anthropological documentary on Ireland’s “complex problems and simple people”, as if made by British television – interestingly like Pictorial featuring fake Pathé style newsreel. RTÉ recently repeated its third series, centring on sketches performed by a number of well-known Irish actors and comedians, including David McSavage, Pat McDonnell, Dermot McMorrow, Sonya Kelly, Fred Cooke, John Colleary, and Eleanor Tiernan (the last two overlapping with Pictorial). Each week takes an issue – Christmas, health etc. Characters include The Politicians, including the Minister for Laughing Inappropriately and the untiring Minister for the Use of Three similar words. The eerie lameness of the delivery bests anything from the over-rated Halls Pictorial Weekly for which such droning was a speciality. The Bull Mick, the child-snatching Priest, a sexualised half-naked over-Northsided Joe Duffy type: all are characters who fester in the nethers, long after the box has been extinguished.
Worthy political insights pepper the series, offered we presume, with as much seriousness as those championed by the others in the famously-political Andrews family. A lot of vox pops, admittedly with a suspicious number of hairy people under hats, add an immediacy and authenticity: “people on Henry St are fatter than those on Grafton St because of class differences”, volunteers a pedestrian; “in other European countries medical treatment is determined by need, in Ireland, outside of emergency departments, it is often determined by money”. Sometimes these nuggets are supported by serious commentators: Sara Burke, Eoghan Harris and even Barry Andrews have risked appearances.
McSavage is not politically correct. He plays glaze-eyed heroin addicts without sympathy, dwarves climb around a radio studio, Travellers are rough and sinister, lunatics get killed by priests doing lobotomies and Hector prances while a cancer patient dies. But the aim is progressive and it is generally better pitched than humour focused on the vulnerable and weak. A speciality is respectable people (like his family?) doing nutty things. Half the joke is Barry, David and all those other ancestral political, professional Andrews, you feel.
The bedside manner of the doctor who specialises in surgically removing money from people’s pocket’s would play well in ER. The bow-tied consultant egotist singing “overpay us” to the tune of Amadeus is an under-recognised phenomenon that Savage unravels. He’s a frighteningly plausible po-faced Mary Robinson too. The half-poetic President for Life and her Housebound ‘It” is a great idea but should have survived one series only.
The hairier stuff lets the show down. A presenter who seems to have a foetus emerging from her nethers is tolerable but do we need a report from the sewage supervisor talking about the quality of Northsiders’ shite or the foaming Bull Mick going on so humourlessly (in the context) about fucking queers? Anytime Savage, the name presumably was chosen as some sort of self-image, is allowed to froth, spit, curse or leer we lose sight of the genius. Perhaps in recognition of the desirability of some quasi-normality many of the ‘Savage Eye’ episodes end with David singing his little boy to sleep in bed.
Mario Rosenstock is best known for the popular Gift Grub segments which have featured on the Ian Dempsey breakfast show since 1999. Rosenstock assumes the personae of Bertie Ahern, Ronan Keating, Colin Farrell and Roy Keane and many footballers, and others. After the critical success of his regular outings last year on the Vincent Browne programme and some sellout live shows, he is on a roll. Perhaps as a result his producers seem to have assumed he could do no wrong. In November 2012 his new show called The Mario Rosenstock Show started on RTE 2: “a fast paced and topical sketch show poking fun at Ireland in 2012”, they said. Indeed that is a fair description: this is not really satire so much as good-natured fun-poking centring on the extraordinarily-talented Rosenstock, focussing on Reality TV and gentle well-informed ribbing of our useless politicians.
One of Rosenstock’s presumed hilarious centrepieces is ‘Miriam O’Callaghan’. But he plays her deferentially as an iron fist in a velvet glove behind the flirtatious feminine piggy: “Councillor thanks a million for comin’ in I genuinely appreciate it”. It might not occur to Rosenstock that O’Callaghan could be a little middle of the road, and not the hatchet he implies.
His Vincent Browne captures the big man’s suggestive face extraordinarily cleverly but he always plays Browne with more charity than for example Barry Murphy in Après Match, who gave us the glue-haired Browne who refereed the Joan Burton/Brian Lenihan débacle. And apart from the occasional tic, there is little that would prevent the Browne family watching the Mario Rosenstock Show‘s version of daddy, around the dinner-table. Gentleness is one thing but elevating charm over humour is fatal. Rosenstock is simply let down by his script. Rosenstock’s Joan Burton on late-night sex TV is perhaps well conceived if politically-incorrect but there is no joke, beyond just Joan cavorting on a dais. If you have the privilege of a comedy licence to be politically incorrect, at least make it funny. Of course Après Match’s grimacing Joan Burton – constantly invoking reality “on the ground” was one of the funniest creations in recent satire – and it didn’t even resort to sexism.
A Rosenstock Show skit on Fianna Fáil trying to brain-storm on their achievements posits an ad guy listing the roads they built. Then the punch-line, the slogan: Fianna Fáil road Ireland. That’s it. Road/rode!
It is indeed beguiling cleverly to correlate one of those eager charity workers pursuing a member of the public for a donation, to a lion in pursuit of prey on the savannah, with growls and circling birds. But it needs a dénouement, a thread, some wit.
Vincent Browne going to a couple’s house to sort out their family is amusing. The dysfunctional couple describe the result: “no more food-throwing, no more screaming and shouting – it’s a hundred times worse”. Did I miss something?
David Murphy as schoolboy who left his homework is a fine conceit. Rosenstock’s Michael Flatley up to his neck in begorrahs and leprechauns in his castellated mansion is crass but not unlikeable.
His Gay Byrne, Joe O’Connor, George Hook and Daithí O Sé and of course Vincent Browne, are very serviceable. His Bertie Ahern is excellent.
None of them is detestable. Mario only teases.
Overall the feeling niggles that though the likenesses and associated hilarity are enough to carry a one-man show, the resonance is not as powerful as, for example, with Irish Pictorial Weekly. He even deploys the same joke twice in one episode – Miriam O’Callaghan and Love-Hate actors are both the opposite on-air of off-air – she does a psycho Joe Pesci number before starting an interview; they discuss pesto and beetroot, before the red light goes on and one of them blows the others brain out.
If you’re a deviant politician, hope you’re on Rosenstock, not Pictorial Weekly. You can watch it with your family. Your mother-in-law will love the parallel TV ‘you’.
Anyone time-serving enough to want to put a head above the political parapet in this spendthrift desert should hope to be picked up by Mario. If Lynch or Savage do you, it’ll be like being in the bin again at school and you may not want to get out of bed in the morning, but you’ll get over it. If Pictorial Weekly gets you, your grandchildren may even actually see it, and they may well despise you in your retirement.
April 2013 print edn, Village