To open: Is Shane McGowan corny? Yeah, and maybe his music at the top tells the whole story in too much of an instant. It did start to grate after a few minutes.
Joseph O’Connor is a fine essayist, and his purposeful-interview delivery in this programme is much less affected than when he usually appears on the radio.
A narrator pops up out of nowhere, in true Falling Tree fashion. It’s not the English women to which we are accustomed, but rather a coarse northern Irish voice. This makes good sense, really, though it’s a jolt when O’Connor’s letters are voiced-over.
Hammersmith sets the background, the 1980s context, and overall the programme skirts round the 21st Century, with O’Connor suggesting in passing that his family spends a fair bit of time here. Even the Celtic Tiger is ignored. Yes you can see Irish faces in Hammersmith still, but the Sainsbury’s no longer sell Wexford Cheddar or black pudding (well, they do sell big flat packaged English stuff, but nothing you’d eat).
Then Connor tells the English what they’re like, and my head starts to swim with different perspectives. The result is oddly old-school RTÉ.
Eight minutes in we hear mention of the Royal family, the ostensible newsey context for the programme. They let that historian yak on a bit, just sounding like a blur of an Irish person who speaks too much (ahem). That seen to, we’re free to get on with the feature.
The intercutting of O’Connor’s weird reading style with the actor, I’m afraid, doesn’t work. He writes, to steal a phrase from Seamus Heaney, in memorable voice, and the actor is less engaging. But O’Connor’s voice does fill up most of the rest of the programme, so something had to be done. This just wasn’t the best thing that could be done, I fear.
And I’ll add another level of context on that point – I’ve heard O’Connor maybe a dozen times deliver radio essays, and I know it enough to appreciate it. From that standpoint, the actor was a flop.
That Paul Brady song, about being assumed a terrorist. Well. Something I’ve felt but only internalised, not actually based on reality. It’s a song from the past. It just hasn’t been like that for the 12 years since I moved to London.
And then, we skip back yet further, to the Abbey theatre in Dublin.
Which we follow up with Joe O’Connor claiming the Sex Pistols. Take that, 700 years of colonisation! And so, God Saving the Queen, we shoe-horn in the droning historian and the Queen’s visit, and the second letter. The writing was stronger this time round, though the humour was again watered down through the actor’s voice. And such lovely sentiments, acknowledging just how intimately close the Irish and British are. The Venn diagram image too, is after my own heart. And that’s a great heart-warming note for the programme to end on.
Indeed, the whole subject is so definitive for me that I’m stumped as to how to rate it as a radio programme!