Maura and Daithi returned to our screens this week. Majorie Brennan went behind the scenes at RTÉ Cork to see just what it takes to get a two-hour live show to air each day.
It’s early on a Friday morning in a cavernous former garage in Cork and I am surveying the beating heart of Irish daytime television.
The set of RTÉ’s Today show has been woken from its slumber and given a sunshine-coloured makeover, in preparation for the start of its fourth season in the second capital.
Presenter Daithí Ó Sé is in fine fettle, dapper in a matching waistcoat and jacket, casual trousers and brogues.
He hasn’t taken his foot off the pedal for the summer, presenting the Rose of Tralee and filming another RTÉ show, Taste of Success.
When I ask him how it feels to be back, he quips: “We’re like cattle — we go back into the shed for the winter.”
Daithí commutes down to Cork for the show from his home in Galway every morning and back the same evening.
He enjoys the commute but tells me he finds it hard to resist stopping for the fresh cream eclairs from the Centra in Charleville.
I later discover there’s not much in the way of food that Daithí can turn down. I wonder where he puts it all.
Fellow presenter Maura Derrane arrives on set shortly after in a bright red skater dress.
I mention this because there’s a lot of interest in what Maura wears; I lose count of the number of times people working on the show say “nice dress”.
She seems resigned to the fact that it comes with the territory.
“As a woman, you are under more pressure because people are looking at you, a guy gets away with more. There’s no point in pretending otherwise.
"Other women are more focused on what you’re wearing — people will comment on my clothes on Facebook, and even if I change my hair.
"It is hard, some days I come in and I’m tired — the make-up helps and trying to get to bed early and be good.”
While Daithí was filming over the summer, Maura, who lives in Dungarvan with her husband John and 16-month-old son Cal, took the opportunity to spend some time with her family.
“It was great to spend some time with Cal. I spent over a month with him at home in Inis Mór which was fantastic for him, the freedom.”
It’s the morning of the show’s final run-through and the pair are posing for promotional shots.
The chat flows easily as the photographer works — they have a chemistry that can’t be faked. They know each other very well but “we’re not in each other’s pockets”, says Daithí.
“People ask me ‘How’s Maura?’ and I say I haven’t spoken to her in three months and they say ‘Do ye not get on?’ That’s just the way we roll.”
“I didn’t see him all summer,” adds Maura.
“I met him at the Galway Races and that was it. There’s nothing wrong with it, it’s actually better because when we’re working we see more of each other than we see of our spouses.”
Says Daithí: “I’ve had dinner more in one month with Maura Derrane than I have had with my wife in the last three years.”
The Today show has been a big success for RTÉ Cork but those behind the show are wary about becoming complacent.
“It is a massive undertaking — 212 hours of live TV, 15% of RTÉ’s entire output,” says head of RTÉ Cork, Colm Crowley.
“We can have 180,000 watching…. but we have to hold on to it, we can’t sit back.”
The pairing of Maura and Daithí has been a big factor in the show’s popularity.
“It doesn’t really matter what your set looks like, or how clever you think you are, if the audience doesn’t like the presenters, forget about it,” says Crowley.
Originally set up by producer Marie Toft, Cassandra Lawrence has been brought on board as series producer this year.
The British producer has an impressive pedigree in terms of work — including stints on Lorraine, Loose Women and The Graham Norton Show — and lineage, coming from good west Cork stock.
“I want the show to feel as topical and of the day as possible, reflecting essentially what Ireland is talking about,” she says.
“We also want some gloss and glamour. We want our viewers to learn something from every item — whether it’s how to rustle up a dinner for four for under €10 or how you can do your hair in two minutes.”
I later go back on set for the final run-through before the show kicks off the following Monday and Crowley gives us a preview of the revamped opening credits, featuring a vibrant and fun animation of Daithí and Maura against a backdrop of Cork landmarks.
“It’s good they got Big Ben in,” laughs Daithí as Shandon pops up on the screen, the Kerryman unable to resist the chance to get in a dig at his Corkonian boss.
Maura quizzes Crowley on how they decided on the music, a cool, boppy number by up-and-coming Cork band Eat my Noise.
“I gave them happy, upbeat, Ibiza,” he replies.
Daithí and Maura wonder why they weren’t sent to the Balearics for research. We all laugh at the thought of them giving it welly in Pacha or Manumission — but I imagine they’d be well up for it.
The pair are looking forward to working with Lawrence, the new series producer and the fact the show now has an extra half-hour.
“We’re very open to new ideas, it’s good for us, it keeps us fresh,” says Maura.
Adds Daithí: “When we are doing 141 shows, you need it to be fresh. If you are churning out the same stuff the whole day, people will go off and watch Murder She Wrote or whatever.”
The run-through takes place as if it is a live show, and also doubles as a kind of audition process with possible contributors doing dummy items.
The studio bustles with activity as shots are set up, guests are brought in and sets are adjusted and cleared away.
RTÉ Cork has strong links to colleges in Cork and many who have been on placement there have gone on to work in the industry at home and abroad.
Runner Maura Daly is a graduate of St John’s College, just a stone’s throw from the studio.
She has only been working here a few weeks and is full of enthusiasm for her new job. I ask her if fetching double skinny lattés for Daithí is part of the job description.
“Just strong tea for me,” he laughs.
Then he’s off to do a test cookery slot, putting the visibly nervous Polish baker Martin at his ease.
Assistant producer Rory Cobbe looks on from the wings; he has responsibility for much of the food content, a popular h element of the show.
He describes the show as a “beast”.
“It’s relentless, it eats content five days a week — keeping it fresh is the challenge.”
He doesn’t agree with the view that daytime television is trivial, and says slots such as makeovers and the human interest stories can have a big impact on people.
“It’s a programme that talks to everybody. We want to make a difference, we’re not just filling a hole in the afternoon. We try to get in stories that matter.
"We’re public service broadcasters — the food items are there for a reason; to show people you can eat well, cheaply and healthily. It doesn’t have to be organic or involve rearing your own pigs.”
I imagine it will go up a gear when I return to the studio for the first live show on Monday, with the adrenaline pumping for the ‘real thing’.
But the Green Room is quiet, waiting contributors studying their notes or scrolling on their smartphones, ignoring the tubs of jellies and chocolates laid out on the table.
I am surprised at how calm the atmosphere is when I enter the studio about 20 minutes before broadcast. This is obviously when all the hard work of rehearsals pays off.
“It’s a well-oiled machine,” says an in-control stage manager Aoife O’Callaghan.
Researcher Naoimh Reilly has been hard at work since early in the morning, sifting through newspapers and social media for topical stories to feature on the show.
Of course, today one story has dominated social media since it broke late the previous night — the eye-opening claims surrounding David Cameron and a dead pig need to be handled delicately on a daytime show.
“Obviously, we’re on in the afternoon so have to be very careful with kids coming in from school watching,” she says.
“We will mention the Pig-gate story but not in an explicit way.”
Because of the huge amount of work involved in putting a show on air five days a week, production is divided into three teams.
“At the morning production meeting, we run through the entire script, go through what images we need, what graphics we’re using, what’s coming up when, and things like how can one presenter move from one side of the studio to the other without blocking the camera,” says Naoimh.
“Then we go off and sort out video footage, and make phone calls, ensuring guests know what they’re doing, when they’re arriving, what to wear and so on. Everybody pitches in to get the job done.”
Chef Domini Kemp is standing by at the kitchen getting ready for the cookery slot with all her ingredients for her quick and healthy Moroccan-inspired chicken supper laid out neatly in bowls in front of her.
Cooking without a camera on you can be challenging enough, so how does she manage that and the chat at the same time?
“Cooking live is always a bit terrifying because it goes so fast. It’s great but I always hope people understand it takes more than seven minutes to make it.
"It looks easy because all the prep is done — which is the hard thing to do when you get home. Daithí and Maura are great, they understand what the viewers want to see and if you’ve missed a bit or haven’t explained something, they’ll pick up it.”
As floor manager Brendan Cahill begins to count down to broadcast, the atmosphere is calm and relaxed, with Daithí and Maura reacquainting themselves with the first guests on the sofa, journalist Deirdre O’Shaughnessy and writer Amanda Brunker.
Pig-gate is handled with aplomb by O’Shaughnessy, who manages to get the substance of the story across without mentioning any of the excruciating detail.
Domini Kemp serves her dish up with ease with Daithí more than happy to fulfil his professional duty by tasting the results.
During the break, he takes his plate to the sofa and continues to tuck in while Maura sips her tea.
Cameraman Ben, whose favourite station is next to the kitchen, is also enjoying the fruits of Kemp’s labours.
An entertaining report on Star Wars filming on Skellig Michael, in which reporter Colm Flynn dresses as Darth Vader and eventually tracks down Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) in a pub in Portgmagee, gives the team time to draw breath, set up shots for the next item, and get guests in.
The sheer range of the show is demonstrated by items on dog behaviour, the flu jab, fashion and money.
The show finishes with a powerful contribution from Kathy Ryan, who has been living with early-onset Alzheimer’s for a decade.
She speaks eloquently and movingly of her illness and when I talk to Daithí and Maura afterwards, they are still visibly affected by Kathy’s story but struck by her incredible spirit.
“Stories like that will just stop you in your tracks and all of a sudden life seems to make sense,” says Daithí.
Maura adds: “It really makes you cop on to how lucky you are, it’s amazing how people manage to keep on going.”
They are happy with how the show went. As Daithí takes off his make-up with a baby wipe, he says: “It’s like we never left — after doing the first segment we looked at each other, going “that old familiar face again”, which is where we need to be.”
What do they think the secrets of live television are?
“There’s only way of getting good at live television and that’s doing it,” says Daithí.
“There’s no amount of pre-recorded shows that can help you.”
Adds Maura: “There’s a comfort factor too when you get used to working with someone, that comes with time with another person — this is our fourth year together.
"When we go on air, we’re in the zone. I actually feel more relaxed on-air than I do off it. Of course, technical hitches can throw you — we’re not androids.
"You can’t panic, you must stay composed. You will be thrown in your head but you can’t be thrown visually.”
Daithí nods in agreement.
“If something goes wrong, it’s only television. It’s not like we’re part of a bomb squad unit, that if you cut the wrong wire, we’re all dead.
"You could go to college for 20 years, try to learn everything about television, but unless you sit in the hot seat, it’s not like that at all.
"You can pare it back as much as you want, it’s about having a conversation, including the people at home in their sitting rooms. That’s what it really is.”
And it’s a conversation that goes on.
As I leave an empty studio, I wander through the Green Room, expecting it to be empty.
But in there are the entire production team having a debrief of the show and getting ready for the next one.
I hope they got to enjoy the jellies.
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