TELEVISION / Mad Ireland hurts you into poetry

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Out of Ireland have we come.

Great hatred, little room,

Maimed us at the start.

I carry from my mother's womb

A fanatic heart.

W B Yeats

IN 'Remorse for Intemperate Speech', Yeats gave comfort to those Englishmen who favour the short answer to the Irish Question: they're all crazy bastards. To be sure, the idea that the Irishman is born with an emerald gene that bestows skill in hand grenades has a certain appealing simplicity for a public numbed by tangled limbs and tortured explanations. BBC2's series of programmes marking the anniversary of the Troubles, 25 Bloody Years, had troubles of its own - compassion fatigue induced by a C4 season on the same theme, and the passionate indifference of viewers. As one interested party has proved, the only way to get the British to pay attention to Ireland is to put a bomb under them.

In fact, the season started with something a lot subtler than Semtex but still, in its own way, explosive. A Soldier's Tale cut between archive footage and interviews with men who had served in Ulster. The earliest clips - specked with time's mournful drizzle - showed Catholic women dispensing tea and smiles to the boys who had come to save them from the Loyalists. One corporal with a foxy 'tache remembered feeling jubilant, that he was 'there to right wrong'. As the soldiers marched away after their first tour of duty, giddy girls threw their knickers at them. When they returned, the missiles no longer came courtesy of St Michael. Watching the soldiers recall what it was like to observe sweet colleens become Falls Road Furies, you saw the protective perspex shutter slam behind their eyes. They could still see, all right, but they had lost the will to look. Central Casting signed them for Robin Hood; they found themselves playing the Sheriff of Nottingham.

Reporter Peter Taylor is so steeped in the Troubles that his scent no longer spooks his prey. They talked to him with reckless candour, a we're-all-men- of-the-world ease. Or rather, men of that world, where a nave private loses his way and thus his face (raked off by women's nails), and where it makes perfect sense to knot the genitals of a man who shot at you. 'But, that's illegal. That's uncivilised,' chided Taylor, acting the twitchy liberal for once. The sergeant nodded amiably: 'I did get him a cup of tea with sugar - for the shock.'

The film was electric, but producer Ken Kirby saved the real shocks until last: the bushy young Londoner turned out to have no legs (coffee-jar bomb), the rosette scar above another's eye turned out to be a souvenir of Warrenpoint in which 18 men died. 'You've got to remember you're not dealing with ordinary people,' said he, who had remembered nothing of the sort earlier. It was part of the film's power that you understood this was not mere callousness but essential amnesia.

The standard of clarity was maintained in the other Ulster films. The two-part Essential History of the Troubles presented both Loyalist and Nationalist viewpoints. The former looked surprisingly persuasive to your critic, who has an instinctive antipathy to the Prods with their guttural gripes and their sad sideburns. The Catholic film was less successful, being afflicted by the demon that instructs producers of potentially dull programmes to make everything look like a rock video. Angst- and pimple- ridden members of a band skulked in grainy urban walkways while their music wailed on the soundtrack. The group's name - The Screaming Bin Lids - was less of a surprise than it should have been.

It seems odd that this ambitious, superbly programmed season should contain no drama. Sometimes fiction can best help you face the facts, although the twists in the Ulster plot consistently beggar imagination. Real Lives, the documentary about Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness and the Unionist Gregory Campbell, was banned by the BBC in 1985, but broadcast soon after. Who would have thought that when it was shown again nine years later, the words of its leading man would have to be spoken by an actor? Watching Fenians silently celebrate an election success ('The sound has been removed due to government restrictions') and seeing the captions bob along the screen - 'I-I-IRA]' - it was clear that it isn't the Republicans who are left looking dumb.

Proof that Ireland does not hold the patent on the fanatic heart was Charles Manson: The Man Who Murdered the Sixties (C4). This was the third film in the present series of Witness, and did little to remedy the impression that one of last year's most impressive strands has got knotted. It has already devoted one programme to innocents seduced and traduced by a charismatic cult leader. This may seem like a juicy topic, but the credulous tend to strain credulity, and without cool handling the whole thing falls apart. What the producer needs is a touch of Kipling (if he can keep his head together while all about are going off theirs . . .). The opening line of Peter Bate's programme suggested he had other plans: 'In the time now known as the Sixties when youth came of age . . .' What, you wondered, were the Sixties known as in the, er, Sixties? No time for questions, man.

Manson, eyes poppingout of a portable TV set, was as gripping as ever; not so the theory they tried to pin on him. The film felt half in love with easeful sleaze itself, a charge its hero stoutly denied: 'I'm a child of the Fifties. My heroes were World War Two, cliffs of Dover, man.' Now, here was a theory really worth following up: the Vera Lynn connection.

There were plenty of tantalising clues in A Few Short Journeys of the Heart (BBC2, Stages), and not being able to make them add up to a solution did not stop you enjoying this inspired piece of mischief from Andrew Davies. Best known as an adaptor (To Play the King, Middlemarch, Pride and Prejudice) but also creator of one of the funniest series of the decade (A Very Peculiar Practice), Davies understands that great writers are magpies, and he gleefully studs his own nest here with sparkling stolen gems: Austen, Eliot, Yeats. Allusions abound in this drama about illusion and its miffed sibling, delusion. Davies's alter ego,

the writer Ron Rust (David Troughton), fancies himself up there tackling the Big Themes - 'a great complex semi-magical narrative about sexuality, identity, dreams, technology and the universal search for love'. He wants a crack at the screenplay of a film about Leonardo da Vinci, but his agent proposes another episode of 'Inspector Grim'. Rust revolts. As his name suggests, he is a bit past it, and leaves a fine trace of pique wherever he goes. But he still has his dreams.

One dream is of Colette (Saira Todd), his agent's lovely young secretary, but Colette is smitten with St John Coke, 'perhaps our finest living novelist'. Davies, who appears to both loathe and envy this smug creature, punishes him by having him ejaculate minced beef. As if that weren't bad enough, he installs a demented facsimile machine in his home, and its urgent, orgasmic moans make an an impossibly rarefied household suddenly smutty and sinister. If all this sounds baffling, then I'm doing a good job of describing it. One thing is certain: through his myriad plots and characters Davies was chasing the fax of life. He was aided by fine performances and bold direction from Paul Tickell. In one scene, a Leonardo drawing of hands inspires a flashback to all the outstretched hands that have gone before. An allusion or a steal, perhaps, from the Master. In Dennis Potter's sublime Singing Detective (BBC1), one brush of the lips triggered a reverberating visual echo of kisses past.

Elsewhere, writers no longer dream of existential private eyes, but queue upto produce Inspector Grims. None grimmer than Wycliffe (ITV). Poor Jack Shepherd, a glum bunny at the best of times, plays the Cornish sleuth. No one has thought to provide him with a character, so he is obliged to mooch about in his anorak and cast significant looks out to sea in the pointed fashion of Meryl Streep in The French Lieutenant's Woman. The plots remind you of those menus in overheated country-house hotels, where all the dishes have at least two ingredients too many, and one of them is kiwi fruit. For that exotic touch. Last Sunday, you couldn't move for exotic touches: a Druid effigy-burning ceremony, a gunfight in a mock western. Then there's the alarming body count. Readers planning a quiet break in Polperro should consider safer options. Belfast, for instance.