In recent years there’s been a fashion for arts documentaries presented by celebs rather than boring old experts — presumably on the grounds that knowledge and insight are no match for vague enthusiasm and a touch of showbiz glamour. (In a particularly gruesome episode of ITV’s Perspectives, Pop Idol winner Will Young established his credentials for discussing the life and works of René Magritte with the words, ‘I’ve been collecting bowler hats for 12 years now.’) Even so, one channel you might have expected to hold out against such frivolity is BBC4, the natural home of resolutely untelegenic academics telling us stuff they really know about.
But then on Sunday came Bob Geldof on W.B. Yeats: A Fanatic Heart, a title that may well have filled the channel’s hardcore fans with dismay. Fortunately, it soon turned out that they needn’t have worried — because this was a hugely engaging, informative and thoughtful piece of television. Given Geldof’s history, it probably can’t be called the best thing he’s ever done. Nonetheless, it was certainly the best literary documentary I’ve seen for a very long time.
His central argument was that modern Ireland has been created not by the Easter Rising, but by a strange poet who believed in fairies, banshees and possibly even the Protestant ascendancy. Geldof, in fact, claimed to be ‘conflicted’ about the events of Easter 1916. Yet, as conflicts go, this didn’t feel a notably fierce one. Standing in the Dublin GPO, he unambiguously declared that ‘the glorification of what happened here stained my people’s history and blood for decades’ — and that far from being Ireland’s ‘Bethlehem’, the building represents ‘the original sin of a mismanaged, misgoverned and often abusive and corrupt state’. Only with the collapse of the Catholic Church’s power, and the consequent development of a more ‘plural, generous’ society, has Yeats’s desire to ‘sing Ireland into being’ been fully realised at last.
But this neatly argued theoretical framework was only one of the many riches the programme offered.