Lennie James combs his past for clues to find his missing daughter in ‘Save Me’; Eavan Boland’s life and work are expertly intermingled in ‘Is It Still the Same’, and Philip Boucher-Hayes is not serious about his diet in ‘What Are You Eating?’
Sound and screen reviews
Late in the second episode of Save Me (Sky Atlantic, Wednesday, 9pm), a new six-part drama series created by and starring Lennie James, our dissipated but charming hero asks for help. “I’m way behind myself and I need to catch up,” says Nelly Rowe, solemnly, and his words are freighted with double meaning.
The legendary estate drunk, given to acts of kindness and distended karaoke sessions, Nelly began the series as the prime suspect for his long-estranged daughter’s disappearance, but quickly becomes her seeker. The girl, Jody, was lured away by someone impersonating Nelly online, drawing from uncanny access to the details of his life. Now it ushers the real man into a scrambling chase, piecing his history back together through a fog of drunkenness, trying to fathom his life, in every sense, struggling to catch up with himself.
“I’m nothing,” he told the police when the show began, but the clever thing about Save Me is that Nelly has to retrieve his something. For all its keen social realism, the show is a spin on the detective story, where Nelly must scour himself and his friends for clues.
Nick Murphy’s meticulous direction – which often makes the camera frame feel as claustrophobic and confining as the high-rise flats of London’s Deptford – invites both Nelly and the audience to take a closer look at grim situations. Often the camera alights on faces in public spaces who will melt as easily back into the crowd as emerge as significant characters. The more thorny of the latter is Melon (the terrific Stephen Graham), a long-time friend of Nelly’s and, he discovers, a convicted pedophile, whose claims towards rehabilitation are hard to gauge.
“Proper f*cking dark,” as Nelly says of his own predicament, but no one here is wholly good or entirely bad. Suranne Jones, as Jody’s anguished mother, for instance, is heartbreakingly believable whether helplessly hugging the actor of a Crime Line recreation video, or getting wasted at a pub lock-in afterwards – a fascinating portrait of a woman spinning through an unimaginable situation. The excellent Barry Ward, meanwhile, adds to his already impressive repertoire of shady and unreliable dad figures.
Though Save Me is given to sensational cliffhangers, it isn’t inclined to wallow in despair, fusing the thrill of genre with the texture of life. All those faces, it knows, and their complicated interdependencies, are the powers that keep communities together when all other supports abandon it. “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for,” goes a Hopi Nation saying. The characters in Save Me know the feeling: and it’s they who must come to the rescue.
As a series of paintings flit across the screen, the poet Eavan Boland gives an affecting appreciation. “My mother painted these beautiful, evocative, quickly-made scenes,” she says, noting “the intimacy of a very fragile moment.” Eavan Boland: Is It Still the Same (RTE One, Thursday, 10.15pm), an excellent documentary on how the poet’s life and work intertwine, recognises Boland’s ability to do something similar, and, in its deft appreciation, forges a fitting intimacy of its own.
It helps that Boland is such an obliging subject; direct and disarming in speech, neither grandstanding or retreating. She shares confidences freely, such as the subterfuge of her mother’s portrait of Boland as a girl, completed by enlisting her sister as a model. Is there a sly echo of that transference when Boland confesses that her exquisite poem The Black Lace Fan My
Mother Gave Me jumbles the characters of her parents – “She was always early./ He was late.” – grafting one’s trait to the other?
It’s an issue that presenting poetry on television has itself long tackled. Throughout Boland’s career, in fact, we see a number of approaches: reciting from a stool in a spotlight on The Late
Late Show in 1990, or reading by her fireplace on an arts show from 1987. Here, directors Charlie McCarthy and Declan Recks tend to animate her words with floating titles that address the viewer, filmic vignettes that magnify their details, or, better still, merging recordings of Boland from decades ago with her reciting to camera today.
That is an attentive manoeuvre. “Women are considered young, immutable, but they very rarely grow,” says Boland of literature, where a woman is often the object and seldom the subject. “If I was going to grow older, I wanted to grow old in my poetry.”
That her private experiences spur her poetry is as politically charged as her activism within the Women’s Liberation Movement, combating marginalisation, silence and erasure. In both approaches, she is allied with Mary Robinson, a close friend from their days in Trinity College. To see them in each other’s company today – the dreamer and the pragmatist, they agree, with
‘Women are considered young, immutable, but they very rarely grow,’ says Boland of literature, where a woman is often the object and seldom the subject. ‘If I was going to grow older, I wanted to grow old in my poetry’
Robinson the former and Boland the latter – is illuminating and inspiring.
Interleaving her biography with her bibliography, the documentary will find an impetus behind Boland’s poems - be that the exile of a peripatetic childhood, the blissful early days of marriage, or breast feeding her first born – and let that lead the way. “I was going to put the life I lived into the poem, no matter what,” she says. That her poem Child of our Time, a moving response to the Dublin bombing in 1974, is both personally felt and publicly committed, hardly contradicts that.
A professor in Stanford University, Boland will elucidate her work without lessening its wonder, and will skewer a repressive society with a sharp eye for what lies beneath it. (Her deft fileting of the notoriously imbalanced Field Day
Anthology of Irish Writing – in which Boland was one of few women writers included – is a masterclass in public debate.)
Over a dense yet swift hour, the documentary honours her assertion that the private experience can animate public discussion, unfussily showing Boland speaking at public events and university seminars, or at home with her grandchildren, watching Robinson quoting her work from the stage of her inauguration, or relaxed in her company on her sofa. Like that grafted hand in Boland’s childhood painting, or the traits of her parents swapped in a verse, the documentary presents such fascinating exchanges that make lives and experience whole.
Philip Boucher-Hayes is back on a diet. Having explored Palaeolithic options and a high protein regimen before, What Are You Eating? (RTE One, Thursday, 8pm) now turns its attentions to veganism, carefully plotting a month-long diet for Boucher-Hayes which he only selectively follows.
Viewers accustomed to ironic foreshadowing will note the advice of his dietary consultant who firmly advises Boucher-Hayes to take vitamin supplements. Nah, says Boucher- Hayes, later standing before a supermarket aisle crammed with them. “I’ve decided it would be much more interesting to not take one and see what happens to my body,” he reasons, with the serious investigative spirit Morgan Spurlock once demonstrated before committing solely to McDonald’s. What could possibly go wrong?
If Boucher-Hayes never radiates any huge sincerity behind the undertaking, it’s partly a consequence of his reflex sententiousness (“So it’s not just about running away from meat and animal products, but running towards something else?”) and the hammy accentuations his voice acquires whenever he’s following a script, as though reading a child a bedtime story. That can often come across as witty: “Hi, my name is Philip, and I’ve been vegan for nine days,” he says to the applause of the Vegan Dublin Food Tour, like a recovering meataholic, approving later of the “meaty texture” of a vegan substitute.
The meaty texture of the show is in the well-argued ethical objections of veganism’s adherents towards the awful conditions of intensive farming, and, daunted by that passion, the trepidation of its neophytes. “I see myself as a vegan,” says one vegan supply store employee, cautiously, as though in fear of reprisals. Boucher-Hayes, however, is looking for the flesh of entertainment. How else can you interpret his retreat, before the diet is over, to an atavistic camp where they slice open a duck with flint and cook its innards by a fire? Within a programme about veganism, it is a needlessly antagonistic and shallow gesture, following in the spirit of Gerry Ryan’s “Lambo” provocations.
Putting his health at risk, losing muscle and even bone density for the lack of his recommended supplements, Boucher-Hayes glibly rejects not just a vegan diet but its ideology. “It’s just the kind of omnivore I am,” he shrugs. Good for you, Philip. Now get stuffed.
Suranne Jones and Lennie James in Save Me; Philip Boucher Hayes in What Are You Eating?; Mary Robinson and Eavan Boland, who met as students at Trinity College Dublin. PHOTOGRAPHS: SKY ATLANTIC / RUTH MEDJBER / RTÉ