Stars come out to celebrate 50 years of RTÉ

“RTÉ was in total chaos at the time. It opened long before it should have.”

Legendary broadcaster and PR guru Bunny Carr should know — he was there on the night RTÉ launched on December 31, 1961 and two days later he found himself auditioning to be a live commercials announcer.

He was a bank clerk at the time but within minutes he was on air and, due to a technical error, making his script up as he went along.

“It is startling when you think of it — there was the nation hanging on my every word. The engineer in the basement would transmit a slide that said Irish Permanent when my script would say ‘Buy Belinda Baby Pants’. I made it up as I went along and nobody seemed to notice” he said.

The Quicksilver quizmaster was speaking at the launch of RTÉ Television’s 50th birthday celebrations. The station started with a live broadcast from the Gresham Hotel on O’Connell Street in Dublin.

The evening included a poetry reading by Siobhán McKenna and Mícheál MacLiammóir and an hour of music and song featuring Maureen Potter. What they would have made of Love/Hate or Fade Street is anybody’s guess.

Prime Time presenter Miriam O’Callaghan will shepherd in the anniversary celebrations on New Year’s Eve Live at 11.30pm in a show that she promises will be packed full of big names.

“The lovely Gay [Byrne] said that no one watches that show, that’s why he’s not going to present it. My challenge is to make it entertaining,” she said.

The New Year’s Eve show will be the first in a series of programmes planned to mark the station’s golden jubilee. On New Year’s Day, The Entertainers will look back at 50 years of entertainment on the station with Byrne, Terry Wogan, Twink and Dara O’Briain among those taking part.

The following day, 50 Years in the Glow hosted by comedian Pat Shortt, will tell the story of RTÉ Television’s life as seen by the viewer, with scores of contributions from licence fee payers across the country. The station has also raided the archives and the first week in January will see plenty of rare footage.

Carr will be among eight RTÉ stars who will share professional and personal memories when they are profiled on A Little Bit TV on January 5. He went on to become one of the best loved voices in the country and was made legend as the creator and host of Quicksilver where he received some truly memorable answers from members of the public struggling with the glare of the studio lights.

“Somebody was happy in the audience and then they were walking up into intense light where they were on their own. It was a big test. My favourite one was when I asked somebody what was Gandhi’s first name and the reply was Goosy Goosy. They were genuinely horrible things like that,” he said.

Sportscaster Bill O’Herlihy will also get the A Little Bit TV treatment. The Corkman has a long history with the station having got his big break when Frank Hall asked him to interview one of the remaining survivors of the sinking of the Lusitania in 1965.

“It took them three days to persuade me to do it. I wanted to be editor of the Examiner. I didn’t think I had the presence, appearance or voice,” he said.

O’Herlihy, more famous these days for keeping the peace between Eamon Dunphy and John Giles, would go on to play a central role in one of the first major controversies to engulf the station when his 7 Days documentary on illegal moneylending became the subject of an Oireachtas Tribunal.

“That programme was authentic, have no doubt about it, but it was a victim of the government’s decision that they wanted to put manners on RTÉ’s current affairs… After about three-and-a-half days they changed the terms of reference which meant that we couldn’t win,” he said.

Given the pressure being exerted following the recent controversy involving Prime Time, RTÉ will be hoping for a fresh start with these celebrations but O’Herlihy is in no doubt that current affairs at the station will remain uncowed.

“The days of RTÉ being afraid of the Government are long, long gone,” he said.

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