Thursday 26 April 2018

Ex-RTE executive Kevin Linehan enriched my life and that of the nation

Qualities: Kevin Linehan was generous and always smiling
Qualities: Kevin Linehan was generous and always smiling
Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

The original plan was Hollywood. The young Kevin Linehan had two obsessions - music and movies. But he planned to make the movies his life's work. He was going to go to Hollywood and be a director.

He didn't make it to Hollywood, but wound up doing the next best thing, as a researcher on the revolutionary The Live Mike on RTE. The Live Mike is probably best remembered for the infamous candid camera sequences, which have never been bettered on Irish TV, despite many of us trying. Kevin, who idolised the Goons and Monty Python, and had a great mischievous Cork wit of his own, would dabble in comedy throughout his career.

After a stint as, among other things, a reporter on Landmark, Kevin became a producer, and so would begin years of nurturing and mentoring some of the biggest names in Irish broadcasting, from Pat Kenny to Ryan Tubridy. He produced Pat Kenny's Kenny Live and, in a career as an executive that included being head of young people's programmes and head of entertainment, he would do everything from cooking up Winning Streak to bringing a whole new generation of comic talent into RTE, giving breaks to the likes of a young Des Bishop. He also spotted and developed a guy who was working in young people's programmes called Dara O Briain.

He was a great mentor to me, too, and I'll always remember his secret two-minute phone calls to me as I travelled to the You're A Star set every week. They were little pep talks crossed with masterclasses in TV. Even though I never worked under him as a presenter, he was always generous with shrewd advice and guidance, often just presented subtly, casually, as a friendly remark that you would go away and think about afterwards.

He was a huge supporter of the late Gerry Ryan, despite the flak he would inevitably get every time he put Gerry on TV. But Kevin didn't mind flak and he didn't mind taking on the management. When Gay Byrne retired there was a lot of pressure from the top to drop The Late Late Show but Kevin, who was head of entertainment at that point, felt that the Late Late brand could survive the loss of Gay. He fought to keep it and he was, of course, proven right.

His long-time colleague Julian Vignoles said Kevin had an unrivalled sense of what would work on TV. This is actually an unusual quality in a TV executive and increasingly rare - but Kevin had it. In a time before everything was driven by research and box-ticking, Kevin just had a nose for good TV; instinct; a gut feeling. And that meant the highbrow and the populist. This was a guy, after all, who was into the most obscure, cutting-edge music, but who also loved Eurovision.

Work aside, the reason no one ever had a bad word to say about Kevin was because he a genuinely lovely guy. He was always calm, always smiling, always having a laugh. He was generous, too - with his time, with his ideas. When he was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's in his late 50s, none of these things seemed to change for some time. His essential Kevinness did not seem to be compromised initially. He continued on, not angry; if anything, slightly more laid-back. And Kevin, it should be said, was a pretty cool dude.

Kevin's marriage to my friend and colleague, Mary O'Sullivan, was, for me, always my ideal of what a marriage should be. Mary had worked in RTE before coming to the Sunday Independent, where she is features editor, so they understood each other's working lives. But what was so great about them was that they muddled on through life with much humour and affection, and there was always such a great vibe between them. They were crazy about each other.

It was so unfair that what should have been the last act - retirement; enjoying their grandchildren, Rufus and Arlo; Kevin going to gigs with his daughter Sophie, who idolised her dad "Kev" and got her love of music from him - was all stolen from them.

But they never got bitter, and Kevin was able to live happily at home for most of his illness, surrounded by his vast music library and his music magazines and enjoying the loyalty and company of his many friends,

Two years ago, he eventually had to move into Highfield Healthcare, where he received excellent care until his death last Thursday evening.

Former director-general of RTE Noel Curran told this little story to illustrate the kind of guy Kevin was. "There was a staff meeting I had to go to as managing director of TV. It was about cuts and salary cuts in Studio 4, and everyone knew it was going to be a difficult meeting. Ten minutes before the meeting, Kevin just appeared at my office door. I said: 'Is everything OK?' He said: 'This is going to be a tough day. I'll walk you down to studio', and he walked down with me."

Where lots of other people will remember Kevin from is that oft-seen footage of the moment Linda Martin realises she has won Eurovision. Kevin, the head of delegation that year in Malmo, is there with her, jumping for joy, delighting in her success.

And those are the two sides of Kevin. In a personal way he enriched the lives of all of us who knew him, and in the public sphere he enriched the life of the nation. And, unlike some people, he knew how to win a fecking Eurovision.

Sunday Independent

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