John Byrne's TV week includes comedian Brendan O'Carroll's documentary about 1916, the final episode of period drama about Harry Selfridge, as well as some acerbic comedy and sounds of the 1970s
Reviewed: Brendan O'Carroll's Family at War (Sunday, RTÉ One); Mr Selfridge (Friday, UTV Ireland); Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle (Thursday, BBC Two); The Seventies (Friday, Sky Arts)
Dublin comedian Brendan O'Carroll isn't a name that springs to mind when considering the events of Easter 1916, so that made me even more curious to check out Brendan O'Carroll's Family at War (Sunday, RTÉ One), the latest in a long line of programmes poking about in the 100-year-old embers of the Easter Rising.
The title suggested a personal insight, and that's exactly what we got. It was an engrossing hour and easily the best production related to the centenary that I've so far seen. It oozed empathy and awe in equal measure, and showed that ordinary people can do extraordinary things when they work together for a common goal.
Long before he was growing up in Finglas, the O'Carroll family was based above a shop in Stoneybatter, an area just to the west of the Four Courts and at the edge of Dublin city back in 1916. This was where O'Carroll's dad lived when he was a child, and three of his brothers - Brendan's uncles - decided to join in with Pearse and Connolly and take on the might of the British Empire.
Although there were sprinklings of O'Carroll's customary humour - for example, shouting at a passing ice cream van that the driver would be 'selling no ice cream at that f---in' speed' - this documentary showed a serious side to the man who is Agnes Brown. He was clearly moved by the bravery of the people involved, and proud of the three family members who fought unselfishly for the cause of Irish freedom.
As well as tracing the Rising from the formation of the Irish Volunteers in 1913, he had the contemporary testimony of his uncle Liam, and it offered a very personal, and often chilling, perspective on events. The recounting of a shooting at the Four Courts was particularly resonant, as it unemotionally recounted the shooting dead of a British soldier attempting to throw a grenade at the rebels. That's the mundanity of death in conflict.
O'Carroll also visited the site of the long-gone Frongoch prison camp, in Wales, where the British naively put a couple of thousand volunteers captured after the Rising. Naturally enough, they organised themselves, and by the time they were freed and returned to Ireland, the nationalist tide had turned and they were treated as heroes, after receiving a contrasting hail of abuse at the end of the six-day conflict in 1916.
As ever, the ability to personalise the events only served to make the Rising even more vivid for the viewer. O'Carroll, no stranger to a television camera, was excellent, and knew when silence was stronger than any stirring words. If anyone is to beat this documentary over the next ten days of Easter Rising Overkill, it's going to take some effort.
And so to something a lot lighter from a similar period across the Irish Sea. After four years of fun and games around London's Oxford Street, Mr Selfridge (Friday, UTV Ireland) departed for TV Heaven and this was a fitting end to this fun and frothy period drama. Although it never earned a Downton Abbey-sized audience it was far more satisfying than its BBC equivalent, The Paradise, which ran for two seasons in 2012-13.
Here's a season four trailer for Mr Selfridge:
It also had a fine cast and some great characters, not least the eponymous haberdasher Harry Selfridge. Played with customary vim by Jeremy Piven, who showed another side to his skill-set compared to his time as the hyper-aggressive agent Ari Gold in Entourage. The American actor led from the front and centre of a show that was undoubtedly his.
In Friday's season four finale, the thin financial ice that Harry had been skating on for years finally cracked, and he was removed from the board of his beloved Selfridge's, the legendary department store that he had built with great imagination and vision over the previous 20 years. He looked like the dog that had just been caught crapping on the living room carpet.
But it wasn't all bad news, as Harry ended up with Mae Lennard, played by former Coronation Street star Katherine Kelly. I have no idea how much this show played with what reality, but it bounced merrily along a path of improbability. But, as we all know, truth can often be much more bizarre than anything made up.
Fun might be stretching it, but Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle (Thursday, BBC Two) continues its fourth season of his scorched earth approach to stand-up and real-life hypocrisy. This week the focus was on Islamophobia, but he also dealt with Quakers and porridge, Jehovah's Witnesses (their Watchtower magazine, to be precise), as well as the average angry Islamophobe watching telly. He even managed plenty of digs at comedians who have a preference for observational comedy.
Here's Stewart Lee going Ape last season:
I spent the opening few minutes laughing my head off, but most of the time I just marvelled at a comedian who, with razor-sharp wit and great timing, cut through more crap than any comedian I've heard or seen since Bill Hicks. Thursday nights on BBC Two, though. It's a wonder it's not in Danish, using subtitles and desperately grim.
I'm not a great lover of nostalgia, but I'm a sucker for a tune and came across US documentary series The Seventies (Friday, Sky Arts) on Sky Anytime and noticed it was about the music of the decade. Segregated into black and white sections (ironic, or what?), with the notable crossover exception of disco, it was quite revealing to see how much happened in the decade of flares, bubble perms, funk and punk that managed to get caught on mainstream radar.
Starting with a catalogue of death - Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, and others - as well as the official Beatles' split, it went on to note Michael Jackson's progress from child prodigy to teen star, the growth of disco, the rise of punk/new wave on both sides of the Atlantic (but inexplicably ignoring the Sex Pistols), and the arrival of hip hop, complete with an explanation of the term.
Musically, it was quite an eventful decade. Bowie, for example, barely got a mention here, which says it all.
Now, back to the Vietnam War and Richard Nixon.