Tonight with Vincent browne
TV3's doughty old warhorse is imprisoned in a charisma-free zone most nights, says Will Hanafin, and he must be liberated
You must have overheard this phrase being used: "Vincent Browne is brilliant!" But enough about what Vincent repeats into his bathroom mirror of a morning. There's an accepted consensus among the political twitterati that Vincent Browne's TV3 show is telly gold.
Indeed, it's quite an achievement that a cranky, politically obsessive, Colonel Gaddafi doppelganger has managed to attach himself to the schedule of a station that would much rather show us arse-enhancement cosmetic surgery. On second thoughts, maybe they're not that far apart.
The doughty old warhorse has also survived RTE's copycat attempt during the general election with The Eleventh Hour show, developing an incredible loyalty among the chattering classes. It's the modern equivalent of reading Playboy for the articles. His fans are most comfortable watching folk-music documentaries on BBC4 or animal-dissection programmes over on Channel 4. But they hold their nose and switch over to TV3 when Vincent Browne comes on, safe in the knowledge that they won't have to watch bikini waxing or Kardashian updates for once.
While everyone else is sensibly getting their eight hours' sleep, these tormented souls choose to put themselves through the range of emotions from A to B, as a procession of bores haunt their midnight hour. From the vaguely sinister opening music you know you're in for an hour of frustration, anger and mind-numbing tedium. It's the televisual equivalent of bursting bubble wrap. The nerve-jangling experience is amplified by the jarring red set, which looks like Spider-Man has just been involved in a head-on collision with TV3's studio wall.
The programme has some shining lights such as the bonkers but brilliant presidential debate, but the bread-and-butter Tonight With Vincent Browne shows are stuffed most nights with whining shites.
On a bad night, as 11 o'clock limps towards midnight, the line-up makes the show resemble the local from hell, the type of pub where the highlights are wall-to-wall Formica, ripped leather banquettes and a cigarette machine. It's the boozer where you always get wedged between the village bores rambling about the woes of the world while sipping pint bottles of Guinness.
On any TV show there has to be some whiff of star quality and entertainment, or the viewers' patience will quickly wear thin. With Vincent's show, you sometimes feel it's a daycare centre for excessive twitterers, incoherent economists and hacks who think they're hilarious. The worst thing on the show has to be Vinnie's paper review at the end. Nothing is more annoying than the dyspeptic wheezing from the panellists and Vincent as they discuss things they know nothing about, such as Wayne Rooney, the Kardashians, abused kangaroos or The X Factor.
This led TV3 to an uncharacteristic commercial slip by giving Vincent a Friday-night chat show. Two worlds collided as he grappled with the likes of Jedward, when we all knew he wanted to cuddle up and discuss pro-cyclical economic activity with some fawning economist. This Friday-night foray has since suffered a double-dip recession and disappeared from the schedules.
The normal show is also hard going. Here's the typical line-up. Roll up! Roll up! Here's what's on tonight's show. No-mark Fine Gael TD in a pinstripe suit. No-mark Fianna Fail TD in a pinstripe suit. Token leftie in H&M shirt, along with sleepy journo and topped off by cranky presenter.
But it's when Vinnie gets to grips with the politicians on his show that the whole thing becomes unwatchable. A recent panel featuring the candidates for the forthcoming Dublin West by-election was like descending into the seventh circle of hell. The candidates from the various political parties created a perfect charisma-free zone. The middle-aged Fine Gael lady -- who doesn't deserve a name check because of crimes against television -- couldn't even manage to speak most of the time, due to Vincenzo's terrifying bedside manner. She eventually came up with a reason why people should vote for her: because she knows people in Fine Gael and would be able to talk to them about things if she became a TD.
The other candidates spouted a torrent of cliches about unemployment, banks, debt and economic growth, while looking terrified of the bad man. But what makes Vincent so scary? I think I've finally figured out Vincent's shtick. He doesn't do razor-sharp cross-examination like a prosecuting beak. He doesn't behave like a Paxman-style Rottweiler. Vincent's performance is classic Angry Dad. Every night he must do visualisation exercises in his dressing room, as if he's discovered his child's cannabis stash in the false bottom of a bedroom drawer, along with enough porn to make your eyes water and several of the family's maxed-out credit cards.
The classic Vincent Browne/Angry Dad routine goes as follows. Look really cross and do a weird starey thing at your subject. Look like a demented North African dictator about to make a speech condemning western imperialism. Then huff and puff a lot without saying a word. Follow this by pulling at your Brillo Pad-like hair for several seconds. Possibly headbutt the desk or break several slates with a karate chop. Then start the staccato sentences which defy all rules of conversation. "Why did you do it?" "That's rubbish!" "What are you going to do about it?" and the classic "Do you think it was right?"
I think the reason he is so frustrated most nights is that he's hugely disappointed in the calibre of the panels he's managed to round up. It's as if TV3 send a van into Doheny & Nesbitt's pub, throw a net over some punters and drag them out to Ballymount for a chat with Vincenzo. That's why the level of debate rarely rises above that of a doctor's waiting room.
If Vincent wants to maintain his sanity and his health, TV3 need to make an executive decision to cut his show back to once or twice a week. There would then be some hope of having a panel that doesn't look like some mismatched police line-up.
You could almost see the trace of a smile on the old man's face when he hosted the recent presidential debate. It was as if he was actually enjoying himself. He even dusted off a few of his dog-eared library books to tackle McGuinness with. A weight was lifted from his shoulders as he realised he wouldn't have to talk about fixing potholes in some Dublin 15 housing estate for half an hour.
It's like Dublin Zoo's decision to create a proper habitat for its silverback gorillas. They don't know themselves now that they're free to roam around the plains, after years of being stuck in a glass enclosure. Just put Vinnie on TV3 once a week and give him some decent guests.
Free Vinnie! Before it's too late.
Sunday Indo Life Magazine