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

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

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

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