The thing I most regret having failed ever to ask brave, haunted, wise Sean O’Callaghan when I last saw him at a friend’s book launch was ‘So tell me about Shergar.’
It has long been known, of course, that the legendary racehorse — one of the five greatest in the last century, according to Lester Piggott who rode him to victory in the Irish Derby — was kidnapped in 1983 by the IRA and never seen thereafter. What I didn’t realise, till after O’Callaghan died last year, was that the ex-IRA man is the only insider ever to have gone on the record as to his fate.
Turns out that poor Shergar was executed within hours. According to O’Callaghan’s version, the horse panicked, fracturing a leg, and his captors, incapable of dealing with a highly strung thoroughbred, shot him to put him out of his misery. Another, anonymous version once relayed in the Sunday Telegraph has it that the kidnappers realised they were never going to get their £2 million ransom but couldn’t release the horse because the property of the IRA man in charge of the operation was under heavy surveillance. So they machine-gunned him: ‘There was lots of cussin’ and swearin’ because the horse wouldn’t die. It was a very bloody death.’
On Searching for Shergar (BBC2, Sun), filmmaker Alison Millar offered us few new leads and no body. But her moving documentary was none the worse for being melancholy, meandering, unresolved. I like the fact that at no stage did she tell us she was ‘going on a journey’, and that large chunks were dedicated to the process of coaxing out of Shergar’s now elderly vet with the help of feminine charm and copious alcohol a story he had vowed never to speak of again.
It gave the whole a ramshackle charm and eccentricity somehow appropriate to the milieu in which it was set. They really are mad for their horses, the Irish. And it may be why Millar had such trouble getting anyone to open up. Sure, the death of a horse has nothing on the many hundreds of people murdered by the IRA. Yet everyone in Ireland seems to feel that it’s a collective stain on their conscience: from the terrorists who botched the kidnapping, to the Gardai who made such a fist of the investigation, to the locals who still dare not talk for fear of reprisals.
We saw Shergar, with his white blaze in his capering, flying glory days ridden by baby-faced 19-year-old Walter Swinburn (also, sadly, no longer with us), winning the Epsom Derby so comfortably that the runner-up thought initially he’d won because Shergar had disappeared so far beyond his sight. Did such a lovely horse really have to come to such an ugly, sordid end?
Ed Balls has become the left’s Michael Portillo, reviled as a politician, now a game, well-loved, almost cuddly TV personality. I met him once on This Week and I was instantly struck by how easy, funny and genuinely likeable he was: as engaging in person as he was totally bloody awful as shadow chancellor. Happily it was the gentle man rather than the leftist bruiser who dominated Travels in Trumpland (BBC2, Sun).
One fatuous previewer I read in the papers grumbled that he hadn’t challenged Trumpism enough. Tosh. Every location he visited — a redneck monster truck rally, a military veterans turkey shoot retreat, Ice agents in Atlanta deporting illegals, a wrestling match where he gamely stretched a Union flag leotard over his big belly briefly to reprise his role as the Englishman you most hate — Balls dutifully trotted out the same predictable leftist take on Trump: ‘divisive’, ‘rhetoric’, ‘racist’.
I’m sure he believes this cant, as will a proportion of his viewers, but the evidence refused to back it up. At the monster truck rally a black Southerner resisted several opportunities to grumble about the Confederate flag, denying that it was racist and admitting he’d voted Trump. A Mexican ‘wetback’ immigrant — she’d swum the Rio Grande aged 17 and was now a proud, middle-aged American — said she fully supported President Trump and his policy on illegals. The Ice agents were polite and professional, explaining patiently that the nice Afghan father of two they were about to deport had done himself no favours by being a drug dealer.
And to his credit Balls listened — and understood. I’m sure he hadn’t meant to make a documentary cheerleading for the joys of Trump’s America but that, more or less, is what he has given us. Presumably this is why, to protect us from wrongthink, the producers put a screed at the end telling us how many thousands of cute immigrant children had been separated from their parents as part of evil Trump’s harsh new policies. No mention of the fact that it was at least as bad under Obama, but that’s OK: the great thing was that the BBC hive mind had clearly been discombobulated. Nice one, Ed!