THE NEED TO TELL BETTER STORIES
Patrick Kielty compassionately investigates the legacy of the Northern Irish peace process; a bereaved teenager pursues an alternative reality in Kiss Me First; and a complex subject is given a simplified treatment in Dave Allen At Peace
At an unexpected point during My Dad, the Peace Deal and Me (BBC One, Wednesday, 9pm), a personal, fascinating and impressively comprehensive investigation into the legacy of the Good Friday agreement, the comedian and presenter Patrick Kielty takes a slight detour – he visits a comedy club.
It’s a telling stopping point for Kielty, though, one of Northern Ireland’s most successful exports, whose father, Jack Kielty, was murdered by UVF gunmen when Patrick was 16. Many young men might have sought revenge – an invitation extended to Kielty’s family by IRA recruiters. Instead, Kielty studied psychology (“Don’t read too much into that,” he says) and pursued comedy, “telling jokes about politics and the violence”.
So let’s read too much into that: reeling from atrocity, he chose to understand why people do what they do, and then, through disarming ways, confronted them with it. This searching, compassionate documentary does something fascinatingly similar.
At that comedy club, Kielty seems both delighted and mystified to discover a Catholic and a Protestant improv duo, described as “surreal, absurdist… apolitical, atheistic”.
But surrealism seems like a natural response to contemporary Northern Ireland. The word Kielty uses most frequently to describe situations either traumatic or horrifying is “strange”. One such example is meeting with Billy Hutchinson, the former UVF commander, whose North Belfast office has an external mural of armed, balaclava-wearing loyalists under the threat “Prepared for Peace, Ready For War”. Measured throughout, Kielty makes one of very few jokes here, standing before the squishily painted mural: “They look slightly more prepared for the cold than ready for anything.”
It says something about Kielty’s ability to find fresh perspectives that he can be equally open minded interviewing the DUP leader Arlene Foster, whose own father survived an IRA shooting – “I liked Arlene, and that confused me” – or the Sinn Féin politician, Emma Rogan (in an eerily deserted Stormont), whose father was slain in the Loughinisland massacre.
The weight of those grievances makes Northern Ireland’s transformations more remarkable, and still Kielty is stunned by peace campaigner Richard Moore, blinded from the age of 10 by a British soldier’s rubber bullet, who explains that forgiveness “allows you to let go”.
Yet it’s politics, as usual, and now the Border threat of Brexit, that create the obstacles.
You share Kielty’s quiet amazement, though, at observable progress, such an integrated secondary school where unionist and nationalist school friends politely discuss ideologies which “don’t define me as a person”. That even they imagine true reconciliation remains a generation away might be disheartening. But the documentary reminds you that in his short lifetime, Kielty is just one of Northern Ireland’s people to have gone through – and to have achieved – the unimaginable. “Where there’s peace,” he says, “there’ll always be a wee bit of hope.”
Alone in a strange new place – bucolic, sun dappled and wholly unreal – a teenage girl is approached by a stranger and does what anyone would to do in the circumstances – punching him square in the jaw and kicking him hard in the gut. Leila - or rather her avatar, Shadowfax – is surprised that he complains. “Nothing hurts here,” she says. “That’s the point.”
The “here” in Kiss Me First (Channel 4, Monday, 10pm) is a virtual reality game called Azana, a place you might explore, fly over, or set down briefly to beat an acquaintance into a bloody pulp with no lasting damage or resentment. Naturally, it is where Leila chooses to escape to, in Tallulah Haddon’s excellent, underplayed performance, following the death of her mother. Nothing hurts here. That’s the point. But Shadowfax quickly finds a sub-group, a band of misfit hackers proud in self-loathing, keen to break the rules, and prone to self-harm. In short, other teenagers.
“We’re Red Pill” one tells her, and when Leila traces that reference to a dusty Wikipedia entry for The Matrix, anyone who remembers Keanu Reeves downloading Kung Fu will feel as old as Methuselah (or, indeed, Keanu Reeves).
The Matrix is a clear source – Leila’s arrival, like Neo’s, has been prophesised – but this six-part Channel 4 and Netflix co-production is pitched more adeptly at a new generation of viewers. Based on Lottie Moggach’s 2014 novel, which sheaved its protagonists into online chat rooms, and adapted by Bryan Elsley for a more visually immersive post-Ava-
The documentary reminds you that in his short lifetime, Kielty is just one of Northern Ireland’s people to have gone through – and to have achieved – the unimaginable. “Where there’s peace,” he says, “there’ll always be a wee bit of hope”
tar age, it is brisk in its treatment of drab real-life concerns.
The death of Leila’s mother, for instance, is quickly pushed out of mind, while an eager, apparently unembarrassable new flatmate Jonty (the amiable Matthew Aubrey), with acting ambitions, insists on privacy “for when I practise my solos.”
Video games, like solos, can be lonesome teenage pursuits, but Kiss Me First doesn’t deny its characters a sexual confidence or hectic social life. As Tess, who goes by the name Mania online, Simona Brown looks no less ethereal on a wet London street, seducing Leila like an intoxicant. When they discreetly share pills that are conspicuously blue in a euphoric club, the show is both sly and non-judgmental about all the alternative realities to which a young person might be drawn. In the spry and involving escapes of Kiss Me First, they will readily find another.
If your life story is inadequate, a young Dave Allen is advised early in the course of his own, it’s up to you to improve it. Or, to quote the Irish comedian’s father in Dave Allen At Peace (BBC Two, Monday, 9pm; RTé One, 9.30pm), charmingly played by Tommy Tiernan, “What kind of an idiot chooses the truth over a good story?”
It’s a very good question, coming with the fateful severing of Allen’s index finger, which suggests the birth of an endlessly inventive comic imagination. But it’s a more goading question this brief, squeezed biopic. How do you treat a man who so frequently turned himself into a legend?
The solution of writer Stephen Russell is to mingle fact and creation, interspersing a straight-forward chronology of Allen’s life, radically simplified, with director Andy de Emmony’s slapdash recreations of the comedian’s sketches and monologues. Sadly, though, the truncation of a lifetime and a rebellious philosophy into the space of an hour leaves little room for much comic imagination of its own.
Here, Allen’s finger is treated as a dismal truth – a childish mishap with a machine cog – and used to illustrate a loyal, lifetime bond between brothers. That would be slightly more resonant if the show hadn’t written one of Allen’s two brothers out of existence.
The story of one of Ireland’s most complex jokers is thus given a glib, by-numbers simplicity. Alive to the brutal injustice of a school nun (Pauline McLynn), Allen is protected by an older brother, bereaved young, reborn as a comedian in Butlin’s, and soon catapulted into fame as an iconoclast and raconteur with an endless supply of sharp tailoring.
Anyone new to Allen, however, will struggle to find this accelerated version of the man amusing. That’s partly because the sketches chosen for re-creation suggest an uncanny eye for Allen’s weakest material, most involving a Mexican firing squad, and partly because while Aidan Gillen looks the part, suave and suited, he is hardly the world’s most natural comic actor. With an intonation that often recalls his metallic portrayal of Charles Haughey, Gillen misses Allen’s smooth sense of authority – something that made his irascible anti-authority routines all the funnier.
With another high-profile cameo in the shape of Conleth Hill as Allen’s alcoholic brother John, we get an overdetermined reckoning and reconciliation between brothers (“I hate your success – it highlights my failure”). There again Allen’s father might have been better heeded: “That’s a sure sign of over planning with ill-intent,” says the old man when he hears too neat a fable.
The intentions of Dave Allen At Peace are entirely honourable, but Allen, you feel, would have told it so much better.