See the sights, dodge the jokes

Peter Craw­ley on Ed Byrne and Dara Ó Bri­ain’s road to Mandalay.

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - ARTS & BOOKS - Peter Craw­ley

Those who con­coct sto­ries of fan­tasy, sci-fi, hor­ror and, to a less fer­vent ex­tent, world re­li­gions tend to in­spire devo­tion among their fol­low­ers. Neil Gaiman’s Amer­i­can Gods, a novel that has been cat­e­gorised as all of the above, se­cured its acolytes by fold­ing some durable an­cient myths into more dis­pos­able el­e­ments of Amer­i­cana. Gaiman’s opus imag­ines a war be­tween the gods of Norse mythol­ogy, left to dwin­dle in the new world, and the fetishised idols of con­tem­po­rary wor­ship, where ev­ery­thing from tech­nol­ogy to mar­ket forces finds cor­po­real shape.

Now comes a new tes­ta­ment, a TV se­ries that opens with some sen­sa­tion­ally bloody Vik­ing sac­ri­fices, as though slyly ac­knowl­edg­ing the need to ap­pease Gaiman’s fans. To judge from the first episode, it is a per­sua­sive act of wor­ship.

When Shadow Moon (a sculpted Ricky Whit­tle) is re­leased from jail he en­coun­ters a stranger he seems fated to meet. “It’s all about get­ting peo­ple to be­lieve in you,” the mys­te­ri­ous Mr Wed­nes­day says. Played by Ian McShane, again en­joy­ing the dry com­edy of act­ing the scoundrel, he ap­pears first as a dod­dery gent, swin­dling his way into first class. It’s a use­ful mir­a­cle to know.

Writ­ten by Bryan Fuller and Michael Green, both ex­perts in dark fan­tasy, Ameri

can Gods (Ama­zon Prime) is as un­hur­ried as the book to con­firm its in­ten­tions. Sym­bols and vi­sions abound as Shadow re­luc­tantly em­barks as Mr Wed­nes­day’s body­guard, grasped at in his dreams by en­chanted tree branches, or taunted by a bull with flam­ing eyes, who com­mands: “Be­lieve!”

But the sur­real twists that barely trou­ble a reader’s imag­i­na­tion can be per­ilous to de­pict on screen, as when a lust­ful god­dess swal­lows a man whole dur­ing sex – and not in the tra­di­tional way. Else­where, though, the sly em­bel­lish­ments of de­sign are bal­anced neatly be­tween the sep­tic and spec­tral: Shadow’s pris­tine shirt re­mains un­blem­ished af­ter grisly en­coun­ters; the bar where he brawls with a sur­pris­ingly tall leprechaun, Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber), is con­ceived as the gap­ing mouth of a crocodile; and the blood that sloshes over the screen has the con­sis­tency of pinot noir.

The show takes the odd­ity of its idea se­ri­ously but not joy­lessly. Get­ting peo­ple to be­lieve in you, as Mr Wed­nes­day knows, is bet­ter achieved with a sly in­vi­ta­tion than a blunt com­mand. The gods, like the view­ers, should be pleased with this of­fer­ing.

The place: Vir­ginia, in these not yet United States of Amer­ica. The time: 1619. The weather: very pleas­ant in­deed. And the women who have sur­vived the treach­er­ous cross­ing to Jamestown, the first Bri­tish colony in this land of prom­ise, look as though they have dis­em­barked from noth­ing more ar­du­ous than a sham­poo com­mer­cial. This is among the first signs that Jamestown Sky1, Fri­day), from the pro­duc­ers of Down­ton Abbey, may not be a model of his­tor­i­cal re­al­ism.

At the har­bour these “maids to make wives” are as­signed to wait­ing men like prizes to raf­fle win­ners. For Alice (So­phie Run­dle) it is love at the first sight of swarthy Si­las (Stuart Martin), a paragon of colo­nial dishi­ness, but – alas – he is act­ing as courier for his brother, Henry, her be­trothed, a paragon of greasi­ness. “You cost him 150 pounds of the finest tobacco,” Alice is told. She seems pleased.

Else­where the haughty blonde Jo­ce­lyn (Naomi Bat­trick), who ad­mit­ted to mur­der­ing a man in the show’s open­ing sec­onds, meets her hus­band to be, Sa­muel, a well-to-do clerk who deals mainly in ex­po­si­tion: “I know we talked about this in Eng­land, but . . . ”

Ver­ity ( Ni­amh Walsh), a red-haired Ir­ish woman and former con­vict, who is nat­u­rally obliged to be feisty, is left un­claimed and is ad­vised to find safety, for Jamestown is “a hive of men starved

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of women”.

What this means in Bill Gal­lagher’s im­mensely un­sub­tle writ­ing is that rape will be used as a plot de­vice be­fore we reach the first ad break. When Alice is at­tacked by Henry its con­se­quence is con­veyed with a dreamy shot of her awak­ing in the grass, leak­ing a sin­gle aes­thetic teardrop, while en­veloped by ten­der string mu­sic. Such is the show’s dispir­it­ing com­mand of grav­ity.

Ev­ery­thing that fol­lows is ab­surd, generic or ris­i­ble. Alice and Si­las, who have barely ex­changed words, breath­lessly con­fess their hope­less love. Jo­ce­lyn, an in­tense so­cial clim­ber, turns her wiles to­wards a very spe­cific al­ter­ing of the colony’s leg­is­la­tion on the sale of tobacco farms. And Ver­ity aban­dons her part­ner, the town drunk and scal­ly­wag, to take her chances in the wilder­ness. Her es­cape doesn’t last long, in cir­cum­stances that in­volve quick­sand, wolves and the sud­den in­ter­ven­tion of the town’s smoul­der­ing black­smith. But, frankly, she’s got the right idea. “I had a look at this place and de­cided it’s not for me,” she tells Alice. Amen, sis­ter. Is it fun to go on hol­i­day with a co­me­dian? TV pro­duc­ers seem to think so. With Steve Coogan and Rob Bry­den shar­ing meals, trad­ing celebrity im­pres­sions and edg­ing closer

In the im­mensely un­sub­tle writ­ing of ‘Jamestown’, rape is used as a plot de­vice be­fore we reach the first ad break

to killing each other on The Trip to Spain, while Richard Ayoade takes re­luc­tant city breaks with celebri­ties in Travel Man, comics make for pop­u­lar travel guides, dis­pens­ing in­for­ma­tion as part of a set-up, land­ing their ex­pe­ri­ences along with a joke.

Dur­ing Dara and Ed’s Road to Mandalay (RTÉ One, Thurs­day), a three-parter that con­veys Dara Ó Bri­ain and Ed Byrne through south­east Asia, the co­me­di­ans briefly bol­ster their own cre­den­tials. “There’s a rea­son they get co­me­di­ans to do these kinds of jour­neys, be­cause we’re ac­tu­ally quite cu­ri­ous any­way,” Ó Bri­ain says. “You don’t be­come a co­me­dian with­out want­ing to find quirky things in the cul­tures you visit.”

No­body could re­sent two such per­son­able fel­lows for scour­ing the world for new ma­te­rial, but an­other rea­son might be to present un­fa­mil­iar views through the lens of an un­usual re­la­tion­ship. With a packed itin­er­ary and a mild sense of awe, Ó Bri­ain and Byrne make for sen­si­tive pre­sen­ters, and en­dear­ing tourists, but not riv­et­ing guides. “There’s noth­ing I en­joy more than telling Ed things,” Ó Bri­ain says of his earnest guide­book re­gur­gi­ta­tions. “I hope me and Dara aren’t go­ing to fall out,” Byrne ven­tures. So far there’s no chance of that.

What the pair are more likely to share is an in­sight into how co­me­di­ans see the world. “A coun­try doesn’t ex­ist un­til you’ve told a joke in it,” Byrne says, like a comic solip­sist. It’s re­veal­ing that they trans­late new ex­pe­ri­ences into stand-up terms, each per­form­ing five min­utes in a com­edy club in the mul­ti­cul­tural cap­i­tal, later mess­ing around with lion-dance cos­tumes, then turn­ing their hands to shadow pup­petry be­fore an au­di­ence in Kota Bharu (and bomb­ing).

Fi­nally, they turn up for din­ner in Pe­nang in cer­e­mo­nial garb that Tommy Cooper would have ad­mired. Ó Bri­ain re­gards Byrne, lost in his em­broi­dered kurta, and af­firms, “I would be proud to at­tend any in­ter­na­tional karate tour­na­ment that you hosted on your evil is­land.”

It’s the clos­est they al­low them­selves to come to a cul­tur­ally in­ap­pro­pri­ate re­mark ( which is not very) – and also, per­haps, their fun­ni­est.

Ó Bri­ain and Byrne are go­ing to get on just fine with south­east Asia, and with each other. Where’s the fun in that?

PHO­TO­GRAPH: RTÉ

Road to Mandalay: Ed Byrne and Dara Ó Bri­ain.

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