Tuesday 12 November 2019

John Downing: Why Gaybo’s ‘Late Late’ was always political, albeit with a small 'p'

Gay Byrne and Charles J Haughey in 1987 during the Late Late Show tribute to The Dubliners on their 25th anniversary - all the action is revisited tonight, 30 years on.
Gay Byrne and Charles J Haughey in 1987 during the Late Late Show tribute to The Dubliners on their 25th anniversary - all the action is revisited tonight, 30 years on.
Talk isn't cheap: Gay Byrne presenting ‘The Late Late Show’ — RTE was lucky to keep this rare talent
SCANDAL: Annie Murphy interviewed by Gay Byrne on ‘The Late Late Show’ where she revealed details of her relationship with Casey
Roll on: Gay Byrne in the The Late, Late Show studio in 1969
Gay Byrne with U2's Bono and Larry Mullen
John Downing

John Downing

'SEX never came to Ireland until Telefís Éireann went on the air,” the larger than life politician Oliver J Flanagan said in 1966.

Like many good quotations it is often wrongly cited – and almost as often misunderstood. Oliver J did not say: “There was no sex in Ireland before television.”

But in a ham-fisted way the politician was articulating a very common view among many of his contemporaries, male and female, that there had never been such frank and frequent discussion of sex until the forerunner of RTÉ television began.

Implicit in his view, fully shared by people like this writer’s parents, was this new discussion went unacceptably beyond the realms of Catholic Church orthodoxy about control and restraint, long publicly endorsed by most mainstream politicians.

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Annie Murphy on the Late Late
Annie Murphy on the Late Late
Kathleen Watkins and her husband Gay Byrne. Photo: David Conachy
Pat, Gay and Ryan at The Late Late Show 50th anniversary in 2012
Family story: Broadcasting legend Gay Byrne and Kathleen Watkins with grandchildren Cian, Saoirse and Sadhbh. PHOTO: VIP MAGAZINE
Wesley Snipes pictured with Gay Byrne at the opening of Planet Hollywood last night.(picture taken at press reception in conrad) Pic Tony Kelly.7/12/97
Broadcaster Gay Byrne with his wife Kathleen Watkins.
Gay Byrne and wife Kathleen Watkins for VIP Magazine. Picture: Lili Forberg/VIP Magazine
Gay Byrne feeling the love with a Valentine's Day card, February 1993
Gay with his family, Suzy, Kathleen and Crona: 'It is simply a truth to say without them I would not have survived'. Photo: Gareth Chaney
Broadcaster Gay Byrne pictured with Frank McNamara and Theresa Lowe on their wedding day in 1987
Broadcaster Gay Byrne Photo: Mark Condren
Gay Byrne and wife Kathleen Watkins enjoying the Dubai Duty Free Irish Derby at the Curragh. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Ray D'Arcy with Gay Byrne at RTE Radio 1
Gay Byrne, pictured in April 1964. RTE Stills Library
Gay Byrne pictured in 1982. RTE Stills Library
Gay and Kathleen. Photo: David Conachy
Gay Byrne. Photo: Kip Carroll
Gay and Kathleen
Irish broadcaster Gay Byrne has died at the age of 85 after a long illness, RTE said (Brian Lawless/PA)
Derek Hill's portrait of Gay Byrne, commissioned by RTE

But Mr Flanagan’s famous remark was most certainly directed at ‘The Late Late Show’, then in its fourth year on the fledgling television service, fronted and personified by “your host, Gay Byrne”. And over a long time, Oliver J has been proven correct – Gay Byrne did a heck of a lot to further frank discussion about sex – and many other taboo topics – as he emerged as a de facto political power in the land across four decades.

In his 2009 book ‘Occasions of Sin – Sex and Society in Modern Ireland’, historian Diarmaid Ferriter noted a whole Irish generation would have gone through life without a discussion on sex without Byrne’s chat show. The remarkable thing was the show’s huge reach, partly due to “single channel innocence”, and the absence of other options, but also down to the broadcasting skills, intelligence and force of character often shown by the presenter.

John Bowman, in his 2012 history of RTÉ, ‘Window and Mirror’, noted that astonishing viewership. “Probably no society anywhere had such a high proportion of its population watching such a programme,” he wrote.

Politicians soon learned about the power of  Byrne via his huge audience figures – and avoided any direct confrontations with the man. The broadcaster reciprocated and avoided being seen to have any party alliegances.

He had an uncanny ability to let tricky discussions run their course, but the bravery to ensure no topic was too controversial to be off limits, and no newsworthy person was unfit to be interviewed. In 1972 he began presenting a two-hour morning radio programme – the ‘Gay Byrne Show’ – and supermarket staff noted women shoppers were largely absent until it finished.

Both the radio and the television show dovetailed and became an effective forum for discussion of the need for social and political change. But the huge contradiction here is that Gabriel Mary Byrne, proud of his education in the 1940s and 1950s by the Christian Brothers in Synge Street, Dublin, was very far from being a social radical.

He was a gutsy broadcast journalist with a keen nose for polemic and controversy. He was also prepared to take advantage of emerging new social and media freedoms to strike and lead a very different tone in public discourse.

There are good grounds for arguing so much of ‘The Late Late Show’, and by extension the radio show, were political – albeit with a small “p”. But Byrne often did deviate into issues which were directly related to elective politics.

A programme on Saturday, January 16, 1982 is a case in point, notable in retrospect for the Government’s collapse just 11 days later in a vote on Budget plans for VAT on children’s shoes. Twenty politicians participated from across all the main parties, including household names like Charlie McCreevy, Michael Noonan, Ruairi Quinn, Nora Owen, Jim Gibbons, Jim Kemmy and Eileen Lemass. There were also two future Taoisigh, in Bertie Ahern and Enda Kenny.

This particular ‘Late Late Show’, like so many others, was a mixum-gatherum of culture, whimsy and seriousness. There was an item with writer Anthony Burgess whose book, ‘Clockwork Orange’, had become a sexually-explicit, controversial film, followed by a musical skit by a duo called Musical Interlude.

Then Byrne virtually handed over to journalist Vincent Browne. There followed a 70-minute fast and furious political debate about the country’s acute economic woes, leaving the switchboard jammed with angry callers.

In March 1990 Byrne hosted a soft-focus ‘Late Late Show’ tribute to Fianna Fáil veteran Brian Lenihan who was battling ill-health. One of the guests told of the night gardaí raided a Dublin pub and Lenihan’s cabinet colleague and drinking partner, Donogh O’Malley, asked the garda in charge if he would “have a pint or a transfer”.

It turned out to be a joke too far as it coincided with the controversial case of a Fianna Fáil senator using parliamentary privilege to avoid conviction for drink driving. Some in the Labour Party were so incensed they confirmed a plan to run Mary Robinson for President that autumn.

Right into his final year presenting the ‘Late Late Show’, Byrne was still close to controversy. On a dreary January evening in 1999, then-EU Commissioner Pádraig Flynn sauntered on for what began as a soft interview but ended as one of the most ill-judged television performances by an Irish politician.

Flynn raised hackles by talking of his net IR£100,000 yearly salary, set against the expense of running three houses and paying three housekeepers. Other ill-judged remarks goaded the UK-based Irish businessman, Tom Gilmartin, into reversing his original decision to boycott the Planning Tribunal in Dublin investigating payments to

politicians. Mr Gilmartin’s subsequent evidence caused political fallout which was still being felt a decade later.

Five months later, Charlie Haughey’s lover of 27 years, Terry Keane, appeared to trail her new book about their not-so-private affair.

That same year also, it fell to another politician, Dublin Lord Mayor and Senator Joe Doyle, to deliver a laudatory speech as he presented Gay Byrne with the freedom of his native city.

The genial Fine Gael politician, and former Catholic Church sacristan, rattled off his achievements as host and producer of the longest-running chat show in television history. “You made it all look so easy. You threw in the ball and sat back and let it all happen on air.”

Doyle said his work had brought into the open things which were hidden: “You had a liberating effect that was astonishing and refreshing – and sometimes shocking. And, as Oliver J Flanagan had once complained, there was no sex in Ireland before ‘The Late Late Show’.”

In the end, even Oliver J’s former parliamentary party colleague got the quotation wrong. But this time the sense of it was absolutely correct.

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