There may be Trouble ahead

Television - Andrew Billen on how Northern Ireland became compulsive viewing

Almost alone among the posh press, this column has always been a supporter of Tonight with Trevor McDonald, a current affairs programme modelled on the pacily edited American news magazines such as CBS's celebrated 60 Minutes. In the US, these shows attract huge audiences; four, for instance, made it to the Nielsen top 30 in the last week in March. ITV's version has not had that level of success, but it is still Britain's most popular current affairs show, even though it has now been split into two half-hour programmes, each faint-heartedly scheduled against EastEnders on BBC1.

I am part of a generation brought up to believe that Tonight's predecessor World in Action represented the essence of ITV's public service, but nevertheless, it has at times been hard even for me to take this by turns portentous and trivial programme seriously. Sometimes the distinction between news and ITV's commercial interests - as in the case of Martin Bashir's interview with Michael Barrymore - has, indeed, been blurred. On the whole, however, critical unease has focused on the sensationalist, self-advertising grammar of the show, which is far too near Chris Morris's lethal parodies on Brass Eye for comfort. I remind myself that, in the days when World in Action actually made it into the Jictar top tens, in the Sixties, gimmickry was how it drew audiences in. One programme on defence spending was presented, for instance, as an edition of Beat the Clock.

I hope the makers of that programme would have admired the Tonight with Trevor McDonald Special on 14 April (10.45pm, ITV1). Its editor, David Mannion, actually found a way to turn the ultimate turn-offable subject, Northern Ireland, into compulsive viewing and, in doing so, temporarily revived the dying format of reality TV. This inspired rip-off of Big Brother (which is set to clog up Channel 4 for the next four summers) confined four Ulster Protestants and four Ulster Catholics together for five days in an adventure centre on the Isle of Man, and watched how they got on.

Their days were split into two. During daylight, the eight, who were aged between 25 and 42, would be sent out on long walks, told to build rafts, negotiate gorges and in general bond as a team and in pairs. Only if they co-operated, as McDonald's commentary insisted, would they achieve their tasks: "They have to learn to trust each other." After dusk, however, they were shown news footage of sectarian outrages as starting points for discussion. The psychologist who operated as moderator was quick to notice that, although the house guests sat at a round table, the Prods and Catholics nevertheless grouped together so that the table grew sides. Invariably, the interdenominational pairing that had survived the Manx weather fissured as the debates divided people in the old, familiar ways. Even the proposition that "everyone agrees murder is wrong" proved controversial.

The stars of the show quickly emerged as the overweight, dreadlocked Margo Fitzsimons, a 31-year-old care-worker and Catholic, and the slim, blonde Jackie McMillan, a 34-year-old nurse and loyalist. What they did not realise initially was that they both lived near the Holy Cross School in Belfast, the scene of recent protests. In fact, if Margo had known to look, as she walked her four-year-old niece to school each day, she would have seen Jackie jeering from the sideline. When they found out, things got heated - but not as heated as they would have done had they not by this time become rather good friends.

The case against this programme was that it was more like therapy than documentary, that it manipulated its subjects. (One Protestant, perhaps a viewer of Channel 5's series The Mole, even suspected that a particularly personable Catholic was a plant by the producers.) I got rather damp-eyed watching the scared-rigid Jackie trustingly lowered down a cliff by Margo on the last day, so you'd have to say that the programme manipulated its viewers, too.

The case for this was that it manipulated in a good cause, namely peace, reconciliation, understanding (this was, after all, Sunday night). McDonald said at the start that in his days reporting Northern Ireland - in the 1970s, ITN thought a black reporter would look neutral - he had often thought that "ordinary" people rarely did the one thing that might have brought them closer together: talk to one another. By the end of the week, a consensus did seem to have emerged: that mixed schools would help the process; that there was hope for a permanent end to violence; and that this very programme, if shown in schools, might make a difference. These thoughts were confided to Sir Trevor himself, who emerged like a deus ex machina to join them for their last meal together.

The programme was not McDonald's idea but, I am told, he did push for it to run as a 60-minute special and to be present on the last day of filming. Jackie and Margo are now local celebrities, giving newspaper interviews and appearing on This Morning. This month, they went on a shopping spree together in London. Let us hold back the hankies, however. Jackie's last word on Holy Cross was that she would still join the crowd of Protestant hecklers - it was just that next time she would pause to wave to Margo as she walked past.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the Times