Uncivil engineering

Uncivil engineering

TV review: Patrick Kielty’s Mulholland Drive, BBC Four

Asked to nominate a presenter for a documentary on how Los Angeles manages to have enough water despite an annual rainfall below 15 inches, not many would plump for Patrick Kielty. But the Northern Irishman has water in his blood.

It’s not so much a medical affliction as a familial occupation: his great-grandfather built dams and his father worked for the water service. He’s therefore fully engaged with the topic of Patrick Kielty’s Mulholland Drive (BBC Four, Wednesday 10pm, iPlayer until 18 October), has some nice lines and is so clearly indebted to the Billy Connolly modus operandi of enthusing to camera that he imitates the Big Yin within the first minute after the title card, the better to get it out of the way.

Furthermore, it was a compatriot who hydrated Hollywood. Kielty proudly marvels over Belfast-born William Mulholland’s achievement in diverting water 233 miles south from the Owens Valley to LA, culminating in the money shot of the entirely unnecessary but eyeball-pleasing Cascades tumbling attractively down the slopes of the Sierra Nevada in full view of the nearby freeway.


Photo: Library of Congress

Then comes the second-reel peril demanded by any modern documentary. Turns out the aqueduct wasn’t enough, the city growing too fast for its thirst to be slaked. The city fathers — one somehow doubts any mothers were involved — bought upstate land to literally suck it dry: emptying the lake, drilling down to the water table, hoovering up the agua and squirting it down to Tinseltown.

Seeking another side of the story, Kielty visits a former lakeside village turned deserted desert hamlet. But first we must spend a little too much time treading water — not a privilege afforded to all, evidently — and waiting for Kielty to interview someone.

First we drive round the one-thirsty-horse town with him as he nervously awaits execution by parched parochials, eventually talking to a sun-dried local who doesn’t look a day over 150.

Then he drives us up-valley to a bigger place — two thirsty horses and a panting pony — and we sit in a bar while our boy fails to engage the locals in chat about their hijacked H2O. Beers disappear under turned-down stetsons and baseball caps, but nobody’s talkin’.

Eventually the barman takes pity on Pat and throws him a (dry) bone — at which point we get to watch Kielty playing pool and re-explaining what he’s already told us in voiceover and we’ve just seen in the previous scene. After the shooting comes the cutting, and either the roving crew didn’t get enough footage or the folks in the edit suite weren’t brutal enough. Either way, we don’t get much more from either town than we’d already gleaned from the now-typical three-minute prologue before the titles. Not uncommonly for BBC Four, this is a half-hour show crammed into 50-odd minutes.

Having heard the coughed-up curses of the feather-spitting locals, Kielty is confused and conflicted as to what represents the greater good: a Benthamite bent out of shape. He flees back to lush LA to get that BBC balance by interviewing Mulholland’s great-granddaughter. Oddly enough she’s all in favour of her forebear, although it’s hard to concentrate on what she’s saying when she has lipstick on her front teeth, two pairs of sunglasses on the table and enormous blue frog earrings that swing wildly about as she makes her points with loyal enthusiasm.

That enthusiasm isn’t affected by the crucial fault which led to a dam failure causing hundreds of deaths. In other words, it’s undimmed by the undammed. The same can’t be said for our leading man.

More emotional than intellectual, Kielty clearly struggles to come to terms with some of the issues raised, which makes him a better human than he is a documentarist. He admits he wants a Hollywood ending, but this is more of a low-rent Greek myth about hubris and inexperience.

At least Kielty gets the maudlin tinkling piano and mournful cello as he delivers his closing soliloquy. By the end, the water in his blood is almost coming out of his eyes.

Originally broadcast in 2016, Patrick Kielty’s Mulholland Drive was repeated on BBC Four at 10pm on Wednesday 19 September. It will therefore be on iPlayer until 18 October.

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