PA­TRICK FREYNE

Un­der­promis­ing, vaguely de­featist, un-spe­cific – what could be more Ir­ish than Room to Im­prove?

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - PATRICK FREYNE -

I of­ten feel like salut­ing dur­ing the in­tro cred­its of Room to

Im­prove (Sun­day RTE 1). The theme mu­sic, to me, is the na­tional an­them. The ti­tle un­der­promises and is vaguely de­featist, un-tri­umphal­ist and un-spe­cific, like all the clas­sic Ir­ish political slo­gans (Lots Done, More to Do; Tioc­faidh ar La). And it glad­dens my heart to see so many peo­ple don­ning the Ir­ish na­tional cos­tume – a hard hat and a high viz jacket – to en­gage in the na­tional pas­time: build­ing an ex­ten­sion. Didn’t the he­roes of 1916 die so we could build ex­ten­sions? Don’t check Wikipedia. The an­swer is “Yes.”

Each week, Der­mot Bannon rolls into town like the Lit­tlest Hobo or the In­cred­i­ble Hulk (both ana­logues for Je­sus) to help trou­bled fam­i­lies suf­fer­ing from bun­ga­low-dys­mor­phia. Their bun­ga­lows all look fine, but say­ing this to an Ir­ish per­son is un­pa­tri­otic. We have a god­damn right to ren­o­vate our bun­ga­lows and if you try to stop us you’re a West Brit.

Der­mot is of­ten eerily re­as­sur­ing and this also makes me feel pa­tri­otic. Per­haps it’s be­cause he re­sem­bles the mid­point be­tween Ryan Tubridy and Enda Kenny – if Tubridy was to trans­form into Kenny (which, for all we know, is some­thing that hap­pens). I also like that at one point, while chat­ting with a lo­cal shop­keeper, he hap­pens to be pur­chas­ing, with­out say­ing why, a big bag of penny sweets like a large skinny baby. Why does he need all th­ese penny sweets? It’s his dark se­cret and we’ll never know.

In this episode, Dar­ragh Egan, Sarah Lovett and Dar­ragh’s mother Mary, hope to turn the house Dar­ragh’s late father built into two sep­a­rate dwellings. This is po­ten­tially a case-study in in­ternecine pas­sive ag­gres­sion made all the more po­tent by the pres­ence of Der­mot as an er­satz bor­der com­mis­sion. The fam­ily ex­plains what they want. They wish to share the same liv­ing space but not in­ter­act. “We want to live to­gether, and sep­a­rately.”

Der­mot lis­tens care­fully then builds what he al­ways builds: a taste­ful scale model of an air­craft hangar with loads of win­dows. Think of as many win­dows as you can. Der­mot wants to add more win­dows than that to ev­ery house he sees. The man is ob­sessed. His job he ex­plains, is “bring­ing in space and bring­ing in light”, much like our lord. Yet, his grotesque win­dow-filled chimeras re­sem­ble the re­al­ity bend­ing worlds of MC Escher or HP Love­craft or Renua. Some­times when he’s done, I can’t look at the TV with­out scream­ing.

There are two types of mu­sic on the pro­gramme. There’s the jaunty arpe­giat­ted glock­en­spiel mu­sic, sug­gest­ing the fam­ily have no com­plaints or are, at least, not yet clin­i­cally de­pressed. And then there are the dis­cor­dant synth tones sug­gest­ing the fam­ily have views of their own and that Bannon is dis­pleased. His brow dark­ens and he stuffs his maw with penny sweets.

He can be chill­ing. One of his col­lab­o­ra­tors talks of him as though he’s a trick­ster char­ac­ter from Ir­ish folk­lore. “Be wise to Der­mot and his tac­tics,” she says (re­ally), squint­ing at the fire and jab­bing her clay pipe in our di­rec­tion (not re­ally).

Some­times the fam­ily re­sist Der­mot’s at­tempts to mould their lives ac­cord­ing to his mad whims. At one point, Mary walks around the stripped-out shell of the house her hus­band built. “I hate see­ing the place torn apart,” she says sadly. The word “de­mol­ish” is lit­er­ally writ­ten in pen­cil on one of the walls. The editor missed a trick here by not hav­ing Der­mot laugh­ing ma­ni­a­cally on the au­dio track. Mary’s daugh­ter-in-law is less con­cerned. “I never lived in this home. I don’t have sen­ti­men­tal feel­ings about it,” she says.

She has her own prob­lems. A con­ver­sa­tion about why Sarah doesn’t want to get han­dle-less presses for the kitchen segues into Sarah di­ag­nos­ing her­self with OCD and con­cludes with Der­mot say­ing: “No-one is say­ing you’re a bad mother.” It’s an ex­treme es­ca­la­tion. But clearly he’s think­ing: “If she doesn’t get th­ese han­dle-less presses I’m call­ing so­cial ser­vices.”

The pro­ject fin­ishes. The builder is at his wit’s end. The fam­ily are tee­ter­ing over bud­get and now own a taste­ful scale-model of an air­craft hangar with loads of win­dows. Der­mot’s work is done and the mu­sic from

The Lit­tlest Hobo starts to fade up. Sarah tries to take some credit for an idea. “We’ll take joint credit,” says Der­mot through grit­ted teeth, be­fore as­cend­ing to re­fur­bish his father’s house, which is heaven.

Yes, Room to Im­prove is the apotheo­sis of the dreams of 1916. The new, slightly tri­umphal­ist, Liam Nee­son-nar­rated doc­u­men­tary about the ris­ing, 1916 (Wed­nes­day, RTE 1), also re­sem­bles the first half of an as­pi­ra­tional home­land-im­prove­ment pro­gramme – the bit where they start knock­ing ev­ery­thing down.

“I won­der what they’ll build in those ru­ins?” I ask, as the rous­ing strings sweep me out the door, gun in hand, to­wards the GPO. An un­der­whelm­ing con­ser­va­tory, no doubt, that wal­lows in dis­ap­point­ment, leaks in win­ter and has a good room for the priest. Luck­ily in the next episode Nee­son leaves the mi­cro­phone to go and sort ev­ery­thing out (wait, am I think­ing of Michael Collins? Or pos­si­bly Taken 2?).

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