The man who changed our way of seeing . . .
Last night's Late Late Show was one of the most sensational programmes in the history of Irish television. Gay Byrne's interview with columnist Terry Keane was yet another compelling insight into Irish society, warts and all. For nearly 40 years the programme has entertained us. Next Friday, Gay Byrne's last Late Late Show will be transmitted, the end of an era not just in broadcasting but in Irish life. Bruce Arnold on the achievement of Ireland's greatest broadcaster
Television has had a huge impact on our lives. It has become the dominant collective source for information, entertainment, sports coverage, wildlife, humour, human tragedy, music, and above all the chat show. We curse it, and we cannot do without it. It is intrusive, and immensely powerful. And it has grown to be a worldwide monster, invading our homes and privacy, our minds and feelings, our beliefs and our ability to experience, and all of this without our becoming involved. We simply sit and absorb as channel after channel pours forth an endless variety of choices over which we have less and less control.
For Ireland, its life spans the last four decades. And during that time, the most enduring figure of all has been that of Gay Byrne. He has been its conscience, internally. More than any other person appearing on Irish television during our lifetimes, Gay Byrne has been that essential ikon of the late twentieth century, Television Man. Bland, easy to watch, uncontentious in himself, publicly uncomplicated, he has coaxed and encouraged, persuaded and ordered, monitoring a visual and verbal commentary on the country's life. And because of television's all-pervading power this has made him the social conscience of the Irish people.
It has given him power as well, though this is less important than it might be, because Gay Byrne has no personal agenda intruding into the lifelong dedication to the task he set himself: to amuse and entertain, to inform and educate. In this the man's essential nature is close to the medium he uses. We think of television as ``powerful'', and this encourages us to invoke the term when we consider its major personalities. But television is really only powerful when it is in the hands of someone who has a clear and forceful agenda, and knows how to use it. Watching Gerry Adams on television, or Margaret Thatcher, it becomes easier to understand that the exercise of power, in the old-fashioned sense of our lives being threatened by the intention to change our way of thinking, is inescapably related to the personal agenda.
Television Man is concerned with performance. Gay Byrne has wanted, through all those years, a good show. And his audiences have wanted the same. Infinite variety has only been possible because the presenter is always the same; always open to new ideas, new directions, new points of view, new kinds of personality, but essentially himself unchanging. Like a sheet of blotting paper, or a sponge, he has soaked up the flow of social change for close on forty years, trusted by viewers to react to it, on their behalf, in the same way each time he appears.
This suggests that he is passive. It is more complicated than that. Professionally, he is a thinking man, with strategy in his performance, and a careful preparation for the kind of individual he is having to confront. He would not have lasted half a year, as a chat show host, if there had not been careful thought and research, careful choice and balance. He would not have sustained himself without a personality ideally suited, not just to the medium, but to the specifics of predominantly light-weight conversation designed to display the personality and ambition of one guest after another.
In this Gay Byrne is, and has always been, admirably professional. He works within a clear sense of his own capabilities, and an equally clear recognition of his own character. There are times, of course, when it all goes wrong. But they are infrequent, and there is always the principle of caveat emptor: if you buy into the show by participating, on your own head be it.
Nevertheless, the idea of Gay Byrne as a comparatively passive recipient of other people's thoughts and feelings, unmotivated by any passionate interest in the subjects himself, is akin to the whole basis of television itself. The medium is, at heart, passive. We thought, all those years ago, when the Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, and President de Valera, made their portentous speeches about what was in store for us, that some great force for good or evil was looming ahead.
Good and evil have certainly come out of it, but the high hopes, forty years ago, have not been realised. In fact, it has turned into an electronic version of the tabloid newspaper, and is fast being overtaken, in its relevance to the individual living in a worldwide network of electronic communication and information, by other more immediate and more personally relevant channels.
It was meant to change society, spread culture, and under the prudent control mechanisms of benign Church authority and sensible political legislation, to be a moral and social asset. Believe it or not, that was the basic message which accompanied the launch of RTE.
And what happened? The Church lost its power, its moral authority, its dignity, even its ability to think straight. The politicians, unsurprisingly, treated it as a vehicle for themselves, tinkered with controls but gradually handed them over. And they were exposed. How mightily they were exposed! And then reduced in size to pygmy proportions. Good performers, with no special claim on our attention beyond the ability to contribute positively to the making of good television programmes, became central.
A good example of this is Ulick O'Connor. A frequent performer on the Late Late, and deservedly so for the rasping, aggressive challenges which were his hallmark, he became the ideal pundit, with a view on everything. Sportsman, writer, wit, conversationalist, he was like a barrel full to the brim of beer. All Gay Byrne needed to do was to lean forward and turn on the tap. Gay Byrne was ideally conditioned to do that. He knew exactly the amount to let out, and exactly when to turn the tap off. And Ulick O'Connor was exactly right as the barrel. The laws of hydrodynamics and the force of social gravity released roughly the same mixture every time, either to the delight or the anger of studio audiences, and to the passing amusement of those watching their television sets.
Like a well-written and well-presented column in a mass-circulation tabloid newspaper, Gay Byrne undoubtedly made a major contribution to the moral and social change implicit in what television was doing overall. He first challenged the Church and particularly its bishops to admit, by coming on his shows, that they existed. Then he demonstrated that they were more or less human, like the rest of us. Then he showed us that they were fallible to the point of being in frequent breach of the moral code which it was their very existence to interpret and uphold. And in a sense the rest is history. Their copes and mitres, their grand cathedrals and weighty expositions on moral behaviour, had no chance against the revelation that they drank, slept with women, fathered illegitimate children, concealed sexual abuse within their dioceses, maybe even indulged in it themselves, allowed criminally cruel institutions to operate without the State's control, and at heart had amazingly limited understanding of the trials and tribulations of ordinary members of the christian family, whose welfare they should also have been protecting.
Of course Gay Byrne was only part of this moral and social revolution. But he was a considerable part, since these central issues of where the Church stood in relation to the State, what each was doing about the other, and where the mass of the population fitted in were meat and drink to Gay Byrne. He was the people. That explained his existence, that gave drive to his own work, that justified the frequent gobdaw attitude he deliberately adopted, in order to get reaction out of the people he interviewed.
Professionally, he did develop, becoming more assured, more canny, more confident and therefore more powerful as a presenter. But he never lost the consistent simplicity of his own position. Even dealing with complex matters, even trampling over the feelings of individuals and groups, he got to the heart of issues, and managed often enough to turn them inside out, leaving us all altered by the experience.
The reverse happened to television itself. It started as a repository of high ideals and massive social and cultural aspirations. It was to change all our lives for the better. It was to educate, inform, excite, move, amuse and investigate. And though it has done all of that, running through an endless list of approaches, the fundamental objectives were not realised.
Today, it is somehow grubby and uncertain. The supply of films is running out. Film itself, as a medium, is failing to stand the test of time. Soap opera is part of the diet, hooking the most surprising people, but demonstrating that the real agenda is not cultural but financial. In other words, the whole of commercial television is geared to levels of viewing, and therefore to advertising.
For the chat show host to survive, he has to be exceptional to the point of outstanding. Gay Byrne has achieved that and has done it with a combination of common ordinariness and sprightly curiosity. The slab of airtime he confronts each Friday must look at first like a huge black hole, with each idea dropped into it disappearing from sight. As the week progresses, panic must often seize on him and on his staff. Each show has to be sensational. That is the nature of television. We want our senses to be excited. We are open to anything. But from the programmer's point of view the essential question all the time must be: will it work?
Will the hyping up of P Flynn work? Will the attempted annihilation of Annie Murphy go down with viewers? Will the bishops tolerate discussion of night attire, or will the flames of Heaven descend on Gay Byrne's head? Can we make the toys routine work again? And antiques? And show business personalities? And Ernest Hemmingway's second wife? And Sinead O'Connor? and Micheal Mac Liammoir?
Astonishingly, it has [itals] all worked. On the principle of the tabloid newspaper, it works even when it assaults our sensibilities, abuses our standards of decorum, enrages our moral code, insults those we admire, lays bare the pretentions and concealments of people in high office, and renders bishops and minister of state vulnerable to the point of their humiliation.
And Gay Byrne does deserve the Freedom of the City of Dublin. Of the cities of Cork, Galway, Limerick and Waterford as well. What price such honours? What meaning have they? He has enjoyed a far greater freedom for the past four decades, and it is our judgment on that which matters.
To have kept the ball rolling, over all those years, to have continued to entertain and divert, inform and lay bare, and to do so in an even and consistent way, that has been major in its social contribution to the culture of the country.
We thought, forty years ago, that the culture was precious and somehow special. We thought that the Irish ``way of life'' was unique, and there to be protected and enhanced by this new weapon of mass communication. We have discovered a different story. Few people have helped more towards that discovery than Gay Byrne. Should we praise him or blame him for it? Or have we become indifferent to the principle of cause and effect? Does it no longer matter? Or do we just go on soaking it all up, listening, looking, passive sponges in a world of unprecedented mass communication?