Thursday 15 November 2018

Failte Towers: So what do the critics say about the million people who watched it?

John Creedon was crowned
Failte Towers' King of the Castle
John Creedon was crowned Failte Towers' King of the Castle

Joe O'Shea

When the people behind Failte Towers sat down to visualise RTE's late-summer reality show, they probably weren't intent on asking fundamental questions about Irish TV.

But in a funny and wholly unintentional way, that's exactly what they have done.

Lambasted by the critics, loved by the public and impossible to ignore, even if you claimed not to have watched a minute, Failte Towers posed some fascinating questions about where TV is going in this country.

In terms of talent, you had old-school John Creedon versus the new-school Aidan Power and Baz Ashmawy.

There was the reaction of the viewers, very much mainstream Ireland, against the verdict of the chattering classes.

And finally, there was vindication for RTE -- and a timely reminder of what the Irish viewing public (as opposed to the station's critics) actually want.

First, the figures.

Close to a million viewers tuned into last Sunday night's grand finale, which saw the very popular John Creedon crowned King of the Castle.

After a shaky start, the reality show continued to grow its audience during its run, a very important factor in whether a show is deemed a success or not.

Regular audiences in the 350,000 to 450,000 range proved that RTE and Adare Productions made a canny move in opting not to stage another Charity You're A Star and go for a completely new format instead.

The national broadcaster could have simply staged another 'celeb karaoke' show, confident the familiar but tired You're A Star format would have won a respectable audience for not too much effort and little risk.

Instead, Adare and RTE came up with an entirely new format and prepared for the inevitable sniping (they might as well have painted a huge bullseye on the front of the hotel).

With a relatively modest budget, a small pool of possible celeb contestants and the well-established tradition of bashing anything new on RTE, the show's producers could have expected a rough start.

This was further complicated by the initial and completely over-the-top reaction to first-time live TV presenter Baz Ashmawy.

The former How Low Can You Go? presenter found out the hard way that live TV can be a scary place for debutants, one of the few jobs where your first day in the office is observed by 300,000 people and a small army of critics with sharpened pens poised.

The fact that he was teamed up with the very experienced and professional Aidan Power, a TV natural, made life even more difficult.

And the contrast between the new-school style -- high octane, eyes wide, arms waving -- and the old-school, laid-back charm of eventual winner John Creedon was one of the more fascinating aspects of a strangely compelling show.

The accepted wisdom in TV, when it comes to presenters on many entertainment shows, revolves around vague buzzwords like 'energy', 'edge', 'zany' and even 'danger'.

The challenge for producers, and the talent they select and direct, is to get the balance right and match the right presenter to the right format.

The Duracell Bunny has loads of 'energy' and Mussolini was a pretty zany guy who positively fizzed with personality -- but you wouldn't want either of them fronting Big Brother.

There is a thin line between being energetic and zany and being annoying, between having bags of on-screen confidence and coming across like you have a great, big welcome for yourself.

And then there has been the school of thought in TV that any reaction is a good reaction and as long as presenters provoke either love or hate, at least they are making an impact.

Presenters such as Davina McCall and, more recently, comedians-turned-presenters such as Russell Brand and Alan Carr have made a career out of provocation.

Terrifyingly empathetic and scarily animated, McCall helped create the template for presenters on British TV through the '90s and into the noughties.

McCall tends to present Big Brother -- admittedly a bear pit complete with a hysterical live audience -- as if heavily armed terrorists have taken over the gantry and will blow the place up if the energy levels drop below 150pc.

A-type personalities such as Jonathan Ross and Jeremy Clarkson can make their shows almost entirely about themselves, to the point where it seems the guests are there as mirrors to reflect their all-round brilliance. The move away from the 'big personality' presenter has already started across the water with the BBC's Adrian Chiles -- very much a laid-back, low-key guy -- recognised as the hottest prospect on TV.

And here, a show like Failte Towers can remind us how the public still appreciates a personality like Creedon, somebody who gives space to others and is not intent on sucking up all of the available on-screen oxygen.

Of course, before we get too carried away, we should remember who exactly was watching Failte Towers.

There's no insult meant in using the term 'middle Ireland' when we talk about the families who are looking for a bit of summertime diversion as the rain comes down outside.

There is an argument to be made that mainstream entertainment TV in Ireland will always do well as long as it has a certain percentage of what we could call The Killnascully Factor.

Certainly, TV and radio should strive to be innovative, edgy and ahead of the curve.

But the public has shown, most recently through the enthusiastic reaction to Failte Towers, that there is still a place for TV that doesn't ask too much beyond inviting you to be entertained.

And even sophisticated urban types would admit there's a lot of guilty pleasure to be had in a show like Failte Towers. Using a music metaphor, there are times you will want to listen to The Ting Tings and times you might fancy a bit of ABBA.

We can almost certainly expect a Failte Towers II and also expect Ashmawy to be back, stronger and wiser, after what was a brave response to a very tough live TV baptism.

In wider terms, the many column inches and heated opinions provoked by Failte Towers were a sign of the sense of ownership that we still feel when it comes to our national broadcaster.

If we didn't care so much about our TV, we wouldn't get so excited about what was, after all, a late-summer schedule filler.

Now the gauntlet has been thrown down to TV3 and the people behind the Irish version of The Apprentice (funnily enough, the same people who did Failte Towers).

They are about to write the next chapter in the story of reality TV, Irish style.

And we WILL be watching.

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