The real Pat Kenny is standing up again . . .
If posterity ever wants a sense of the mood in recession-stricken Ireland, it need look no further, writes Ed Power
Published 30/05/2011 | 05:00
The charge most commonly levelled against Pat Kenny is that he is brusque, humourless and can't do light entertainment. Strangely, these are the very qualities that send people into a swoon over Newsnight's Jeremy Paxman (or 'Paxo', as he is often called, presumably because it encourages the fantasy of a cuddly rogue under the pit-bull exterior).
Then again, such double standards can often feel ingrained in the Irish psyche -- on television anything homegrown is reflexively dismissed as fifth-rate tat, while even a mediocre import from across the water receives the benefit of the doubt verging on fawning (for reminder that even the usually unimpeachable HBO can make programmes as stinky as anything slinking out of RTÉ, cast your mind back to its recent, lamentable sit-com, Episodes).
Kenny's great historic misstep, of course, was to think that his skills as a current affair presenter could transfer to fluffy light entertainment -- a notion which, with hindsight, can be regarded as approximately as preposterous as Paxman standing in for Graham Norton and lasting the distance with Lady Gaga.
But even if Kenny's new stint as host of current affairs bear pit The Frontline will never quite scrub away the memory of a decade of Late Late Shows hewn out of the finest plywood, it certainly succeeds on its own terms.
More than that, it confirms that when it comes to making the good and the great of Irish society -- if only there was such thing as a sarcasm font -- squirm in their chairs, Kenny is past master. Standing apart from the touchy-feely school of current affairs presenting, Kenny has honed his natural abrasiveness into a surgical interviewing style (you know a politician has been bested if he is reduced to flustered silent and rehashed talking points). Sometimes, admittedly, Kenny tips towards rudeness. But maybe that's what is needed right now. If more people had been rude to Bertie Ahern during the boom, perhaps we wouldn't be swirling around the plug-hole at the moment.
The Frontline is often criticised for its excessive negativity and combustible atmosphere. Nobody could argue the second point -- at moments the ambiance is more Jerry Springer at full chairs-over-the-head tilt than Question Time. That said, for many the appeal of The Frontline is precisely that it isn't afraid to face up to, occasionally wallow in, the dark side of national affairs. Everybody knows the country is on its uppers and that, miracles excepted, last year's bailout is going have roughly the same effect on the economy as a cast and splint on a man requiring amputation.
On The Frontline, Ireland, in all its contradictory, recriminatory anger, has a chance to vent and it is to Kenny's credit that he prevents proceedings descending into a straight-up brawl. Decades from now, should anyone want a sense of exactly what Ireland's frame of mind was as it slid off the economic cliff, The Frontline will be the perfect snapshot. Yes, we'll tell our great-grand kids via holo-twitter, things truly were that bad, the public really was that incoherent with rage.
What's especially remarkable about Kenny's presenting style is that, much of the time, he doesn't even try to project affability. Most television personalities are pathologically desperate to be liked -- it appears to be a basic part of the job description. Kenny, however, seems genuinely not to care whether you warm to him or not.
Granted, the same could be said of Vincent Browne on TV3 but he comes to television after decades in the trenches of print journalism, whereas Kenny is someone who spent a huge chunk of his career dallying in the shallow waters of light entertainment.
If anything detracts from Kenny's authority as The Frontline moderator it is that, on any given evening, he is likely the best-paid person in the room.
This became a flash-point last November, when Jack O'Connor of Siptu accused him of keeping a trophy house. Kenny was quick to let him know he considered the assertion incorrect and ungentlemanly (O'Connor apologised immediately) and the subject hasn't been raised since. But it is still there (viewers tweeting about The Frontline mention little else).
The standard deflection is that, in his capacity as morning radio host and weekly TV compere, Kenny brings in many times his salary in advertising. But to what extent is this a reflection of Kenny's talent as presenter or of the fact that lots of people tend to listen to Radio One in the morning? Did ratings collapse when Myles Dungan recently stood in for the regular presenter?
If not, is RTE seriously arguing that he, too, should be on upwards of half a million a year?