Tuesday 12 November 2019

John Boland's week in TV: Gay's media fans pay homage to an icon - and to themselves, too


Ryan Tubridy pictured on RTÉ One's The Late Late Show - Gay Byrne Tribute. Picture Andres Poveda
Ryan Tubridy pictured on RTÉ One's The Late Late Show - Gay Byrne Tribute. Picture Andres Poveda

John Boland

At this stage, five days after his passing and with countless tributes already paid, there's little more to be said about Gay Byrne beyond the indisputable fact that he was the outstanding and most influential Irish broadcaster of his era.

But it wasn't the era in which we now live and, for all the talk about him in the media this week, it should be remembered that he stepped down from hosting The Late Late Show two decades ago, and that people under the age of 30 really only know of him as someone who had a considerable impact on their elders.

Sally Rooney, for instance, was only eight when his Late Late tenure ended and was thus too young to register or even know about his importance, and the same is true of the generation about whom she so brilliantly writes - even if this generation partly won its relative freedoms through his pioneering radio and television work, which, under the guise of light entertainment, questioned many old certainties and, in the process, exposed many old lies.

They're not to know or care about that, and it was striking how they were noticeable by their absence from Tuesday night's tribute Late Late Show (RTÉ1), hosted with aplomb and affection by the show's current incumbent, Ryan Tubridy, but featuring a decidedly older studio audience, all of them intent on delivering their tuppence worth.

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Indeed, as inevitably happens on such media occasions, much of the show became a competitive love-in that said more about the contributors and their egos than about the person they were supposedly honouring.

There were exceptions. President Michael D Higgins was eloquent about Gaybo's influence (his "veiled modernity") in an emerging new Ireland; there were good observations, too, from his predecessor Mary McAleese and from such former radio colleagues as John Caden and Eithne Hand; and there was an arresting chat with the young woman who'd been blinded as a teenager in the Omagh bombings and now runs a musical academy.

Mike Murphy was in showboating mode, as was Bono being Bono in an audio link from New Zealand, while the anecdotes of the various RTÉ stalwarts who dominated the audience became wearisome.

There were, of course, no dissenters from the Gaybo-as-saint mood and thus there was no mention of the innate Catholic conservatism that led to such lapses as his patronising, indeed dreadful, treatment of Annie Murphy after the Bishop Casey revelations. In fact, there was no sense of how, throughout his long career, he outraged and alienated as many as admired him.

Nell McCafferty sounded from her couple of brief interjections as if she might be in truculent mood, but we never got to find out what, if anything, she intended to say.

Otherwise, though, he juggled all the competing aspects of this tribute show with an adroitness that would have found favour with his late predecessor.

Elsewhere this week, Dublin Murders (RTÉ1/BBC1) came to an end and I still hadn't a clue what it was about: a bemusement clearly shared by the BBC continuity announcer, who prefaced Tuesday night's closer by asking, "Will the final episode explain what on earth is going on?"

But no, it didn't explain it. What was Detective Cassie doing living with the studenty types and pretending to be her own doppelgänger? And why did she have to be working undercover in order to find out what had happened? Could she not just have arrested and interrogated them? Come to that, why did the murdered girl look exactly like her, and who was she anyway? We never found out.

Then there was the main storyline, which made just as little sense. What had happened to Adam's teenage friends in 1985? Had they been killed or had they just vanished into thin air, never to be seen again? Search me.

Towards the end, Leah McNamara had a venomously good scene as the creepy sister of murdered Katie, but her arresting performance came too late in a series that had been strong on atmosphere but woefully inadequate in telling its story, whatever that might have been.

I have high hopes, though, for His Dark Materials (BBC1), based on Philip Pullman's fantasy trilogy, which I haven't read, though I might yet do so, especially after watching Alan Yentob's absorbing interview with him in Imagine - Philip Pullman: Angels and Daemons (BBC4).

In the eight-part adaptation, 14-year-old Dafne Keen winningly plays 12-year-old Lyra, who has found sanctuary since birth in an imagined Oxford college but who must now battle against the evil forces intent on destroying her world and her like.

Watching this week's opening episode, I got echoes of Harry Potter, but more interesting, too, and with a splendid turn from Ruth Wilson as the villainous Mrs Coulter. I'll report back.

And I'll also be looking at the next episode of Seven Worlds, One Planet (RTÉ1), which began with an hour on Antarctica and continued this week by looking at the wildlife of Asia.

This is the latest natural history series fronted by the 93-year-old David Attenborough, who recently (some would say belatedly) has been voicing his concerns about the bad things that have been happening to our fragile globe. The visuals, as one would expect, are extraordinary.

In Children of the Troubles (RTÉ1), Joe Duffy spoke to the loved ones of some of the 186 babies and youngsters who were killed during the three decades of slaughterous hate on this island. The host's innate sympathy encouraged some wrenchingly poignant recollections.

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