Myles McWeeney: 'A tough taskmaster but calm and kind, Gay Byrne was the best boss I ever had'
In the late 1960s, I was a script-writer on an RTÉ consumer affairs programme called Home Truths. The show was abruptly axed by management mid-run one summer due to pressure from aggrieved advertisers. I needed a new job, and my producer suggested Gay Byrne might need a researcher for the forthcoming season of The Late Late Show. I had never met him, but somehow managed to pluck up the courage to stop him in the corridor, introduce myself and tell him how much he needed me. I think he was surprised by my audacity but invited me for a coffee and a chat there and then. Quite why he wanted a middle-class, ex-Gonzaga and Blackrock College boy with a law degree, long hair and a beard who drove a sports car, I never quite worked out, but I got the gig.
He was the best boss I have ever had. He was meticulously organised, utterly fair and astonishingly even-tempered, and, when I decided almost a decade later to leave The Late Late Show and pursue opportunities outside RTÉ, he went to extraordinary lengths to help me get the job I was seeking. He could also be astonishingly kind. Some years later, after my mother had died unexpectedly, he decided I needed a holiday and out of the blue called me, offering me and my family his cottage in Donegal for a fortnight's respite.
He was, though, as tough a taskmaster as they come, a careful planner who expected all those who worked with him to possess the same work ethic. He had a flip-over diary on his distressingly clear desk, and as members of the team were assigned tasks or telephone calls to be made, each was noted in neat handwriting on the blank back of the next day's date. First thing next morning, after he had dealt with his post (you soon learned not to speak to him about anything, including the outbreak of World War III until that had been done), he would turn to this list and quiz everyone on the exact status of the various tasks, and anything outstanding noted for the next day's interrogation.
I think he genuinely believed that if he didn't buy a pack of cigarettes, he wasn't a smoker, so he shamelessly cadged them off other people. I was the only smoker in the office and as I was losing to him daily more Benson & Hedges than I could afford, I spent one weekend learning how to hand-roll cigarettes. On Tuesday morning, when Gay asked me for a fag, I took out the tobacco and constructed one, giving the finished neat roll-up a good lick to seal it. Gay looked bug-eyed at this limp offering, turned to long-time Late Late researcher Pan Collins and said: "Pan, I think we'll offer guests a cigarette during the show. Can you organise a nice cigarette box, a lighter and a supply of Rothmans?"
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In those days the Late Late was broadcast at 9.15pm on Saturdays. We had production meetings on Tuesday mornings to discuss possible items and the running order for Saturday, meetings which were often as lively as the subsequent show. Whether by accident or, I believe more likely, by design, Gay had assembled a team of researchers with diametrically opposed views - left wingers, right wingers, conservatives, liberals, feminist activists and guardians of traditional mores - and moulded them into a very effective think tank. While, luckily, we all liked and respected each other, each of us was prepared to defend his or her views to the death, which made for a vibrant office and exciting atmosphere.
We also made sure we were up to speed on our colleagues' items, as last thing on Friday night we each had to type out on a file card 10 questions we would like to ask the guest. One reason Gay was so successful as a chat-show host was his extraordinary ability to ask people, whether celebrities or ordinary punters, the questions the viewers would give anything to ask but would never dare to articulate if they met the guest in person.
An alcoholic Thespian
I do remember one guest, however, who managed to give nothing away despite Gay's very best efforts.
Famous British actor Michael Redgrave, father of Vanessa, Lynn and Corin, had been invited on to talk about his stellar career and family, and he answered every question an increasingly desperate Gay put to him with either "Yes", "No" or a deathly silence.
Michael had come with a health warning: not a drop of alcohol was to pass his lips until after his appearance.
Unfortunately, nobody had thought to brief the staff of the Green Room outside Studio 1, where guests waited their turn on the show, so the notoriously alcoholic Thespian had availed of the free bar with unbridled enthusiasm and was virtually comatose. We had paid an unprecedented fee for Michael's presence and later worked out his verbal contribution - all 25 words - had cost us almost €50 a word.
Thank you, Gay, for 10 memorable years. May you rest in peace.