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Shane on Screen: The mad, the bad and the sad of 2003 telly.

Byline: Shane Donaghey

THIS job must look like money for jam.

How hard can it be to sit down of a night in front of the telly and then write a few words about it?

This is fine when sitting watching some top dramas such as State of Play or Charles II: The Power and the Passion, or Ken Stott in the nearly unbearably grim Messiah.

Or failing that, BBCNI's Christine Bleakley.

But watching the box week in, week out, the first thing you notice is just how much bland, forgetable rubbish makes it on to the screen.

This seems particularly so on local telly.

There have been times watching our local output where I've been left gob-smacked at the lack of invention, and the sheer fear of trying something new.

Look at what is doled out - cheap rip-offs of BBC2 lifestyle programmes.

Ulster history programmes that suggest that life was better in the godawful 1950s.

And shows that are labelled comedy in the Radio Times but are as funny as an aeroplane crashing into an orphanage.

It's not that there aren't talented people working in CBBC (the Christine Bleakley Broadcasting Corporation). There are even a few who know what they are doing on Useless TV.

But you wouldn't know it from 90 per cent of what's on screen.

Looking back over Shane on Screen columns for the year, I've wasted so many hours watching garbage.

One day, St Peter will take a look at my entry in his ledger and burst out laughing.

"All you had to do was decide what to do with the time that was given to you (he'll probably look like Gandalf) and all you did was to watch all those episodes of Give My Head Peace?"

"Sorry. It was my job."

So here are the good, the bad and Miranda's baby from Sex and the City of 2003.

KELLY (Useless TV)

Gerry Kelly (the TV show, not the MLA) continues a chat show that's so old-fashioned it could have been broadcast as part of Marconi's early wireless experiments from Rathlin Island.

It was cut to an hour and brought forward to 8pm at the height of the chat show wars in the Republic between the Late Late Show and Dunphy.

The audience sound about as excited as if they've just heard that the ring at the door is the TV licence man.

Admittedly you can't have brilliant guests every week, but one every blue moon or so would be just the job.

Or even better, just dump it for good.

THE JOHN DALY SHOW (BBCNI)

THIS was also a casualty of the Friday night wars.

Some bonehead moved it to Monday night and a clash with the Frank Skinner Show.

It also moved upmarket - those idiotic games such as wife carrying were dumped for a straight chat show - and a great improvement. They've even replaced the bench they had people sitting on.

BRIAN KENNEDY: ON SONG (BBCNI)

YOU can't deny that Brian Kennedy has a great voice, but this was another in the endless series of heritage telly.

He would take a song, such as the Isle of Inisfree, tell us about it, and then sing it with that irritating constipated expression on his face.

Couple that with what looked like a cross between a tourist video - rushing streams, mountains - and the inserts in the Eurovision song contest, and you'd half an hour of sugar from the bastard son of Val Doonican.

Then Phil Coulter turned up. Alternative Ulster seems a long, long way away.

PATRICK KIELTY: ALMOST LIVE (BBCNI)

THE sad decline of Kielty from cutting edge comic to embarrassing Jimmy Tarbuck clone continued.

This show contained many of the elements mercilessly spoofed by the brilliant Larry Sanders show.

The most pathetic habit of the show were the attempts to paint Belfast as the meanest city on the planet - news to the residents of Kabul, Baghdad and Derry, I'd have thought.

Worse for Kielty, the series was sandwiched in between series of Friday night with Jonathan Ross.

The difference in quality was painful.

You felt sorry for show introducer Hendy.

MURPHY'S LAW (BBC)

JAMES Nesbitt continued to distance himself from Cold Feet with this series of an Ulster cop working in London.

There was an alarming dip in quality in the third episode - the part not written by its creator Colin Bateman - but Nesbitt's charm elevated it beyond the usual cop-on-the-edge stereotype.

And it's such a relief to hear a genuine Ulster accent.

END TO END (USELESS TV)

THE Gaelic Games discussion programme without any Gaelic games (the Beeb have the rights) turned up on schedule for what turned out to be a momentous year.

Presenter Adrian Logan also had to deal with having Frank Mitchell as a co-presenter.

Not once did Logie allow his being from Tyrone to colour his show.

Compare that with fellow Tyrone man Jerome Quinn on the BBC coverage, whose jingoistic rantings as God's own County won the All-Ireland recalled Jimmy Hill slabbering on about 1966.

Touchingly, Logie added a tribute to his late father on one show, all the more effective for being simple, to the point and mush-free.

He couldn't keep the pride from his face the night that he had the victorious Tyrone team on the show. But since I was still balling my eyes out from that win, it was forgivable.

Still, it's a show that works better with an audience as those editions from Armagh theatre and with the Tyrone team showed.

THE STORMONT ELECTION (UTV and BBC)

ELECTION day is the day when the telly likes to pull out all the stops.

Who's in, who's out, who's shaking it all about, there's a rush to be the first to tell us, and to tell us what it all means.

UTV gave the Beeb the equivalent of a punishment beating over the elections.

While Ormeau Avenue seemed convinced that this was the greatest scrap since Russell Crowe offered on the emperor in Gladiator, a more low-key keep-it-simple approach by Havelock House saw it win by a street.

It was the greatest upset since Rocky Balboa went the distance with Apollo Creed.

UTV even won the traditional fall-out with Paisley.

Noel Thompson kept Hearts and Minds, the Beeb's local political programme on the rails, despite suffering what must be his own personal Groundhog Day doing this show.

But all his good work was undone by its Christmas Special, a Have I Got News For You rip-off which only needed Phil Jupitus to make it officially the unfunniest programme in Ulster's sorry TV history.

Speaking of which...

GIVE MY HEAD PEACE (BBC1)

Yup, Ulster's answer to Last of the Summer Wine, turned up for its umpteenth series of flat farce and shouting working-class types.

There's not a lot left to be said about this programme, other than its obituary.

But that was before I saw the Memphis special. Elvis wept.

Then there was I Fought the Law. This is from the same writing team as

Give My Head Peace.

It was a brave attempt to do something different.

Some of the scripts went to very dark places indeed, which all good comedy should.

There's not much point screaming for something different and then whingeing when it arrives.

But over the course of six episodes a cast with even the smallest spark of chemistry between them would have been helped.

But there was as much chance of that as there is of David Trimble inviting Jeffrey Donaldson around for some simply British chips made by Daphne to see in the New Year.

The cast sounded like they'd been to the James Ellis school of Ulster accents.

Too often, the attempts at creating character-based comedy returned to the unfunny farce and face of GMHP.

And the whole affair looked like it had been filmed on a shoestring.

You must admire the courage of anyone who makes us want to laugh with, as opposed to at, lawyers.

Oh, despite some great Gaelic games coverage, and fine local rugby, a programme featuring Ulster soccer has yet to materialise, as is any regular programming from Useless TV that isn't news.

HOLY CROSS (BBC1)

NO doubt there were sleepless nights at the Beeb over this dramatisation of the Holy Cross Primary School stand off of 2001.

Zara Turner had her best role so far as the Catholic mum, and Bronagh Gallagher the Protestant mum, with fine support from Colum Convey and Patrick O'Kane.

Even-handed, perhaps, but much better than the establishment's response to it at the time.

CAPTION(S):

PEACE OFF: Hole in the Wall Gang returned for another series of Give My Head Peace; MALPRACTICE: Ulster's newest comedy series, I Fought the Law, was let down by a lack of cast chemistry; KELLY: Back for yet another series; CHRISTINE: Guaranteed to brighten any TV viewer's day
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The People (London, England)
Date:Dec 28, 2003
Words:1476
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