Great great Gaybo: How Gay the survivor has stayed on top
Gay Byrne still has a loyal audience more than five decades after he rose to the pinnacle in broadcasting. To his fans, the news conveyed on his radio show that he may have cancer came as a shock. Liam Collins on Gaybo's enduring appeal
Published 27/11/2016 | 02:30
There is something very ordinary about the Gay Byrne you meet at a reception, a theatre opening or an awards ceremony, all of which he likes to attend in the company of his wife Kathleen Watkins. He enjoys the small talk of such occasions and doesn't seem at all bothered, either by those who are dazzled to be in his company or those who treat him as just another familiar face.
It's as if he is conserving that special energy that has kept him at the top of Irish broadcasting for half a century for the moment the studio light turns red. Then he's suddenly transformed into that different and defining persona, the entertainer, the inquisitor, the seeker of truth.
Largely devoid of ego himself, he has leached the most wonderful moments from others, from Pádraig Flynn boasting of keeping three residences, the unforgettable interview when Terry Keane bared her soul about her long-time love affair with Charlie Haughey and the car-crash interview with Annie Murphy, among many others.
When he goes into the studio, a ruthless professionalism permeates his presence. He didn't accidentally present the biggest radio show and the biggest television show in Ireland for four decades to the cusp of the Millennium. He worked - and still works - tremendously hard, he surrounded himself with some of the brightest and the best in journalism and rather than let the so-called 'news agenda' dictate to him, he dictated the agenda to the nation.
And he did it in the belief that the only real measurement of a successful broadcaster is the size of their audience.
To the 82-year-old's listeners last Sunday it may have been a shock but not a surprise that he chose the closing moments of his Lyric FM jazz show to drop the C-bomb in his own typically deadpan way. It was as if the real story was not that he may have cancer, but that something as mundane as the prostate would keep him from his audience.
My own father, who died earlier this year from prostate cancer at the age of 90, rarely if ever moved the dial, except on Sunday afternoon when he switched over the Lyric to sit alone with his Sunday paper and listen to Gay Byrne. He wasn't really a fan of jazz but what he loved was the patter, the occasional little tell-tale story or the politically incorrect observation.
That is why he is still Gay, Gaybo or even Uncle Gaybo to his audience. He lavished on them his real self while restraining his off-screen personality to one bordering on the nondescript.
"This gifted presenter knew how to get the best out of those he interviewed and create an interesting ambience which would attract viewers from all backgrounds, young and old," a perceptive Ulick O'Connor said in a footnote to his own diaries.
"In the first 10 years of his programme, he acquired a reputation for bringing before viewers problems that up to then had not been aired in the Irish media.
"In his later years, he became something of a panjandrum and involved himself in political and social confrontations in which he was out of his depth. To some extent this was due to the paucity of talent in RTÉ at the time in handling public affairs, so that the task devolved on Gay Byrne's entertainment programme."
But it wasn't only the Late Late Show. Equally influential was the Gay Byrne Hour (later the Gay Byrne Show) which ran on RTÉ radio from 1972 to 1999. Along with producer John Caden, it challenged almost all aspects of Irish social thinking, which up to the mid-80s at least was filtered through the narrow confines of Catholic doctrine.
Their 'seed' letters - some of which commentators believe were written with this intention in mind - inflamed a fierce national debate on contraception, marital abuse and infidelity, endemic alcoholism and its consequences and other issues politically dormant but very much alive in the hearts and minds of his listeners.
His abortive nomination to run as a Fianna Fáil-supported candidate in the 2011 Presidential election provoked columnist Fintan O'Toole to say: "Gaybo is not a man but an image. That image is of someone who floats above Irish life without ever being entirely part of it. The paradox is that Byrne had such a huge effect on attitudes in Ireland from the 1960s onwards because he perfected the art of appearing not to be trying to affect anything."
The nation's 'father confessor' was then described by the writer and journalist as a "bog standard, unreflective and instinctive right winger" for his opposition to a property tax, his approval of the free market and his notorious interview when he counselled Annie Murphy that if her son Peter with Bishop Eamon Casey was "half of the man his father was" he would turn out all right.
But given the tens of thousands of hours of radio and television broadcasting that he produced, and is still producing, it is impossible to divine any pattern that defines the man himself. Over the years I've had to ring him on occasion, in circumstances good and bad. He was faultlessly polite even when it was about his deteriorating personal finances and the chattering classes believed he was on the brink of financial ruin.
Unlike others, he wanted to serve his listeners and his viewers, not his own ego.
When the politician Dessie O'Malley was expelled from Fianna Fáil, he went on the Late Late Show to talk about his fractious relationship with Charlie Haughey, but would only go so far as to say that he had "formed certain opinions" about the man, refusing to elaborate on what would later become public knowledge through various tribunals.
"Put up or shut up - stop saying things or else tell us what you mean," Byrne rebuked him sternly.
By the same token Haughey, who once told me he found Gay Byrne "dry" but Kathleen Watkins "great fun", was one of the few outsiders invited to a lunch in Montrose to honour Gay Byrne shortly before he stood down. Yet just a week later (May 14, 1999), on his second last Late Late Show, Terry Keane was the main guest, revealing for the first time her long-running affair with Haughey. It was a devastating moment for the former Taoiseach, but a memorable swansong for the broadcaster.
That is what has kept him at the very top for so long. He commanded an audience of over a million viewers on a Saturday night, something neither of his successors Pat Kenny or Ryan Tubridy have been able to do, apart from very special occasions such as The Toy Show. Of course, the broadcasting landscape has fragmented in the meantime, but Gay Byrne's incendiary line of questioning also made it impossible to miss.
The camp British actor Kenneth Williams wrote in his diary about appearing on this bizarre television show in Dublin where a giveaway "one for everyone in the audience" was followed by a tear-jerking interview with a bereaved parent, followed by Brian Lenihan Snr telling a guard who stopped him for suspected drink driving "will you have a pint or a transfer?" followed by a song from one of his unlikely favourites like Sinéad O'Connor. But it was a mixture that fascinated his audience for 37 years.
Possibly because of his frugal upbringing, he gives the impression of one who is to some extent obsessed by money. Both he and the writer Hugh Leonard were bound together by their unfortunate relationship with the accountant Russell Murphy, a man who took them out to dinner, acted as a friend and confidante and lived the high life on money he robbed from them, conveniently dying before anyone found out.
He also invested in Anglo-Irish Bank shares and in the property schemes of his one-time accountant Derek Quinlan, which left him financially strained when the property market collapsed. But today, his company Gabbro has a healthy €600,000 in shareholders equity and, according to documents on the Company Registration Office website, an insurance policy on his life to the value of €1m is assigned to Bank of Ireland.
Even though it's over 16 years since the lights dimmed for him in Studio 1, Gay Byrne has never really gone away. Apart from his Lyric radio show, he has presented several series of the fascinating The Meaning of Life with heavyweight guests, and staged a successful one-man show produced by his friend of many years John McColgan.
If anything, Byrne represents the old adage about being nice to people on the way up because you might meet them on the way back down.
He was that man, that uncle Gaybo to the young Turks on the way up, but not for any other reason that is the way he is. He's never had to meet them on the way down because for his entire career he's the only one who never came back from the summit of a glittering broadcasting career.