Zen and the art of TV conversation - Brendan O'Connor on what's important in life
With a new series of 'Cutting Edge' starting on Wednesday, Brendan O'Connor talks to Declan Lynch about what is important and what is not important, in TV and in life itself
There was a moment of enormous significance in media culture recently, when Tour-de-France-winnning cyclist Sir Bradley Wiggins, under pressure to answer accusations of doping, chose as his TV interviewer the BBC's political journalist Andrew Marr.
It was like an official acknowledgement of something that some of us have long maintained, that often the safest place for a person in trouble to be, is within the strictly limited zone of "serious" journalism.
Brendan O'Connor, who is a keen student of the difference between people who are actually serious and people who just think that they're serious, assesses it like this:
"If they sent Wiggins on to Loose Women, and if Vogue Williams and one of the Nolan Sisters maybe, and then some woman who used to be in a soap and who has had a kind of a tragic life since ... if the three of them were doing it, they would have torn him to bits, they would have destroyed him," he says.
With his Cutting Edge show kicking off again on Wednesday, an IFTA award already sitting there for the first season, O'Connor speaks with some authority on all aspects of the art of conversation on television. He sits in the Intercontinental Hotel musing on the "rules"...
"Because there are rules ... there are rules in current affairs that you do not get too real, right? You pretend to be jousting with a person and you get exasperated like Paxman or whatever, but there are certain things you don't do.. .You do not get too real, because it's like a bureaucracy ... I'm here filling this position but it's not really me, it's the position, and you're there as the Minister and I'll call you Minister instead of John, we are playing roles and then afterwards we'll go, ho-ho-ho-ho".
Somewhere in the space between this official version of Current Affairs and the current affairs that carry the energy of life itself, there is O'Connor waiting for that transcendent TV moment to happen.
"On the Cutting Edge we're operating from the premise that the world has gone mad, right?...That nobody's going to remember the arguments about the Budget, about how much should be given away for childcare versus the old age pension. But that everyone will remember this time when society started changing, everyone was over-sharing on the internet, the grandmothers were all minding the children, the parents were out working, everyone had some class of an eating disorder and hated their bodies ... this is important shit.
"I think we've stumbled on things here that are actually a bit more eternal, but that are waved off by the patriarchy as 'women's conversation'."
And while O'Connor wants to stay away from the old rules, he doesn't fancy a lot of the new rules either.
"On one hand, you say the world is gone crazy, what's this social media madness all about? Then you ask yourself: 'is this because I'm an old man, because I'm 45?' The people who reacted against the Beatles and Elvis were 45...the people who were shocked at the hippies were 45...am I just them now? Then I'm thinking no actually, this new stuff really is not revolutionary. I think a lot of it is faddish, what you're trying to separate here is, what are the real things that are changing, the real cultural revolutions, and what are the things that we will be looking back on, like we do at the awful fads of the 1970s. Because we will look back on the 2010s and we'll go, Jesus, do you remember that? Everybody was sharing their dinner on social media, people spent all their energy wanting to connect with one another on LinkedIn and we'll go, 'that was hilarious wasn't it?'"
Though he has what many of us would regard as a social life, and a public life, in his own terms O'Connor is not a "social person" and feels he may never become a social media person either.
"Hopefully, I'm managing to stand outside it slightly. We have the technology, I don't know if we've quite worked out yet how to use it well. I just never really saw the point of being on social media, I have enough real people in my life that I have no time to see or talk to, like, without having another bunch of people out there. It's not a deliberately contrarian standpoint. Admittedly for the last eight years, which is when all this stuff has really kicked in hard, I've had one, then two small kids. Maybe that's it.
"Then again kids need you less and less; maybe when they're older, maybe I'll have a need for more things to fill my time then. A lot of people seem to become alkies again at that stage, older couples going on cruises boozing their heads off, maybe I'll discover social media then."
It needs to be said that this apparently successful man has also had some disappointment in his life, not least the fact that he had the idea for a Fifty Shades of Grey-type book that never happened.
"So basically, 10 or 15 years ago I figured there was a great mainstream audience for a bit of intelligent erotica. It would have been better than Fifty Shades, it was going to be, like, 'Ten Letters of Love'. There had been a book, Four Letters of Love, but that was by some spiritual kind of guy. I had all this worked out; it was going to be by Anonymous and then after it had its first flush of success I was going to come out. It was ten different situations. You know the way in a relationship the sex and stuff is generally about power, and the psychological dynamic between the two people. I had written one or two of them, and I was knocking around for a bit with a publishing guy from London, and I sent it to him, and I never heard from him again."
Indeed, he has not had proper recognition for the excellence of his writing, but then he talks about the experience of being on television the way most writers would talk about some crucial creative discovery.
"There is a zen to it. It's mindfulness, in the current parlance. Because you're completely present, right? You are rooted to the ground but you kinda need to be in flow as well. It's all these things that we are supposed to try and achieve these days. I practically make myself sick beforehand. If you said to me, would you prefer not to do this and we'll give you the money anyway, there's a part of me that would say, 'I'll take the money mate, I'm off'. But at the same time it's very good practice in other ways to just clear the head, to be present, listening, and reacting in a very sharp and pure way. Like sometimes your mind is, it's like the others are talking in slow motion and you're hearing them but you're thinking, I'm going to have to react to this in some way. They slow down and your mind speeds up and at the same time you're going, you can't say this, you can't say that. It is an interesting buzz, like, you know?"
He denies any desire in himself to write great books, but he gets drunk now and again with a friend to discuss this idea for a self-help book called 'The Age of Insight'.
"Insight is the last great commodity you can have in the workplace or in life. Everyone has access to everything now, what is the competitive advantage you can have? It is your insight."
Sadly, he discovered that that one has been done too, or something in that neighbourhood. But if they do get round to it, he sees his friend doing most of it and him bringing to it "the salesman thing, jazz it up a bit."
Brendan is so resolute in his dismissal of loftier writing ambitions, disparaging himself as "a bread-head", with "a pressing need to make money", I suggest he is just saying these things to convince himself that it's a lost cause.
"No, I'm just about smart enough to do what I'm doing. I suppose I'm a bit flitty in my mind, so this kind of things suits me. I'm good at picking over the bones of other stories, but I don't think I'm creative. But what I do think when I look at all those books coming into the office, is why didn't those people write a television show? Because if you write a television show that's even half intelligent, it's the new Sopranos and it's the golden age of television."
So he doesn't want to be remembered in a thousand years time?
"No I don't have any desire to be remembered. Like all of us, I've thought about Bowie a lot and the manner in which he did it all in the end. I still listen to that last album, and I say to myself, he's living on with this, and he's present and I'm remembering him, but that's fuck all good to him, you know what I mean?"
But maybe that thought was good to him when he was alive? "No I don't have it. But if I won the Lotto, which is what Bowie did in a sense, what I would probably do is try and be a musician."
You have a talent for music? "Not as such, but I'd like to learn, it's all electronics now anyway, I think I have a feel for music."
Then he reveals his true heart's desire. "I've always wanted to learn the bass guitar."
Cutting Edge starts on RTE1 on Wednesday next, October 19 at 9.45pm
Off Cuts: the best quotes from 'Cutting Edge'
"I obviously curtailed some of my professional ambitions a bit. I was never going to be an editor or a senior counsel, or a foreign correspondent, because I had to work in such a way that I could work from home. I am of the opinion that all children need is one good parent." Brenda Power
"You don't need a huge crisis to go to therapy. It can just be that you want to get perspective on decisions you're making. I wanted to get perspective on patterns I found occurring in my own life, having too many drinks after every gig, sleeping around all the time, but then, in your heart of hearts, knowing you'd like a partner and a dog and (to be) living a loving life."
"I remember my mother every day in everything. I was with her when she died. It's something I take comfort from - being there."
"I think some aspects of modern parenting are quite selfish. You see mums dropping their kids off to the creche at seven in the morning, when it's dark, and then picking them up again at seven at night, when it's dark. They say they want it all, but who's suffering? At the end of the day it's the child that's suffering." Niamh Horan
"I realised I had to stop (drinking) when my doctor said you're an addict and he called the Priory. I knew I had a problem but I thought my problem was other people's problem with me … I left The Pogues so I could drink without other people hassling me."
"Instead of focusing on the women - what they were drinking, how they were dressed - why don't we focus more on the men who are doing the raping? In the case of sex assault, is the victim on the stand as well? It's the only crime where we bring it back to the women all the time. If someone robbed your watch, they wouldn't say: 'You got your watch robbed, but you had a few drinks on you.' It's totally bogus."
Dr Ciara Kelly
"Colleges around Ireland are all focused on consent, but I think we need to put an equal amount of energy into the amount of drink that is being taken by women. You're putting yourself at risk if you don't have your wits about you and if you have taken a certain amount of drink and put yourself in harm's way. We need to start addressing this issue. I don't think we should be afraid of it."
"When we look at the awe-inspiring mysteries of the universe we know there could only be a God that could produce this. There's another reason, of course, and that's that I'm going to see my mother when I make heaven and I'm going to say to her, 'Mam I made it. I know you thought I wouldn't, but I did.'"
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