Sunday 4 December 2016

Pat Stacey: Why RTE’s new panel show is a step back onto barren old TV ground

Pat Stacey

Published 13/01/2016 | 11:01

Brendan O'Connor
Brendan O'Connor

Television is evolving at a faster rate than at any period in the last few decades. There have never been so many channels, never been so many programmes, never been so much choice.

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Despite what the doom mongers and the “everything was better in the old days” nostalgia brigade claim, the staggering volume of television, domestic and international, we can now access means there’s more quality at our fingertips than ever before.

Sure, we could do with more single dramas — which genuinely were one of the truly great products of British broadcasters in the 1970s and 1980s — and fewer reality show dross and talent competitions (in essence, really just more reality show dross dressed up as light entertainment).

But in general, viewers have never had it so good. If you doubt that, try comparing the kind of top-quality drama coming out of America to the formulaic cop shows and Westerns that used to constitute the bulk of the TV imports way back when.

Former Oasis frontman Noel Gallagher pictured with Brendan O'Connor during rehearsals on the set of the RTE Saturday Night Show. Picture Andres Poveda
Former Oasis frontman Noel Gallagher pictured with Brendan O'Connor during rehearsals on the set of the RTE Saturday Night Show. Picture Andres Poveda

The explosion of streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime Instant Video (sadly, still not available in this country) has transformed the way large chunks of the viewing public watch television; ironically, by driving them away from the TV set and onto the screens of their laptops, tablets and smartphones.

The series that’s on many people’s lips right now, as well as making news headlines around the globe, is Netflix’s documentary series Making a Murderer. While I haven’t yet had a chance to work my way through all 10 episodes, it’s become the first binge-watch sensation of 2016.

The Ray D'Arcy Show
The Ray D'Arcy Show

Yet there’s one television market where the old ways are dying hard — old ways and indeed old bad habits — and that’s right here on this rain-drenched little rock of ours.

I’ve said several times before in this column that I’m not a great fan of RTE chatshows in general. But the ejection of Brendan O’Connor from his Saturday night slot of five years to make way for an ill thought-out replacement show that’s been little short of lamentable made zero sense — and has so far provided zero entertainment value.

Dara O'Briain on The Panel
Dara O'Briain on The Panel

The whole game of musical chairs smacked of nothing other than a case of mollifying the ego of a certain recently-returned presenter.

What happens next, however, is arguably even more of a retrograde step.

Don't Feed the Gondolas: Sean Moncrieff, Dara O Briain and Brendan O'Connor
Don't Feed the Gondolas: Sean Moncrieff, Dara O Briain and Brendan O'Connor

I can name a number of things I’d like to see on RTE: more original drama every year would be welcome, so would a film review programme. It’s had a few of those over the years, hosted by the likes of Dave Fanning and the late, much-missed doyen of Irish film critics Michael Dwyer.

Come to think of it, a weekly culture show that doesn’t require a PhD in posturing pretentiousness would also be nice, as would a few more of the kind of accessible arts documentaries RTE can be very good at, but seems to have stopped making.

Bernard O'Shea on Next Week's News
Bernard O'Shea on Next Week's News

I could reel off a few more examples, but one thing that wouldn’t be near the top of my list is a topical panel show. Actually, it wouldn’t be on the list at all. But that’s what’s being lined as Brendan O’Connor’s next vehicle now that the other fella is parked in his chair.

According to RTE’s announcement late last week, the as yet unnamed new show, which will run for 16 weeks over the summer and cost €1.12m to make, will “take a provocative and entertaining look at the week’s events”.

Nighthawks (1988) © RTÉ Stills Library
Nighthawks (1988) © RTÉ Stills Library

Sound familiar? It should.

Unless I’m mistaken, RTE said something similar about The Panel at the beginning of its nine-season run in 2003.

If memory serves, RTE may also have said something along the same lines about one or another of those topical panel/chat shows they used to keep throwing at Craig Doyle in the hope something would stick.

It may have said it about other topical panel shows too, because RTE has had a lot of the things over the years, few of them particularly memorable – at least for the right kind of reasons.

The best was probably Don’t Feed the Gondolas; funnily enough, Brendan O’Connor, who was a regular on it, ended up as host after Sean Moncrieff moved on, but the show lasted just one more series.

The most recent, and one of the worst, was Next Week’s News, which featured a few of the usual deadeningly familiar local comedy faces (Bernard O’Shea, Neil Delamere, the awfully pleased with himself PJ Gallagher) and was axed after eight episodes.

The upcoming series will see O’Connor joined each week by two or three guests drawn from a revolving panel of eight (more familiar comedians, I imagine). The presenter-behind-a-desk format has been ditched; the banter will happen in the green room and backstage areas, “to create a relaxed, off the cuff, cafe/pub vibe”.

You know, there used to be a show with a café/pub vibe, and it was excellent, a must-see.

It was called Nighthawks and it ran from 1988 to 1992, during  a brief spell in which RTE was inventive enough to actually break new ground, rather than do what it does these days: tramp over old ground, rehashing the same dead-on-its-feet guff.

Read more: RTE to spend €1.12m on Brendan O'Connor's new weekly panel show

'RTE is moving the same old furniture around yet again' - Pat Stacey on replacing Brendan O'Connor with Ray D'Arcy  

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