Saturday 3 December 2016

The straight man... Pat Kenny

He's been criticised for wooden performances in the past, but this week Pat Kenny makes a return to light entertainment with his new UTV Ireland show. Here, he looks back at his career highs and lows - and says that a good host knows that his job is to make other people look funny. Photography by Patrick Bolger

Liz Kearney

Published 10/05/2015 | 02:30

'In The Round': Pat Kenny's new show airs on UTV on Monday. Photo Patrick Bolger
'In The Round': Pat Kenny's new show airs on UTV on Monday. Photo Patrick Bolger
Pat Kenny in 1983
Pat Kenny and Michelle Rocca host the Eurovision 1988
Pat and Cathy Kenny
Pat Kenny at the helm of current affairs show, the Frontline
Pat Kenny moves the dial to Newstalk
Cathy and Pat Kenny
Brendan Gleeson talks to Pat Kenny on the Late Late Show in 2004
Pat Kenny on kids TV show Barabo in 1974
Pat Kenny - a long radio career begins with The Saturday View, The Kenny Report and the Outside Track in RTE in 1979

Within minutes of sitting down with Pat Kenny for what is supposed to be an in-depth, face-to-face interview with the broadcaster ahead of his new UTV Ireland show, he's calling the shots.

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Kenny, the seasoned veteran of the chat-show circuit, is warning me off asking about his daughters (he has three; two girls with his wife Kathy, and a third, older daughter from a previous relationship).

The girls don't like it when he talks about them, he says, and he doesn't like them being dragged into the limelight, citing a particular newspaper report about his youngest daughter that caused the family much distress.

Fair enough, I say, although I do wonder where Pat, whose own career as an interviewer relies on people being open about their lives, draws this line for himself.

Now 67, Kenny is in good shape. Tanned, in a smart white shirt and navy suit jacket, his silver-gray hair is flecked with white and he's sporting a very modern looking Samsung smartwatch on his left wrist.

His new show - Pat Kenny in the Round - begins broadcasting on Monday night at 9pm. An hour-long in-depth interview filmed in the Round Room of Dublin's Mansion House, the first guest will be Tyrone football manager Mickey Harte, who is expected to speak both about his own career and about the horrific murder of his daughter Michaela on honeymoon in Mauritius in 2011. Future guests include astronaut Chris Hadfield and pop star Lulu.

Monday night seems like an odd choice for a chat show, but the decision was UTV Ireland's, says Kenny. "Anyway, it's not really a chat show. Well, it's a chat show in the sense that it is talk. It's an interview show," he finally decides.

"But it's not a chat show in the sense that, whereas with The Late Late Show or Graham Norton, you could have singing and dancing one minute. It is primarily a big interview; that's the format that it's taking at the moment.

"But I've always said that it will be evolutionary. Who knows what it will be as it moves towards election time? It might take on a more political dimension, I just don't know."

Steering the new show towards politics would be no harm at all. Throughout Kenny's career, his current-affairs credentials have remained impeccable, but his best-boy-in-class persona has occasionally looked out of place during his more showbiz interviews. Has the criticism bothered him?

"No. The only interviews I don't feel particularly proud of would be the ones with minor soap stars - or even major soap stars - because I don't watch soaps," he says.

"I don't have time. They're on at a time when I'm kind of busy, in the early evening. If I do watch anything, it tends to be later on. I know what the audience, the fans of those stars, want, is for me to ask loads of questions about the characters. They don't actually care that much about the private life of the actor or actress. Those kinds of interviews I didn't particularly enjoy, but The Late Late Show was a mixture of entertainment and current affairs and I always felt that my job was to be the foil for the funny-man.

"So if I'm interviewing Freddie Starr and he makes a fool of me, well, that is part of my job."

Kenny is referring to an infamous interview when the comedian forced Pat to put on a pair of Y-fronts over his trousers. You can imagine Graham Norton doing this, camping it up and playing the whole thing for a big laugh.

Not Pat. The job, as he sees it, is to play it straight, facilitating other people to be funny. He's too long in the game now, anyway, to be riled by what the critics think.

"In the early days, you're hurt by everything. You're reading criticism and you're thinking, that's unfair. But as you get older, you just say, well that's one person, and they happen to have the right to write a column in a newspaper. I don't agree with them." His self-belief seems unshakeable, and he even professes to love the caricatures of him created by Mario Rosenstock and Oliver Callan - although he doesn't think any of them have really nailed him.

"I think it all derives from Apres Match. Risteard Cooper invented a version of me which has now actually become me. I don't think it's quite me, but it is enough me."

Pat talks about The Late Late Show, which he presented for 10 years, a lot, and with great pride. He sounds a little wistful as he recalls the weekly buzz of live TV - by comparison, his new show is pre-recorded in front of a live audience.

But he's less keen to talk about the Late Late in its current guise. When I ask him whether it is time to end the long-running show, now hosted by Ryan Tubridy, he says, "That's a difficult one," before returning to his own time on the show.

"I was given the job of making sure it survived," he recalls. "I was very ambivalent (about taking the job). Kenny Live was a very successful show, it was doing good numbers; it was number one frequently enough and it had expanded from being a three-part show to a four-part show - the same length as the Late Late.

"And it was pulling in the audiences right through the four parts, and it was a good vehicle. And then RTÉ made it clear that when Gay was retiring that they wanted to try and hang on to the Late Late because they thought the brand was strong.

"I was torn. If I thought the Late Late was going to die with Gay, so be it, and I'd do Kenny Live and move to Friday, because I wanted desperately to have more of the weekend off. And then if they put in another entertainment show on a Saturday, so be it.

"But when they said they were keeping the Late Late, I thought, there'll be some other shagger doing Friday nights and I'll still be doing Saturday, and the Late Late will still be there and I'll still be competing for guests. But if I give up Kenny Live, and do the Late Late, well no one else could do Kenny Live unless their name happened to be Kenny!

"And so I went to the Late Late. It was a good decision, although it took the diehard Gaybo fans probably two years to get used to it.

"We dropped a few things immediately. We dropped 'one for every member of the audience', because I talked to Gay about that and he said it was a tyranny. He said that people were eventually coming along, not to see the guests, or to enjoy the night, but just to see what was in the swagbag.

"So we dropped it - we only used it once a year for the Toy Show, and it was a very good decision. And any resources we had for prizes, we gave one big audience prize. So rather than a bag of small bits and pieces, a paperback novel and a small bottle of Coke for every member of the audience, it was one substantial prize. It could be a 40-inch plasma TV in the early days of plasma TVs. They were good prizes - and it decluttered the show enormously."

I ask him again if it's time for The Late Late Show to end, but he responds by saying how different the showbiz circuit is today when compared to the Gay Byrne era. Back then, he says, all the big stars came to Dublin, but then they didn't bother any more, so Kenny's producers had to be very creative to keep the show interesting. Now there's increased competition from other channels and there's time-shifting and Tubridy has a fierce battle on his hands to keep people watching, he adds.

So how are Ryan and his team meeting that challenge?

"I don't see it often enough, to be honest," he says. "When you've done it (host the Late Late) for 10 years the last thing you're going to do is sit in and watch it."

Here's the thing. Pat has been in this business a very long time and he's well versed in the art of talking a lot without giving much away. As a result, he makes for a tricky interviewee; deploying mild-mannered, lengthy answers that are often only tangentially related to the original question. When asked if he has plans to retire, for instance, his answer focuses on how busy Gay Byrne still is. Asked if it was wise to move from current affairs into light entertainment, his answer takes in the advent of satellite broadcasting, Muammar Gadaffi, the Mujahadeen and Stephen Roche.

Even when I ask him whether his first love is radio or TV, he equivocates; radio was his first job, but he likes using both skillsets.

Joe Higgins once said that trying to get answers out of Bertie Ahern was like playing handball against a haystack. Bertie seems positively Oprah-esque on the sharing front compared to Pat.

There is one moment when Pat's measured tone evaporates. I ask him if he's been able to build a bridge with his next-door neighbour, Gerry Charlton, who took him to court in 2008 in a dispute over a patch of land between their two homes. The case was eventually settled out of court, with the broadcaster agreeing to buy the land. Kenny says they are now on nodding terms.

Was the experience stressful? Anything to do with the courts is stressful, he says, because we have an outdated justice system that is in desperate need of reform. I remark that after the case was settled, he appeared frustrated that he didn't get his say in court. He raises his voice, leans forward across the table, and says:

"I have no wish to revisit that case. I know you'd like me to; and therefore cause animosity and difficulty … I am not going to go there."

I am surprised by how annoyed he seems. Just when you would expect a broadcaster of his calibre to remain unruffled or make light of a situation, irritation gets the better of him - much like the notorious moment on The Frontline when SIPTU president Jack O'Connor suggested Kenny lived in a 'trophy home'.

He could have laughed it off, or told O'Connor to stick to the point. Instead, Pat rounded on him, saying: "I don't need this crap." Similarly, the moment when he ripped up the Toy Show tickets after his winning caller said she didn't want them also made for uncomfortable viewing. Where does this defensiveness come from? Armchair psychologists might see something in the rise and rise of a boy from a modest background who, purely through his own hard work and intelligence, forged for himself a career as the most successful broadcaster of his generation.

Kenny was born in 1948 and grew up just off the North Circular Road in Dublin, near Dublin Zoo where his father worked. A bright, studious boy, he attended O'Connell's School before taking a degree in chemical engineering.

He joined RTÉ in the early 1970s as a continuity announcer while he was lecturing in Bolton Street; one of his first roles was as a children's TV presenter on a show called Báboró (Kenny was once a folk singer on the O'Donoghue's circuit, but gave it up when he started making waves in TV).

He stayed at RTÉ for the next 42 years, moving on to a role as a newsreader before taking on a job on Today Tonight. Kenny Live, his first big foray into the lighter side of the schedule, began in 1988, and he then took over the Late Late from a retiring Gay Byrne in 1999.

When he handed the baton to Ryan Tubridy after 10 years, he became the face of a new RTÉ current affairs show The Frontline, which ran for four years. Throughout his career, he presented a popular morning radio show as well.

Two years ago, in one of the biggest media upsets in memory, Kenny quit RTÉ in dramatic fashion to join Newstalk, bringing the format of his successful radio show with him. He said recently that he might never have left RTÉ if The Frontline had not been axed, but the move paved the way for a late new chapter in the broadcaster's career: he now finds himself as a very big fish in two smaller ponds, at Newstalk and now at the fledgling UTV Ireland.

He's made a success of his Newstalk slot, adding 100,000 listeners to bring the tally to 142,000, according to the most recent JNLR figures, and he clearly relishes the challenges of building an audience.

"Don't forget I spent most of my life chasing Gaybo's tail on TV," he says with a wry grin. What does he do with his free time now that his schedule has eased a little? He deliberately only signed up for 15 hours of TV a year with UTV Ireland so as not to overburden himself.

"I find that a lot of my time has been absorbed with radio and Newstalk. I'm not a workaholic, but I do enjoy my work, and therefore work hard at it. When I come home in the evening or in the afternoon, I have to read briefs for the following day."

Even his holidays are taken up with work preparation. A recent short break involved reading four books in four days, in preparation for various TV and radio segments, and while he's a member of Woodbrook Golf Club in south county Dublin, he's only had the chance to play twice this year.

Does Kathy, wto whome he;s been married since 1992, complain she doesn't see enough of you?

"Yes, she does. Because I'd vanish to my office in the evening and I'd have to do prep. But you know, I think I'm still adjusting. Because the UTV Ireland show, being a show in formation, that does take time. Setting up anything new, there are meetings about the set of the show, there are meetings about the different venues that were proposed, meetings about personnel for the show, meetings about guests …. the load will be lighter once you are used to a team."

The UTV Ireland viewing figures haven't been great, I point out. They'll be relying on you for a big boost. What are they doing wrong?

"I don't know that they're doing anything wrong," he says. "I mean they're only four months old. What they've done is they've got the skeleton of a schedule with the soaps, and now they have to build around that.

"If you go back to TV3's beginnings, it was very little home production, and it was in competition against RTÉ. RTÉ discovered that home production is the key to big audiences, and whether that's Dermot Bannon or Love/Hate - people want to watch themselves." Does he miss RTÉ? Not really, but he still meets regularly with members of his old production team for lunch and a bit of a natter, where they'll exchange gossip and swap stories.

He has said that he regrets not exploring more fully the offers that came in from the UK in the wake of his successful co-hosting of the Eurovision Song Contest in 1988, but in fact he seems far more regretful when he tells me he always planned to learn to play the piano, but never got round to it.

Pat Kenny once said that in face-to-face interviews "often you get a sense of who and what [people] are, even if their answers are anodyne or propagandist or misleading".

I think he's wrong. If I were to judge Pat on the hour we've just spent doing a face-to-face interview, I'd say he was frustratingly opaque.

But I don't believe for a second that's the full story. Once the interview is over and the tape recorder safely back in my handbag, Pat's demeanour noticeably changes.

His shoulders relax, he starts to smile properly, and he becomes chatty and much more engaged. We discuss restaurants and where to get the cheapest petrol in Dublin.

He wonders if I need a taxi, he's solicitous and warm and kind and is generally immensely likeable.

He even apologises for losing his cool earlier, before hopping on his motorbike - a BMW C1, complete with rain canopy and seatbelt - and heading off through the inner city streets in search of somewhere to fill his petrol tank.

Unsurprisingly, this post-interview Pat is the best version of Pat, and yet he seems to be keeping it largely under wraps. You can't help feeling that if he could let it go just a little bit, his new show would be utterly unmissable.

Pat Kenny In The Round airs on Monday at 9pm on UTV Ireland

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