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13 March 2017 Edition

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TV’s Toffs and Thieves

• 'Poor' Elizabeth from Netflix mini-series 'The Crown' and Irish republican rebel 'Tom Branson' in Downton Abbey took to a life of luxury

Staunch armchair republican philosophers like myself have been absorbed by some of these programmes

SO WHAT DID YOU WATCH on TV this week? A little sport? Some soaps? Maybe a little indulgent Netflix bingeing? In the Ireland of 2017, adults watch on average 3 hours 21 minutes of live television daily, according to TAM Ireland research. When you add in watching on a smartphone, PC, laptop or tablet, the viewing time grows even higher.

What were the chances you were watching some ‘Toff TV’? Pretty high, I think.

‘Toff what?’ you ask, puzzledly. For many of us this is one of our guilty viewing pleasures, whether it is Downton Abbey or The Crown on Netflix. Even Game of Thrones counts!

Toff TV is programming about the wealthy, so-called ‘aristocratic’ elites. It is usually very white TV, dealing with the woes and traumas of the idle and scheming rich. 

Staunch armchair republican philosophers like myself have been absorbed by some of these programmes. And, yes, I was appalled when the Irish republican rebel on Downton Abbey, Tom Branson, decides to spurn the Tan War (aka War of Independence) for a life of luxury as estate manager. 

I watched the Netflix mini-series The Crown, with the precise amount of republican sneering indignation that conveyed to my co-viewers in undisguised tones the empty vanity of the British royal family. I was often asked to shut up and told: “You don’t understand how difficult it was for poor Elizabeth.” Poor?!!!

In fairness, the series does show an endless amount of plotting and palace intrigue, highlighting the rotten, pointless institution that any monarchy is. There is one episode where Elizabeth visits the North of Ireland and is entertained by an Orange loyalist band. This and other trips to Africa and Australia give vivid insight into the depth of colonial racism in 1950s Britain.

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• Should Robb Stark have declared a People’s Republic of Winterfell?

Game of Thrones is a Toff TV extravaganza. The poor, common citizens are there solely to be tortured, skewered, and hung (and usually all three). They don’t get much dialogue other than to say “No, my lord” or “Yes, my Lord”. I have wondered why Robb Stark didn’t eventually realise the futility of fighting for the Iron Throne and declare a People’s Republic of Winterfell. The people of Westeros would have flocked to his banner.

Increasingly absent from TV today is a working-class voice, an Everyman perspective of the world we live in. 

When you compare the TV of the 1980s or 1990s with today we should ask where is this generation’s Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, which told the story of a group of British workers, redundant in Thatcher’s Britain, who go to Germany for work. 

There were other great shows like Alan Bleasdale’s Boys from the Blackstuff (BBC1) and Phil Redmond’s early Brookside (C4), with Ricky Tomlinson as a staunch socialist and trade union activist with storylines involving factory occupations and strikes. All have disappeared from our screens, replaced by parody dramas such as Shameless, crime and cop shows or comedies.

When the economically marginalised and the ordinary workers do appear on our screens it is as often as thieves or singing for transitory fame and fortune in an endless series of cloned ‘reality’ TV game shows. 

Is it just me that finds it strange that, in a state where there is a huge housing problem and growing homelessness, one of the peak RTÉ TV Sunday night shows is Room to Improve – a programme about making your house bigger?

It is not that all these shows don’t have a place on TV today; the question is what are we missing? 

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•  Ken Loach and scenes from 'I, Daniel Blake' and 'Cathy, Come Home' – reality spanning the decades

Love Hate was great TV but where is the TV drama about life on a zero hour contract, or living in Ireland’s high-rent, low-quality-of-life commuter belts? 

There is some great working-class themed programming still on TV today but it is the exception and often this work only gets onto TV as comedy such as Gavin & Stacey or the now-dated The Royle Family. Compare this to the inanity of Goggle Box (TV viewers viewing a TV programme showing other TV viewers viewing what the viewer has probably already been viewing).

Perhaps the best example of the contrast in TV over the past 50 years is to look at the work of Ken Loach. His 2016 Palme D’Or winner I, Daniel Blake got a limited cinema release. In the 1960s, Loach was a stalwart of TV drama, his seminal Cathy, Come Home, a BBC film about homelessness, stands out as a classic. There is no Ken Loach on TV now that I can see.

There are perhaps too many kings and queens and superheroes dominating our living rooms. We need fewer Lannisters and a lot more Loaches on TV today.

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