Saturday 17 February 2018

Still goading himself with a very sharp stick - Brendan O'Connor is back on our screens

After a year off our television screens, Brendan O'Connor is back, a calmer, simpler person, with a big new entertainment show based around "conversations that matter"

Brendan O’Connor, above, says he is a completely different person now to who he was when he began presenting 'The Saturday Night Show'. Photo: Kip Carroll.
Brendan O’Connor, above, says he is a completely different person now to who he was when he began presenting 'The Saturday Night Show'. Photo: Kip Carroll.

Emily Hourican

The last time I interviewed Brendan O'Connor (and yes, it is a bit odd interviewing someone who is a friend, but we're over that by now), he was just about to start The Saturday Night Show. It was a huge leap, then, for someone whose background was in newspapers - although he had proved himself in front of the cameras with Don't Feed The Gondolas, You're A Star and TV3's The Apprentice: You're Fired, the success of which saw him brought back to RTE - and he knew it. Along with the excitement, there was a touch of apprehension, too. Fast-forward six years, and he is ready to start a new show - Brendan O'Connor's Cutting Edge - from a very different perspective, as someone who has delivered a show that was both a ratings success and the genesis of some of the most memorable moments on Irish TV.

So how different does it feel this time around? "I'm a very different person to when I started The Saturday Night Show. I think I'm more mature, less full of shit. I'd like to say I'm more confident, but I'm not. I'm not a confident person, but in ways I am a calmer person, simpler. I think I'm more ready now to do something grown up. I'm less of a boy than I was. Even though I was 40 when I did The Saturday Night Show, I was still a boy in a lot of ways.

"I'm a different person even to what I was a year ago," he continues. "Five years of doing that, even with the summers off, was fairly intense. And I take it seriously. It was like having an exam every week that you can't study for. It takes over your life, in a way that's not always healthy. Though obviously it was great to be doing it and an amazing opportunity. I think the perception would be that I grew into it, but I think maybe it was that people came around a bit, and found they didn't dislike me as much as they thought they did."

We'll get back to that in a bit, but first I want to hear more about the show. "We're not really over-­describing it," is his first response, "so that there's an element of surprise". What he will say is intriguing. "It's a big entertainment show - but I think 'entertainment' for Irish people can encompass a lot of things. It doesn't always mean singing, dancing, light-hearted celebrity chatter. Hopefully it's different to anything else that's on. I'd like to think that as well as having a laugh, we could have conversations that matter, about things that matter; the big questions. The last thing the producer would often say to me before the show started on a Saturday night was 'smile!' I think this could be less smiley - I'm not saying it's going to be really brooding, but I think it could be slightly more intense, and the set-up will force it to be intense and I don't think, hopefully, there will be any room for bullshit."

"Presenters are sometimes referred to by producers as 'talking dogs'," he says with a laugh. "I'm not a very good talking dog. I'm not there for my looks or my panache at reading the links." And so he is bringing the things he cares about, along with everything he learned in his years with The Saturday Night Show, to this. "With that show, there were certain moments that appealed to me, that turned me on more than others. They were moments of insight, the kind of humour that rises organically, moments of intimacy. People being a bit real. It doesn't happen a lot, but when it does. . . I don't know if we'll manage that challenge, but you'd like to think this could be a bit more real. To try and create intimacy and reality on television is a huge challenge, but for me there is nothing like the buzz when it happens."

Then he adds, "but it's still television, you know. And we're all on our own level of bullshit too - I don't want to start saying 'I'm going to speak the truth', but life is a process of trying to cut out bullshit more and more, of trying to clarify and simplify. "

Brendan O'Connor on the set of 'The Saturday Night Show.
Brendan O'Connor on the set of 'The Saturday Night Show.

So, back now to the prejudices people may have had about him - what dispelled them? "They ultimately came around when the show got cancelled, which you could say in a way was the best thing that ever happened to me. It was a bit like dying," he laughs. "Suddenly people were saying all these nice things. It wasn't an entirely new experience, because as long as I was doing that show, I think I knew who my audience were, and I know those people got it. But when the show got cancelled, a whole other narrative kicked in of people saying, 'that's terrible.'" It was a narrative Brendan instinctively mistrusted. "On one level it was very nice all these people commiserating and saying nice things," he says, "but on another level, that's not me and it made me feel uncomfortable. I felt like one of those worthy types that it's OK to like for a while, and I'm not comfortable with that."

One reason for the new narrative was that the show was cancelled on the back of consistently high viewing figures, even beating The Late Late Show one week, a feat previously unheard of. So was he cross when the bad news was delivered? "Yes" is the short answer. "I'd be lying if I didn't say that initially I wanted to kill somebody. But you move on. It wasn't personal. I have no God-given right to that slot. And I'm very proud of what we did as a team. And it was probably as well to go out on a high. Audiences are fragmenting and declining everywhere, we were one of a few shows in RTE that was actually growing its audience, but we could have had a disastrous year this year. I had been thinking anyway 'maybe I need a break'. If they had said 'on you go,' of course I would have gone on. I was on a roll. But in a way, I think it was the best thing that could have happened to me. I had a year where I could recompose myself and get some balance back in my life." And, also, they had a plan for him. "They more or less said, 'Wednesday is there, it's an important slot. RTE, across that band of 9.30pm, owns Irish television on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, but not Wednesday. We want you to own Wednesday."

So what does he think of Saturday night's current incarnation with Ray D'Arcy? "I haven't seen it," is the short answer, followed by "the fact is, look back on the history of Saturday night TV in Ireland, of being 'The Other Show' - it's a poisoned chalice. It's a tough situation and I feel sorry for anyone who has to do it. The Late Late is what it is, and you're in the shadow of that. Now, I'm not going to be falsely modest, we were nipping at their heels and there were times we had a much more interesting show. But, Saturday night is a tough gig. I survived it and came out with my head high."

There is no mistaking the relish with which he is approaching the next bit, even despite the pull of the other side of his personality. Because with Brendan, there are two distinct gravitations. On the one hand, he is extrovert, dynamic, an achiever, and on the other, he claims to lack confidence, to be an introvert with a strong desire to do nothing at all. "I was always putting myself out there in some shape or form," he admits. "I was always restless and bored and wanting to do things. When I was young, was I an attention-seeker? Maybe. Probably mainly revolving around women. If you're not sporty and you're not conventionally attractive, you've got to work something. I suppose a kind of notoriety was something. But," he adds, "I don't think I'm an achiever as such" - this despite being deputy editor of this paper, editor of LIFE magazine, a prolific and entertaining writer and TV presenter - "It's not achievement," he insists.

In fact, he hints that the work may be nothing more than an attempt to balance the other side of his personality. "Do you not gravitate towards things that cure your wants, your weaknesses? In many ways, I'm a very shy kind of person. I would have moods of extroversion depending on the situation, but in general I wouldn't be a natural for that TV kind of thing. So you do it to try and cure yourself. It's a bit of an extreme way of doing it," he admits, "but I could just end up sitting entirely still, not even thinking about things. I'm getting more and more minimalist; I crave nothingness. So I cure myself of the tendency to retreat, to do nothing, by goading myself with a very sharp stick."

"We all resist change," he says, "but change is good, phases are good. This is a new phase, it's incredibly challenging. How many new shows work? Not many - but it is very exciting too. We have to be pushed into challenges - I do anyway - but then you love it, you feel alive."

Readers of Brendan's Mid-Life Crisis column will know that, apart from the hilarity it often adds to Sunday mornings, his interest in that most deceptively simple of things - truth - is what sustains the writing. Instead of the noxious fiction of a perfect life, he has written about the kinds of things we actually relate to - food, weight, illness, anxiety - in a way, both humorous and honest, that we can relate to. I am not a middle-aged man, but there is a lot there that I get. "The narrative of the perfect life," he says. "I don't get it at all. I have no desire to make people think everything's great. I'm surprised still when I come across people who are putting on this show of 'everything's wonderful.' Everybody has their problems. I remember Aengus Fanning, when he was editor of this paper, saying to me, 'It's not the things that happen to you, it's the way you deal with them.'

"And I believe that now. I think everybody could lie down and die in the morning if they wanted to, everyone could say 'my life is cursed . . .' but we don't. Now, when my next bad thing comes along, I could decide, 'I can't take this anymore, I've had my bad luck,' but that's the thing - there are no quotas. That's what's terrifying. But also," he adds, "does it not make you feel very lucky, that worse hasn't happened? And it sets you free as well in a funny way. You go, 'OK, today nothing bad is happening, it's a good day.' Pleasure is the absence of pain."

He is careful to point out that he does not consider the birth of his younger daughter Mary, who has Down syndrome, and about whom he has written undoubtedly his finest, most moving pieces, a disaster. But he will say it was a shock, and one he learned much from, not least empathy. "I'd go so far as to say I was only half a human being before I learned a bit about life. These days, I keep realising that we're all the same, we're all connected. I didn't feel that for a long time - I thought I was better than everyone, and worse than everyone. Inferior and superior; different to everyone, and struggling to be different. Then, things happen and you think, 'we are all the same, we are all in this together.'"

Asked whether there are things he hasn't done yet and would like to, it is of Mary and his elder daughter Anna that he speaks. "I would like to be a lot more focused on Mary. My wife Sarah takes up a lot of that slack, giving Mary the extra help she needs. There's a part of me that thinks - and I'm probably romanticising - that it would be lovely to actually rear the two girls myself. Anna and Mary are of course the best things that ever happened me. Also, I'd like to change the world a bit. When Mary was born, we decided we were not going to be campaigners, but there's a part of me that would love to be. I don't do half enough in that respect, and I feel a bit guilty, that I should do more. Every parent with a child who needs more help feels, 'I should be doing more.'

"But you've got life as well, and other kids, so you just keep going on as well as you can. There is one thing I try and do. I used to look at families with a child with a disability and think, 'They are good people, there is an innocence and a purity to that family' - it's such a load of rubbish. If I do one small thing as a campaigner, I'd like to help show people that it's normal. We're not good people, we're just normal people."

Does he think he is a better person since Mary was born? "It pains me to say it, but it probably rubbed some rough edges off me or humanised me a bit. I'm still the same person, but maybe in ways I am slightly more tolerant."

'Brendan O'Connor's Cutting Edge' starts Wednesday, 10.10pm, on RTE1

What do I know?

What gives me a thrill?

Sunny weather.

What did my parents give me?


What makes me cry?

I’m very sentimental. Anything relating to the passage of time.

Morning person or evening person?

Can I have both? Morning for get up and go, and evening for downtime.

If I could give one piece of advice to someone younger...

Travel, play the field. Don’t get tied down. And then marry money.

What does getting older mean?

Like Keith Richards says, I’m not getting older, I’m evolving.

One thing I wish I’d done by now.

Bought a shack on a beach somewhere. With broadband. And a good bar nearby. More realistically, I am dying to take a month or two off and have an adventure with the kids while they are still young enough.

If life has taught me anything, it is that...

Nobody escapes. Really bad things happen to all of us and we cannot let them define our lives.

I know this about myself, that I am...

Getting better.

The first thing I do every morning is...

Brush my teeth with Sensodyne because I will have been woken by sore gums.

I switch off by...

Swimming, reading a book, mindlessly browsing consumer websites, buying nothing. The Sunday paper with no kids, driving with music, making food, eating food, drinking, the beach,

If I had more time, I would...

Spend more time with the kids. Home-school them. Maybe learn Italian.

I’m surprised by...

How full of bullshit organisations are. I should know by now, but I am still constantly amazed.

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