Irish shows dig beneath the shamrocks

One of the things television can do very well - better than any other medium - is open a window on another culture.

TV can set us awash in documentaries, movies, news, and comedies, the variety of which we could not hope to experience even at a film festival.

And, starting today, BBC America presents two weeks of terrific Irish programming, with documentaries (including an interview with author Frank McCourt), feature films, and sitcoms that show Ireland as much more than a land of shamrocks, leprechauns, and "Lord of the Dance."

After all, Ireland produced two of the greatest writers of the 20th century, James Joyce and W.B. Yeats.

The highly lauded comic drama series Ballykissangel (meaning Town of the Banished Angel) has found a unique voice - gentle, kind, and wise. The show's appeal lies in its realistic depiction of decent souls who fuss and bother, as neighbors do, but who care for each other. The PAX TV show "Hope Island" is based on it.

" 'Ballykissangel' is the best example of Irish television - and has had the most passionate reception," says Paul Lee, BBC America's chief operating officer.

"British TV tends to be less emotional than American TV. In British comedies and dramas, everyone tends to be very dysfunctional. Whereas the best American comedies and dramas tend to come from a loving family.

"I think one reason 'Ballykissangel' has been so popular in England and resonates in America is that [writer-creator] Kieran Prendiville said, 'I'm going to create a really loving community here.' He wasn't going to throw away the wonderful irony he's known for, but he created a warmth American and British audiences take to heart - without being sentimental. There's no artificiality about it."

"I wanted to explore the collision of people's perception of modern-Irish rural life, and the reality," says Mr. Prendiville in a recent telephone interview from London. There are two "received views" of Ireland, he says: the patronizing, cute leprechaun view and the damaging perception of the "troubles" in Northern Ireland.

"Modern rural Ireland is a long way from either," he says.

Prendiville worries about slipping into a sentimental view of Ireland, but for the most part "Ballykissangel" (which has had other writers as well) has managed to keep its wry humor and realism. "I wanted to entertain you and be truthful," he says. "If it isn't truthful, it is pointless."

Father Ted is a sitcom about three priests, one affable and sane, one dimwitted and irreligious, and the other senile and alcoholic.

They live on a remote island off the coast of Ireland with a cheerful, elderly housekeeper. Father Ted (played by the late stand-up comedian Dermot Morgan) spends his time keeping the other two out of trouble. It's a bizarre, sometimes irreverent look at clerics - but with a heart.

"Father Ted" exaggerates and satirizes clichs about Irish Catholics, but sympathizes with the sorely tried Ted. The show was a hit in Ireland, according to BBC America's Mr. Lee.

"The truth is, there is a deep Irish vein running right through the BBC," Lee says. "Irish humor dominates a lot of English TV." While "Father Ted" may be a bit broad for some Americans, the touching BBC movie All Things Bright and Beautiful speaks of the universal condition of childhood even as it zeroes in on the cultural particularities of one child's 1950s Irish experience.

A boy innocently has a "vision" which is eagerly accepted by his slightly unbalanced curate, though his parents know better. Wishful thinking and reality clash, but the poignant tale speaks as much about a child's goodness as it does about adult expectations. Tom Wilkinson ("Shakespeare in Love") stars with Gabriel Byrne.

The Precious Blood, a BBC movie, is what Mr. Lee calls "Ireland at its most scary." He didn't want to avoid dealing with "the troubles" in Northern Ireland, so he included this moving tale about a widow whose husband was killed by the IRA - she thinks.

When she finds out differently, the repercussions are devastating. The film shows the conflict between Catholics and Protestants and its cost in human terms. "You don't see this side of things on the news," he says.

Two wonderful travelogues, Wogan's Island and the amusing Floyd in Ireland, give us very intimate, personal views of the country. Rhythms of the World is one of the classiest, brightest pieces ever on music. It is well-made and involving, and helps one understand music and musicians everywhere - especially in Ireland.

One Irish Rover is a special tribute to Van Morrison. And finally, Guinnessty tells the tragic story of the family Guinness over the past 100 years - the wealthy Irish brewing family that has more than a little in common with the American Kennedy clan.

All these films remind us how similar we all are - and yet, too, how distinctive our cultural expressions can be.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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