Monday 19 November 2018

It's trial by television when the big names blow their top . . .

After Pat Kenny's outburst, Damian Corless looks at other infamous TV clashes

Pat Kenny. Photo courtesy of RTE
Pat Kenny. Photo courtesy of RTE

Damian Corless

Host Pat Kenny hit the roof on Monday night when union chief Jack O'Connor brought Kenny's Dalkey residence into a debate on taxation.

On RTE's new talk show Frontline, O'Connor suggested that "a reasonable level of tax" should be slapped on "trophy houses" in the upcoming budget.

"What's a trophy house?" asked Pat.

"A house like yours, probably," replied O'Connor.

Pointing a finger at his guest, a glowering Kenny told him: "I built my house in 1988. How is it a trophy house? I don't want this crap coming at me."

Taken aback, O'Connor apologised on the spot, and the following morning both men issued statements stressing their mutual respect. By then, however, thousands of people had flocked to YouTube to view the moment when Ireland's most unflappable broadcaster let the mask slip.

Many years earlier Kenny's predecessor on the Late Late Show, Gay Byrne, was similarly provoked to anger by a guest. The guest was the late Scots psychiatrist RD Laing, who availed himself freely of the drink in the hospitality room.

Eventually Gaybo could no longer play the indulgent host. He sternly confronted his guest: "Professor Laing, why did you think it necessary to become intoxicated before appearing on my show?"

It wasn't the only time that Gaybo lost his cool in the public gaze. In 1982 he was delivering a scholarly lecture to camera on the grounds of Trinity College when a French tourist began acting the eejit behind him. After being forced to do several re-takes, an angry Byrne confronted the Frenchman with the words: "Do you understand the expression f**k off?" The tourist turned out to be colleague Mike Murphy playing a prank.

The BBC's Sue Lawley has a claim to be the most unflappable TV presenter of all time. In 1988 Lawley was reading the evening news when a group of militant feminists invaded the studio live on air.

Lawley stuck to her script without so much as a stutter as chaos broke out all about her and as co-anchor Nicholas Witchell held one of the protesters in an armlock.

Lawley's BBC colleague Jeremy Paxman is famous for trying to provoke a reaction from guests with his abrasive style. One interviewee, the MP George Galloway, lost his cool and walked. It happened during the the 2005 UK general election.

Referring to a female candidate Galloway had defeated, Paxman asked if he was proud of having got rid of "one of the very few black women in Parliament". Galloway growled and stormed off in a huff.

Paxman himself let off a spontaneous burst of steam after his editor decided he should sign off Newsnight with a weather report.

After following instructions for several nights he snapped, telling viewers: "And for tonight's weather. It's April. What do you expect?"

The weather reports were dropped.

Genial to his core, Michael Parkinson's interviewing technique was the polar opposite to Paxman's, but he found himself drawn into an angry confrontation with Muhammad Ali. Parkinson got off to a bad start by innocently calling Ali by his disgarded name of Cassius Clay.

Ali responded by calling him "honky" and squaring up to him. When Ali insisted that a Muslim wife should be covered head-to-toe, an agitated Parkinson became confrontational.

An irate Ali then threatened to hit the host, fuming: "You do not have enough wisdom for calling me on television. You're too small mentally to tackle me on anything I represent. You and this little TV show (are) nothing to Muhammad Ali."

Parkinson was incandescent with rage himself when he was suddenly attacked by the glove puppet Emu, worn by comedian Rod Hull.

Shoved off his chair and onto the floor by the bird, Parkinson's body language was one of a man ready to kill. Fellow guest Billy Connolly spoke for both when he threatened Hull: "If that bird comes anywhere near me I'll break its neck and your bloody arm."

Interviews are a two-way arrangement, and sometimes the interviewer can do what they think is their best, only for the interviewee to take offence.

Chat-show host Clive Anderson was rendered befuddled by the Bee Gees when they guested on his show in 1997.

Anderson was just being his usual wisecracking self, as he shot the breeze with the Brothers Gibb. Things appeared to be going smoothly until eldest brother Barry quipped that in the 1960s they'd briefly flirted with the name Les Tosseurs. "You'll always be tossers to me," fired back Anderson.

It was just a throwaway line, but a frown appeared on Barry's face that got deeper as the chat wore on. Anderson carried on obliviously, telling them he loved their '60s stuff and so did his dog.

Barry responded: "I thought we were tossers." The next thing he said was: "In fact, I might just leave."

Barry pulled off his microphone and walked off, followed by Robin, leaving Maurice who was clearly as nonplussed as the disbelieving Anderson. Maurice eventually got to his feet and said: "I might as well join them."

The preening motormouth Anderson was, for once, left speechless.

Talk-show host David Frost was similarly left with his jaw on the floor in 1963 when the Irish writer Desmond Leslie strode onto the stage live on air and approached Frost's guest, the theatre critic Bernard Levin. Levin had just penned a savage review of a new play by Leslie's wife.

While a startled Frost looked on helplessly, and millions watched at home, Leslie said: "Just a minute Mr Levin. This will only take a minute." With that he smashed a left hook into Levin's nose.

Frost is generally cited as the first interviewer in TV history to really lose his head on air. It happened in 1967 when he invited the convicted swindler Emil Savundra onto his show.

Frost expected that Savundra would come on and apologise to his victims. Instead the guest injected himself with pethidine, a drug that would keep him calm in the face of the most vigorous interrogation.

He then went on air and protested his innocence, referring to the fraud victims in the studio audience as "peasants".

Consumed with rage, Frost launched into a tirade against his guest in an outbust so fierce and sustained that it gave the world the phrase "trial by television".

Some of the most memorable confrontations between interviewers and interviewees have happened off camera. Ireland's Frost counterpart, John Bowman, was once pushed to the limits of his patience by a guest on his morning Radio 1 show.

The guest, a senior official with the Amalgamated Engineering Union, began to express a line of argument that seemed to Bowman to be deeply anti-women.

Increasingly exasperated, Bowman put it straight to the union official: "Do you believe that men and women are equal?"

His guest replied in heated tones: "How the hell could they be equal when the woman is made from the rib of the man?"

Bowman had had enough. "I have no further questions," he said, and cut off the interview.

Irish Independent

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