TELEVISION / Sad stories of death and kin

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
ON 17 MAY 1974 three bombs exploded in Dublin. Glass shrieked and cars opened like jaws. Twenty-six people died. Five-year-old Edward O'Neil survived, but not his father. At the hospital, the surgeon noted that the child's face had rotated round his skull, so one ear was at the back of his head. In the morgue, arms and legs were piled in hopeful heaps, as if proximity might encourage them to reassemble. Paddy Doyle remembers stepping over them to identify his family, including grand- daughters Jacqueline, 17 months, and Ann Marie, 5 months: 'I don't think I'm really the same since. I identified the son-in-law and the two kids, but the daughter . . . I couldn't place her.'

It was the worst atrocity of the Troubles, yet no one was arrested, no one tried, and no one complained that this was unjust, as though fatalities bred fatalism. But 19 years on, an outstanding First Tuesday (ITV) roared into the silence. Presenter Olivia O'Leary (the BBC should look no further for Peter Sissons's Question Time successor) said that a team had spent months unravelling the shroud of secrecy. You could believe it; here was painstaking work, the archaeology of conspiracy, except that the recent past is harder to excavate because there are those who want it kept buried. We saw quotes from Garda officers who had identified the perpetrators, all members of the Ulster Volunteer Force. The Garda gave the list to the RUC over the border and they put two Special Branch men on the case who came up with the same suspects. And then the investigation stopped. The alleged murderers were being 'run' by the security services, and you don't want to mow down your own grasses, do you?

Great investigative journalism does not make great television. The medium is impatient of lengthy exposition clotted with uncertainties. Leaving the victims' relatives, we entered a familiar world of reconstructed car journeys (Ford Sierras, regulation doomy electronic music), official documents, and long-shots of a sinister SAS base. Instead of becoming clearer, the story got murkier. SAS men had apparently trained the UVF team: one admitted they regularly crossed the border to lay booby traps.

Confronted with this, Merlyn Rees, then Northern Ireland Secretary, now a wistful septuagenarian, said: 'As for crossing the border, they would have needed permission from me.' You could just see the boys in balaclavas getting ready for a raid, saying: 'Hang on, chaps, shouldn't we run this one past Merlyn?'

The imagination snagged on First Tuesday's thorniest theory: the bombs were planted, with SAS help, to sabotage the Sunningdale power-sharing agreement. Colin Wallace, a former Army information officer, recalled: 'Certain elements in British intelligence were afraid that their war against the IRA would be undermined.' It was the phrase 'their war' that made this programme so important - as if it had nothing to do with the rest of us. If nobody takes the trouble to explain the Troubles, it's easy for Brits to claim that the 'bloody Irish' are all the same, that they've got it coming: cry, the unloved country. But this apathy is a threat to democracy, and a comfort to terrorists who can move into the gap created by disillusion in the lives of ordinary people. People like Paddy Doyle whose butchered daughter had a face he couldn't place. This point was made with fierce lucidity by the Belfast reporter Malachi O'Doherty in Frontline (C4). O'Doherty showed us the official cold shoulder that both Catholic and Protestant families can expect if a relative is shot. Take Alice, 16, who 'committed suicide' with a policeman's gun when she was drunk and depressed in his car. Except she wasn't drunk and, left-handed, would have had to bend triple to shoot herself in the right temple. 'Why does the State close the door on scrutiny?' Doherty demanded. 'It seems to value the morale of the men on the ground over the opportunity to show that it cares about justice. It's stupid and shortsighted.' It's also getting away with murder.

In The Queen Mother's Gate (ITV), Desmond Wilcox told the solemn, uplifting story of how pounds 2m was raised to honour Her Majesty at Hyde Park. Well, he tried: there is only so much that snatches of Handel and references to Dante can do when competing with a cast of characters from Hello] and a monument that looks like the result of a bad trip on the Magic Roundabout.

The leaders of the Appeal, Richard and Basia Briggs (he like a Great Train Robber, she a long-discarded Rod Stewart wife), had experienced 'really the most wonderful response from the Man in the Street'. Prince Michael of Kent, hiding from his wife behind a Captain Birdseye beard, initiated the project, wanting 'to give the Man in the Street the opportunity to contribute'. Sculptor David Wynne, the Man in the Clouds, came up with a garish lion and unicorn centrepiece. The lion was originally up a tree, but now he was back on the ground dancing with the unicorn: 'People at the top wanted him down,' Wynne muttered darkly.

Not for nothing do they call the Queen Mother Mum. Confronted with Wynne's model she wisely stayed silent until Wilcox wondered where she stood on the tree issue: 'Well, I didn't feel it was quite the right place for a lion, actually.' Meanwhile, the gleaming torso of Giuseppe Lund was hammering 'feminine' floribunda out of steel. Where had he got his inspiration, marvelled Wilcox. 'Ah, I just took that simple, lovely generous cleavage of a lady of her age . . .' Sadly, the Man in the Street was not present at the opening ceremony (93,000 rose petals, baby pink curtain) to assess the value for money of gates modelled on a 93-year- old embonpoint.

Delia Smith's Summer Collection (BBC2) came to an end, leaving at least one viewer wondering how a cook devoted to caramelising gets by without a pinny. It was also adios to Eldorado (BBC1). The legend of its awfulness was soon supplanted by the myth of its improvement: it did get better, but then there was no place to go but up. Many soaps are bad, but they are consistent in their awfulness. Eldorado was patchy and unnerving: some of the cast could act for heaven's sake.

As exclusively predicted by your critic, Sergio bit the dust and was then blown up for good measure, allowing Marcus and Pilar to escape on a yacht called Jonathan. Undoubtedly, this was a salute to former BBC1 Controller Powell, who never wanted Eldorado at all, preferring to run the excellent Casualty three times a week. John 'Light Entertainment' Birt reportedly stopped him in the belief that a drama pointing up deficiencies in the NHS would be embarrassing to the Government and might affect renewal of the Charter. Instead we got a drama that was embarrassing to everyone, especially the BBC, which is certainly the quickest route to losing the Charter.

A friend has been urging me to watch the American comedy Dream On (C4), but I was unconvinced: if it's that good, what's it doing starting at 11.40pm? Well, I finally stayed awake post-Paxman, and it is that good; so what's it doing starting at 11.40pm?

Opening Shot (ITV and C4), a new youth arts show, began with a cracker about teenage New York tap dancer Savion Glover. Up top, Savion is all deceptive lollop, lower down his pelvis has the birdcage frailty of Astaire, and then there are the feet where frenzy is cooled by absolute poise. We watched him apparently being dragged across a studio by his stuttering shoes, then blown back again: as breathtaking as Keaton in a silent hurricane.