If you haven't watched the previous instalments of RTE cop drama Single Handed, I'll fill you in. Jack Driscoll (Owen McDonnell) returns to the west of Ireland to be a local guard, after spending years in Dublin where he got 'notions' (corruption is bad; sleeping with ladies is fun; this isn't coffee!; of course little Johnny has to go to private school; drink driving laws are enforceable). This makes him moody, broody, and troubled (aka sulky, touchy and rude) and he spends his time having steamy affairs with ladies, solving an improbable epidemic of violent crime, and worrying that he's becoming like his cop father, who was in the midst of a big tribunal because of his hobby: police brutality.
Single Handed 1 and 2 had a lot of potential with some excellent cinematography, quality acting and a cool premise (the corrupt daddy really gave it some edge). But once you acclimatise to the nice camera work and talented performers, and remove the backdrop of police corruption, intimidation and daddy issues (all resolved in Single Handed 2), all that remains is a big sulky Christopher Eccleston lookalike and an inconsequential plot. A young man drowns; Jack's ex-girlfriend (Marcella Plunkett) visits; Jack broods; it turns out she's an undercover cop involved in a drug-smuggling investigation; Jack broods; Jack's case is connected to her case; Jack broods; a creepy inspector (Michael McElhatton) comes down from Dublin to take Jack off the case; Jack stomps and sulks around the place; the investigation is stalled by a cop who is in cahoots with the bad guys for some badly explained reasons; Jack saves the day by being a tattle-tale; the goodies catch some baddies; the traitor cop shoots himself (or did he?); Jack broods.
Anyway, this is all puffed up with a melodramatic "I-can't-believe-it's-not-drama" form of drama in which people glare at one another, shout, are unhelpfully abrasive for no reason, and give each other symbolic bullets (the inspector carries around the bullet that once killed his partner, as you do) without ever appearing like real people who exist outside of the plot.
So what are we left with? Well, there's the scenery. Now, in the past I've waxed lyrical about how the beautiful, windswept landscape in Single Handed was almost like another character, but I've had a bit more time to think about this and realise that it's a stupid observation. Because if the scenery was a character, it'd be a pretty one with only one character trait: windiness (and Jack Driscoll already embodies this). So the landscape is, in fact, just some great-looking landscape, and Single Handed contains so much footage of Jack steering his jeep through it, that sometimes it felt like they should just cut out all the drama entirely and rename the show 'A Lovely Drive'.
If so, the makers of Secrets of the Stones will see that jeep and raise you... a HELICOPTER! Because this documentary is made by people who really want to make history seem cool to the youngsters with their Wiis and their sexing and their crack cocaine. What's it about? Who knows? Initially there were so many kerrrazy camera angles and futuristic electronic sounds and images on display, I thought it was an episode of CSI.
But hold on, the throaty narrator is talking: "Years ago, the people of Ireland set out to construct something that never existed before. By carefully selecting lifting and grouping stones, they built sacred sites."
Finally! A programme about the Financial Services Centre!
Well, actually Secrets of the Stones tells the story of the first Irish people, who, 7,000 years ago, built all the passage graves dotted around the country (500 years before the Egyptians got the finger out) in what was arguably Ireland's first property bubble. And it's an interesting tale, because Ireland has way more Neolithic ruins than most of our European neighbours, partly because up until 20 years ago there was no progress on this edge of the Atlantic (the president lived in Newgrange until 1989) and partly because, as the televised experts maintain, Ireland was very much at the centre of the European scene back in Neolithic times.
Anyway, over the course of the programme, 'state-of-the-art technology' (geomatic imaging, tree-trunk analysis, computer graphics and a hot-air balloon), along with the good-old-fashioned book-learning of several archaeologists, slowly formed into a theory of why our ancestors stopped building passage graves: A great catastrophe, probably an environmental disaster caused by a comet (but possibly the implosion of the sub-prime passage-grave market) turned our ancestors from earth worshippers (who built passage graves) to sky worshippers (who built structures like Stonehenge). All this over a horrendous period in which they probably had many emergency budgets and had to listen to Throg McWilliams saying "I told you so" (Throg inscribed an encrypted obelisk called 'The Head Druid's Children').
So, Secret of the Stones was, surprisingly, a right ripping yarn and I look forward to the second part (to be aired on the May bank holiday weekend) – despite the programme makers' obsessive worry that a child might be on the internet rather than learning history.
You can't blame them, though. Thanks to time-travelling sci-fi programmes like Doctor Who, which depict the past with more robots and explosions than there probably really were, historical reality might bore young people senseless. "They got those rocks from Scotland!" isn't going to cut it when you've got Doctor Who fighting 19th-century aliens with a rock on the other station. Yet, when the doctor returned for a one-off special last weekend, with producer Russell T Davies still at the helm and the charming David Tennant still in the leading role, it felt like there was something missing. Tennant was great, the script was tight, but it just felt like it was time for Davies to move on. Which he is going to do – there are three more Davies-produced specials to go before new producer Stephen Moffat takes the reins.
Of course, Davies should be applauded for successfully re-launching the character and producing some absolutely amazing television programmes in the process. A feat that the creators of sci-fi sitcom Red Dwarf might be hoping to repeat with their characters, who returned last week for three special and bizarrely self-conscious episodes, after an absence of almost a decade. In these episodes, Dave Lister (Craig Charles), the last human in the universe, along with Rimmer the hologram, Cat the cat creature, and Kryten the robot, arrived in a version of 21st century England in which people watch a programme called Red Dwarf about their adventures. Part one limped along as a kind of high-concept sci-fi story with knob jokes, but as fans of the original will tell you, Red Dwarf always managed to transcend the daft humour and creaky sets with a strange existentialist point of view and some weary everyman acting from Craig Charles.
So as the story went along, I found myself laughing in spite of myself. Especially at the bit where Lister made Rimmer repeatedly thrust his crotch into the corner of a table (I'm a simple man).