Sound and screen reviews
Claire Byrne hosts a presidential debate without the President; ‘Blue Peter’ continues shaping little Britons and future BBC presenters; and ‘The Bisexual’ keeps its options wide open
And so it comes to this: a “presidential debate” without the President, Michael D Higgins, or his nearest rival, Sean Gallagher. “It is a debate,” the host of Claire Byrne Live (RTÉ One, Monday, 9.35pm) reminds the hopefuls, “so feel free to get involved and make yourselves heard over the course of the debate.” What does such an instruction say about the enthusiasm of the candidates, or even of the show? Doesn’t anybody want to be here?
If Byrne feels jilted by the absences, she does her level best not to show it. Even when millionaire businessman and former Dragons’ Den star Gavin Duffy addresses the elephants who are not in the room (“thinking they’re above the Irish people”) and Sinn Féin candidate Liadh Ní Riada bemoans their “air of entitlement”, Byrne remains stoically impartial. “It is my job as a fair moderator to correct falsehoods,” she says at one point, warding the scrappers away from open goals. See what you’re missing, Michael?
One such inaccuracy, as everybody knows, is that the role of the president of Ireland something more than symbolic, but tonight some candidates are letting their metaphors get away from them.
“He is the influencer-in-chief,” millionaire businessman and former Dragons’ Den star Peter Casey defines the role, as though the president might wield a golden Instagram account.
Senator and psychologist Joan Freeman, paying tribute to former president Mary McAleese’s “building bridges” campaign metaphor, auto-tunes her own contribution to bringing “wellness to our country”.
At least Casey is more concrete. “I want to build a platform where we can connect with the people living abroad,” he insists. “A platform for business,” he elaborates. “They can export their products using this platform.” Is Casey still speaking metaphorically, or is this his equivalent to Donald Trump’s Wall? Build the platform! Build the platform!
Things get sillier. Casey, who recently disparaged feminism, announces he would use his seven nominations to the Council of State to appoint seven women. Who, Byrne asks? Casey first suggests Joan Freeman, the woman standing beside him, and, with a little more time to reflect on the matter, Claire Byrne, the woman standing in front of him.
Perhaps Byrne might consider it, because tonight she seems about as present as Sean Gallagher.
From the audience comes the Donald Trump question: Are there any world leaders the candidates would refuse to meet? “I think he’s an international embarrassment,” Casey says of Trump, a dilettantish businessman who made his name on a reality TV show and then decided to run for president. You can see his point.
The small matter of enormous money arises. Can Duffy afford to lose his estimated personal investment of ¤300,000, Byrne asks. “I don’t think anyone can afford to lose that money,” he says. Can Casey? “Oh, yeah,” smiles this man of the people. “I’ve done it a couple of times in the past.”
Towards the end of the show, when the audience and some of the candidates are visibly wilting, some much-needed excitement arrives in the form of one disruptive audience member. Byrne apologises and cuts to a break. Maybe that’s for the best.
But maybe, given all the show’s encomiums to political participation and representing “the people of Ireland”, it’s a little ungrateful. At least somebody wanted to be here tonight.
Here’s something to consider. If you had been born in the year that Blue Peter began, in 1958, you would currently be considering your retirement options. As it celebrates its 60th birthday, that seems an unlikely prospect for
BluePeter (CBBC, Tuesday, 5pm) itself, heroically indifferent to the advancing years. It may regularly bury time capsules in the garden, filled with the jetsam of childhood, but the world seems unchanging on Blue Peter, where time is something to be filled rather than contemplated.
This it does by relaying adventure stories involving huge machinery or wild animals; diligently applying children to arts-and-crafts busy work; and, of course, encouraging them in the relentless pursuit of badges.
That makes the show’s philosophy part imperial, part scouting, always imagining expeditions on ships (like its enduring mascot) in the hope of making exotic discoveries that can be brought back home. It’s a logic shared by kids and colonialists alike – finders keepers.
As it celebrates 60 years of making good little Britons, the show also remains a ship-shape model for making good BBC presenters. They started out as surrogate parent types, as the sprightly return of Valerie Singleton and Janet Ellis for this broadcast reminds you. But gradually they became
‘‘ “I think he’s an international embarrassment,” Casey says of Trump, a dilettantish businessman who made his name on a reality TV show and then decided to run for president. You can see his point
younger, the way policemen seem to do, with cool older sibling types, like Konnie Huq or Richard Bacon, propelled later to other media jobs.
When today’s competition winner, Nell, spins towards the camera to announce, “Run VT!”, the Blue Peter factory shows no signs of slowing down.
Besides the brisk acknowledgment of six decades of history lovingly reduced into a run VT, the broadcast is child’s play as usual. Adorable presenter Radzi Chinyanganya gets to hold the wheel of the biggest ship in the British Navy (“Mum, I’m steering an aircraft carrier!” he says. “You only get this on Blue Peter!”). Co-presenter Lindsay Russell gets to wave her Brexit-blue passport at the camera and fly a hot air balloon over the colder reaches of the EU. (“These things only happen on Blue Peter!” she says.) Sure, where else would you get it? And while both a fidget spinner and a David Walliams book are eagerly sealed into another Time Capsule, special guest Ed Sheeran, sadly, is not.
“Banging,” says the musician, a previous presenter of the show and an exemplary product of it, upon receiving its highest accolade, a gold Blue Peter badge. “Wow,” he says, reflecting on other recipients. “Me and the Queen.”
Oh, Blue Peter, don’t ever change.
In The Bisexual (Channel 4, Wednesday, 10pm), the actor and filmmaker Desiree Akhavan tries to keep her options open.
Her character Leila, an editor at an impossibly trendy lesbian magazine, spins out of a relationship with her partner Sadie (Maxine Peake, as assured in comedy as she is in drama), and – for reasons barely established – holes up in a flat belonging to Gabe (Brian Gleeson) – a man, according to her gender-critiquing friend, “so straight and white he called his book Testicular.”
Their relationship is strictly platonic: “Don’t shit where you eat,” Gabe mutters. (And they say chivalry is dead.) But Leila seems ready to take a page out of Gabe’s book. She is, in her mind, part of a distrusted sexual minority: “I’m pretty sure bisexuality is a myth,” she says early in the series. “It was invented by ad agencies to sell flavoured vodka.”
Leila ought to know. She exists among London’s milieu of millennial media start-ups, multicultural hipsters and shambling intellectuals, a bisexual who has yet to have a heterosexual experience, awkwardly scouring the bars, launch parties and club nights for an opportunity to broaden her horizons. She is, largely, disappointed.
Like a combination of Fleabag and Insecure, with a couple of deferential nods to the meandering tilt of Atlanta, Akhavan’s creation is a comedy about confidence: hipper-than-thou she may be, but Leila doesn’t have any. The comedy of her encounters with men, for instance, trailing with studied cool after one guy only to wait for him outside the men’s toilet, or clumsily dispelling another’s fantasy in the bedroom (“I’ve wanked off so many times thinking about this,” he says, wracked with emasculating insecurities), is one of touchingly adolescent sexual anxiety: Who does what? What goes where?
Refreshingly, when she finds a decent guy, their sex is filmed with the unglamorous, unhurried realism of a Ken Loach movie (or a Lena Dunham show, for that matter) as though in antidote to an era of porn and posing; tender, with no filters.
The show is best, though, in its supporting characters: a chill clique of London lesbians (including the excellent Caoilfhionn Dunne) who will reference The L Word while reminding Gleeson’s dithering, cardigan-wearing man-boy that it does not define them. Better still, though, it sees London as it really is: a cluster of fabulous pop-up enterprises over cold architecture and shabby apartments, a trek to dismal house parties on drab buses, at once intimidatingly expansive and suffocating small. In that, London makes a fine home to Leila’s searches. They both want to have it both ways.
Peter Casey, Liadh Ní Riada, RTÉ’s Claire Byrne, Joan Freeman and Gavin Duffy; Blue Peter presenters Barney Harwood, Lindsey Russell and Radzi Chinyanganya; Maxine Peake and Desiree Akhavan in The Bisexual.