'I’ll have a few beers after': Behind the scenes of the Toy Show with Ryan Tubridy

It’s the most wonderful time of RTÉ's year, when everyone stays up past their bedtime, and Ryan Tubridy dresses up and acts the eejit while young people take centre stage. The Toy Show presenter spoke with Donal O’Keeffe about his own inner child, his salary, Adam King, and the role of media in social justice
'I’ll have a few beers after': Behind the scenes of the Toy Show with Ryan Tubridy

Ryan Tubridy embraces the Toy Show each year with gusto. Picture Andres Poveda

“I have never left my own inner child too far behind,” laughs Ryan Tubridy when asked the secret to his presenting The Late Late Toy Show. “I didn’t leave it behind in childhood, I actually dragged that kid kicking and screaming into my forties.”

The original host of the Toy Show, Gay Byrne, never seemed able to muster much more than an air of baffled condescension toward any child who wasn’t a fully paid-up member of the Billie Barry Kids, and his successor, smartest boy in class Pat Kenny, always looked about to ask, “And what is this ‘fun’ of which you speak?” 

By contrast, Tubridy embraces the Toy Show with gusto, and seems never afraid to make a complete fool of himself, striking an easy and warm rapport with his young guests.

“I think a large part of it is not to patronise them,” he says. “I always get down on my hunkers, look them in the eyeball, and say ‘This is our night’. I separate myself from adulthood for that day and that night and, after a few minutes chatting, the kids just go ‘Okay, you’re part of our tribe’.”

Tubridy with some of the children during 2019's Late Late Toy Show 
Tubridy with some of the children during 2019's Late Late Toy Show 

It’s strange to talk to Tubridy on a Zoom call, because your brain keeps suspecting that the man in the telly has finally started answering you back, or else that you’ve won The Late Late viewers’ competition where you have to answer a challenging question along the lines of “What planet is this”, “What is this programme called”, or “What is your name”.

Tubridy looks younger than his 48 years, still as skinny as he was when Dustin the Turkey memorably dismissed him as “a human bookmark with feet”. He has long since relaxed past his earlier persona as Ireland’s youngest fogey, and throughout our interview he is friendly, chatty, and thoughtful.

The theme of this year’s Toy Show remains a closely guarded secret, so much so that the RTÉ press office has asked that we point out that any imagery accompanying this article does not reflect the programme’s concepts. Tubridy and I talk about last year’s instead.

He agrees with my suggestion that the 2020 show proved for many viewers a cathartic moment at the end of very bad year, saying it was “bizarrely, an important show,” with kids like Saoirse Ruane and Adam King capturing viewers’ hearts, and it raised €6.6 million for children’s charities.

Saoirse Ruane with her mum Roseanna on last year's Toy Show. Picture Andres Poveda
Saoirse Ruane with her mum Roseanna on last year's Toy Show. Picture Andres Poveda

“I worried in advance because I didn’t know if it would have the magic, because there was no audience, and because the country was in a very dark place, and the national mood was low,” he says.

“Then, as the weeks went on, I got the sense that there was a bigger pressure than ever before because it was so dark and so grim. I started to get the sense that people were saying, well, it’s okay because we have that.” 

He erupts into nervous laughter at the memory. “And I’m going, Jesus, lads, like, there’s not much I can do for you here, but I’ll try my best.” 

He recalls, that night, during the first commercial break, worrying that the show felt “flatter” than usual, and being told the appeal had already raised €1 million. 

“And it was magic in the end. I think the country needed that salve, that sense of innocence and joy, and that came from the kids, one after another, telling beautiful stories and bringing life and the universe into perspective, and we needed that.”

Did he realise as it was happening that Adam King, with his virtual hug, was going to become an intergalactic superhero? Tubridy replies that he is completely in the moment during the Toy Show and tends not to have any real sense of how it might be playing with viewers.

“Adam was on with us again recently and, yeah, he’s become some sort of symbol of hope for a weary nation. It was a strange thing, but he did become more than just a little boy.”

Adam King from Cork on The Late Late Toy Show 2020. King captured the nation’s hearts and has become an intergalactic superhero. Picture: Andres Poveda Photography
Adam King from Cork on The Late Late Toy Show 2020. King captured the nation’s hearts and has become an intergalactic superhero. Picture: Andres Poveda Photography

 

And he became friends with the Taoiseach, and the president of America… 

“Yeah, and Chris Hadfield and everything. There’s just something about him. I remember meeting him for the first time in his little wheelchair, buzzing past me, and smiling up, and I just thought, ‘This is like a little Irish Buddha of a child, on his way past with the big almond eyes looking up at you’.” 

A current advert for the Toy Show depicts the morning after, with kids — and honorary child Ryan Tubridy — nodding off after the big night. What is his Saturday after the Toy Show like?

“Saturday is very large walk by the sea, then a very large order from the Chinese takeaway.

“Big fire and a movie. I’ll have a few beers after the show itself — not in the Green Room, that’s a dry ship these days. I’ll go down to one of my brothers’ houses and we’ll have a few drinks. And then the next day, yeah, you do crash for a day or two because it’s been such an intense month. December, weirdly, is a lovely quiet time for me, and then Christmas is beautiful.”

Although Tubridy promises this one will be very special too, after the pressure of last year, he says he’s looking forward to a more “business as usual” Toy Show.

“I hope we never have to do a Toy Show like that again, because it was so important. And the less important the Toy Show is, it’s probably now a sign for how good the country’s doing.” 

He says the audience reaction, and the money raised, was a response to the kids and their stories. 

“Nearly 700,000 children all over the country benefited from Irish people’s kindness on that one night. It was a massive, massive result. I was delighted because that’s everyone’s win, that’s not the Late Late Toy Show’s win, or the kids’ win, it’s Ireland’s win. I think that’s a nice way to be, for what should be just a TV show.”

Tubridy agrees that the 2020 show proved for many viewers a cathartic moment at the end of a very bad year, saying it captured viewers’ hearts, and raised €6.6 million for children’s charities.
Tubridy agrees that the 2020 show proved for many viewers a cathartic moment at the end of a very bad year, saying it captured viewers’ hearts, and raised €6.6 million for children’s charities.

Speaking of TV shows, what of the 59-year-old Late Late Show?

“I don’t think there’s anything like it left around the place,” Tubridy, now in his 12th year as presenter, says. “It’s the only live chat show in Ireland, and probably in Europe, and probably in America. Tommy [Tiernan’s show] is recorded, Graham Norton is recorded. We’re live, so we’re seat of our pants stuff.”

He says the show’s unique format, mixing current affairs, human interest and popular culture, is inherited from Byrne, and Kenny, and he credits its survival to having a good team around him: “It still pulls in 44%, 45%, 46%, 47% [audience] share, and I know numbers are boring, but it’s important because, given all the choice people have on a Friday night, they can still come to The Late Late Show in those numbers because we have Irish television programmes like that.”

Namechecking uniquely Irish programmes like Nationwide, the Six-One News, and Prime Time, he says we are under assault from what he calls a “cultural imperialism” that he feels threatens to reduce who we are to “a sort of high street in Britain or in New York”.

He is currently RTÉ’s highest-paid presenter, earning €495,000 in 2019, the most recent year for which figures are available. In a market as small as Ireland’s, I ask, is it acceptable that a TV presenter is paid more than the Taoiseach?

He doesn’t seem fazed to be asked, and replies that he believes it’s a fair question, but ultimately one for the market, noting that he has taken “between 30% and 40% in cuts” since he began presenting The Late Late Show.

“You have to ask yourself, what does The Late Late Show bring in? What does the radio show bring in, in terms of the commercials and so on? What value do you bring to an organisation?”

He adds that his salary is “not going up”.

I ask about morale at the State broadcaster as we (hopefully) come out the far side of the pandemic, and he says he believes RTÉ excelled itself through Covid-19, praising his colleagues for keeping the show on the road.

“It’s not that they were frontline services, but they came in to deliver the news, as did a lot of media, but I can only talk about RTÉ and my own radio programme, and the others day-to-day, and they kept the station going, they kept the story alive. They kept the public informed, entertained, and I hope, on occasion, people felt minded a little bit.” 

He feels public service broadcasting was exemplary throughout the pandemic, and believes that the pandemic served as a reminder of why it matters.

“I just think that there is a threat from big streaming companies. But that’s where we have to be careful culturally, and in a national sense of the word. We shouldn’t lose our sense of pride in our media.”

Turbridy during the Late Late Toy Show in 2018
Turbridy during the Late Late Toy Show in 2018

It’s four years since Megan Halvey Ryan, then 14, received her life-changing scoliosis surgery after an appearance on The Late Late, and last month 10-year-old Adam Terry received his surgery for the same condition, after RTÉ’s Brian O’Connell featured Adam on Today with Claire Byrne. 170 other children await the same procedure.

Acknowledging that media has an important and honourable role to play in giving voice to people otherwise voiceless, I ask if it’s acceptable that in Ireland the only way parents can sometimes get essential services for their children is to sell their souls to media.

Tubridy replies emphatically he doesn’t think it is acceptable, and makes two points. 

When people come on a show like The Late Late, or when they talk to the Irish Examiner, mostly the last place they want to be is talking to journalists or presenters. They’re generally in a desperate situation and they’re saying ‘This is our last throw of the dice here, because we have to make some noise’.

“Most people in these situations are very private people who will want to go through this as a family and not have the eyes of the nation looking at them. But they’re desperate. And if the TV or radio or newspaper helps move things along, that’s fine.” 

But, he says, he has spoken with people who have, after a media appearance, received the help required and felt guilty for the people in the queue behind them.

“It’s a dance with the devil, isn’t it? Because you’re helping that family, but will that result in a domino effect of all of these other families being helped? Or is it really cynical to help that family and the rest are just kicked to touch?” 

Tubridy says he encourages guests and families to stay in touch with him, should they need help again in trying to move a case along.

At this point, the RTÉ press person jumps in, and I have time for one more question. Back to the Toy Show,, what happens in the studio as the show begins? Is there a fizz in the air?

“Oh, yeah. You hear the opening bars of the music and — it’s a little like Christmas even thinking about this — ‘It’s the Late Late Toy Show!’ As soon as I hear that music, it’s like a red button has been pressed, and all hell breaks loose. And that’s what it feels as the presenter of the programme.

“It’s nearly two hours long, and it goes by in what feels like between about six and eight minutes.”

  • The Late Late Toy Show airs Friday November 26, 9.35pm on RTÉ One & RTÉ Player.

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