'Grand old man' title is there for the taking
Pat Kenny would do well to emulate Gaybo's segue from chirpy youth to national father figure, says Ted Dolan
Published 24/08/2014 | 02:30
Just because a choice is the obvious one does not make it the wrong one. UTV Ireland's choice of Pat Kenny as their marquee-name signing and star presenter of their flagship programme was both obvious and correct. What Mary Curtis, the new channel's head of programmes, has done is to secure the services of Ireland's most experienced and competent broadcaster who will not let her down and could quickly achieve number-one status across the island.
With this move she has shifted expectations for the new channel out of the realm of cheap-as-chips quizzes and tweedy sheepdog trials into the big league. Kenny has what it takes to be the new channel's bruiser. But he has to get a few things right first.
When you look across the TV schedules, it becomes clear that there are very few broadcasters in these islands who can bring such experience and talent to the table.
Over many years in current affairs he has shown himself to possess a shrewd, quick, analytical mind when challenged. In his time he has interviewed the great and the good. He has an informed passion for entertainment of all kinds (not just the Eurovision, children) and, what many people tend to forget, he is a trained scientist. That's a pretty formidable professional bandwidth. He can take, absorb and deliver a brief as well as any barrister, the television cameras like him and everybody thinks they know him. What more could a fledging station want?
Well, as with many things in life, vulnerability lies close to strength. His very versatility poses problems. Where others, less aware, can segue seamlessly from one genre to another, his gear changes can be more Massey Ferguson than Maserati. He is both tech-savvy and numerate (good things both) but in his case, on an off day, he can make them appear a little geeky. His numeracy can tempt him to dwell in mid-stream on the minutiae of a calculation only to create a fog of data in the process. When interviewing entertainers, be they lissom or buxom, he occasionally betrays an interest in areas that might be thought mildly salacious but only smack of the bicycle sheds and an almost adolescent fascination. However, since leaving RTE he seems increasingly secure and assured on his Newstalk radio show. He has had his bit of shore leave from television. The break should have given him the chance to confront these stylistic pecadillos that his critics have latched on to over the years. The ball is in his court.
Whether he likes it or not, he is now of an age when he can assume the title of the 'Grand Old Man' of Irish broadcasting recently vacated by you-know-who. In the interim, he might reflect over his distinguished colleague's career and chart how that professional personality changed over time.
Gay Byrne began as a youthful, chirpy (mid-Atlantic was an insult back then) presenter of the brand new Late Late Show (double-jobbing as a newscaster for Granada TV). A few years passed and he became the super-smooth, urbane professional who presented and produced a popular entertainment show that increasingly tackled social issues. Then he became the fearless iconoclast, then the facilitator of debate, then the national figure before morphing, when times and events permitted, into Uncle Gaybo. In each of his manifestations he seemed totally comfortable in his own skin; the tone was true, the strings were never false. He was not afraid to face up to the passage of time.
By contrast, Pat Kenny's professional persona seems to cling on to a version of unconvincing youth. If he lets it go, he will be the dominant broadcaster in the land. This new move should allow him relax into his mature self, secure in the knowledge that he is free of RTE's 'yoof culture' hang-up and permit him to embrace UTV Ireland's declared target audience of middle Ireland with a mid-range demographic.
We still don't know exactly what kind of show he will be given but, given his heavyweight status and UTV Ireland's investment, the smart money is on him being put up head-to-head against Ryan Tubridy. The commission goes out to tender in the next few weeks and the successful production team could do worse than go back to the future for a few structural and marketing ploys devised by Tom McGrath when Adam was a boy. In the Late Late's infancy he insisted on having a pool of regular panelists. They became household figures and their role was to express trenchant opinions (think Ulick O'Connor) and lob grenades into the mix when guests began to get boring. It could make a difference, take pressure off PK and provide a very necessary light and shade. The other ploy was secrecy. No one ever knew who or what was going to be on the show; the panellists were a secret, the topics were a secret and the guests were a secret. None of this promo rubbish trying to whip up interest and make us watch broken-down actors, arthritic footballers or snake-oil salesmen. It was like the third secret of Fatima and everyone tuned in.
The new show, whatever it will be called (It should not be 'Kenny' anything; answers on a postcard please) goes on air in early January. It has a lot going for it and provided that they get the viewing platforms sorted out (Sky, UPC et al) it should relaunch Kenny's TV career in some style. This time round, he needs to have a vehicle that is fit for purpose; one built for comfort, not for speed, one that permits him engage with the audience in a believable intimacy, one staged in a set that does the job and does not throb like an over-lit brothel. Above all, it should be one that allows Pat Kenny's innate decency and generosity shine through. They are rare enough qualities and they could make the difference.
Ted Dolan is a TV producer and former controller of programmes at RTE Two