Television Critic, Patrick Freyne – Fintan’s Food For Thought

The Restaurant, Sunday, RTE 1; The Prisoner, Saturday, ITV; Tonight with Craig Doyle, Saturday, RTE 1; Fame: the Musical, Sunday, RTE 1
Fintan O’Toole on ‘The Restaurant’

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Fintan O’Toole is a critic of unfettered capitalism and the elites who have pillaged the public purse. He’s a man I like to imagine whiling away his private time sadly humming the Internationale over a bowl of lettuce and Chef sauce. It was disconcerting to my sense of cliché to see him as a guest on RTE’s The Restaurant, boiling lobsters and waxing lyrical about quails’ eggs, veal kidneys and venison (seriously). Apart from the sheer Sean FitzPatrick-like opulence of the meal he chose to prepare (for that is the challenge set in each episode of The Restaurant), there was also his striking use of distinctly right-wing food groups. Veal kidneys? He might as well have broiled a panda cub and garnished it with dolphin tears. As for the lobster, I’ll let Fintan’s own chilling words speak for themselves: “They don’t have big soft eyes,” he said. “So we don’t have a conscience about what we’re going to do with them”. (Is anyone else a bit frightened of Fintan now?).

Yet it wasn’t all a Marie Antoinette-style romp through the culinary pleasure gardens. Unashamed as he is of book-learning, Fintan was able to reference the diets of hunter gatherers and the recipes of Mrs Beeton as he prepared his meal; he had a good balance of creativity and realism in his approach to cooking, and a warm and easy relationship with the regular kitchen staff/cast. Furthermore, the assembled diners and judges (Tom Doorley, Paolo Tullio and Clodagh McKenna) loved his food even before they figured out who he was (the judges both critique the food and try to guess the identity of the cook).

Unfortunately, from my paranoid corner of the tele-sphere I saw something more sinister – a rebalancing of the natural order. Ideologues often have desires that are in conflict with their politics and the Irish have always had a deep psychological need for an undeserving aristocracy eating quails’ eggs and riding us like donkeys. First we had the British. Then we had the clergy. Then we had the “wealth makers”. And now, with Sean FitzPatrick on holidays and David Drumm in Cape Cod, it appears we have Fintan O’Toole. This episode of The Restaurant ended with a gout-ridden Fintan donning a powdered wig, frock coat and britches, chasing a chamber maid around the parlour and shouting “home rule bedamned!” (Okay, he didn’t really. He seems like a very decent man – but seriously, quails’ eggs?)

In fact, O’Toole was one of the few pundits who sensed something was rotten in Ireland long before Nama checked the price of everything and found it was valued at nothing. For such pundits in the Celtic Tiger years, life was much like Jim Caviezel’s in the US remake of cult 1960s programme The Prisoner. Caviezel, aka Number 6, knows that the seemingly utopian Village in which he has supposedly lived his whole life is built on a lie. However, the powers-that-be don’t appreciate him telling it like it is.

“The problem is in your mind,” said Number 2, played by Ian McKellan, who insists that everything is just fine, and feels that Number 6 should stop complaining lest he talk down the market.

Then there was an explosion and, as in the original, a big white ball chased Number 6 around on some sand (for some unexplained reason the baddies are reluctant to do anything straightforward like just killing him with a gun or a large brick).

“I’m not a number! I’m a free man!” Number 6 shouted through the gates of Number 2’s house.

“Ah, you should just go commit suicide,” said Number 2. Although now that I think of it, those words were actually spoken by former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern to naysaying critics of Ireland Inc (“I’m not a consumer! I’m a citizen!” they were shouting at the time). Of course, the similarities are no coincidence; Bertie Ahern was also a bit of a Number 2.

All in all, The Prisoner is another by-numbers, paranoid, weird-fest filled with empty symbolism. It’s more reminiscent of spiritually empty, jump-cutting plot-vacuums like Lost, than the genuinely eerie, slow-moving and odd programme it’s attempting to remake. While the original was shot in the strange Welsh resort village of Portmeirion, and was filled with quirkily-dressed characters intent on being icily polite to one another, the new one is set in a modern housing complex on a vast empty wasteland (the Village is a ghost estate?), is overlooked by two massive glass towers (meant to conjure up memories of the World Trade Centre, I suspect), is peopled by a cast dressed by The Gap, and features a sweaty American who likes to alternate his brooding with a bit of yelling.

Latoya Jackson is an American who doesn’t yell. She whispers. And she doesn’t sweat (presumably because they removed her sweat glands at the same time as they removed her original nose), she giggles softly. She was the first guest on Tonight with Craig Doyle and she fondly recalled her brother Michael and then vaguely accused shadowy figures of murdering him. Like Number 6 in The Prisoner, nobody believed her. She may as well have stood up and shouted “I’m not a number! I’m a free woman!” as Craig swept over her crazy allegations with the large white ball of his sub-Parky charm.

Latoya Jackson is a number. She’s the 356,295th most famous person in the world. In celebrity terms she is Number 356,295. On Tonight with Craig Doyle she was being interviewed by the 4,786,456th most famous person (‘Tonight with 4,786,456’ didn’t have the right ring to it). So even when shows like this have proper stars – and I’ll grant that Victoria Smurfit and Louis Walsh are proper stars – that victory feels hollow. The people just aren’t buying the celebrity chat-show anymore. Celebrity is as devalued as house ownership. Perhaps the government should set up a Nama for celebrities? They could sweep in, buy up all the B-listers at a discount, and hold tight until the market bounces back (arguably the state-subsidised RTE canteen already is a sort of Nama for celebrities). Or maybe what we need is a “good bank” for famous people of worth, and we should let all the others go to the wall. With a bit of cleaning out, The Late Late Show could be turned into that good bank and then we could spend Saturday night reading or engaged in stimulating conversation with a loved one.

The proof that the market is swamped came on Fame: the Musical, when it was revealed that while Irish emigrants once went to London to dig roads and work as chambermaids, nowadays they usually try breaking into musical theatre. This was why, in their search for stars for a Dublin-based version of Fame, judges Simon Delaney, Jacinta White and Robert C Kelly went to London first and then Cork and Dublin. Delaney was funny and sweet. White was tough. Kelly was mean. Most of the people auditioning were hard-working showbiz types, so there wasn’t as much freak-pointing as one finds on Simon Cowell’s talent shows. Overall, though, I’ve seen this format so many times before that I did, at one point, drop to my knees and shout, “I’m not a number! I’m a free man!”

pfreyne@tribune.ie

April 18, 2010