Mr Saturday night... The return of Mr Ray D'Arcy
Twenty-seven years after he first stepped foot in RTÉ, Ray D'Arcy has re-joined the national broadcaster and landed his own prime-time chat show. But he admits that he's taking a career gamble - and opens up on the things, from chocolate to fatherhood, that make him tick Photographs by Patrick Bolger
You wouldn't call it a man-crush, but it is difficult for men of a certain vintage not to feel just a tad envious of Ray D'Arcy. Let's forget the hefty salary and the cool broadcasting gigs for a moment, and just bear in mind that no 51-year-old has the right to look quite as trim, and youthful, and as well put together as the individual who strides into the RTÉ canteen for a date with the Irish Independent's Weekend ahead of his new TV show.
There's not a pick of fat on him. He's got the physique of one who runs a lot - which he does - and his slim blazer and indigo jeans appear perfectly tailored for his diminutive frame. The skin is bright and largely line-free and when he smiles, there's a lovely row of even, white teeth. The silvery hair is razored tight and it suits him.
What's his secret? "No sugar," he says with a smile. "I've been off it for two years now and it's one of the best things I've ever done. Obviously, there's sugar in fruit and in any alcohol you might have at the weekend, but it's the sugar you find in chocolate and biscuits and so on that I've cut out.
"It's made a huge difference and anyone can do it - if you can persevere through the first few weeks, because that's the stage when it's very hard."
Sugar is getting an almighty kicking right now, not least from Jamie Oliver, whose polemical Channel 4 documentary, Sugar Rush, would make even those with the sweetest tooth think again. Maybe D'Arcy should make his own film about the white stuff, since he's so evangelical about the benefits of cutting back by as much as possible.
"You know those 85pc cocoa bars of chocolate?" he says, taking a sip from a bottle of water. "They don't have much sugar compared to other bars, but there's still 14g in a 100g bar. Well there's half the quantity of sugar again in 90pc bars - just 7pc sugar. They're hard to get, but it makes a big difference."
Now, he allows himself one square of this exceptionally bitter chocolate in the morning and another at night. And that's it. No more biscuits with tea at 11am or a sneaky milk chocolate bar to stave off that late-afternoon slump that so many of us experience.
One senses his success at giving up sugar comes from the sort of steely determination that drives him in both his professional and private lives.
When he decided, nine years ago, to take on his first marathon, he learnt from Olympian John Treacy that a really good time for a runner of his age (he was 42 then) was 3hrs 40 mins. "You'll probably do it in around four hours, John told me." So, as a high-profile radio broadcaster, he gently coerced one company after the next to pay €5,000 to charity for every minute under that time he achieved. He finished in 3hrs 40mins, thereby raising €100,000 for good causes. "When I set my mind to something," he says, with an apologetic smile, "I try to do it to the very best I can."
His target now is to make his forthcoming RTÉ chat show as good as it can possibly be. The Ray D'Arcy Show will be on the prime-time slot on Saturdays and will debut 27 years after he first walked through the doors of TV Centre in Montrose. "Twenty-seven years," he says, with a wry chuckle. "I can't believe it's been that long." He cut his teeth on the fondly remembered teen series Jo Maxi, and will be remembered by a generation for his eight years as host of Den TV.
But he really came into his own as a broadcaster in the 14 years he presented a titular morning show on Today FM. It was a staple that helped turn around the fortunes of the commercial station, a winning triumvirate comprising another RTÉ ex-pat Ian Dempsey and, in the drive-time slot, Matt Cooper. Then he quit last December in order to return to RTÉ and the news reverberated as seismically as Pat Kenny's defection to Newstalk did.
But D'Arcy says he felt the time was right to take on a new challenge, especially when RTÉ were dangling the promise of his own TV show under his nose. Doing high profile television for the national broadcaster and remaining with Today FM was a non-runner for all sides, so he decided the time had come to return to the RTÉ mothership, and to the mid-afternoon slot on Radio 1 that was vacated by Derek Mooney.
"RTÉ had approached me before, but this time the stars were in alignment," he says. "There were times in the past where certain people would have made it public that competitors were wooing them and trying to seduce them, but I wasn't into that. I knew that I had to make my decision and it didn't matter what was said or offered to me, I was going. It wasn't about bargaining for more money. So I went to Peter [McPartlin, Today FM CEO] and went, 'This is what I've decided'. It was very sudden and it was very tough on Peter I'd imagine."
The bombshell was dropped on the first Friday of December last - and that turned out to be his last day in the presenter's chair. "I didn't get to say goodbye [to his loyal audience]," he says. "I was sad about that. But I would have been naive to think I could go to Peter to say: 'I'm leaving, but will you let me in on Monday so I can say goodbye to the listeners?'"
He says the split wasn't acrimonious - "there was no slamming of doors and shouting and screaming" - but it's clear that the commercial station felt the loss. It has experienced significant declines across the board in the most recent listenership polls, although it has to be pointed out that D'Arcy's show was shedding listeners in the latter part of his tenure.
McPartlin, meanwhile, went on record subsequently to say he did everything he could to make D'Arcy stay. Later he told a newspaper the station had moved on and didn't envisage the presenter working there again.
The Ray D'Arcy Show - which ran from 9am to 12pm every weekday morning - was a labour of love for him and his close team, which included Will Hanafin, who now works with him on the Radio 1 show, Mairéad Farrell (now Ronan), who stayed at Today FM and works behind the scenes as a producer on The Ian Dempsey Show, and D'Arcy's wife, Jenny Kelly, who's back in RTÉ too.
Jenny, whom he married two years ago with a reception at Tankardstown House in Meath, is the mother of his children Kate (8) and Tom (3). A seasoned broadcasting professional in her own right, she played a large part in making his Today FM show the phenomenon it became.
Her focus is now on D'Arcy's Radio 1 show, but she has no official role on the TV chat show. "And yet you could argue she has more input than anyone," he laughs, "because she's my wife. Of course we talk about it all the time. It's our lifeblood and passion." Some broadcasters try to keep their private lives out of the public eye - D'Arcy has no truck with such a stance and is happy to shoot the breeze about a woman who's eight years his junior. "Eight years is nothing!" he quips. "I've always been happy to open up and to throw out my opinions. Listeners have responded in kind."
He loves fatherhood and enjoys being able to take Kate to school most days - something he was never able to do when he worked in Today FM. "It's one of those simple pleasures," he says. "And cliché though it may be, your children grow up really fast."
However, his old show is clearly still very close to D'Arcy's heart. "I meet people who say they really miss it," he says, "and I say to them 'I really miss it too'. And I do - it was part of my life for so long and it was hard to let go, and there are days where I miss it terribly."
He makes polite noises about Anton Savage, who took over his old slot, and praises his "professionalism". Yet, he says he has only heard the odd item here and there, so he can't judge it properly.
He feels the loss of more prosaic things too. "You know, I really miss being in town every day." Today FM is located a couple of minutes' walk from Grafton Street. RTÉ's sizeable campus, and its southside suburban hinterland, does not afford many distractions.
He's anxious to quash rumours he jumped ship for money reasons. "I negotiated a new contract at Today FM and that salary is exactly what I'm getting now at RTÉ for doing both radio and TV. I could have stayed where I was and made the same money just for doing the radio show. Now I'm doing a six-day week. I'm not complaining, but I'm saying it to those who say I made the move for money reasons."
The Kildare man is not willing to divulge the actual salary just now though. "That will come out in 2017," he says, grinning mischievously, as he alludes to RTÉ's obligation to publish the salaries of its top-paid stars. It will be a great surprise, however, if said pay is anything less than €300,000 per annum - indeed, it's reported to be as much as €500,000. D'Arcy admits to being nervous about the chat show. "By nature, I'm risk averse," he says. "And I know that it's a gamble. All this talk about change being good is only partly true, because in some cases it clearly isn't. We can all work very hard on it but there's no guarantee it will connect with an audience." He grimaces when asked about the instant criticism culture on social media. "There are a lot of very angry people out there and they're provoked by the simplest things. But what can you do?"
The show will run for 75 minutes and will be broadcast live unlike, say, Graham Norton's heavy-hitter, which is shown 'as live' but filmed the day before. Guests will be brought on one at a time, much as they are on The Late Late Show, and there will be a mix of light and serious topics as well as celebrities and "ordinary members of the public with extraordinary stories to tell". D'Arcy is a seasoned television presenter, so he doesn't need to be reminded of the limitations of the medium, and its remarkable power. "I'm completely aware that television can suck the bejaysus out of things and get in the way of the natural flow of a conversation," he says. "It'll be up to me - and the team, too - to make guests feel as relaxed as possible.
"If we can beat The Late Late to an A-lister, we'll certainly try to do it. If it happens that we have someone on the radio show during the week and it makes sense for them and us to have them on the TV, we'll try to do that too."
Some of the guests for the debut show next week have been lined up already and D'Arcy, unsurprisingly, doesn't want to drop names. He is a little more forthcoming about the set. "To borrow Mary Harney's phrase, it's more Berlin than Boston. It has that European influence. But hopefully people will be talking about the guests and the conversation rather than the set. As a veteran in here told me: 'If they're talking about the set after week three, you're doing something wrong.'"
A complicating factor in the public's mind is the fact that it is essentially replacing the axed The Saturday Night Show, hosted by Brendan O'Connor. In his last season, the Corkman really started to come into his own as host and the public liked what they saw: on two occasions, the ratings were higher than that weekend's Late Late Show and several other times, O'Connor ran Ryan Tubridy close.
To cancel a chat show that was not just reaching large numbers but also bringing in substantial revenue in advertising surprised many and the knives are likely to be out if D'Arcy is unable to command the same sort of ratings. "I didn't decide to finish up the Brendan O'Connor show," he says, earnestly. "That was not my decision. I didn't canvas for it in any shape or form. All of it was outside my control. I enjoyed it. I thought Brendan was doing a really good job, but I had no control over what happened to it. I knew I'd have a chance to do a chat show, but that was it."
He says he is still adjusting to the demands of afternoon radio. "It's a work in progress but it's beginning to come together. I'm very heartened by the fact people are contacting us to tell us personal stories. That was something that I'd loved about the old [Today FM] job and I wasn't sure if it would happen because the audience is so different.
"Look, there are days where I go: 'F***… have I made the right decision?' But there are days when you go: 'Yeah, that really worked.' I do miss the energy of 9am, but I think we're building something special here. And hopefully it will be the same story for the TV show."
D'Arcy meets Weekend on the day that photo of drowned three-year-old migrant Aylan Kurdi is dominating the news agenda, a story that has really moved him as a father. "Tom is the same age," he says. "It's just heartbreaking to think of a life wasted like that and what his father is going through. And all because they were trying to escape an awful situation and try to make a better life for themselves somewhere else. It would make you thankful to be living in this country."
'The Ray D'Arcy Show' starts on RTÉ One next Saturday and airs after the 'Nine O'Clock News'. 'The Ray D'Arcy Show' on RTÉ Radio 1 is at 3pm, Monday to Friday