Songs of resilience and reassurance, funny foreigners and childish things
For Christy Dignam the best music rings out with greater resonance – for him, it’s a matter of survival
One of the most surprising glimpses into the life of Christy Dignam, the approachable frontman of Dublin rock perennials Aslan, is also one of the most subtly illuminating. We see Dignam at home, earnestly tutoring somebody in the art of bel canto singing. That the music, first learned from his father, is still a source of succour is perfectly obvious; his eyes are sealed shut and his hand conducts Schubert’s Ave Maria in rapture. But Dignam’s understanding of the music goes further. For him, it’s a matter of survival.
“The more you sang, the stronger it made your voice,” he says of the style. Losing his own in the early 1980s, as it cracked under the strain of punk (“Nothing on God’s earth is as horrifying”), Dignam took inspiration from an unlikely source. And so, in This is Christy (RTÉ One, Tuesday, 9.35pm), his life story goes; an eventful journey between the horrifying and the divine, success and struggle, isolation and support, in constant cycles.
Anyone familiar with Aslan will know that music has not been Dignam’s only addiction. From the outside, Aslan’s looked like a grimly familiar story, the sudden implosion of a promising band derailed by drug abuse. Director David Power, angling his documentary somewhere between a biography and a tour diary, knows that the truth is more complex, that the story must be told from the inside.
In this, he is has been granted access all areas. Dignam’s childhood, as one of 10 children in working-class Finglas, the formation and development of the band, the excess of 1980s rock’n’roll culture, all come with the efficient flicker of Behind the Music archive material. But how often do you see a musician interviewed in his sitting room, or his kitchen, or, as we do here, sitting on a hospital bed beside his wife, dryly considering his treatment for cancer? “I never thought I’d go out this way,” says Dignam. “I thought I’d die of old age, like everyone else.”
His diagnosis, which Dignam learned in January, gives the programme a quiet sense of urgency. Unable to complete one performance in London, he worries about others, and the documentary – no slave to chronology – is bookended by a bravura performance from just a few days ago, in the Iveagh Gardens, the band’s first outdoor performance in 29 years.
In the space between, Dignam, his bandmates and his family ( it isn’t always easy, or useful, to distinguish between the two) revisit immensely painful memories. Sexually abused as a child, something he realised only in recovery, when fired from his band, Dignam says, simply, “I was changed after that. I was never the same.” Power places Dignam’s recollection of abuse between two consoling sequences, a touching visit to his proud, sharp-witted father, and then to a chirping aviary where we see the fragility of hatchlings.
“I’ve far exceeded anything I ever dreamed,” he says, and though the show doesn’t delve into his writing, he is proud that two of his songs will go down in Irish history, This Is and Crazy World. Songs of resilience and reassurance both, they ring out again with a deeper resonance.
The image used to promote Francis Brennan’s Grand Tour of Vietnam ( RTÉ One, Sunday, 8.30pm) is a choppy, photoshopped likeness of the flamboyant Irish hotelier and At Your Service star, smiling out from beneath a Vietnamese rice-pickers hat. It’s somewhere between a Benny Hill joke and the packaging of a 1970s sauce bottle.
It’s also the kind of picture that many white tourists in South East Asia will take for a laugh, or a tingle of the exotic, then hopefully remove before any accusation of cultural appropriation. But no, there the image is again, on every backpack handed to each of the 12 guests chosen to accompany Brennan to the surprise destination, Vietnam. And there it is again, emblazoned on the side of their tour bus in Hanoi. RTÉ’s giddy travel show finds other cultures amusingly strange, and they don’t care who knows it.
Brennan, you already know, is a bit of a character. Fastidiously groomed, tart-tongued, larger than life, theatrically expressive, it is his job to lead the tour – the third such voyage so far – without drawing too much focus from the main attraction. But the guests, whom we are continually reminded are paying their way, have been recruited to be characters too. Among them, we meet a “single mum of five”, Fionnuala, rarely shown below the threshold of delirium, an entertaining married gay couple from Offaly, a young bubbly Francis super-fan who, we are assured, will say anything ( this episode’s classic: “What’s the wi-fi code?”), and two cousins, Benita and Fr Richard, a voluble camp priest fond of wearing ethnic garb, such as an African dashiki. But this role has already been taken, thank you very much, and Brennan is noticeably cool towards him.
The sights themselves, a pedestrian trail of mausoleums and pagodas, go by in an orientalising blur: of Thang Long Water Puppet theatre, for instance, the voice- over instructs, “Think Punch and Judy in a swimming pool.”
Like that image of Brennan, of course, it’s all harmless, just a bit of a laugh. Anyone not found laughing is an automatic pariah, like finicky off- duty Garda George, who can’t stand the cuisine or the chaos of the traffic. “It’s going to be a long trip,” sighs Brennan. If you’ve ever had to sit through someone else’s holiday snaps, you’ll probably know the feeling. In the first episode of Friends from Col
lege ( Netflix, now streaming), a well- regarded but poor-selling novelist is encouraged to try writing for “Young Adults” instead by his publisher (Fred Savage). The novelist is outraged. “YA is destructive,” says Keegan- Michael Key at Ethan, his voice rising in indignation. “It’s all about adults who are refusing to grow up.”
So is Friends From College, a comedy about one generation’s arrested development, in which Francesca Delblanco and Nicholas Stoller share some of that anxiety about what kind of writing they can get away with. The premise, a friendly- fractious group reunion in New York, 20 years after their Harvard graduation, is essentially The Big Chill for Xennials – that newly invented micro- generation between Gen X cynicism and Millennial optimism.
In that, the gang’s behaviour is right on the money: bouncing into awkward group hugs, adding the word “yay!” to grimmer sentiments, pleading for intimacy with the words “I’m trying to download with you”, or broadcasting warm, mutual support while motivated by bitter competition.
None is quite as corrosive as an affair that Ethan has been having for two decades with Sam (Annie Parisse), who alternates between noxious indifference and fifth-gear mania, behind the back of his vanilla wife Lisa (Cobie Smulders).
Fine in small doses, grating at length, the show’s real encouragement may be to put away childish things once and for all.
‘‘ He is proud that two of his songs will go down in Irish history, ‘This Is’ and ‘Crazy World’. Songs of resilience and reassurance
Christy Dignam, the lead singer with Aslan: “I thought I’d die of old age, like everyone else.” PHOTOGRAPH: GETTY IMAGES