Sunday 25 June 2017

Brendan O'Connor on winning the chat show war: 'All it takes is for me to say one thing wrong and the whole thing could come crashing down'

Cutting Edge is the most anticipated of the recent television returns. Our reporter spoke to host Brendan O'Connor, plus contributors George Hook, Al Porter and Brenda Power

Brendan O'Connor in a rare quiet moment on the Cutting Edge set. Photo: Andres Poveda
Brendan O'Connor in a rare quiet moment on the Cutting Edge set. Photo: Andres Poveda
Former guest Al Porter
Al Porter spoke about his battle with depression on RTE's Cutting Edge
Emma Dabiri was also a guest on the show
Brendan O'Connor on the set of 'The Saturday Night Show.
Niamh Horan on Brendan O'Connor's Cutting Edge. Image: RTE One
Enigma: Comedian and broadcaster Al Porter. Photo: Mark Condren

Donal Lynch

Irish people can speak with wonderful colour at the kitchen table, Terry Prone once said, but when the cameras are on "they iron themselves flat".

In the decades since she spoke those words the number of chat-based programmes has exploded. The terrestrial channels are wall-to-wall talk every night now, and shouting at the TV has been replaced by getting your oar in on Twitter. The explosion of social media has shown that there is clearly a great appetite for wit, banter and iconoclastic opinions and, in an era of falling media revenues, talk television, with its relatively low overheads, is an attractive proposition for bean counters.

So, why does it seem almost impossible to get it right? We know, somehow, that all this talk on TV does not remotely approximate the banter of the pub or the acid dissections at the book club. The squawking heads are invariably ironed flat by the time they hit the air and the content is jolly but seldom witty. It could be the formats: current affairs seems too stilted and controlled, game shows are too unrelentingly jocular, chat shows themselves seem fake and smarmy - unreconstructed relics of a 1950s idea of light entertainment.

Or it could be the hosts: it's no wonder, perhaps, that we give the most successful of them the roughest ride of all.

Niamh Horan on Brendan O'Connor's Cutting Edge. Image: RTE One
Niamh Horan on Brendan O'Connor's Cutting Edge. Image: RTE One

Brendan O'Connor came to Cutting Edge having endured his own rough ride, his Saturday Night Show having been cancelled despite its success in the ratings - it eclipsed The Late Late on a number of occasions and provided almost weekly water cooler moments. And in a night-time television landscape now largely dominated by interchangeable heads, Brendan and the Cutting Edge team at Mind The Gap Films and RTE had a challenge akin to reinventing the wheel: how to make a success out of yet more talk.

The solution was breathtakingly simple and brilliant. Strip away the gimmicks and the formats, get rid of the band and the monologue, and bring it back to the simplicity of the kitchen table; four people, facing each other, addressing the topics of the day, but riffing on their own backstories too. In between we have the main panellist conversations leavened by outside broadcast contributions from taxi drivers and hairdressers. The discussions had a freewheeling mixture of the political and the personal which more closely approximated the real rhythms of late night conversation than anything we had previously seen on Irish television.

Little wonder then that both series were a huge success, with water cooler moments abounding; Al Porter on his depression; Niamh Horan on alcohol and sexual consent; Brenda Power on the myth of the modern doting dad; and Stefanie Preissner's priceless WTF face as she took in George Hook's soliloquies on planning his funeral and losing his virginity. The programme deservedly won an IFTA for Best Entertainment Show last October and the real colour of our national pastime seemed, for once, to have made its way on to the screen.

If many of us doubted that this was possible it might have been because in this era of endless outrage, all controversial opinions seem to be largely forgone. Media is now awash with dime store demagogues and there's a fine line between giving the pot a thought-provoking stir and going full Katie Hopkins. There's also a sense that there are no taboos left to discuss and all the meaningful chat show iconoclasm was dealt with by Gay Byrne in the 1970s and 1980s.

And yet some of the episodes of Cutting Edge showed that Gay's Ireland of the bishop and the nightie has been largely turned on its head. Who would have thought, for instance, that Niamh Horan's take on alcohol and sexual consent - that women may leave themselves open to attack if they don't have their wits about them, once an admonition that most parents would happily give their kids, would now count as an extreme, rage-inducing opinion.

Or that Alison O'Connor's sentence that "the Irish mammy has a lot to answer for" (surely a private refrain at some point in every home across the nation) would raise so many hackles. (Tom McGurk verbalised the backlash when he told her on air, "You're defending women, you're arguing the case for women being discriminated against and you're attacking mothers… explain that one.")

Al Porter spoke about his battle with depression on RTE's Cutting Edge
Al Porter spoke about his battle with depression on RTE's Cutting Edge

Time and again the discussions showed that there is still a big disjunct between what Irish people say and what they will tolerate being said. "The modern equivalent of the belt of the crozier is the wrath of Twitter," The Sunday Times columnist Brenda Power says. "I think one of the huge strengths of Cutting Edge is that it trusts its panel, meaning they allow people to speak naturally and freely. I've been on programmes where a subject is being discussed but they are moved along, almost programmatically, from one person to the next and you might prepare a remark and they never get to you.

"This instead has the feeling of a table at a dinner party that's really alive and the conversation is flowing. I think it being live is important as well, because there's a sort of immediacy - the feeling that anything can happen. I've honestly never had such a big reaction to anything that I've been on."

Part of that flow draws in the backstories of the contributors. There was perhaps a sense that in this confessional culture, when even GAA players are emboldened to talk about their mental health, that we have become inured to personal revelation.

And yet here, too, Cutting Edge cuts across the blather; it's allowed that people's opinions don't occur in a vacuum but are informed at every step by their own personal travails.

Last November comedian Al Porter spoke movingly about being prescribed antidepressants and went on to say that the stigma he felt about his depression also led him to go to great lengths to hide the diagnosis from his family, including concealing his medication and having the prescription written out to different names.

With his hands visibly shaking, Porter also produced the medication to show to the panel, and said as a result of taking them he was "functioning much better". The comedian was widely praised on social media for his honest account of his struggles, including a social media pat on the back from fellow funnyman Dara O'Briain who said he hoped Al's openness would help to dispel some of the stigma that exists.

George Hook on Wednesday night's Cutting Edge
George Hook on Wednesday night's Cutting Edge

Al says of appearing on the show, "In my opinion Cutting Edge is one of the most important TV shows in years. People don't hold back and it's created some of the most interesting debates and watercooler moments on RTE in years. For me personally it's been a huge turning point in my career in Ireland in that it allowed people to see the real me, whether that be defending where I come from and working class areas in general against media bias or feeling comfortable enough to discuss my depression."

George Hook says that a personal story lends a greater "context" for the viewer. He appeared on Cutting Edge last November when the range of topics covered on the programme were the US presidential election, breastfeeding women and funeral arrangements. However, things took an unexpected turn when The Right Hook presenter made a starkly personal admission about his first sexual experience.

The 75-year-old revealed that he didn't have his first drink until he was 21 years old, and didn't lose his virginity until he was 28. At another point he spoke on his views on why heaven exists, almost choking up when he mentioned his late mother.

"When you're my age, in your declining years and you've fucked up most of your life, there isn't really anything left to be embarrassed about, and there's a great freedom then in being able to be yourself," George explains. "So you can say what you like. And that works because political correctness rules the roost on television.

"For instance to say that you believe in God is considered an almost deranged statement. If you dare to suggest we might not take in 4,000 migrants you're a racist. People want to shut down conversation, there is a shortage of real discussion and it's far more comfortable to just do an interview with someone promoting a sitcom or a book.

"What O'Connor does is select the right people with the strongest voices, it plays to his strengths and allows him freedom of movement. I'd describe him as like a mafia hitman; I'm always waiting for a stiletto to be planted between my ribs."

George appeared on the same episode of the programme as Munich-born/Cork-based playwright and author Stefanie Preissner. Their interaction seemed emblematic of another trope of Irish public debate; the tensions between youth and age. Stefanie's incredulous reactions to George's opinions and his revelation about losing his virginity were already the subject of internet memes before the programme came off the air. George says that he hardly registered what was going on because he was so wound up with nervousness that he was focused on himself.

"I wasn't used to doing any live TV and I assumed that the camera was going to be on whoever was talking," Stefanie recalls, adding "You have no way of knowing when the camera is on you. After the show I turned my phone on and Twitter had gone buck wild. I had a worry pain in my stomach immediately. I was thinking, 'Oh God, what did I do now, what did I say.' Then I saw loads of people had taken photos of their TV screens and Amy O'Connor from The Daily Edge had put it up by the time I got home. It was surreal."

Brendan O'Connor very much controls the pace and tone of the show and keeps things moving with his own mischievous sense of humour and keen ear for an original thought. It's perhaps his ability to be both ringmaster and co-conspirator that gives him such confidence in his guests, some of whom were relatively new to national exposure.

A particular theme over the first two seasons was giving airtime to fresh, female voices, including Preissner, Horan, Eleanor Tiernan, Alison O'Connor, and Emma Dabiri, an Irish-Nigerian academic and writer who spoke eloquently about the natural hair movement for black women, adding that some people had approached her and tried to touch her hair without permission.

"Young women are only starting to be heard and we have a way to go, a whole lot to say, before we catch up with all of the people who have been running their mouths for generations", Preissner says.

"If you pick up any paper this week you will see examples of how young women have historically been on the bottom rung of the Irish ladder of respect. Our concerns are ones of survival.

"Quite frankly, young men don't have decisions about their body autonomy made for them by other people and until that changes, our concerns will always be different."

Brendan has said that women on the programme tend to be more "real" and added, with tongue only partly in cheek, that he'd like to phase out male guests. "I think this is the season where we really settle in," he told the Sunday Independent. "The first two we were still working it out. But now it should really start to sing. We've been doing more workshops and finding more great new faces and voices and I'm excited about seeing new people in the mix.

"I really get nervous when something I do is well received but it is nice the way this has landed well," he adds. "And it's nice too that it feels like it's relevant to people my age and younger. I was in Kehoe's one night over Christmas and there were all these youngish people coming up and arguing about various things that had happened on Cutting Edge and about various people who'd been on. And they seemed so engaged. And that was when I thought 'wow we could be on to something here'.

"But we must always remember that all it takes is for me or someone else to say one thing wrong and the whole thing will come crashing down. But I guess half the buzz for people watching is that sense of jeopardy and the buzz for me, partially anyway, is making sure that doesn't happen."

Brendan O'Connor's 'Cutting Edge' returns to RTE One this week. It goes out on Wednesdays at 9.35pm

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