Draw­ing to a con­clu­sion

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - TELEVISION - Peter Craw­ley

Three Ir­ish doc­u­men­taries take a look at the intimacy and artistry of un­der­tak­ing, the still-be­wil­der­ing ac­count of Ir­ish foot­ball’s visit to Gadafy’s Libya, and the pol­i­tics of spray paint

Blessed with a nat­u­rally sym­pa­thetic face, and a soft, con­sol­ing voice, David McGowan ex­udes calm re­as­sur­ance. That’s just as well, be­cause the sub­ject of Gil­lian Marsh’s exquisite doc­u­men­tary, The Funeral Di­rec­tor (RTÉ One, Wed­nes­day, 9.35pm) is a man in the busi­ness of death. “We’d be sur­rounded by death ev­ery week,” McGowan says as the pro­gramme be­gins. “It’s nor­mal.”

As though to em­pha­sise the point, in the first of many art­ful de­tails, we watch McGowan at­tempt to lo­cate a head­stone, some­where in a grave­yard. A sin­gle, beau­ti­fully de­ployed ae­rial shot re­veals both its order­li­ness and its vast­ness. He is sur­rounded by death. It’s nor­mal.

It gives you a sense of how un­hesi­tant McGowan is on the sub­ject to hear what prompted him to pur­sue pro­fes­sional train­ing in Chicago: an emer­gency call when a cof­fin be­gan groan­ing be­cause the body in­side had not been em­balmed.

The doc­u­men­tary fol­lows his un­flinch­ing, de­mys­ti­fy­ing lead, and though it helps that McGowan is so con­sid­ered and ar­tic­u­late, the pro­gramme por­trays him as vividly in ac­tions as words. “That’s him,” McGowan says, set­tling the glasses upon the face of a care­fully em­balmed body. In the ges­ture, at once pro­fes­sional and ten­der, you re­alise the intimacy and artistry of the pro­fes­sion. You may gen­uinely learn things too – the pre­cise costs of a funeral, gravedig­ging su­per­sti­tions, the sci­ence of em­balm­ing, the process of cre­ma­tion – and, so dis­armed by it all, find your­self com­fort­ably con­sid­er­ing your own mor­tal­ity.

In the pro­gramme’s ex­tra­or­di­nary sec­ond half, we meet some­one con­sid­er­ing his own. This is Cap­tain Dougie Hop­kins, a pi­lot in the late stages of ter­mi­nal can­cer, and a friend of McGowan’s. Al­though an ex­pert in grief, and its ex­pres­sion, McGowan is slow to share griev­ances: the clos­est he comes, touch­ingly, is his pride in con­vert­ing a de­com­mis­sioned 767 air­liner into glamping ac­com­mo­da­tion. “I’m not known now as the grim reaper,” he says, stand­ing in its fuse­lage. “I’m known as the man who brought in the plane.” But this is not a sanc­tu­ary: it will be Dougie’s rest­ing place. His ashes, com­bined with a tree, will take root in the plane’s tail.

In their friend­ship, we see two men pre­par­ing for death; nobly, philo­soph­i­cally, prac­ti­cally. Even with­out Saso and Kevin Corcoran’s af­fect­ing score, this would be pro­foundly mov­ing to wit­ness. Marsh, as dis­creet and tact­ful as her sub­ject, con­tin­ues to show Dougie’s in­ter­views af­ter his pass­ing, en­sur­ing a pres­ence be­yond death.

Noth­ing is quite as star­tling, re­spect­ful

new play­ers such as Holly Pereira, whose ex­pres­sions are more fem­i­nist off the wall than on. “It’s ex­tremely hard to con­trol,” she says of spray paint, but tra­di­tion­ally that has been true of street art as a whole. Where is the risk now?

Belfast’s mu­rals are “a ma­jor draw for tourists” we are told, while treet art fes­ti­val Water­ford Walls is por­trayed as mostly beau­ti­fy­ing. Caslin, ready­ing his first piece for the Na­tional Gallery, seems aware of the dou­ble-edged sword of street art’s new­found le­git­i­macy: “An art form that has been on the edge,” as he puts it, is now be­ing ad­mit­ted into the main­stream.

McCloskey very earnestly presents Ir­ish street art, in­creas­ingly com­mis­sioned and sanc­tioned, as a force for good. When it’s bad, though, it can some­times be bet­ter.

Foot­ball fi­asco

“It may not have been the bright­est thing any­one ever did in foot­ball,” of­fers Brian Kerr dur­ing In League with Gaddafi (RTÉ Two, Mon­day) a brisk and still be­wil­dered history of how a team of Ir­ish foot­ballers went to play against Libya in Beng­hazi in 1989. Well, per­haps it wasn’t the shrewdest move to le­git­imise a re­pres­sive state that spon­sored in­ter­na­tional ter­ror­ism. But given last week’s news of the FAI’s ¤55 mil­lion debts and its pos­si­ble demise, it would be lucky to make the top five list of Ir­ish foot­ball fi­as­cos.

How in­no­cent the League of Ire­land was in its de­ci­sion to ac­cept the friendly in­vi­ta­tion is an open ques­tion, though. Were they ig­no­rant that the then Libyan leader Col Muam­mar Gadafy sup­plied the Pro­vi­sional IRA with huge num­bers of arms? Or were they just as mer­ce­nary as the Haughey gov­ern­ment, which, we are re­minded, wasn’t go­ing to let ethics get in the way of lu­cra­tive beef ex­ports?

Kevin Bran­ni­gan’s doc­u­men­tary, fizzing with 1980s pop-cul­ture nostalgia, presents the whole far­rago as a com­bi­na­tion of mu­tual grift and naivety. Even the team, hur­riedly as­sem­bled from Bo­hemi­ans and St Patrick’s Ath­letic, was not the one the Libyans were ex­pect­ing, nei­ther con­firm­ing or deny­ing that they were part of Jackie’s Army. (Wisely, per­haps, lest Gadafy try to sup­ply this army with mu­ni­tions). Who was scam­ming who?

For the most part, Bran­ni­gan’s doc­u­men­tary seems as slow to make any trou­bling con­nec­tions, too dizzied by the flit­ter of archive clips and con­tem­po­rary pop sound­track. The re­li­able Ea­monn McCann points out that Gadafy’s arms pro­longed the IRA’s cam­paign of vi­o­lence, though, “with­out any doubt”. The game can­not hope to match the sheer spec­ta­cle of Gadafy him­self, of course, ubiq­ui­tous in pro­pa­ganda and sin­is­ter in in­flu­ence, who en­ters the sta­dium on a white horse amid a hail of cel­e­bra­tory gun­fire. (There is noth­ing quite as amus­ing, nor as telling, as McCann’s com­par­isons of Gadafy to Haughey; two po­lit­i­cal cyn­ics, fond of high-qual­ity gar­ments.)

The fi­nal score was a 1-1 draw, mean­ing no one came out of the whole too well, or too dis­graced, to be vividly re­mem­bered.

Re­call­ing the be­lated delivery of the game fee, a suit­case stuffed with di­nar, Kerr is briefly dis­tracted by a match to­day with a cred­i­ble at­tempt on the goal: “What a save!” he says, “What a save.” Wasn’t it just?

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