An awkward puberty of growing pains and innocence for the Rose
The Rose of Tralee should pride itself on being a beacon of tradition - Middle Ireland doesn't need a lecture, writes Donal Lynch
Amy Schumer, who played Dublin last Friday night, once confessed that she had the most awkward puberty in history. It came on suddenly when she was about 10. Her two front teeth fell out at that age and, with terrible timing, she also had her first period. "So I just had to walk around with the missing tooth and new body," she explained. "I looked like this big Jack O'Lantern, with tits."
That's an image that could perhaps also sum up this year's Rose of Tralee. At times it was painfully clear that the event has entered an awkward, gangly, shouty phase - all of a sudden the Roses were getting political, standing up to the organisers, and having to be reassured that it was still okay to be "lovely". But at other times they seemed positively thrilled to be lovely and the week still retained the old-fashioned purity of a Holy Communion Day; both televised nights remained largely granny-friendly viewing and there was reportedly even a scheduled Mass at one stage for the Roses.
Back and forth it went, twee party pieces and girlish giggles one minute, a call to repeal the Eighth and a rap track the next. Half the country seemed thrilled the competition was finally growing up a little ("she's into hip hop now!"), while many of us wished they'd just go back to that innocence of yesteryear.
This sense of an event in transition was reflected in the tone of the broadcast and the viewing figures. It was produced by Vision Independent Productions, the crowd behind Operation Transformation, and there was a new air of scripted reality to the production.
The Down Rose complained that the women were treated "like animals in a circus" and wrote that they had "not signed up for cheap reality television". Like a child testing its limits, RTE and the Rose organisers quickly jumped back into line, releasing a joint statement saying that they would review the process of selection for next year. This might have been their humanity overruling their hunger for great viewing figures - or maybe they had already realised that, when it comes to the Rose, a reality TV sensibility doesn't work.
The viewing figures for the final programme on Tuesday plummeted to a 10-year low, pulling in an average of 482,000 viewers over the two nights this year, but averaging only 364,000 for the first part of the first night. You could speculate on the reasons for this. Perhaps the event was reaching out to a crowd that would never watch it anyway. Perhaps political sloganeering alienates some of its viewing base. Or could it be that trying to be down with the kids and cuddly for the grannies doesn't work. Maybe we just don't think a 'Jack O'Lantern with tits' is all that cute.
In adolescence, politics is generally clear-cut and far Left. There is an impulse to rip down the old order, and consequences don't have to be thought through yet. The Sydney Rose Brianna Parkins, won huge praise on social media for her mention of the Repeal the Eighth movement in her chat with Daithi O Se. But even for those, like me, who want abortion on demand, there was something icky about this. For one thing the subject was hardly probed. Repeal the Eighth and then what, Brianna?
The gay marriage referendum showed there are good reasons for balance in broadcasting when it comes to referendum issues: nothing is so lethal to a liberal cause as accusations of liberal bias.
There have already been a few warning shots fired on this score. Last October, Ray D'Arcy was judged by the BAI to have breached broadcasting rules in his interview with Father Ted creator Graham Linehan and his wife Helen on their experience with abortion. In that case, RTE argued that the editorial format on D'Arcy's programme "does not generally include the hosting of debates between antagonists", but surely the same could be said for the Rose. And if D'Arcy, with all his experience, wasn't able to manage the requirement for balance what chance would poor Daithi stand? If the Rose is to really move in that direction maybe it needs someone with sharper current affairs chops at the helm.
Ironically, it may have been the gay marriage issue that whetted the organisers' desire to have the Roses discuss social issues. Everything came together beautifully for them when Maria Walsh won two years ago. But abortion is a very different issue to gay marriage, and it's dangerous to lump them both into the same liberal pot. You could be in favour of both but from a showbiz perspective the feelgood vibes for abortion are not the same at all.
The Swiss child psychologist Jean Piaget once observed that adolescents all face the same dilemma; how to rebel against society while conforming to their peer group. This year's Roses seemed to solve this problem by trying to win in the most mockingly ironic fashion they could muster.
The Sydney Rose, a journalist, wrote a piece in the Irish Times decrying the event as a Kate Middleton impersonation competition. She reassured herself that her feminism is "as personal as it is political" and prided herself on "living up to what we're saying about empowerment".
You almost found yourself agreeing with the Twitter mob that she's this generation's Mary Wollstonecraft until you reminded yourself that all of this happened in the context of her wearing a sash and competing for a crown. She came across as an animal rights activist at a pie-eating contest. "Have people lost their minds?" one friend of mine asked. "She's in a lovely girls competition. As far as feminists should be concerned, she's the problem, not the solution."
Parkins, in her piece, said that the Roses had been asked about abortion in group interviews so organisers were hardly blindsided when the topic came up onstage.
The feeling that the festival is groping around for its new identity was clear in the contradictory statements of Mary Kennedy - the chair of the judging panel - who felt the festival shouldn't become politicised and Anthony O'Gara - chief executive of the festival - who said that it was a bit silly to expect the Roses not to have opinions, "controversial or otherwise".
He may be right but everyone, especially the Middle Ireland that forms the Rose's core audience, wants a break from opinions and political debate sometimes. The average BBC viewer might agree that Brexit was deeply stupid, but if they heard that point made during Strictly Come Dancing they'd switch off. There is a law of diminishing returns for political statements.
Perhaps the Rose needs to have the courage of its convictions. It could look elsewhere for examples. Wimbledon, for instance, has made a virtue of never changing. It has branded itself as a beacon of tradition. What makes the Rose so special is that in our decadent, dystopian present the festival still is as old-fashioned as a ceili band. The mistake might be to presume that this means that it is automatically an entertainment wing of the patriarchy and that those who are soothed by its sense of tradition need lecturing.
Middle Ireland, in fact, already wants to repeal the eighth, according to the most recent polls - the Sydney Rose wasn't really going out on a limb, she was telling people what they want to hear. In this context calling to maintain the constitutional status quo would, in fact, have been a more controversial statement to make. But that wouldn't be ideal either. In life, as in light entertainment, there has to be room for innocence.