Wednesday 25 April 2018

John Waters, Panti and me - Brendan O'Connor returns

Brendan O'Connor was at the heart of the news stories of the year
Brendan O'Connor was at the heart of the news stories of the year
Brendan O'Connor
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

In conversation with Donal Lynch, our own Brendan O'Connor looks back on a controversial season of The Saturday Night Show and forward to the new one.

We know what you're thinking, and yes, there is something incestuous about one journalist interviewing another, especially, when, as is the case with Brendan O'Connor and me, we write for the same newspaper.

But in our defence: promo. And there are two great advantages of interviewing a 'family member' - you have a lot more dirt on them than you would on most other people. And who better than someone who knows you to separate the private person from the public myth and find the chubby, frightened child inside the slim, successful adult?

In fact, if any of our chat show supremos is the same when the cameras are off as when they're on it is Brendan. Unlike many of them he lacks what he calls the "brittle construct" of an onscreen persona - "you try to not turn into Roger Mellie or whatever." He's also an unlikely host - who could forget that ad where the punch line is his face making babies cry - and tells me he makes a virtue of his "clunkiness." It's his twinkle-eyed scepticism and quick wit that's made him one of our more flexible and relateable interrogators and turned the Saturday Night Show into a ratings winner.

Slowly but surely, it's also managed what the Late Late in it's heyday delivered: sparkling light entertainment nimbly offset with some heavy-duty debate on social issues.

One of these debates happened almost by accident but turned into one of the news stories of the year. Panti-gate, as it was called, grew out of an interview that Brendan conducted with drag artist Rory O'Neill, aka Panti, in January of this year. As a result of what was said during the interview, RTE received solicitors letters from several individuals, including certain members of the Iona Institute and journalists John Waters and Breda O'Brien.

To enormous public outrage, the broadcaster decided to settle for a total reported to be €85,000 and Brendan had to read out an apology on the show. What followed was a two-month long debate on the nature of homophobia and the need for reform of our libel laws. Government ministers were drawn in. Madonna, Graham Norton and Stephen Fry tweeted about it. And Panti became a sort of folk hero. At the time, there was a lot that could not be said for fear of further litigation but how does Brendan feel now looking back at it?

"Mainly, in fairness, no one blamed me out in RTE. Obviously, I wasn't privy to any of the decision making, but I imagine there would have been more outrage if they'd gone and spent hundreds of thousands of taxpayers' money and lost by virtue of the lottery [that libel law] is."

He'd interviewed John Waters on the Saturday Night Show and describes the fathers' rights campaigner as one of his favourite interviewees. So how did he feel about the way Waters dealt with the situation?

"I pretty much thought it was a very disgusting thing to do. In a debate that is very robust for people who debate professionally to instantly run off to the lawyers, was bizarre. What really calmed me down however was the realisation that these people, in 'clearing their good names' I don't think it did them a whole lot of good."

It was perhaps this equanimity about how it had all worked out for everyone that made him all but shrug some months later when it was announced that Waters would be joining the Sunday Independent as a columnist. "There you go, what are you going to do?" he says. "I don't have the visceral indignation I would have had a while back."

Part of that might be down to a serendipitous meeting that helped Brendan put it all into perspective. He was in the Park Hotel in Kenmare with his wife Sarah and their girls.

"There was a couple who caught my eye because they seemed incredibly well dressed for a weekend away. They had a pristine kind of glamour, a sort of Mad Men type of look. My kids ended up playing with their kids and Sarah got talking to them and it emerged that they had home schooled their kids. We ended up in the bar one night and I said to the wife, "I heard you've home schooled the kids." And she turned to me - and it was like something from a Tennessee Williams play - and said: "I believe I have you at a disadvantage. I'm Maria Steen [of The Iona Institute]. I really hope there's no hard feelings." And I was thinking afterwards: are there any hard feelings? And there really aren't. Because they didn't win and I didn't lose."

In fact some might say it may have counted as a win for the Saturday Night Show. "I'm not going to say it was a good day's work", he begins, "but if you cause the country to go into heated debate for a month surely that's something."

Certainly it has been one of the more notable moments in a career that began almost exactly two decades ago but was presaged long before then. Growing up in Bishopstown, Cork, as one of six kids - his father worked as a microbiologist - he was an intelligent, messy, troublesome child and "suspected I would end up doing something along these lines."

He always hated sports but carved out a niche for himself in drama and debating in school.

Only when he went to UCC, however, did he get to put this oratory skill to proper use: "I suppose debating got you a different kind of woman", he recalls, "they were a bit more blue stocking-y and austere. And then you had the rugby chicks who were a bit bi-curious. Between their relationships with rugby players they might have a few weeks with a deep, sensitive type - I was always there to hoover all that up."

After his degree, he continued to live on campus for free as the warden of the student accommodation and the recipient of a bursary, but felt like he was drifting. "I had to live above the reception with another guy. As part of the conditions of getting [the money] we were supposed to be keeping an eye on who was coming and going. You had to go and break up the parties and the irony of me being the person who had to do that was not lost on anyone, including me."

At his best friend's urging he enrolled for a Masters in Journalism at DIT where he was taught by former RTE Controller Of Programmes, Muiris Mac Conghail.

His first foray into professional journalism came after a phone call with the Sunday Independent's then deputy editor (now editor) Anne Harris on whose desk his unsolicited maiden effort had landed. The subject, he cringes at the memory, was "the war on drugs."

She published it and he was off and running, swiftly earning renown as one of paper's most distinctive voices - he frequently writes the "bottomer", an editorial piece at the foot of the front page - and eventually, a decade later, becoming editor of LIFE magazine. Through a photoshoot for the paper he would also meet fellow journalist Sarah Caden, daughter of John Caden, Gay Byrne's former radio producer, and the pair married in 1999.

They have a daughter Anna, who was born in 2008 and another, Mary, who was born in 2010. After Mary's birth Brendan wrote perhaps his best-known piece, describing his experience of learning that she had been born with Down syndrome. It was a watershed moment in his life and (some said) in his career. Looking back now did he ever have qualms about being so open?

"No, because I think there is a duty to speak", he explains. "It's not a sexy story. And there's always a notion in people's head, and it was probably in mine, that people who this happens to are somehow different, that they're 'better' than us, that they're able to handle it better because they're so 'good.' And so part of it was just saying, no this can happen to anyone."

Having kids, he says, has "been kind of redemptive" for him. "You do get a little bit less self-destructive and wrapped up in yourself. I need to put a roof over their heads, and secure a future for Mary."

His work ethic is fairly legendary in journalism circles and he tells me he feels a mixture of fear and eagerness for the coming months where he will balance his writing and editing duties with the new season of the Saturday Night Show. "It is a bit scary because I haven't done it all summer", he admits.

"You look back and think 'did I really do that?' I have that classic Irish ego with insecurity thing. I'm actually a shy kind of an individual and when you're presenting a chat show your personality is under a lot of scrutiny. I try to be good but I don't try to be beloved, because I know I never will be."

The Saturday Night Show returns to RTE1 on Saturday evenings after the 9 o'clock news.

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