HOPES AND PRAYERS AND PUNCHLINES PETER CRAWLEY
RTÉ Investigates brings stunning news that the homelessness crisis is somehow even worse than we imagined; Fr Tony Coote, a pilgrim with Motor Neurone Disease, contemplates physical and spiritual decline; and the bright fantasy of The Marvelous Mrs Maisel lets you eat cake
There’s no easy way for RTÉ Investigates:LandofHopeand
Homeless (RTÉ One, Wednesday, 9.35pm) to break it to us, but the housing crisis is somehow even worse than we imagined.
Such is the combination of financial squeeze and Irish shame that a family can discover themselves part of the “hidden homeless”, not recorded among the official estimate of 9,700 homeless, nor registered on the waiting list for social housing that now stretches to include 7,200 families.
“We’re homeless,” says Charlene Davis, retreating from spiralling rents and unaffordable house with her family to her parents’ attic, speaking more in disbelief than sorrow, while wondering, “Where did I go wrong?” The horror of her dilemma, as this diligently researched and admirably clear report illustrates, is that the situation is far beyond her control.
Reporter Oonagh Smyth is sensitive in putting faces to the problem – introducing Eileen Kinch, a woman with two grown children who can’t find a home to rent within HAP limits, and Eva Leahy and her son Sean, who has Asperger’s, stuck in an intolerable situation in Cork, among others. But another face to watch belongs to Eoghan Murphy, Minister for Housing, who has perfected the technique of readily agreeing with his criticism. “Of course it’s not happening fast enough,” he tells Smyth of the interminable delays to the 2016 Rebuilding Ireland strategy, which promised the completion of 50,000 social houses by 2021. Murphy’s expression – attentive but with the impassive glaze of someone wondering how the hell Health turned out to be the less toxic portfolio – insists that the rate of development will take off in the next couple of years and even exceed the target.
But as Smyth outlines the figures, you’d feel more reassured if he just took out a pocket book and started taking notes. “Effectively you’ve got almost 35,000 [more] to do in the remaining three years,” she says of the timeframe. “That’s a massive leap in what you’ve been averaging.”
In the meantime the epidemic in homelessness is spreading far quicker: in two years, the number of homeless families has doubled to 1,753. “Quick fixes lead to quick breaks,” Murphy says in his defence, which may explain all the breaks. Government incentives for commercial development, for instance, have seen a boom in private student accommodation and hoovered up available builders. Changes in planning guidelines, affecting the height of apartment blocks, have simply stalled developments while investors wait to learn how high their buildings – and profits – can go.
By the time Brendan Kenny, deputy chief executive of ousing for Dublin City Council, says “the private sector have to [be] the ones to solve the crisis”, you appreciate just how desperate we have become.
“It’s at the point now where it’s even beginning to piss off rich people,” reports one glum civil servant. The argument may not have immensely stable foundations, but nor do apparently “prioritised” sites such as Cherrywood, still undeveloped after several years. Save us, rich people, you’re our only hope. They say pride comes before a fall, but in the case of Father Tony Coote, it may have been the opposite. Diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease in April, a rapid, terminal and indiscriminate illness, the charismatic priest later collapsed while visiting a school and broke his ribs. Surveying this accumulation of misery, his nurse returned an unsentimental explanation. “Life’s shite,” she told him.
Like many of his stories in WalkingtheWalk (RTÉ One, Thursday, 10.15pm), told with Coote’s characteristic good humour and alertness to human nature (he also studied psychotherapy), you wonder whether this is intended as a parable. Because although he was soon dependent on a wheelchair, Coote decided to lead a pilgrimage called Walk While You Can (a rather sardonic title that cuts through the glibly inspirational and the excessively maudlin), stretching from Letterkenny to Ballydehob in aid of Motor Neurone research.
It says much about the place of religion in Irish society today that Coote is one of few priests to command such a gathering. “What happened to respect in the community for the priest and the doctor?” jokes Orla Hardiman, professor of neuroscience, when Coote again resists her advice on the trail. “It’s long gone,” he grins. Yet that is not true of Coote.
A former chaplain of UCD and the founder of UCD Volunteers Overseas, he has many followers, offering the documentary memories and photographs like sacred relics, joining the walk like apostles. Coote, interviewed along the way, is given to contemplations of decline: of his own physical deterioration and that of the priesthood. He makes those struggles visibly, affectingly human: candid about his anger, but secure in his faith.
Assisting in this uniquely Catholic act of mortification (nobody could call the walk itself much fun), the community provides its own succour. Coote knows it, and the reason for his good regard is because he offers his parishioners guidance rather than instruction.
That some of them hope for a miracle en route to Knock, perhaps not entirely in jest, is something he bats away. As his brother points out, the long, dry summer is miraculous – or “jammy” – enough. Tributes and words of appreciation are heaped on Coote along the path. “In a quirky way, I am the guest of honour at my own funeral,” he says. That makes it
tempting to see this as another parable, retracing the steps of divine martyrs.
But Coote is not waiting for a miracle, nor praying for a cure. He is asking for funding, from the Government, towards research and care for Motor Neuron Disease. With those earthly aims, such measures cannot come soon enough. Heaven can wait.
When we first met Mrs Maisel – a 1960s Jewish woman who was betrayed and bedraggled, swigging from a bottle of kosher wine and engaged in the angry recovery of a Pyrex dish – she was a woman in clear need of a psychiatrist. What she found, in a comedy club cellar, was an unguarded microphone. With a distractedness that turned into a tour-de-force of self-deprecation, spousal evisceration, profanity, nudity and latterly a police arrest, she told it most of her problems. She was a hit.
Now, as The Marvelous Mrs Maisel (Amazon Prime, now streaming) returns for a second series, garlanded with more awards than Mrs Maisel herself has yet received, she seems more like a fantasy. The department store where she works (to the chagrin of her wealthy Upper West Side parents) is revealed in its Christmas preparations with all the choreographed charm of a musical. And though she has been relegated to the bowels of the store’s phone switchboard, we rediscover Midge moving with the elegance and composure of a Busby Berkeley babe within a magisterial display of synchronised switching.
If Mad Men peeled the nostalgic glamour of the 1960s away to reveal something sordidly contemporary, The Marvelous Mrs Maisel shamelessly reaffixes it again. Styled to the nines and candied up by CGI, Amy ShermanPalladino’s comic drama depicts 1960s New York as though it were stitched together from other old movies: you meet the infamous comedian Lenny Bruce (in Luke Kirby’s marvellous performance) but you imagine Jack Lemon popping up at any minute.
The whole thing, though, is an enjoyably hammy performance. As Midge, the adorable wiseass, Rachel Brosnahan has a declamatory, exasperated style of delivery both on and off the stage, forever extending her arms in remonstration with an impossible world. Take my life, please!
For the opening episode, she and her father (the effortlessly excellent Tony Shalhoub) depart for Paris in search of her absconding mother, where the streets require even less dressing to summon the period. That Midge charmed New York’s underground scene with her endless flap and unlikely command of sexual swear words was far-fetched enough. But to see her both charm and then devastate the worldly clientele of a Parisian cabaret, with the assistance of an interpreter, may be one act of wish fulfilment too far. (Even the wonderful Alex Borstein’s B-plot escapade, as her butch manager befriending mobster collectors, seems more plausible.)
At least the show recognises the undimmed appeal of its escapism in these times of need. When “the idiot twins”, as her father calls them, arrive in Paris, famished and frenzied, their mother becomes grave with concern. “Are you hungry?” she asks. “I could scrounge around for some cake.” Let them eat it. Sometimes, as Mrs
Maisel happily proves, a pure confection is sustenance enough.
Rachel Brosnahan in The Marvelous Mrs Maisel; Father Tony Coote in Walking the Walk; Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government Eoghan Murphy.