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Wednesday 21 November 2018

Frankie: we did it her way

Tom O'Dea remembers sponsored radio's agony aunt Frankie Byrne whose advice to the lovelorn is the subject of a new book and tells how he came to write to her seeking smoky-voiced wisdom

Tom O'Dea remembers sponsored radio's agony aunt Frankie Byrne whose advice to the lovelorn is the subject of a new book and tells how he came to write to her seeking smoky-voiced wisdom

A country girl living in Dublin writes to Frankie Byrne, pointing out that she loves the city, has a good job, and plans to marry her boyfriend soon.

There is a fly in the unction, however. Mr Boyfriend has been left ``a good farm and a house'' by his uncle, and ``suddenly everything is in a mess.''

Miss Country Girl then lets slip a string of derogatory words and phrases about the country ``drudgery,'' ``hard work,'' ``no amenities,'' ``primitive surroundings'' and adds: ``I think if he really loved me he would stay in Dublin and maybe sell this property, and stay in the city where I would be happy.``

Frankie goes down on one knee, rests the barrel of her gun on an adjacent wall, shuts one eye, gets the target in her sights, and pulls the trigger.

``It's a choice between suburban comfort or rural comfort and if it's too big a risk for you,'' she says, ``then pick up your marbles and get out of the game.''

That was Frankie direct, witty, deadly just the same when addressing the public as she was in her private life.

Frankie died five years ago, alas, and now some of her pieces of advice to those touched by love and other disorders of the mind have been edited by Patrick O'Dea. Not waiting to tie my shoelaces, let me dash out and say that he is no relation of mine. The blurb tells us that he is ``a sociology graduate from Trinity College Dublin.'' Bully for him.

Frankie Byrne presented Women's Page Jacob's sponsored radio programme on RTE as recently as 1985, having begun in 1963. She also wrote a Dear Frankie column in the same vein for the Evening Press.

It may now be necessary, however, to say who she was because of the disregard for the past induced in the human species by the very mass media in which she worked with distinction and charm.

The listening and reading public knew her as an agony aunt, unimpaired by academic studies in psychology, but drawing on native wit, loads of horse sense, and an eye as keen as H L Mencken's for the aptitude of the human animal for making an abundant mess of everything.

All through her time on radio and before and after she ran her own public relations business, concentrating chiefly on promoting Jacob's, the biscuit people who instituted the radio and television awards. Her influence in this area was equalled only by the prodigious work she put into it. I think it is no skin off anyone's nose to accord her the distinction of giving the awards night the character it had wheelchairs for the irretrievably drunken, and all.

Frankie had her own way of dealing with seemingly immovable objects. Once, when she was promoting the Dublin Theatre Festival, she came face to face with a notorious and maniacal crank one who knew a bit about the law, too trying to crash the festival club without accreditation. When logical argument failed, she kicked him in the shins, and out the door, to the applause of all around.

Whenever she read a listener's letter on the radio and made her comment upon it, she played a Sinatra record only Sinatra; no one else, all through the spreading infestation of rock-'n'-roll which showed her high resolve and fine taste.

Once, I asked if she would play a particular Sinatra record. In that mischievously blunt way of hers, she shot straight back: ``You write me a letter for the programme and I'll play the record.''

So I wrote the letter and gave it to her. It was a concoction purporting to come from an elderly bachelor who had let several women slip through his fingers. At the end, this imaginary man reflected sadly upon the time he stood at his local railway station and watched the great love of his life waving goodbye from a departing train, forever.

Frankie read the letter on the air. Then, she set about the systematic butchering of the man, limb by limb, winding up by saying that, to a crusty old bachelor who hadn't the daring of a mouse, a woman never looked more beautiful than when waving goodbye from the window of a departing train. Then, she played the record I had asked for, and I was ready with my tape recorder.

It is in that same tone of voice that she responds to many of the letters in this edited collection. Over the years, Frankie Byrne and Lauren Bacall grew to look and sound more and more alike the same high cheekbones and sardonic eyes; the same throaty, smoky voice that you can hear when you read these letters.

In one letter, a woman complains that she is expected to live, when she marries, in a bungalow sitting next to her wealthy prospective mother-in-law's house, rent free, but she was so looking forward to having a house of her own.

Frankie draws her attention to a few home truths, such as the advantage of not having a mortgage around her neck. And then she lets the woman have both barrels: ``If the Ewings can do it in Southfork,'' she asks, ``why can't you?''

Another letter says: ``I'm 19 my boyfriend's 21 and we've been going together for over three years. Now we've moved into a flat together, but we have a problem. We're not using any form of contraceptive because he won't use a condom and I won't go on the Pill because I'm afraid of losing my figure. Any advice?''

For this one, Frankie brings out the heavy artillery in her very first sentence. ``If you think the Pill will ruin your figure, just wait and see what pregnancy does to it!''

A woman writes about her husband's table manners when they go out to business functions together. He is a good man in every way, but he puts his elbows on the table, with his knife and fork pointing to the ceiling. ``I cringe with embarrassment in front of the executives' wives,'' she says.

Most of Frankie Byrne's working life was spent in business, yet or perhaps because of that she makes a typically straightforward and shrewd response to her correspondent.

``Those executives' wives are the same as any other wives,'' she says, ``it's their husbands' positions which gave them the importance you're investing in them.'' Bull's-eye again.

* Dear Frankie, edited by Patrick O'Dea; Mentor, £4.99

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