Viewers want a bit of Zig and Zag, but Ray just gave us Zig and Zig
Ray D'Arcy needs to understand that a chat show must be dangerous to be worth watching, writes Eilis O'Hanlon
I like what they've done with Studio Four," said Ray D'Arcy as he began his new Saturday night chat show on RTE One. Most people at home were surely thinking: Have they done anything with Studio Four? Because the set doesn't look all that different from the one used previously on The Saturday Night Show.
The desk sits to the left of the screen; the stage on which musical guests perform is to the right; the steps down which D'Arcy descended at the start of the show are in the middle. Where is the change? The desk is different, that's all. Brendan O'Connor's was more like something from the bridge of the Starship Enterprise; Ray's gone for a more traditional office-desk look.
And light bulbs.
Lots of light bulbs.
Presumably energy-saving ones, because RTE wouldn't want to get into trouble with the environmentalist crowd.
The one difference was that Ray now has a sofa for his guests to sit on, in the manner of The Graham Norton Show, though he hasn't gone "full Norton" as yet by having his guests all come on together at the start of the show. It might have been interesting to see Tommy Tiernan interrupting inappropriately whilst Tulisa discussed that sex tape.
In short, it was all very traditional, very conventional. D'Arcy said he wouldn't be reinventing the wheel, but in the event he barely even retouched it. Everything - from the opening titles, with those generic night-time city-street scenes (a staple of the genre from David Letterman's Late Show to the recent Pat Kenny In The Round) - to the way the camera swept across the audience, was lifted straight from Chat Shows For Dummies.
These details matter, because they don't happen by accident. Plenty of thought and planning goes into each decision. Take the colour scheme. The overwhelming impression was of a pervading blueness tinged with gold.
The sofa was blue. Ray's name was lit up in blue in the titles. He wore blue. So did Tulisa and Tommy, interestingly. The only one who didn't was rugby player Donncha O'Callaghan, who donned a grey suit. Did he not get the memo?
Blue is neutral, conservative, unthreatening, but it also carries connotations of royal power, of entitlement and ascension, quite appropriate for a returning Crown Prince like D'Arcy. Gold equates to success, achievement, abundance. Possibly a coded reference to the reportedly gargantuan salary which RTE offered to lure Ray back from Today FM?
Set designers study this visual language intimately, because the place where a chat show happens is as much a part of what makes it work, or not work, as the format itself.
Those who analyse such things also tell us that the objective of a chat show is to make the audience feel as if they are participants, rather than mere spectators.
Ray played that intimacy card right at the start, practically inviting them into his own home with an opening story about his young child, which broke down the barrier between host and audience, but also risked exposing one of his major flaws. Namely that if the personality of the presenter is to be pitched that strongly as a programme's selling point, we must first know who he is.
It used to be so simple. You were either on Team Gay or Team Pat. The Late, Late Show and Kenny Live were different beasts. They tuned themselves to different keys. There was the same difference between Ryan Tubridy's handling of Friday nights and Brendan O'Connor's style on The Saturday Night Show.
The striking thing now is how similar Tubridy and D'Arcy are. They could almost be a double act, an Irish Ant and Dec, except that it is possible to see the dynamic in the Geordie duo and what each contributes to it, whereas Ryan and Ray are almost interchangeable.
It's like having Zig and Zig on screen, or Zag and Zag, when what you want is Zig and Zag. Why would anyone watch The Ray D'Arcy Show if they've already seen the Late, Late the night before?
There's no point. It's not as if there aren't alternatives to be watching. Like or hate it, Graham Norton's show is different to anything else on air. Miss Ray chatting to Tulisa and, chances are, you can catch her chatting to someone else on another show and have much the same experience.
Danish TV producer John Carlsen once summed up what makes a chat show work as danger. "The risk of a planned mini-interview developing into a boring exercise in futility, which you can do nothing to change, is ever present."
Likewise the risk on live TV of a technical breakdown. The danger could be removed simply by pre-recording, so why do it this way?
"Because," he says, "the element of unpredictability which is built into the live transmission also creates the opportunity for the unexpected bonus. A participant can suddenly get excited and say things that he had really intended to keep quiet about, a member of the audience might actively intervene or an entertainer might begin to improvise and take over the programme."
In other words, in order to work, a chat show always has to contain the potential to not work, to go wrong. And, if and when it does, then we see, as viewers, the character of the host. That's why viewers love The Late, Late Toy Show.
As a viewer, one such defining moment of O'Connor's time on Saturday nights came when he had on the Russian punk protest group Pussy Riot, recently released from one of Vladimir Putin's charming prisons.
One would have thought that as they had endured Siberia, an Irish chat show would be welcome relief, but the two women seemed curiously prickly and O'Connor's refusal to find the unravelling situation anything other than amusingly absurd, set an atmosphere of creative tension that was rewarding to watch.
Ray clearly understands this dynamic, this need for danger, and wants to capitalise on it, which is why, before interviewing the unpredictable Tommy Tiernan, he said: "Shall I tear up the cards?"
Tiernan said yes, so Ray tore them up and threw them away. The implication being 'hold on to your hats, this interview could go anywhere'.
But what was significant was that he hadn't actually been using cards up to that point. Everything he needed was written on pieces of paper laid out on the desk in front of him, and he certainly didn't rip those up. It was, in effect, a sleight of hand.
The cards were a prop that could be ripped up, giving an illusion of danger. The safety net was still there, waiting to catch him if he fell. There was never any risk of something going wrong; D'Arcy's production team simply wanted it to appear as if there was.
The question is whether viewers can tell the difference and the smart money says they can, because they're not just spectators, remember? They're increasingly engaged and involved participants.
The idea last weekend was to present it as if Tiernan talking about having reached his "soft mickey years" was dangerous. Ray put his head in his hands, as if to say "what have I let myself in for?" but in fact it was the ultimate in safe.
That kind of saucy banter is entirely mainstream nowadays and would elicit no criticism at all, at least not from anyone whose opinion would matter to a young, right-on media crowd.
He was less comfortable when Tiernan joked that the solution to obesity was to "hunt" fat people. That had the potential to discombobulate metropolitan political correctness, so Ray swiftly moved on.
There was nothing wrong with the first episode of The Ray D'Arcy Show, as far as it went. The problem is that it didn't really go anywhere. There's nothing wrong with a slice of toast either, but ultimately it's just another slice of toast, and would you shell out half-a-million euro for it?
Ray, you might say, is a slice of toast and he'll always need some marmalade to make him more appealing. That means the guests have to be tasty; and whilst there was some criticism of the first show on that score, much of it was unfair. Donncha O'Callaghan was engaging, warm, funny.
Tulisa was lovely too -self-deprecating, sympathetic, vulnerable. Tommy Tiernan was at his funniest, with plenty of his usual skewed insights into the Irish character.
Ray could hide behind them in the same way that his blue suit helped him blend into the scenery. But take them away and what's left? It's the classic dilemma. Without his jokes, does the clown cease to exist? Away from the role, what's left of the actor?
Take the guests away from the chat show host and he either stands free in his own right or else he vanishes.
Ray D'Arcy is a nice guy who presents some passably diverting radio and TV shows. That's it. Maybe it's enough. Maybe it isn't. Either way, it's pointless expecting him to be anything else at this stage.
His defining feature is an aching desire to be liked. That story he told about his child was all about positioning himself within that non-threatening space, just as the reference to Dustin the Turkey was a deliberate self-referential appeal to those who remember fondly his days on The Den.
Mentioning Dustin was a mistake, though, because Dustin did "do" danger; there was always the possibility of something going awry, viewers really didn't know what the turkey might say next.
Even now, with an older audience at his disposal, Ray D'Arcy seems frustratingly unwilling to take the same risks.