Saturday 1 October 2016

Unflappable, affable, and highly inquisitive, all was 'okey-dokey' in O'Herlihy's world

Published 26/05/2015 | 02:30

Bill O’Herlihy and Irene Fenton present ‘Sports Stadium’ in 1974
Bill O’Herlihy and Irene Fenton present ‘Sports Stadium’ in 1974
The late Bill on set with his grandchildren during RTE’s World Cup coverage
Bill during the Munich '72 Olympics coverage
Michael O’Hehir and Bill O’Herlihy present coverage of the Munich Olympics in 1972
Bill O’Herlihy in 1974

He was a national treasure, according to the Taoiseach. But since the 1970s, Bill O'Herlihy was also a household fixture, almost as familiar as the lamp and the mantle clock.

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Not even Bill's retirement a scant 10 months ago managed to put a dint in the public expectation that on the really big occasions, there remained an outside chance that the beloved broadcaster might be relied upon to return to our screens in order to make sense of it all.

The banter, the sheer common sense and the good-natured enjoyment of his Apres Match alter-ego were all part of the package of an iconic anchor.

Former Liverpool legend Graeme Souness famously could not believe what he was allowed - nay encouraged - to say as a pundit on RTE in comparison to the stuffy UK studios with their emphasis on the all-important soundbites.

O'Herlihy made it so that the raging debate was as integral a part of a major fixture as the match itself.

Viewers watched mesmerised as countless entertaining and hard-hitting debates threatened to spiral out of control thanks to O'Herlihy's gentle poking of his guests.

We never knew what we were going to get - such as the euphoria of Italia 90.

Or Eamon Dunphy's infamous "tired and emotional" episode during the 2002 World Cup, when O'Herlihy battled in vain to silence Dunphy who ended up being kicked off the set just five minutes after arriving for the Japan versus Russia match, slurring his words and slumping in his seat.

Unflappable, inquisitive and affable, everything was always 'okey doke' in Bill's world - whether the camera was rolling or not.

It was an attitude that stood him in good stead right through an impressively lengthy career, from a young start in the 'Cork Examiner' at the age of 16.

It was the former film censor Sheamus Smith - then associate producer of RTE's hard-hitting '7 Days' programme and a life-long friend of O'Herlihy's, who gave him his major start.

Having begun as a youngster in the Examiner, he was set on the path to television after filing a first broadcast for RTE's Newsbeat about the Lusitania.

Smith recognised O'Herlihy's "tremendous talent" even at that early stage. "He had great ideas and Newsbeat was a bit lightweight for him - he was built for heavier stuff," he said. Smith poached O'Herlihy from Newsbeat, urging the staunch Corkonian to make the big decision to move to Dublin.

"He didn't want to leave Cork," recalled Smith.

After three or four years of hard-hitting current affairs for '7 Days', in November 1970, the team zoned in on the emotive issue of loan sharks - the illegal lenders who preyed on the vulnerable poor, shackling them to extortionate interest rates.

And they questioned why the Fianna Fail Jack Lynch-led government turned a blind eye.

It was the first programme to use revolutionary hidden cameras - but back in those days of black and white television, these cameras were "enormous", said Sheamus Smith.

"They were so large we had to put them into a white van and cut a big hole out of the side of it," he recalled.

The programme got an enormous reaction from the public.

But the government responded by setting up a tribunal to investigate - not the findings, or their own failure to act on the loan sharks - but the '7 Days' team's usage of hidden cameras.

A scalp had to be sacrificed to appease the political establishment - and it seemed it was to be O'Herlihy's.

Just recently married to his wife, Hilary and with a terrifyingly recent and large mortgage of £7,000 on a new house in salubrious Foxrock in Dublin, O'Herlihy, then aged around 32, was petrified at the precarious situation in which he now found himself.

"It crushed him - he felt he was done by the establishment, he was hung out to dry - he felt very, very upset," recalled an associate.

The former RTE employee revealed O'Herlihy was advised to move to the Sports Department.

What O'Herlihy would not know this until a decade later, was that the Sports Department under Micheal O'Hehir would not agree to take him because they had no budget - until '7 Days' actually agreed to transfer the money for his wages out of their own budget.

Though O'Hehir informed O'Herlihy that he did not like his way of presentation, the Corkonian swiftly became a hit. A fan of Gay Byrne's cosy style of interviewing, he adapted it for sports broadcasting with success.

Three years later, O'Herlihy was approached by Young Advertising - one of the top five advertising agencies in Ireland in the raw landscape of the 1970s - with a view to setting up a fledgling Public Relations agency.

It was "a very new idea", recalled an associate, with only large State companies like the ESB and CIE employing PR professionals at that time and just three or four commercial PR agencies in the country. Bill readily agreed, setting up the Public Relations of Ireland agency as a wing of Young's, with the understanding that he would take it over completely after a few years.

British Airways were a big client - allowing O'Herlihy the luxury of frequently flying first class. Carrolls Cigarettes were an uncontroversial client in those days and O'Herlihy lobbied on behalf of the tobacco industry.

When Michael Lowry was Minister, O'Herlihy handled his PR.

In the 80s, he became a handler of Taoiseach Garret Fitzgerald during his two terms as Taoiseach.

He "did not have to be converted to Fine Gael", said an associate. "He adored politics and he was Fine Gael through and through."

O'Herlihy's career in public relations brought him back into professional relations with Sheamus Smith, then head of Ardmore Studios in Bray, Co Wicklow.

There were nights out with actor Peter Ustinof, John Huston and numerous other actors of note.

But O'Herlihy was an astute advisor on matters of film to Smith, who brought him to the Cannes film festival for the first time in 1976 and numerous trips to Hollywood to drum up business.

He hit it off with Fred Astaire, after the indignant movie star complained about a dig about his age printed in the Irish edition of a British newspaper.

After O'Herlihy soothed him, saying only a few Irish readers were likely to see it, Astaire became a devotee.

Such a friendship seemed scarcely surprising in such a long and varied rollercoaster career from which he never truly retired.

Irish Independent

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