THE year was 1987, the final week of the broadcasting season, and a sexed-up book review was about to rock the nation.
“The idea was that a group of nobodies went down to the wilds of Connemara to put the SAS Survival Guide to the test,” says Philip Kampf, producer of the segment for the Gay Byrne Show on radio. “We set them a trail, they were to follow it and use the book to see what they could, and could not, eat. Each morning they would report back to Gay about what they had been up too. If, by day three, the group wanted out, the review would still have been done and we could all have gone home.”
It didn’t quite work out that way.
Ireland’s first taste of reality radio, listeners were hooked on the idea that, while they were going out to work each day, there were five people in the wilderness trying to find their lunch. But while the nation was a flush, the ‘survivors’ were miserable, hungry and, worst of all for a little-known young participant called Gerry Ryan, they were bored.
“It wasn’t brilliantly planned out,” says Kampf. “I didn’t spend an awful lot of time thinking about who was going to be in the group and what dynamics was going to happen.”
Working on his own, he thought his biggest problem was going to be preventing the gang from cheating in minor ways, taking tea and biscuits from the locals. When the gang turned up on the Wednesday morning however, Ryan was to show just how far he was going to go to sate his hunger.
“On a stick they had a lamb that was skinned,” remembers Kampf. “The head was gone, it was properly butchered. They told me, ‘We had to kill a lamb, we were starving.’
“I immediately rang my boss in Dublin and said ‘I think there is an issue here’.”
It was decided that Kampf would go and find out who the farmer was before they went on air. “They told me roughly where they had killed the lamb. I drove up to the farmer’s house at 7am and told him what happened. He said, ‘That’s OK’, which I thought at the time was very reasonable. So we all agreed Gerry would tell the nation how he did it.”
It was compelling radio. “He said he put a rock in a sock, looked this lamb in the eye and said, ‘I’m sorry, but it’s me or you’, and bludgeoned the defenseless creature. ”
The tale created a huge furore and, by Thursday, the print media descended on Connemara to get pictures of the gang. On Friday, with the challenge completed, a limo was sent to collect the group and whisk them to the Late Late Show so they could recount how they survived in the wilderness.
Then Tony Gregory stood up in the Dáil and accused them of breaking the Broadcasting Act by airing descriptions of animal cruelty.
“That’s when the tide turned,” says Kampf. “Gerry was brought in to make a statement in Donnybrook Garda station. RTÉ dispatched executive producer John Caden down the wilds of Connemara — like he was Inspector Morse — to discover what happened. He even dug up the remains of the lamb.”
And cracks were beginning to emerge amongst the survivors’s stories. “Gerry was finding it increasingly difficult to keep them all on the same page. Some began to say; ‘Everything you are hearing isn’t true’. Eventually one told me what really happened.”
As brilliantly told as Ryan’s tale was, it wasn’t true. What really occurred was the farmer had come across them frolicking with the lambs. Hearing how hungry they were, he took them to his barn and shot and skinned the animal. Breaking the rules of the task, Ryan concocted the lie.
“I was gutted that we didn’t tell the truth,” says Kampf. “Very annoyed and let down. I also felt slightly stupid.”
While Ryan had earned the nickname Lambo from the nation, he was also now, professionally in limbo. “There was uproar in the national press that the national broadcaster had lied to the public and Ryan spent most of that summer thinking his career was over before it began.”
Kampf had no professional contact with him for a decade. “The most difficult thing was that people thought I was in on it. Gerry cleared it up very nicely in his autobiography, and I was delighted to get to work with him towards the end of his career on Operation Transformation [which Kampf produced]. I genuinely believe he was a world class broadcaster and, after all of the Lambo stuff, if giving Gerry Ryan his break is all we did, then that’s fine.”
The incident was also responsible for something else. Murray Boland, then a researcher on Gay Byrne’s show, later got a job with TV production company Planet 24. ‘He rang me one day and asked can we use the survival idea on a show he was working on called Network 7,” says Kampf. Out of that the Survivor show grew.
*Lambo — a play inspired by the events of 1987 — runs at the New Theatre, as part of the Dublin Fringe Festival, Sep 16-21. fringefest.com
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