Kicking out Mother Teresa (Or: The TV Guide to Sows’ Ears and Silk Purses)

Posted: April 12, 2011 in Media & Journalism, Northern Ireland

BBC Northern Ireland broadcast a programme just recently called Mother Teresa: 123 Springhill Avenue (11 April) to mark the 40th Anniversary of Mother Teresa’s brief sojourn among the beleaguered community of Ballymurphy, Belfast.

Now here’s the thing: this was news to me so I thought I’d have a look and find out more. How did she get on there? What kind of impact did she make on a community in crisis? How did she cope with the accents? Did she meet the Provos? If so, how did she get on with them? And was she raided by the Brits?

Alas, I was sorely disappointed because this wasn’t so much history as speculation and thus a wasted opportunity to explore a small but remarkable episode in Northern Ireland’s “Troubles”.

Kicking out Mother Teresa

The programme sets out instead to investigate why Mother Teresa and her small community of 4 sisters departed so suddenly from Ballymurphy after a stay of only 18 months. Was it her own decision? Or was the conspiracy theory in fact true? Was she kicked out by the Catholic Church?

Cue a procession of eyewitnesses to suggest she must have been kicked out but not by the people because she was much loved and did so much good work. She brought loaves and fishes and fed the hungry multitudes. Who would do such a thing behind the people’s back?

Cue pantomime villain to point the finger at – parish priest, Canon Murphy – who, we’re told, didn’t appreciate foreign missionaries coming over here and telling us about God. That was Ireland’s job so get lost! That kind of attitude. Apparently, though, no one in the programme had any hard evidence he ever thought or said that.

In the absence of evidence, the very basis of good history and journalism, cue lots of reading between the lines: who said what and what did it really mean. Could it actually mean what the programme desperately wanted it to mean? Could the wicked Canon Murphy have bullied the saintly nun and her sisters until they had no choice but to leave? Constructive dismissal, as someone suggested?

Of course, they had to bring the Provos into the conspiracy as well with speculation that they may have used the ensuing outcry to start a riot in the area and lure the British Army into an ambush; if Mother Teresa hadn’t intervened there would have been a “bloodbath”. The basis for this story?  It was something a wee man heard from an ex-British soldier.

The programme keeps us on the hook with these parallel lines of inquiry until it finally produces the first of two rabbits from the hat. There’s a letter! Somebody found a letter that Mother Teresa wrote to the Bishop but which she thought better of and didn’t send. Or maybe it was a copy? Maybe she did send it? What was in it? The person who found the letter couldn’t remember after all these years exactly what it said but she was sure it referred to something horrible the Bishop said to Mother Teresa in previous correspondence. Now where did she put that letter? Unfortunately, she had no clue where it was.

But wait for the second rabbit! There’s a wee woman that knows and her name is Bridgid, the only local laywoman to have the ear of Mother Teresa and thus the only person left alive (Canon Murphy has since passed away) who could finally shed light on the mystery after all these years. Wee Bridgid, bless her, seemed delighted to appear on the programme and, smiling serenely, told us all that it was a secret and she promised Mother Teresa she would take it to the grave! Priceless!

So what did the programme conclude after all this investigation and drama? Nothing. And yet, with its montage of remarkable news, documentary and home movie footage, and its local eyewitnesses who still remembered Mother Teresa’s short stay, it could have dropped the conspiracy theory and told us a simple story about a small band of missionary nuns who came to war-torn Ballymurphy and made a difference to a community of people who up until then were treated as third-class citizens.

But in TV Land, even locally in Northern Ireland, simple stories are risky. Even current affairs, which is being squeezed from the schedules, has to be dramatic and suspenseful and if a producer can throw in a bit of conspiracy, like a car dealer throws you in a free set of floor mats, then even better.

The TV guide to sows’ ears and silk purses

So look out for the next TV conspiracy: why Rory McIlroy’s game collapsed in the final round of the US Masters. A simple, human story of the cruelty of sport? I don’t think so! Give me speculation!  Give me rumour! Give me conspiracy! Do you see these TV awards on my desk? I want more! Find that smoking 9 iron!

So here’s the pitch. The world watches in horror as Rory McIlroy throws away a commanding lead in the US Masters. How could this happen?  Is it true that McIlroy took a call on his mobile minutes before teeing off for the final round? If so, who was it and what did they say to him? Was it the mob scaring him off because they had all their money on Tiger Woods (Sopranos music)? Or maybe an old school bully who rang him up just to upset him for the laugh (Psycho music)? Or maybe it was dodgy gear? Lots of scientists in white coats messing about in labs with Rory’s golf clubs, accessories and shoes (Wonders of the Universe music).

Throw into the mix some interviews with sports psychologists with beards and sports psychologists without beards who say “maybe” and “possibly” a lot; a sprinkle of fellow professionals who can’t really say very much other than a sympathetic word; yet more interviews with people who were there but are not sure what happened to him; and, crucially, spice it up with local celebs who were not there so have no clue what happened Rory but who knew him slightly from years ago when they used to tee off at his home golf club and saw his fragility a mile off. And of course lots of slow-mo shots of Rory in despair, scored with Nessun Dorma, theme tune for TV coverage of Italia ’90 World Cup.

Anything will do – any rumour, any theory, any possibility – but just don’t tell the viewer the simple truth; that Rory’s human and simply had a bad final round because if that was the story then there’d be no real point making the programme in the first place, would there? The audience would never buy it.

I’ll offer some thoughts about this kind of programming in my next post.

  1. Gerard stratton says:

    Hi there, I directed the Mother Teresa Film and was very interested in your take on the documentary. I am particularly interested in your reasons for interpreting this film as a piece of investigative journalism when it is clearly not. Perhaps you have some questions you want answered about the film? I am very happy to answer any queries.

  2. Hello Gerard – sorry for the long delay in replying but I’ve been working towards completion of a very late book!

    I’m sorry if I worked on the wrong assumption in my critique of your programme. As I said in the post, the premise of the programme as described in the advanced publicity certainly intrigued me and it was a moment in the history of ‘The Troubles’ that was new to me. At its centre was a mystery which you set out to solve – i.e. why did Mother Teresa and her sisters leave so suddenly? – by following up on leads, looking for evidence and interviewing people who were there. So you certainly deployed elements and techniques of journalism. But if as you say it wasn’t supposed to be journalism, I’d be interested to know how would you define it?

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