Tuesday 16 July 2019

Goodnight and good luck: Is The Late Late Show finished?

With falling ratings and a dearth of A-list guests, the RTE stalwart returns for another season, its future hanging in the balance. Ed Power asks if the show has finally run its course

Exclusive’ interview: Hillary Clinton with Ryan Tubridy
Exclusive’ interview: Hillary Clinton with Ryan Tubridy

Ed Power

This week we received an abrupt reminder The Late Late Show still exists - and that Ryan Tubridy continues to occupy the host's chair.

'Tubs' - as RTE would like us to call him - recently made a pilgrimage to Hillary Clinton's home in Chappaqua, New York, for an "exclusive" chinwag with the unsuccessful US Presidential candidate.

But "exclusive" in this case has a rather ambivalent definition. Hillary and her memoir, What Happened, have been ubiquitous. She's worked the US chat show circuit, is about to embark on a North America book tour - "VIP" tickets cost $2,375.95 - and has generally proved unavoidable. The Late Late's big get is exclusive only if you limit your media consumption to Ireland.

Moreover, from the snippets aired by RTE during the week, the interview seemed somewhere short of scintillating. Forty four-year-old Tubridy radiates his trademark adolescent gawkiness while tossing softballs in Hillary's direction. Yes, she was surprised to lose to Trump, of course Ireland is close to her thoughts. And so on.

What's really significant about Tubridy's Hillary interview, though, is that it reminds us of the days The Late Late was considered quasi-essential viewing. How long ago that now feels, with recent seasons of the venerable chat-fest coming and going with little trace.

Indeed, as ever, the great excitement this year centres on The Late Late Toy Show - all of two months away and already all over the series' official Twitter feed. Otherwise, The Late Late limps on in much diminished form - its former position at the centre of the national debates about politics, society, religion etc replaced by a deepening obscurity.

Gay Byrne
Gay Byrne

Tubridy's Hillary sit-down is historic in that it was one of only a few occasions in which The Late Late Show had left the studio to conduct an interview. It will certainly overshadow recent broadcasts, such as the presenter's back-slapping chinwag with an uninteresting Russell Crowe (who charmed us with his thoughts on the excellence of Irish pubs) and tennis champion Martina Navratilova.

One complaint frequently levelled against The Late Late is that the guests are low-wattage. Ubiquity aside, Clinton was undoubtedly a coup. Yet this merely throws into relief the z-list nature of the regular Late Late line-up. And Tubs had to go to her rather than the other way round, which underlines the point that the A-listers rarely come to town these days. As a result, The Late Late is, increasingly, a case of RTE talking to itself. Interviewees have recently included Dr Eva Orsmond, plugging her RTE documentary about obesity, Tom Vaughan-Lawlor (best known as star of RTE's Love/Hate) and comedian Katherine Lynch (of RTE sketch show quasi-fame).

A shortage of engaging subjects was, in fact, the very reason Tubridy's predecessor, Pat Kenny, urged the host to quit The Late Late before he turned 50. Ireland, Kenny suggested, was just too small to provide a conveyor belt of consistently interesting interviewees.

"I recall doing Westlife for the fourth time and recalled a conversation I had with Gay Byrne when I was doing Kenny Live and he was still on The Late Late," said a despairing Kenny.

"It was August and Gay told me he was dreading going back on air because he had interviewed everybody, and he added if I haven't interviewed them, I have interviewed somebody like them.

"There's a limited pool of people you can interview here."

If the guests are invariably unspectacular, The Late Late Show in the past could compensate by holding to account church leaders and politicians. The problem is that nobody today cares what church leaders do or think while neither Kenny nor Tubridy could rival Gay Byrne's singular ability to give public representatives precisely the correct length of wire needed to garrotte themselves (see his famous interview with Padraig Flynn). Still, despite its declining profile, the series is nonetheless a ratings winner. Granted viewership slipped this year, with an average of 473,000 tuning in to the first episode of the latest season, compared to 625,000 12 months previously. But that figure nonetheless accounted for 40pc of people watching television at that time.

Tubridy, it is interesting to note, takes a degree of pride in his studied awkwardness. "I'm a monochrome person, living in a technicolour world," he said last March."I look like I belong anywhere - the 1940s, 50s, or 60s. Anywhere but now."

He also appears to understand that, in trying to be all things to all people, The Late Late is doomed to inconsistency. "It amuses and bemuses; it entertains and baffles people," he told the Irish Independent. "It baffles me occasionally because it is a conundrum."

None of this is exactly the fault of The Late Late or of Tubridy. During the Gay Byrne glory years, there was almost nothing to do on Friday (there was certainly nothing else to watch on television).

You switched on The Late Late or you stared at the four walls. Thus it came to dominate the national conversation. It wasn't just the loudest voice - often it was the only voice in the room. By contrast, Tubridy must contend with social media, the internet, a limitless choice of channels, including chat chum Graham Norton on BBC.

Within his prat-falling comfort zone, Tubridy is exceedingly competent. But just as Pat Kenny became stilted when required to shoot the breeze with pop stars and comedians, so Tubs is arguably at his most relaxed trading zingers with z-listers.

The Late Late should enjoy its moment of prominence. If recent years are anything to go by, it could be quite a while before it again looms so large in our thoughts.

Irish Independent

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