Making mountains out of margarine tubs

TV Review
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The Independent Culture
You'll really know that peace has come to Northern Ireland when you come across a television drama about the province that isn't adorned with flute music. In fact, if I was Gerry Adams I'd get it on the agenda now ("We demond the rate to live uhr lives in a flute-free Ireland"). In the meantime, though, that mournful whine still seems to be obligatory. I imagine most ordinary people live their lives to a more global soundtrack; anything from Jim Reeves to the Artist Formerly Known as Prince. But not on television, where the ancient curse of history tootles away over the rain-drenched streets.

No wonder they're so bloody minded, you think, if they're accompanied everywhere by this nagging insistence on their melancholy destiny. Even Life after Life (BBC2) succumbed, and it was a good play; even, at one point, sharply observant about the sentimental coercion of the old tunes.

Written by Graham Reid, author of the Billy trilogy, it followed the misadventures of Leo, a convicted IRA killer now released on licence. Leo doesn't think of himself as a killer, he thinks he's a returning hero, an architect of peace. He is quickly disabused by his family and his old fiance, who don't have much time for his soulful expectations. "You killed your father and ruined all our lives," shouts his aged mother; "I don't want to be your cause," shrieks his old sweetheart. His best friend commits suicide, weighed down by fear and family grief. Leo was actually looking forward to the melodrama of release, but he wanted Irish tricolours, not this painful monochrome. He is, understandably, depressed.

And we would have been too, but for Reid's eye for comedy and detail. The scheme Leo is on involves association with Protestant lifers, an occasion for wild rhetoric if ever there was one. But Reid chooses to convey the tense, mutual hatred with a wordless scene and a joke. In the kitchen Leo and another prisoner stand making sandwiches, their Catholic and Protestant margarine tubs on the counter. An accidental nudge turns into a tussle for territory, the tubs pushed backwards and forwards like chess pieces. The scene acknowledges the childishness at the heart of such conflicts (so easy for outsiders to see) but it recognises too how an engrained hatred will gear up the smallest irritation into violence. Any excuse will do. Earlier, when one of the Protestants says "Hello" and offers his hand, the Republicans gape for a moment before comprehension dawns: "He's one of them religious nuts. Just ignore him."

Leo's situation is as comic as it is tragic. So although Reid permits him some brooding flashbacks - childhood memories of Army brutality - he doesn't allow the character's self-pity to dictate the terms on which he's seen. He can't hold his pose of martyred endurance, constantly being knocked off balance by bathos or sarcasm. After a quick roll in the hay with his old girlfriend he scrubs anxiously at a stain on his trousers, worried at what his mother will say (living on licence is a form of adolescence anyway - a world of doing what you're told and being home by a certain time). When Leo dresses his father's grave in Republican colours, the same woman sees it for the kitsch it is; "Why don't you get a couple of those wee gnomes and put black berets on them," she says scornfully.

Bugs (BBC1) is the lynch-pin of the BBC's new Saturday evening schedule, an aimiably hokey action drama in which three youthfull technofreaks join forces to combat underhanded foreigners and global conspiracies. The first episode used up the BBC's entire annual helicopter budget in one go and concerned a device which could knock out satellite transmissions at will. The setting is up-to-date but there is something oddly familiar about the combination of gizmos and wisecracks - it's really just The Man from Auntie.

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