Is this the best job in the world? Meet the Toy Show's Chief Elf
As the festive institution returns to our screens, our reporter finds out what it takes to bring the 'Late Late Toy Show' to life every year, and gets the inside track on toy trends from a woman in the know
There are some television programmes that are more like cultural events than light entertainment. A big match, for example, or the final of a long-running talent competition. Well, the 'Late Late Toy Show' is even more than that. In Ireland, it's an annual institution, one that sprung from one short segment in to a hotly anticipated bonanza every advent.
A small team are responsible for bringing the festivities to light, one of whom is Kate Olohan, 31, from Kells in Co Meath. When I told the RTE press office that I wanted to interview one of their crack team, they referred to her as the Chief Elf, and it's true she's a veteran of the 'Toy Show'.
"This is my eighth year working on the programme," she tells me. "My first job on the 'Toy Show' was as a toy assembler. To get a sense of what that means, you might think of Tom Hanks' film 'Big', in which his character gets to test all the toys. "You're basically in a room with a load of games and toys, and you get to figure out how they work and what's so great about them. It was really cool!"
Over subsequent years, Kate's position has evolved. "My role has changed every year; I've been responsible for booking guests, auditioning children, doing research, anything you can imagine on the show really."
But the real nuts and bolts of her work still involves toys. In January every year, she heads to big sales conventions overseas to see what's set to be hot for the following Christmas, and try to predict what Irish children will fall head over heels in love with.
"We know what Ryan Tubridy likes as a presenter, what works for the audience, and every year we try and push the boat out and be more ambitious. I'm looking for new toys all the time. Even on my honeymoon in New York, I wasn't at work but I went in to the Lego shop and was taking pictures and doing research. When you work on the 'Toy Show', you never switch off toy mode."
By the time the curtain drops on Friday night, you can bet the team will already be thinking about next year's 'Toy Show'. "We'll be in the green room chatting about what what worked and what we can do differently. Then from January, we're on the road at shows for retailers in the toy world, looking at the trends for the year and sneak peeks of what's coming."
Kate says that the internet has changed how parents shop for presents, even since the beginning of her time on the 'Toy Show'. "Online shopping means everything is on the table. Eight years ago, doing your shopping on the internet was still relatively new and was only for techy parents, but now it's open to everybody around the world and means there's a lot more at our fingertips."
So what's hot for Christmas 2016, then? "This year Hatchimals (above) are very big news. They look like a Furby but they're covered in a hard shell. You have to nurture and care for the toy and then after a while of constant care, it starts to hatch and then you have the Hatchimal to play with."
But when a toy is scarce, is it difficult to showcase it without driving parents up the wall? "Of course. We want to show it, but we have a responsibility and Ryan will make it clear that not every elf will be able to get their hands on a Hatchimal this Christmas. If it's in short supply in Santa's workshop, we have to tell the kids that."
When we spoke, Kate was a little worried about RTE's own Hatchimal. After being handled by the toy assemblers for a little too long, their egg began to hatch - something they would have preferred to happen live on air on the big night. "We're hoping that we'll get another. When it started to hatch, we all crowded around it in a panic," she laughs.
Other popular toys are the Fashionista Barbies (above) that launched in the US last year - dolls from Mattel with different shapes, heights, hair colours and styles, deviating from the classic Barbie with blonde locks and bee-stung waist.
"The DC superhero dolls (above) are female comic book characters like Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn, although more cartoon versions than Margot Robbie and Uma Thurman's characters. We're seeing that girls don't just want a pretty doll that you can brush her hair, they want their dolls to have powers," says Kate.
There are new Lego Elves that are proving popular, a more gender neutral magical world within the brand than previous releases, and Trolls are cool again since the release of the new animated movie of the same name.
"This year, a big trend is retro gaming consoles. The NES (above) was the very first Nintendo console and it's back. It comes pre-loaded with games and it's so popular that we're struggling to get one as they're already sold out on pre-order."
Kate says that the viewers and the child participants help form the content of the show. "When we audition the children, we have a list of the top toys that we're very familiar with and we see if they're interested. But we find that they usually tell us what they're in to first. We have a child this year with a very unique hobby, one that wouldn't necessarily have been on the table, but when we met the child they opened up that world to us."
One category that's come to prominence during Kate's tenure is that of farming. "It's proof it's the kids that form the Toy Show. We see more and more children sending in audition tapes with their farm toys, so every year there's a farming pile."
Another part of the show that's always been very precious to producers, presenter and parents alike, is the books segment. "Books will always have its own special section in the show, because children still absolutely love to read."
I ask if Kate thinks the move towards more gender neutral toys is more noticeable in recent years, with many parents railing against traditional boy and girl stereotypes.
"I think parents just listen to their children. When you go to a toy shop with kids. it's almost like you stand back and they run to the part of the shop that they love. Kids interests have probably widened a little bit thanks to the internet and even TV ads, but in my experience wherever their interests are, that's what parents will listen to when it comes to toys."
The 'Late Late Toy Show' is on RTE1 on Friday at 9.35pm