Thursday 8 December 2016

What is it about the Irish that works so well on the British airwaves?

As Ryan Tubridy moves to the BBC, Darragh McManus looks at our track record across the water

Published 18/04/2011 | 05:00

Enter stage left: Late Late Show host Tubridy is set to fill in for Graham Norton on the Beeb during the summer
Enter stage left: Late Late Show host Tubridy is set to fill in for Graham Norton on the Beeb during the summer

The steady, seemingly inevitable rise of Ryan Tubridy to the pinnacle of his profession continues apace. The Late Late host, who also has his own 2fm show, is moving up a level this summer -- to the world's most prestigious and iconic broadcaster.

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Tubridy will spend Saturday mornings from July to September filling in for fellow Irishman Graham Norton on BBC Radio 2. It's described as "very similar to what Ryan does on 2fm".

This is the second time the British giant has approached Tubridy, after being rebuffed last summer. And it poses a persistent question: is the 37-year-old set to leave for London? By his own admission he's ambitious, and there is no higher professional peak than the BBC.

If he does make a permanent move across the water, he'll be following in several pairs of footsteps. Irish broadcasters have enjoyed success in the UK for over 50 years, ever since the legendary Eamonn Andrews began commentating on boxing matches for the BBC.

A native of Synge Street in Dublin, Andrews was a pioneering figure in British TV, associated with What's My Line?, The Eamonn Andrews Show and, most famously, This is Your Life, which he made his own until his death in 1987.

What Andrews was to UK television, Gay Byrne was to Ireland, and Tubridy's antecedent in the Late Late chair was actually inspired by Andrews to try his hand in Britain. He later said of his mentor: "I wanted to be what he was." Gaybo enjoyed some success over there -- he was the first person to introduce The Beatles on screen while working at Granada Television.

However, his UK adventure didn't last too long, and he returned to Ireland when the Late Late began in 1962.

The two biggest Irish hits in UK broadcasting are probably Terry Wogan and Graham Norton. The former has attained the status of 'national treasure' in Old Albion (despite being born in Limerick), and his success is monumental.

He's been knighted, mentioned in a Franz Ferdinand song, presented Eurovision, had the most popular radio show in Europe until recently, and hosted a memorable chatshow during which David Icke claimed to be the son of God and George Best arrived drunk.

When Wogan stepped down from his Radio 2 slot in 2009, The Times ran an op-ed quoting Auden's Funeral Blues.

Norton, meanwhile, has burned his name across the celebrity firmament. He began with comedy slots on BBC Radio 4, then moved on to TV comedy on Channel 5, appearances on Father Ted and, by the late 1990s, his own Channel 4 chatshow.

In 2005 Norton moved to the BBC in a "golden handcuffs" deal, where he's presented huge-rating shows like Strictly Dance Fever, How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?, the BAFTA awards and his eponymous talk-show.

So what is it about the Irish that makes us such a good fit for the British airwaves?

Media and communications expert Natasha Fennell, of Stillwater Communications in Dublin, reckons there are several reasons: "Irish broadcasters have done well in Britain over the years because they have a soft voice register; they have an intimacy with their Irish listeners that easily translates to a broader audience. They have a quick wit which engages people.

"They have the huge advantage of not having hang-ups about class so they can relate to everyone. Finally, they don't take themselves too seriously and they have a light touch which the audience enjoys."

And what of the view from across the water? Sam Wollaston is TV critic with the Guardian. He says, "It's probably down to all the old stereotypes -- that the Irish have poetry in their souls."

Gordon Beattie is chairman of Beattie Communications, one of the top PR and media-training firms in London. He says: "The Irish have proved time and again that they have the gift of the gab. In the UK we love anyone with a soft and hypnotic Irish accent. Some would say it's sexier than a French accent."

He also reckons Tubridy should be optimistic about his chances of making it in Britain: "Gay Byrne had a successful career on both sides of the Irish Sea -- there is no reason why Ryan shouldn't follow suit. We're looking forward to hearing his dulcet tones."

Our successes over there are legion. In 'mainstream' broadcasting alone, there's Ennis native Des Lynam, who fronted celebrated shows like Match of the Day and Countdown; Henry Kelly, a popular figure on UK radio and TV since the 1970s; and the late Dr Anthony Clare, who produced groundbreaking programmes on mental health.

Donal MacIntyre parlayed his seminal Undercover series into a successful career as investigative journalist and TV personality for over a decade.

In entertainment, Gráinne Seoige is a producer and presenter on ITV's flagship morning show Daybreak, and while the programme has had some teething problems, few would bet against the Galway girl winning over a UK audience.

Emma Ledden and Laura Whitmore made it in music television, Liz Bonnin in science, Pixie McKenna in health/medical. Craig Doyle spent several years presenting sport and travel shows on BBC. And Fergal Keane, Joe Lynam, Enda Brady, Orla Guerin and others are flying the flag in current affairs.

Meanwhile, one of RTÉ's most famous figures, Miriam O'Callaghan, was among the very few people to make the return journey. She began her TV career as a researcher -- appropriately enough, on This is Your Life -- before earning her stripes as producer and reporter on current affairs shows like Newsnight and Tonight with Trevor McDonald. She was head-hunted by RTÉ and came back to Ireland in 1993, finally breaking ties with BBC five years later.

She has said in the past: "Irish presenters have always gone down really well with British audiences. Eamonn Andrews was the father of all Irish broadcasters in Britain and I was witness to how much he was genuinely loved there.

"He allowed others from Ireland to follow and ensure they would be liked and respected. I loved working for the BBC but made a family choice to return and base my career in RTÉ."

Interestingly, it's well known in RTÉ that O'Callaghan has been approached almost every year, by former colleagues now in senior positions, to return to the BBC -- the most recent approach just last month. So far she has declined for family reasons, but the door remains open.

So will the Irish colonisation of British broadcasting continue? Sam Wollaston believes so: "Well, it's not showing any sign of letting up, and I can't see why it should -- this is not fashion."

And Miriam O'Callaghan adds, "British audiences will always have a soft spot for Irish presenters".

Irish Independent

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