TELEVISION / Oases amid the Troubles

THOSE of us who have grown up learning all we know about Northern Ireland from television find ourselves in a parlous state of ignorance. With documentary crews traditionally preferring to go further afield, in the hope of combining moral indignation with a suntan, it's been drama that has dominated the small screen's image of the province. And the patterns of this drama - sexy, designer-stubbled terrorist kidnaps unhappy middle-class woman and has brief affair with her in stone farmhouse before going down in hail of bullets - have done little justice to its subject matter. So Channel 4's The Long War week was a long-overdue revelation.

The spine of the season was Loved Ones, a series of 26 (one for each year of the Troubles) two- minute collages of photos and reminiscences supplied by victims' families. This might have been soundbite television, but it left a deep mark. Unfailingly moving and dignified, these sad testimonies made an impression both individual - 'he always ate everybody else's dinners' - and cumulative. It was perhaps best summed up by the mother of an IRA member, shot dead by the SAS in 1981, who said 'everybody's tears are the same'.

'A quiet backwater . . . where one could get on with the important things like fishing and shooting.' This, Martin Dillon's The Last Colony revealed, was how British civil servants thought of Northern Ireland before 1969. Dillon looked under the carpets in the corridors of power and turned up some real horrors. General Sir Anthony Farrar- Hockley's chilling redefinition of torture under interrogation - 'you have enthusiasts who feel they're on the edge of getting something important and want to go on' - paled next to the disclosures of former Chief of the Defence Staff Lord Carver, who recalled a secret Downing Street committee at which he was urged to adopt a policy of shooting anyone who opposed the armed forces in any way. Dillon put this to an uncomfortable-looking Sir Edward Heath (who was there). 'I don't think that's true,' he said, 'but one would have to check it up.'

The historian Tim Pat Coogan memorably described British policy in the crucial years of 1969-72 as being 'like opening a knot by pulling tighter on the two ends'. Mary Holland's and Michael Whyte's films about Catholic Creggan and Protestant Shankill focused on those two ends. There was 15 years between them - the first won the Prix Italia in 1979, the second was made in the wake of last autumn's chip-shop bombing - but both managed to be sympathetic without being partial. The only noticeable shift in approach was that Shankill residents were filmed against blank backgrounds, Creggan people in their own homes. I'm not quite sure why this change was made; maybe to back up the man who said, 'the problem that we have is the perception that culturally we're in a desert'.

Brian Keenan's three-part series Beyond the Troubles went looking for oases, and found them. Keenan tramped the length and breadth of Ireland, conversing with old schoolfriends, painters, writers and retired ombudsmen in search of what he called 'that kaleidoscope of individual freedom and choice that is in contest with the elements of slogan and prescription'. His demeanour, sombre but vaguely hamsterish, took a bit of getting used to, but the slow pace allowed hopes and truths to come out. 'Why should a concept like nationalism define anything?' asked poet and academic Gerald Dawe, while priest and teacher Brendan Devlin urged people not to abandon what had made them, 'but to reunderstand it in such a way that it does not blot someone else out'.

The message of the Long War season seemed to be, in the fast-becoming-immortal words of Bob Hoskins, 'it's good to talk'. Watching LWT's Richard Littlejohn Live and Uncut on Friday night, it was hard to be sure. Viewers in most parts of the country were spared the dough-faced Sun columnist's big break into TV, but need to be aware of it in case their local ITV company tries to foist it on them in the future. After '90 minutes of informed debate, strong opinions, music and mischief', one was left wondering what kind of God could have allowed Brian Keenan to be chained up in a cellar for five years while Richard Littlejohn walked free.

The signature tune, borrowed from Madness, set a cheeky-chappie tone, which, thanks to the malignant personality of the host, soon gave way to an atmosphere of unrelieved unpleasantness. To do Littlejohn justice, he did succeed where thousands of others have failed: he managed to engage Michael Winner's sense of decency. Appalled by the sight of Littlejohn brandishing a test tube, a yoghurt carton and a pathetic eagerness to offend at Linda Bellos and another lesbian mother, Winner exploded, 'I think the lesbians have come over with considerable dignity and you have come over as an arsehole'. For once in his life, he spoke for the nation.

What are people going to talk about when they go out for a drink now that the media is full of old pub conversations? This is one of many questions that BBC2's Room 101 failed to address. There is something alarmingly, well, Orwellian in the notion of Orwell's repository of ultimate horrors being transformed into a light-hearted TV show about celebrities' pet hates. Bob Monkhouse, the first guest, can't be on our screens too much for me, but host Nick Hancock, slick as he is, is not a familiar enough face for the casual viewer (and what other kind is there?) to care about his likes and dislikes.

In an inspired piece of scheduling, BBC2 followed Open Space - Suffolk council worker Justin Wallace's intimidatingly sensible investigation into the roots of idleness in today's young people - with Tracks, the programme that enables you to savour the great outdoors from the comfort of your armchair. On the island of Grassholm, David Stafford found his own level amid 30,000 tons of gannet guano. The best was yet to come. The week's TV hero, Ray Mears, wilderness expert, taught us how to make a rucksack harness in the wild. 'If you're too timid with a nettle,' he warned, 'it'll sting you.'

Fear was even less of an option for the Indonesian bull-racers of John Bulmer's Bull Magic (BBC2), balanced as they were on a fragile yoke of two wooden skis and hanging on by the tails of a pair of speeding bulls. This was a film of luminous beauty, whose only jarring feature was the fluorescent-pink type of its title. The bulls themselves were lovely creatures, rather like deer. Fed on a mixture of a hundred eggs, ginger, spices, onion, beer, wine and partially incinerated verses of the Koran, they did well to walk, let alone run. And aside from having only one eye, champion jockey Ayup bore a resemblance to Willie Carson that was too strong to be a coincidence.

Allison Pearson is on holiday.

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