Entertainment

Thursday 13 December 2018

'For some time I'd wanted to chat with Tommy Tiernan of whom I'm fond' - Gay Byrne

Memories of radio auditions and Michael Aspel, on tour with Kathleen and discovering a remarkable literary coincidence outside a Dublin theatre, writes Gay Byrne

Broadcaster Gay Byrne Photo: Mark Condren
Broadcaster Gay Byrne Photo: Mark Condren
Comedian Tommy Tiernan

It seems to me that for as long as I've had an interest in broadcasting, I've been a fan of Michael Aspel. At which point the young crowd all crow in unison: Michael WHO??? All right, just like my Sunday radio programme on Lyric, this column is intended for the over 70s - and that's the younger end of the spectrum.

Anyway, Michael Aspel. He flickered into my consciousness the other day when I saw his picture in a bookshop. Devilish handsome fellow, thick mop of lovely hair, beautiful voice and hogsheads of charm, and then some to spare. Irresistible to women and a delightful companion.

He was a guest on The Late Late Show, of course, and, I think, on The GB Show, and was always entertaining and delightful. He's a year older than me and we have several things in common - apart from the good looks, the charm, the hair, the attraction to women...

We both applied to BBC Radio for an announcer/ newsreader job. Not at the same time. We were both called for audition: Broadcasting House, London.

This was the big time.

I read the chunk of news which they gave me for the test, and then a piece of French. Since I'd spent all my schooldays learning Irish - in which the BBC had NO interest, my French, I could see, was the cause of some hilarity.

But I WAS invited to join the BBC Training School, which I turned down because a job came up in Dublin at precisely the same time and I took it. Which was further proof to my mother that prayer works.

By the time Michael was called for his audition, the BBC folk had come up with the idea of having a curtain up between the studio and the control room, so that the auditioners would hear only the voice and would not be prejudiced by the appearance of the applicant.

Sounds a bit precious to me, but what do I know?

So Michael was given his piece of news to run through and told to go on Red. Which he did. He got through only a few sentences when the studio door crashed open and a very irate man (the sound man) charged in, grabbed Michael by the shoulders from behind and swivelled him round 180 degrees, shouted "Go on Red" and charged out the door again.

Michael had been reading the news with his back to the microphone. The unfortunate sound man had turned every knob and tried every switch in the control room before he discovered the problem. Probably shortened his life.

Michael's report probably read: "Very attractive voice. Lovely appearance. Not a great sense of direction."

Nonetheless. Michael joined the BBC and enjoyed enormous success through the years. And when my great hero and idol Eamonn Andrews died, I was so happy that it was Michael who got the gig on This Is Your Life. And was so good at it.

*******

Before I got sick, Kathleen and I were doing a show around the country, called One Man Show with Woman.

I was obviously the One Man and Kathleen did a spot of poetry just to break things up. Her spot turned out to be very popular indeed.

I thought, vaguely, that we'd done around 25 shows altogether, but she amazed me the other day by saying that in fact we'd done 46 of them, and she's pretty good at recalling stuff like that.

We paid three visits - by popular demand, I hasten to say - to The Pavilion in Dun Laoghaire, The Mermaid in Bray, and The Civic Theatre in Tallaght, and then off around the country to all those similar theatres, battling every day and every week for audiences.

No battle for us. They're 300/ 400 seaters and we rarely had an empty seat. Lovely welcoming audiences, there to enjoy themselves and all of a certain vintage. Not many teenagers in our gang but we didn't need them.

The two most wildly enthusiastic audiences we had on all that tour were in The Granary in Ballymaloe. Dear Lord! What a welcome and what a response! Twice!

I'm so glad we're not doing the show now - I'd be scared stiff. Couldn't cope with the competition.

Just open your weekend papers or listen to your local radio station: all over this country, in every town and village, in every available venue, there are people performing and trying to capture an audience. Rock, country, theatre, classical, solo, group, stand-up, jazz... Everywhere, activity.

From the big names who expect - and get - a full audience to those making their first faltering steps in the business of show, and hoping for a reaction from someone, for something. The joint is jumping with performers and performances.

My friend Henry, who reckons he knows this business, says THERE IS TOO MUCH PRODUCT. By which I think he means that there are too many performers up there on stages in venues all over the country trying to attract an audience with whichever genre of art they have made their own. Too much choice, our Henry says, only confuses people.

He appears to think the apocalypse is coming - or Brexit - and the money will all dry up and the audiences disappear. Henry can be very trying at times.

What I see is an explosion of talent of all kinds throughout the country, some of which will succeed and go on to greater things, and most of which will fail. Grit, determination, staying power and self belief - it were ever thus in showbiz and will be so in the future. Throw in a lucky break or two in there somewhere.

But I sure am glad that I'm not out there with my one-man show trying to garner an audience against all that competition.

Too old, you see: grey-haired old loon; too tired and sick and don't have the energy any more; banjaxed and decrepit, you know?

It's being so cheerful that keeps me going.

*******

For some time I wanted to have a chat with Tommy Tiernan, of whom I am inordinately fond, and have been for many years. Nothing special, just a catch-up, and a general commentary on life, and like all such things, it never happened.

Until Mr Harry Crosbie made it happen, by coming up with the clever ruse of inviting us to lunch. At his place - Harry's Bar, down at the Bord Gais. Who could refuse?

And no, it wasn't a gag-a-thon or comedians' competition and it wasn't all showbiz gossip and RTE tales. Just a three-josser gabfest. Nor was there drink taken: Tommy was onstage that night so he had to stay upright; Harry is not interested in drink at the best of times, and my little jemmy wouldn't hurt a flea.

I think I had a glass of red. And we all had delicious pizza. And I was able to tell Tommy how much I admired his good-humoured and engaging interviewing style on his TV show, and how highly I rated his piece every Sunday in this newspaper and generally speaking how his life was going well at this time.

He's been on Mr Crosbie's Vicar Street stage so often it's a wonder he doesn't move in permanently.

All in all, a most convivial occasion.

And then, something bizarre happened.

We came outside around 5pm and there were diners eating and supping in the warmth of the evening. And on the fascia-board (that's my name for it) of the canopy above the diners' heads - on which you might ordinarily read of upcoming events or special offers, Harry had placed a quote, randomly chosen, from Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

This is the quotation: "When she felt his presence and the worship of his eyes, she turned her eyes to him in quiet sufferance of his gaze."

Now, offhand, I would think about 10pc of the passers-by would register the quotation, because you have to look up at it and follow it round, as it were.

And of those, I'd think perhaps 10pc would recognise and place the quote. But that's not the point: it's a randomly chosen piece of Irish literature which uses a space generally given to less worthy and worthwhile uses.

And so there the three of us stood, congratulating Mr Crosbie on his contribution to the cultural life of the nation and in particular his native city. Whereupon, Tommy Tiernan took off his jacket and rolled up the shirtsleeve of his right arm, and there, on his muscle, was a tattooed quotation which he got 15 years ago in praise (he said) of all women, but especially for his Yvonne.

This is the quotation: "She was walking on before him, her hands holding her skirts up from the slush." And it's from the very next page of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man to Harry's canopy choice.

Now, a question for you this Sunday morning: what odds would you lay on that? Two quotations from James Joyce, randomly chosen, 15 years and a page apart, neither one knowing of the other, and they turn up at the same time, same place, one on Harry's canopy and the other on Tommy Tiernan's arm.

For the odds contact Paddy Power.

As for me - how am I? Everyone tells me how well I look. If I only felt as well as I look I'd be wonderful.

We trundle on, day by day.

Sunday Independent

Entertainment Newsletter

Going out? Staying in? From great gigs to film reviews and listings, entertainment has you covered.

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment

Back to top