Where did it all go wrong?
Say what you will about Pat Kenny's talents and abilities, there's no disputing the fact that 'the Late Late Show' remains the highest-rated show on Irish TV. As Pat kicks off his 10th year at its helm, former 'Late Late' researcher Will Hanafin looks back at Pat's hits and misses, and ultimately finds himself saluting a survivor
George Best used to regale the after-dinner-circuit crowd with a story that is rather oddly appropriate for Pat Kenny as he enters his 10th year as presenter of the Late Late Show.
During the late Seventies, a room-service waiter entered Best's bedroom with breakfast.
George was in bed with a well-known beauty queen, toting a bottle of champagne, and the waiter noticed lots of cash strewn around, spoils of a night's gambling. The waiter asked the errant football genius: "George, where did it all go wrong?"
On the surface, all seems well with the Late Late Show. The Toy Show attracted 1.2 million viewers in November, making it the highest-rated RTE show for years.
The ordinary Late Late Shows also regularly top the viewing charts, with audiences of more than 600,000 beating off competition from the soaps.
But the big question about the viewing figures remains: are they are down to Pat's magnetic brilliance, or the FAEO effect -- there's Feck All Else On telly?
As everyone now huddles around the telly on Friday nights to save their pennies and get some heat, even a cursory glance across the schedule reveals the viewer has less product choice than can be found in a cut-price German supermarket after a food riot. Pat usually has the gargantuan task of battling against an American serial-killer drama on RTE2, the TG4 western, the umpteenth showing of some hackneyed movie on TV3 usually involving Jude Law or Ray Liotta, and assorted documentaries on the British channels with titles such as The RAF at 90.
He occasionally has to compete with limited-run reality TV shows such as Big Brother and I'm A Celebrity. . . Get Me Out Of Here! but, in the battle for the most horrific telly, Pat interviewing the Satanic Sluts beats some model swallowing crocodile testicles any day. And the ratings are good, and his earnings from RTE are also pretty spectacular: in 2006, Pat earned €849,000 for his telly and radio work. But despite the viewing figures and the handsome pay packet, there's a feeling abroad that Pat's been losing the run of himself lately.
There was that interview he gave to the RTE Guide before Christmas announcing that 2008 was his annus horribilis. His mother's death was naturally traumatic for him, but he also referred to his protracted legal dispute over the ownership of Gorse Hill, in Dalkey, which he settled last year.
He said that 2008 was the "toughest year we can recall", and that he "will be glad to see January 1, 2009". It's not like 2008 was a cakewalk for the rest of us either, Pat! The populace takes a dim view of these millionaire squabbles over south Dublin real estate in these recessionary times.
Then, on a pre-Christmas edition of the Late Late Show, Pat tore up Toy Show tickets because competition winner Barbara Heavey told him she wasn't "particularly interested" in them. He dug a deeper hole by suggesting they were harder to get than tickets to the US presidential inauguration. Uh, no.
There was also controversy back in August about the renewal of Pat's contract and reports that negotiations had stalled over its duration. Maybe all this is because Pat's angsty as he reaches the 10-year milestone of presenting the show. Ten years in the job has tended of late to be a dangerous time for high-profile folk. Bertie was gone after 10 years as Taoiseach, and Tony Blair also stepped down as British prime minister after a decade in power.
Pat, facing his own decade in power, also faces analysis of his legacy as we seek out the moments for which he'll be best remembered, and that's where the problems start.
Gay Byrne, we will always remember for items such as the Padraig Flynn interview, and other notable subjects including Annie Murphy, RD Laing and ground-breaking shows on taboo subjects such as sexual attitudes, religion and Travellers' rights. But Pat's decade has been a lot more patchy. It's debatable how much of his Late Late Show stuff will stand the test of time. In fact, if there's one thing we will remember from the Pat years, it's those bizarre interviews with incongruous guests which cruelly expose his stiff interviewing technique.
When I worked as a researcher on Pat's Late Late Show, there was a name for items so bizarre they defied the usual classifications as good, OK or shite. They were defined as Jennifer Aniston's Mother interviews.
Nancy Aniston turned up on the Late Late Show during Pat's early days. On paper, it seemed like a good idea, as she's the mother of the Friends actress. Then, before she went on air, she announced that she wouldn't discuss Jennifer and, anyway, they hadn't spoken in years.
Pat had his hands full discussing the "dark hole of child-parent estrangement" with a woman who was about as interesting as watching paint dry.
And Pat seems to do a lot of Jennifer Aniston's Mother interviews these days -- and they do no favours to him, or to the audience. The recent appearance by the Satanic Sluts was a case in point. The Sluts feature Georgina Baillie, granddaughter of Andrew 'Manuel' Sachs, the actor caught up in the recent BBC controversy.
Pat ended up asking a group of young women dressed in sadomasochistic-dominatrix gear, called the Satanic Sluts, to explain the "elements of burlesque".
When Pat is mired in the middle of one of those interviews, time enters another dimension. The 10- or 15-minute chat seems to take an eternity, tumbleweed flies across Studio 4 and members of the audience begin to turn into Donnie Darko-style rabbits.
So Pat invited the Satanic Sluts to perform one of their routines, an uncoordinated mess dubbed by one critic the dance of the Flabbycat Dolls, which required one of them to dress as a robot while the others worshipped it as sex slaves in their ill-fitting underwear.
Of course, Pat made it even more surreal at the end by saying you'd see worse in a Marks & Spencer ad. That's put me right off fruit cake!
This season has been burdened by many Jennifer Aniston's Mother moments.
There was the time Pat was chatting with the two hairdressers behind Peter Mark about how their new hair salon was "retro, but yet utterly modern".
Then there was the Bionic Woman actress, Lindsay Wagner, grumpily contradicting Pat's intro, saying her character wasn't turned into a robot, but rather had robotic parts. It went even more Aniston's Motherish after that, as Lindsay wittered on about "working with her pain".
As a Late Late Show researcher, the best way to gauge how an interview will go is to chat with the guest while they wait to walk out on set. Unfortunately, by then it's too late to ditch them. I once researched an item involving the parents of Eva Cassidy, the deceased singer who achieved massive posthumous fame with songs such as Over the Rainbow. Her parents were just two ordinary Americans completely bewildered by the chat show circuit.
While they waited to be interviewed by Pat, Eva Cassidy's mother caught a glimpse of the graphics that come up after the commercial break -- complete with owl landing -- and suddenly shouted: "What's that chicken doing flying there?" Needless to say, the interview wasn't great after that.
An interview with the General's daughter, Frances Cahill, and the broadcast of live plastic surgery -- I don't think they happened at the same time, but, honestly, it's all a blur -- are just two items that never really got off the ground.
Oh, there have been real coups, such as Helen Mirren or Tom Jones, but Pat is always fighting a losing battle, because he is not the show's producer. Gay Byrne set up the Late Late Show in 1962, and was producer of the content for many years. Even when he relented and brought in a producer in his later years, he retained the title of executive producer.
This gave Gay control over the shape of the show and over the choice of guests. He would vet any potential items for the show with an inquisitorial zeal. He was particularly concerned that the items should not be boring, and that he would not be surrounded by bores. I vividly remember one programme meeting where the offer of ex-British prime minister Ted Heath, who had an autobiography out, was unceremoniously shot down by Gay because he thought Heath would look like an old walrus on the telly!
So, while Pat may have plenty to say about the show's items, he doesn't have ultimate control of the running order. Perhaps that's why, even after 10 years, there's no feeling that Pat owns the studio space he occupies when he's on screen. This was highlighted by Gaybo when he appeared as a guest on the show and deliberately left the interview area -- during the interview -- to mingle with the audience. It was a definite one in the eye for Pat from Gay.
It served, too, to highlight the cruel contrast between Pat's studio stiffness and the performance of UK chat show presenters such as Jonathan Ross or Graham Norton, or American ones including Jon Stewart and Jay Leno. Gay worked the 200-strong crowd relentlessly with his famous warm-up routine, which was straight out of vaudeville, and engaging with them frequently during the show. Pat, by contrast, mainly employs comedians to get the audience going beforehand. It highlights the fact that, if we were to try to pick some of Pat's best bits of the past 10 years these would include many items that happened around him or to him, but were not incidents which he had any real part in creating.
There was the Paul Stokes incident, when a man invaded the interview area and harangued Pat in 2006. Stokes eyeballed Kenny, saying: "Howya Pat! You're a censor! How dare you! Gay Byrne and you are . . . you're insufferable arseholes."
All Pat could do was say "thank you" repeatedly and go to a commercial break. When the show eventually came back, Pat just said: "Sorry for that rude interruption," and continued the show.
A second memorable moment was the infamous Brigitte Nielsen interview where she swapped shoes with Pat.
Another gaping hole in the Late Late Show over the past decade is the lack of any decent controversy, no skilful filleting of a politician or authority figure to create a Pee Flynn-style moment.
This was most recently highlighted by the Rody Molloy FAS controversy. The FAS Chief Executive's interview with Pat on Today with Pat Kenny when Rody put his foot in it by saying the pay-per-view telly bill of FAS executives was "chicken feed" and told this recession-hit nation that he was "entitled to travel first class" led directly to his resignation later that week. How infuriating is it for RTE TV bosses that interviews like that can happen on Pat's radio show, but not on the station's flagship TV programme?
It must be still more galling because the Late Late Show is one of the few programmes left within RTE television that is actually put together by RTE staff, and not by an independent production company.
So, when Brian Cowen appeared on the first Late Late Show of this season, from Wexford Opera House, he was allowed to raimeis about Gaelic football and cello-shaped opera houses, while the country was going down the tubes. The Taoiseach's office had been assured, before broadcast, that Cowen wouldn't face a grilling when he appeared on the show. And, embarrassingly for all, the correspondence between the Late Late Show and the Government promising that very soft-soap was revealed following a Freedom of Information request after the interview was conducted.
"It is not our intention to conduct a rigorous political interview. In fact, we would seek to have a bit of fun. That said, we will ask some questions that relate to certain events over the past few months; for example, the current economic climate," researcher Jamie Macken said.
In a further communication with the Government, he said: "But I stress -- it is not our intention to conduct a stern political interview."
RTE then followed this communication with the toe-curlingly embarrassing letter from the Late Late Show to the Taoiseach's office after the event.
"Just a quick note to say thanks again for Friday night. It worked out great for us and I hope 'The Boss' was happy."
Of course, preconditions and riders are nothing new to the show -- or to any other. Elton John, for example, specified that a certain colour of roses should be placed in his dressing room.
These days, even the serious interviews, at which Pat is supposed to excel, don't seem to go anywhere much. They're either neutered because they're mired in pre-conditions, as in the Cowen interview, or they get bogged down in Pat's relentless logic.
Only the recent Michael O'Leary interview hit most of the right buttons. But even there we were treated to Pat's odd thought process when he compared Ryanair and Aer Lingus to an abusive couple throwing a few slaps. Even Michael O'Leary was thrown by that curve ball.
Perhaps the most worrying thing about the Late Late Show of late is that it's regressing into the televisual equivalent of Bunratty theme park. When Pat took over the show, many of the vestiges of the old regime were disposed of, such as 'one for everyone in the audience', most of Gay's production team and also the old theme tune. There were tortuous debates about whether Pat should have a desk, while the Late Late Show owl was one of the few creatures to escape the cull.
But now, the guests who appear seem increasingly to be the ones that Pat's production team think Gay would have had on, were he still the boss. This is forgetting that Gay's constant motivation was reinvention; and his desire for new talent was ruthless. Worryingly, comedians such as Tom O'Connor and June Rodgers have reappeared on the show, and crooners, including Dickie Rock, are back on the scene. Then there was that hackneyed showband special recently. Now, isn't that original? Other ghosts of the Late Late Show's past who have taken up residence recently in Studio 4 include Sinead O'Connor and John Waters, and earnest aul' wans such as Alice Taylor and Father Harry Bohan.
And the show has reverted back to having smug, self-satisfied panels involving painting-by-numbers guests such as the wacky culchie, Michael Healy-Rae; the PR woman, Terry Prone; and the mad leftie, Joe Higgins, or Richard Boyd Barrett.
If ever any show had decided to hoist the white flag on attracting a younger audience, this is it.
I can't really compare Pat's decade on the Late Late Show to any other TV experience, because it's unique.
It's better to use the high-minded comparison of Machiavelli's Renaissance book The Prince. Machiavelli had a notion that the ideal leader -- the prince -- should be feared rather than loved. It was better to retain authority than the will of the people, and cruel events could be used to maintain and to retain control.
One of Pat's strengths is that he brings stability to it all, whether we love it or loathe it. Hosting a two-hour live show every Friday night is undoubtedly one of the hardest jobs on television. This fact was highlighted by Gerry Ryan's recent appearance as a stand-in the week Pat's mother died, where Gerry veered from embarrassing uncle with Snow Patrol, to rabbit-in-the-headlights during Tommy Tiernan's below-par performance.
On that level, at the very least, Pat has delivered the goods. The Late Late Show brand has survived, the audience figures have remained buoyant, while pretenders such as Eamon Dunphy's chat show on TV3 have been seen off.
And we tolerate Pat rather than love him, cruel turns of fate such as a June Rodgers sketch or appearances by Tom O'Connor or Jennifer Aniston's mother in a weird way apparently copperfastening his grip on the Late Late Show throne rather than weakening it.
Not to mention that RTE would have a very Machiavellian fight on their hands if they tried to overthrow him.