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Friday 26 May 2017

The unknown side of a national institution

The RTE news presenter has an uncanny ability to transform herself in a moment, writes Emer O'Kelly

ARTHUR Miller told a story in his autobiography about an afternoon in the early days of his affair with Marilyn Monroe. They were walking in New York; her sweater was grubby, her hair in curlers, and she wore no make-up. Nobody recognised her. Suddenly she turned to Miller and said, "Watch me turn into Marilyn Monroe."

As he watched, the set of her head changed, her shoulders began to swing, the famous backside came into play. And the heads began to turn, while the flashes of recognition became nudges, even jaw-dropping gapes as people stopped dead, unable to believe their eyes, while her mouth curved into a satisfied little smile.

Anne Doyle has the same ability to become what the world sees and wants in the wink of an eye. She might be fulminating in stentorian tones over something, only to be called to the phone in the newsroom. Anne would approach the phone, her fury fading, her walk an enviable sashay by the time she reached it; and in the famous voice that's not quite a coo -- it's too resonant for that -- she would talk to the person until you could almost see the putty oozing from the earpiece.

You'd know the call was about to end when she delivered some absolutely outrageous remark, added her deep throaty laugh, and hung up, returning nonchalantly to continue the previous conversation. I was, and remain, not merely lost in admiration, but madly jealous.

(Sometimes a taxi-driver will recognise me nowadays, and conversation will inevitably turn to RTE, or rather to two people in RTE: Gay Byrne and Anne Doyle. And the comment on Anne is always the same: "She still looks great, though." And again I go all mean-minded and want to say "I don't look too bad myself!")

But with the country close to convulsed at the news that Anne Doyle is considering applying for the current redundancy offer, RTE management's answer to the request will be a test of their much-vaunted claim to listen to their audience. Because their audience won't want to lose Anne, even if does wants to go.

The extraordinary detachment of "becoming Anne Doyle" has served the woman known in the RTE newsroom as "Doyler" very well over the years. It may even be the secret of her stamina for the camera year after year, the relentlessness of which has broken many another.

It has made her more than that suspect term "a star": it has made her an institution, and if anyone thinks I'm being bitchy, I'm being nothing of the sort. You try being a national institution from 1978 to 2011, in the corner of every living room in the land, night after night, being stripped down, criticised, analysed, (and frequently blamed for things that have nothing to do with you) and you'll realise being a national television institution requires the award of a Red Badge of Courage.

The public loves Anne Doyle; she represents continuity and security, as Charles Mitchel did before her. Indeed, she is the link between the founding generation of RTE and today, joining the station

after some years as a junior civil servant in the Department of Foreign Affairs at a time when newsreaders included the late and also golden-voiced Maurice O'Doherty and the immortal Don Cockburn, when the men and women reading the news weren't allowed to be much more than automatons. They had no journalistic or editorial say, and were members of Irish Actors Equity, not of the National Union of Journalists. (Charles Mitchel was a former actor.)

When the station introduced the "newscaster" grade, opening the position to experienced journalists, it dealt with the "problem" of the newsreaders with an RTE solution to an RTE problem: dual membership of Equity and NUJ. The same applied for quite a number of years to the journalists who became newscasters. (I remember reflecting with considerable relish when I joined in the Eighties that I was now qualified to play Lady Macbeth on the Abbey or Gate stages. "Don't start giving me ideas," said Michael Colgan of the Gate Theatre.)

Through it all, the Doyler remained unfazed; she was bloody good at her job and knew it, and whether she was called a newscaster or a newsreader didn't bother her.

People speak with admiration of Anne's "icy" professionalism. Icy? Our Annie? I well remember sharing the 9pm studio in the days when it had dual presenters. One evening there was an item about "country pursuits". While the item was running, Anne studied the monitor, issuing a fluently blood-curdling and graphic commentary over the sounds of yelping hounds, concerning what she would like to do to various intimate bits of the human participants' anatomy. Green in the face, the floor manager waved her into silence just in time for the camera to cut to her. Nobody has ever been in any doubt that Anne Doyle likes animals!

She also likes shocking people. Some years ago, she and I were having a drink in a pub near RTE. The barman approached, saying the "gentleman over there would like to buy you ladies a drink". My mouth was open on the hackneyed "please thank him, but we're just having a quiet chat . . ." when Anne cut in with "That'll be a large vodka and a red wine." I was still hissing protests when the drinks arrived, closely followed by the donor, beaming a welcome for himself. When he sat down, Anne opened the conversation with "I hope you're ready to spend plenty of money. Our company doesn't come cheap."

She told me a while back that she was thinking of applying for 'the package'. "But will they let you go just like that?" I asked, adding "and anyway, wouldn't you miss it after all this time?" Like everyone else, and having worked closely with her for the 18 years I spent in RTE, I found that Anne still had the power to surprise me. "Naaah," she said, "It was never my thing."

Well, who'd'a thunk it?

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