Brendan O'Connor: 'After new show I wanted to curl up into a ball'
Brendan O'Connor's new TV interview series for RTE is both intimate and revelatory
It can be hard, given the sheer volume of talk telly, to rise above the din of endless blather.
The Punch and Judy of nightly news shows, the enforced jollity of chat shows, the by-the-book seriousness of afternoon radio; on one level they all satisfy the bean counters of media - all are so cheap to make - but none seem to capture the real colour of our other national passtime.
With Cutting Edge, Brendan O'Connor managed, by dint of wit, mischief and a canny news sense, to breathe new life into night-time discussion - the show was warmly reviewed and won an IFTA last year - and now, with his new interview series, Brendan O'Connor's Time Out, he is about to invigorate the interview format in what he calls "the most complex TV show I have ever done. It's a three part series based on one-to-one interviews with high-profile people who have lived full lives".
There will be no studio audience as Brendan asks guests to pick "the five most important people or things that happened in their lives, the moments of truth as it were". The interviewees are eclectic, each with their own takes and depths; they include Majella O'Donnell, columnist Michael Harding and Chic frontman Nile Rodgers.
"Michael Harding was probably the most challenging in that he questioned the assumptions underlying nearly all my questions," Brendan says.
"It made me realise that we can tend, when interviewing people, to try and impose our own shit on them or to impose some kind of a neat narrative on their lives. But it's never that simple."
Majella O'Donnell will be the first interview, Brendan says. "She is incredible. Such a bright woman and such an incredible communicator and so good at explaining quite subtle things really well. And what a survivor. Tough woman, too. She had a good old pop at me about past crimes against Daniel and you will see me squirming."
The freedom for a robust back-and-forth is what gives the interviews strength and texture.
"If the idea was to try and get to some kind of authenticity with people, I think we have done that. These three are not perfect but they are quite real for TV I think," Brendan says.
"Hopefully, it's a bit different to what people are used to. It's clumsy and gauche in places, and awkward.
"And there are mindblowing moments too, I think, and moments of insight, which is the true value in listening to people."
An interesting theme was that the guests "all basically had a pop or fought back with me in some shape or form. They would not be controlled. They are not saccharine encounters They are robust enough".
For Brendan the show represents a departure from the news-based relative simplicity of Cutting Edge.
"Unlike if you are dealing with news or events or people's career or their views, which are all reasonably definite things, this was like herding the cats that is a life and trying to get to some truth there. And I felt I was being invasive and I also felt I was revealing myself in ways by my assumptions and questions. You end up realising how naive you are really."
As a host, he tried to ensure that something new was said: "People will hopefully think that this is some stab at a bit of authenticity and it feels a bit real in a world full of happy-clappy bullshit. I think people crave a bit of authenticity these days."
Parenthood was a particular theme. "The whole show could have been about people's parents," Brendan says.
"The interesting thing is that while the three of them talked about deficits in the parenting, none of them blame their parents as such. They generally just thought their parents were doing their best and they didn't know any better or weren't capable of loving them in a better way."
The interviews were emotional for the interviewees and Brendan. "I usually wanted to just sit down on the floor and curl up in a ball after them. There were times too where you wanted to cry but they weren't crying so I restrained myself."
The lack of a studio audience gave the interviews an intimacy that they might not have otherwise had. But all journalists know, in the end you are dependent on the generosity of your subject - and on this score Brendan says he was lucky.
"All three guests were incredibly generous and open and giving. I was in total awe of them. And there was no audience to protect them or egg them on. So it was difficult and a bit weird, I think. But for the most part, we forgot the cameras were there and they just talked.
"As a team we are a little proud of what we did here, so hopefully people like it."
'Brendan O'Connor's Time Out' starts on Friday at 9.35pm on RTE One.