TELEVISION REVIEW / Give them an 'A' for spelling out the Troubles

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
TO THE outsider looking in, it seems as if no one in Northern Ireland ever mentions the source of all the pain. While Dr Paisley sounds off like a paramilitary bazooka, bombarding the Papists with lashings of dire Miltonic wrath, the intelligent voice of theological argument has had its microphone switched off.

Shankill (C4), a profile of the province's Unionist heartland, was a bit of a surprise, then, though not because it spent its time picking over the finer minutiae of rituals at the altar. It's just that someone bothered to spell out a basic difference between the way the communities are shaped by their systems of belief. The camera stalked up and down the Shankill Road, spotting 23 denominational variations on the Protestant theme, bearing out the theory of the cultural commentator that theirs is a religion based on individual salvation, whereas Catholicism has a stronger communal spirit and, by extension, a more focused leadership. Pretty obvious stuff, but it was handy to have it spelt out for once.

The keynote of this bleak but obstinately positive documentary, like the companion piece that Mary Holland and Michael Whyte made in 1979 about the Catholic neighbourhood in Creggan, was its mild-manneredness. It was, after all, as much about how Protestants live with one another as how they live with the enemy. A camera toured along the street fronts, taking in the fist-clenched slogans daubed on the sides of houses - 'No Surrender', 'King William III 1690', 'One Faith', 'One Crown', 'UFF Rocket Team On Tour 94' - but Holland's deliberate decision was to exclude fire-breathers and meet only moderates.

In an area blighted by a stratospheric level of failure at the 11 Plus, it's impossible for a non-resident to assess how true a picture is painted by the high level of articulateness that results from such a policy. Despite last year's Shankill Road bombing, which meant interviewees had grim tales to pass on, there seemed to be an almost unrealistic absence of hate - even in the taxi driver who pulled three corpses from the rubble, only to discover later that they belonged to his niece, her husband and their daughter.

When the heads stopped talking and the camera started, we got a different story. A little girl sat in on the practice session of a flute band, imbibing early that impoverished, windily militaristic sound. At the Orange Day parade, a big bass drummer marched with his eyes bulging in the defiant effort of fanaticism. And in the funeral procession the local worthies in bowler hats stopped in front of the bombed fish shop, and the tide of miserable faces that lined the street did not speak of moderation.

A short drama going by the rather desperate look-at-me title of Wingnut and the Sprog followed promptly as part of the same season, but it might have come not just from a different city but a different country. This was not just because the accents were sometimes so thick that we could have handled the odd subtitle. In Shankill there were very few crowd scenes, giving an impression of depletion and decay, and almost no cars were seen in the terraced streets. Through the fast talking of a gang of teenage non-actors and a script by Marie Jones, loyalist Belfast blossomed into life, like an oddball tableau by Bill Forsyth.

The set-piece moment of wacky Celtic mirth came when Wingnut, a yakking ne'er-do-well, was nearly caught in possession of a drugged dog in a pram in the middle of the night by a military patrol. The half-hour, one-off drama, in which plot and characters are deprived of elbow-room, is not easy to pull off: but here location combined with impenetrable dialogue to hint at untold depths.