Last night's episode restored a bit of edge to the series, with Niamh's miscarriage and a young single mother abandoning her baby on Father Peter's doorstep, demonstrating that it is possible to mix a touch of real feeling with the puckish, bucolic comedy (a tourist advert which is actually made with "the support of investment incentives for the Irish Film Industry provided by the Government of Ireland"). There was, for example, a nicely observed scene in yesterday's episode where the grieving Niamh looks down to find that the chain has come off her bicycle, just the kind of bathetic last straw which life has a habit of delivering. This was a little back- eddy in the narrative flow, dialogue free and disinterested (no groundwork was being laid for a later gag), and it touched on your feelings more effectively than other, more purposeful exchanges of dialogue (Niamh had a tendency to do that thing that people do in television drama - saying somebody's name, leaving a meaningful pause and then expressing gratitude for their solidarity: "And Dad?... Thanks", "Assumpta?... Thanks"). The rest is straightforward woodwind drama - warm, inherently optimistic and generally backed by a bassoon. Which is fine as far as it goes, but it won't go forever.
Bragg on America (ITV) is something of a departure for the South Bank Show presenter, a studiedly personal film which sets out to break some of the rules established by the long-running arts programme. I suspect the chief problem for viewers will be one of vocal register, rather literally in the opening section, where Bragg's tonally forthright pieces-to-camera are interrupted (or augmented) by a quite distinctive voice, quieter and more ruminative. It sounds like second thoughts, and it adds to the difficulty you have in getting your bearings within the film. Should this really be called Bragg on Bragg? Or is it, as the inserts from David Hockney and Alan Parker and Richard Hoggart suggest, a more general essay about the British love affair with America ("I was brought up in Bradford and Hollywood" said Hockney, sketching the imaginative dominion of American films with an economic line).
It turns out to be a bit of both, but the fact that Bragg has to keep jumping the ditch from presenter to subject, from intimacy to inquiry, is oddly disconcerting. This was particularly conspicuous when a confessional passage from Bragg cut to Richard Hoggart saying "I think it's absolutely true what you've just said". But hadn't he just been talking to us, not Hoggart? There was a little lurch of affront for the viewer here, as though we had misinterpreteted a signal of familiarity and then been rebuffed. Whatever else it does, the programme demonstrates how difficult it is to ignore the unconscious conventions which viewers use to orientate themselves.
But even if it is a bit of a bumpy ride, with unannounced diversions, there are some worthwhile views along the way - particularly in the historical sense of the longing gaze westwards - which ranges from poor miners to Romantic poets. There is also a sly sense of comedy at work. At one point, Bragg stood in a back alley in Wigton recalling the medieval tangle of ginnels, from which America looked like a realm of unfenced possibilities. As he talks, an old man burdened with plastic bags squeezes past him, doggedly undeferential to the camera and the celebrity. It would have been easy enough to reshoot this, but it was pertinently left in - hinting at the slightly bloody-minded insularity from which a young man might well wish to escape.
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