Gay Byrne was reluctant at first to have toys on The Late Late Show, but his team persuaded him that it would make good seasonal viewing. Today the Toy Show is RTÉ’s most watched – and most lucrative – piece of programming. What are the magic ingredients?
One evening back in 1974 as Pan Collins hurried through Stillorgan village something caught her eye.
The windows of Nimble Fingers toy shop lit up before her, and, as she pushed through the front door, an idea flashed across her mind.
The following week, Pan, a senior researcher and script editor on The Late Late Show, gathered her notes, and pitched an idea to her boss, producer and presenter Gay Byrne.
A segment about children’s toys, just in time for Christmas. Gay was not impressed, and turned it down.
But Pan knew a good idea, and instead of accepting defeat she decided to rally the troops.
So she went straight to Maura Connolly.
Maura was Gay’s right-hand woman for 30 years; she acted as special assistant, programme executive, artist liaison officer, and all-round Late Late Show trouble-shooter.
She was the person who coined the phrase ‘Aaand There’s One for Everybody in the Audience’, and joined Gay in the RTÉ canteen before each programme for his ritual plate of egg and chips.
If Pan could get Maura onside, then her toy segment could become a reality.
“Gay said ‘No, we are not doing a toy slot’,” Maura says.
“So Pan asked me to go for a coffee, and said ‘Will you back me up if I bring it up again?’ and I did. I said to Gay, ‘Look, what does Christmas mean? It is really a huge time for children and parents of children, and I think it would be a lovely idea, and I support Pam.’ So he agreed.”
With the green light given, a date was set. The toy segment was to run for a commercial half hour at the end of the programme on December 7, 1974.
Despite Gay’s initial reservations, it was the highest-rating section of any show across the entire season.
It proved so popular that when it was brought back the following year — on December 13, 1975 — it became a special in itself.
The programme today is a juggernaut; the definition of entertainment event viewing, pulling in ratings of 1.7m, and trending on social media for days before and after.
Ryan Tubridy, who has all but replaced the Billie Barry dancers at this stage, begins finessing his dance routine months in advance. The theme is considered tantamount to a state secret, and a team of toy testers spend weeks making sure batteries are fully charged.
In terms of commerce, this is our equivalent of the Super Bowl. Advertising slots for The Late Late Toy Show come at a premium; this year, the optimum package for advertisers went for €86,125. This includes an ad within the first break, as well as digital and radio coverage.
Clients who want to feature in the audience prizes must pony up €10,000 and then provide gifts of a minimum value of €250 for everyone in the audience.
But back in the 1970s, it was a slightly more modest affair.
Pan Collins was basically in charge of organising the entire thing.
She would head off to toy fares in London and Germany in the early part of the year, and over the summer would ring wholesalers to find out what toys were going to be must-haves.
Back then there was no storage facility in RTÉ for the toys, so in the run-up to the show electric cars, Transformers and Nerf balls would start piling up on Pan’s desk.
“The office became the place for holding a lot of toys and when it became impossible, the spill went over to Pan’s apartment and my home,” Maura says. “Our sitting room used to be turned over.”
When Gay decided on the date for the Toy Show, it was all systems go.
The team would discuss the toys — which were going to be the most popular with the kids, and which would make for the best TV.
Gay had his favourites; Buzz Off — a gadget where players had to try and manoeuvre around a wire without setting off a buzzer, and super soakers, which he used to douse the studio audience with.
On the day of the Toy Show, an RTÉ van would show up at Pan and Maura’s respective homes and start ferrying items back to the studio. “They had to do a few runs,” Maura says.
As the popularity of the show increased, Maura realised this arrangement was not sustainable.
“I said ‘This is nuts’, we have to get a place, so we got a mobile home building where we could put the toys locked away.”
1976 was the only year the Toy Show did not take place — as Pan and the team were working on a birthday tribute to Maureen Potter — but since 1977 it has become a permanent fixture in the TV schedule.
Colman Hutchinson, now a production consultant on the Who Wants To Be A Millionaire franchise, worked as a researcher on The Late Late Show during the 1970s and 1980s, and recalls Pan fondly.
“She was an amazing character,” he says. “She invented the Toy Show. It was her idea… She was such fun and had such energy. She was ambidextrous, and during production meetings she would have two notebooks and would be writing in them simultaneously. So much of her was in the Toy Show.”
In the early years researchers had cameo roles on air and would demonstrate how the toys worked.
There would be mild palpitations if dolls or action men were glossed over, or if they malfunctioned live on air and Gay tossed them aside.
“You see, if Gay gave it a good mention it was sold out,” Colman says. “But if a toy was missed, the sellers would be on to Pan.”
Throughout the 26 years that Gay helmed the show, it constantly evolved.
“We tried to do something different each year so you had variety,” Maura explains. “We brought in entertainment, and Gay asked any children who were interested in performing to send in a tape and a biog. We started holding auditions and they would come in and go hell for leather.”
The team then made the decision to record some of the children who auditioned but didn’t make the show which they would air on the night. A feature that still runs today.
In 1981, the Billie Barry dancers entered stage right. “They were so good,” Maura says.
“They had to audition and they always came out with three ideas. They were brilliant.”
From the get go the Toy Show was a “workhorse of a programme”, says Maura.
At that time there were a total of four researchers working on The Late Late Show so they did not have the same resources available to them as today.
“You would be in at 7am the day of the show and wouldn’t get home till 5am or 6am the next morning because the people who gave the toys would want them back . Some of them would arrive on the night to collect them, so we would be bagging up toys,” she says.
One aspect that current host Ryan Tubridy has brought in is fundraising — last year an incredible €6m was raised. Maura remembers trying to do something similar during the early days but receiving a missive from the Director General telling them to stop.
Maura thinks the key to Gay’s skill as a broadcaster was his ability to let the person he was speaking with come to the foreground.
“Gay always tried to fade into the background and tried to bring the people forward,” she says.
“He was very funny, he always tried to make it so that the child was the star and the centre of attention. And if he could knock craic out of them, we would.
“He was very progressive and ahead of his time... even for the smallest voice he had a big ear.”
Gay’s final Toy Show was in 1998, and then it was taken over by Pat Kenny — who famously ripped up a pair of tickets for the Toy Show when a caller was less than enthusiastic about winning them.
Gay was a hard act to follow but the show grew in numbers during Pat’s 10 years (from 1999 to 2008). It also created some extremely memorable moments — like when he rode an elephant onto the set or when Girls Aloud accidentally traumatised a child live on air.
But though Pat and Gay enjoyed hosting the Toy Show, Ryan Tubridy’s enthusiasm for it seems on a different level altogether.
“Gay enjoyed the Toy Show,” Colman says. “[But] he definitely came to it with a raised eyebrow. You’d hear him on the Gay Byrne Hour saying, ‘The Toy Show is this Friday, Lord help us’. He wasn’t saying, ‘Can you wait till the Toy Show?’ He wasn’t as excited about it as maybe Ryan is.”
Is anyone on the planet as excited about the Toy Show as Ryan Tubridy?
He has jumped in feet first, wrapped in tinsel and constructing monologues out of discarded Christmas cracker jokes.
And that’s before we get to his wholehearted embrace of festive dressing.
If the Toy Show jumpers act as a sartorial barometer of each presenter’s enthusiasm, Gay was a traditionalist; he got into the spirit of it and usually went with a casual and sometimes questionable knit sourced by either Maura or his daughter Crona. But it never distracted from the children or the toys.
According to Brigette Horan, Head of RTÉ wardrobe, Pat was less enthused and “always just wanted a plain navy jumper with The Late Late Show logo”.
Ryan, on the other hand, has more costume changes than Cher. He’s dressed up as Olaf from Frozen, a terrifying rag doll from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and most recently, as Fantastic Mr Fox.
But it’s only fitting – the Toy Show, in 2021, has become more than just the sum of its parts.
“It is bigger now, no question… It has developed into a juggernaut,” Colman says.
There are plenty of reasons why it seems to have grown exponentially in the past few years.
First of all it’s business. RTÉ has spoken about the financial difficulties it faces due to a dip in advertising revenue as viewing habits change and streaming giants such as Netflix and Disney+ enter the market.
This raises the stakes for event viewing with a guaranteed audience, like sporting finals or the Toy Show. In short, they become cash cows for the station.
Another big plus for RTÉ is that the Toy Show is controversy free, and it is virtually impossible to produce two-and-a-half hours of TV to an audience of close to two million that will not rub anyone up the wrong way. The lack of controversy means it is also, by default, immune to criticism.
It is also the only episode of The Late Late that Ryan is unilaterally praised for. He frequently gets a lot of flak, but even his most ardent critic has to admit he is great with kids.
It is uniquely Irish — it’s inconceivable that any other national broadcaster would give over two hours of prime-time programming to children’s toys.
On top of all that, each year the Toy Show grows stronger because it becomes further embedded in our festive calendar and national psyche.
Anyone under the age of 40 can now say they ‘grew up’ with the Toy Show — it’s slowly becoming more and more entwined with our collective childhoods.
All of which is pretty impressive given it would have been passed on, had it not been for the tenacity of two women.
1. Gay Byrne turned down the Toy Show. It wasn’t until his special assistant, Maura Connolly, emphasised its potential that he reneged.
2. 1976 is the only year the show took a hiatus as Chief Toy Show Researcher Pan Collins was putting together a birthday special for Maureen Potter.
3. Today, to have the chance to give a prize ‘away to everybody’ in the Toy Show audience, businesses must pay €10,000.
4. Gay Byrne’s daughter, Crona, was often responsible for picking out his special Toy Show jumper.
This year’s Late Late Toy Show airs next Friday, November 26, at 9.35pm on RTÉ One