Reeling in the Late Late years

Presenters of The Late Late Show on RTÉ over the last five decades have included Gay Byrne, Pat Kenny and the current host of the longest running chat show on earth, Ryan Tubridy.

It’s debatable whether The Late Late Show really engineered social change. It’s more likely that it reflected it. It did, however, capture the zeitgeist on many occasions

THE Late Late Show first went out on air, 11.10pm, Friday, July 6, 1962. It was hatched as a summer filler item, which only lasted an hour. The RTÉ Guide’s listing for it was underwhelming, although it made one prescient note: “Your host is Gay Byrne and, in light-hearted fashion, he gets the ball of conversation rolling.”

Next Friday, five decades on, Ryan Tubridy will lead a jamboree outing of The Late Late Show. Over 100 Irish stars will appear, including Liam Neeson and Imelda May, and two former men who held the tiller — Gay Byrne and Pat Kenny.

Under his stewardship, Byrne had the nation talking to itself for almost four decades, until he stepped aside in 1999, passing the baton to Kenny. The Late Late Show has revived a bit, ratings-wise, since Tubridy took over as host in 2009, allowing Kenny’s talents to be more effectively deployed on The Frontline, but it is Byrne who is synonymous with the show.

As the late psychiatrist and broadcaster Anthony Clare once remarked, Byrne was “a confessor who needs neither to forgive nor punish, a psychiatrist who does not need to diagnose nor to prescribe, a facilitator whose only task is to ensure that the client talks, reveals, spills the beans, performs”.

Of course, Byrne could be sexist, most notoriously in his interview with Annie Murphy in 1993. Concluding the interview with the American woman who bore a child to Bishop Eamonn Casey, Byrne said: “If your son is half as good a man as his father, he won’t be doing too badly.” Murphy turned to ice, but replied with dignity: “I’m not so bad either.”

Looking at archive footage of Byrne, what stands out is his self-confidence. He was unflappable, a quality Tubridy lacks, while Kenny was wooden at times.

One is struck by the calibre of guests that Byrne was able to command. On one night in 1977, he had inimitable raconteur Peter Ustinov and Fred Astaire on the programme together; on another one in 1970, his guests included Peter Sellers, Sir Matt Busby and Trevor Howard, star of The Third Man.

Interestingly, Byrne struggled in the early days to attract top-line politicians on the show. (Tubridy’s first guest as presenter was then sitting Taoiseach, Brian Cowen.) In November 1967, Byrne telephoned the Taoiseach’s office to request a meeting with Jack Lynch to discuss getting ministers on the show. Lynch discussed the matter at the cabinet table the next day, but torpedoed the plan; Byrne was later reprimanded by the brass at RTÉ for making the overture.

He had more success in tackling the Church and sex, the great taboo subject of his day. One of Byrne’s guests, the conservative Fine Gael politician Oliver J Flanagan famously said that there was no sex in Ireland before television, while Dr Tom Ryan, the Bishop of Clonfert turned into the laughing stock of the country in 1966, in what became known as “The Bishop and the Nightie affair”, for denouncing a married woman for telling Byrne that all she wore on the night of her wedding was perfume.

A couple of decades later, Byrne caused a stir with a sex education exercise: during an AIDS special, the audience were shown how to put on a condom (on a finger, that is). It was the kind of gimmick that would have been the only topic under discussion outside the country’s churches the following Sunday morning; at a time before offices had water coolers to chat around and digital TV put paid to the communal television moment.

It’s debatable whether The Late Late Show ever really engineered social change. It’s more likely that it reflected it. It did, however, capture the zeitgeist on many occasions, none more viscerally than with the actor Brendan Gleeson’s unexpected tirade about Ireland’s shambolic health system in 2006.

At the time, the Celtic Tiger was roaring or so we believed. It was two years before the September 2008 bank guarantee.

Gleeson was asked by Kenny if there was anything he disliked about Ireland. He unloaded a savage critique of the health service, framed compellingly around the stories of his parents’ appalling treatment in A&E. An election was looming.

“Do you know what it’s like if you’re going to vote for his crowd at the moment?” he said. “This is the way I feel about it — that if somebody came in and started punching your mother and father around the room and you went up and patted them on the back and said, ‘Ah, sure, I know you must be upset.’

“That’s the way I feel about it. It is disgusting that we’re allowing people die when we have billions.”

Byrne got to facilitate some memorable political moments. He bagged the first television interview with Gerry Adams after the Section 31 broadcasting ban was lifted in 1993. He refrained from shaking hands with the Sinn Féin president.

A few years later, his interview with a chuckling Ian Paisley and wife Eileen helped to humanise the DUP firebrand for southern palettes.

During his last season as host, he coaxed Pádraig Flynn into a bizarre slander of Tom Gilmartin (“He’s not well. His wife isn’t well. And he’s out of sorts”), which prompted the builder into disclosing damning evidence to the McCracken Tribunal.

It was Flynn’s blasé explanation of his finances, however, which drew gasps from the audience:

“I get, give or take, it works out at about, with expenses, £140,000 a year and I pay 30.3% tax on that so it’s about a net £100,000 and out of that £100,000 I run a home in Dublin, Castlebar and Brussels.

“I wanna tell you something: try it sometime when you’ve a couple of cars and three houses and a few housekeepers.”


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