News Irish News

Tuesday 25 June 2019

Three hectic days for RTE stars Marian, Miriam and Claire

A surprise wedding, a landmark interview and an innovative new show - Lise Hand gets the inside story of three hectic days for Marian, Miriam and Claire

Miriam O’Callaghan speaks for the first time about how she landed the interview with Health Minister Leo Varadkar which has dominated the news agenda for the past week. Photo: Damien Eagers
Miriam O’Callaghan speaks for the first time about how she landed the interview with Health Minister Leo Varadkar which has dominated the news agenda for the past week. Photo: Damien Eagers
Health Minister Leo Varadkar with Miriam O’Callaghan outside RTE last week
Marian Finucane with husband John Clarke as the couple arrive at the ‘Philanthropist of the Year’ award in Dublin
Claire Byrne on the set of her new show.

Lise Hand

Last Saturday, Miriam O'Callaghan was playing in a local park with her eight-year-old son, and waiting for her phone to ring. She had convinced herself that something would happen to scupper the following day's planned interview - one which she knew would be a show-stopper. Word was bound to sneak out that, for the first time ever, a senior member of Government was going to come out as gay during a radio interview.

But nothing did derail it, and Leo Varadkar did declare himself to be a gay man - not just propelling himself into the news, but also kick-starting several days where a trio of RTE's broadcasters were in the headlines.

The ground-breaking interview on Miriam's Sunday morning chat-show had been finally confirmed late in the week, after several postponements. The circle of people in the know in Montrose was kept tight - a few department heads and the director-general were informed.

The team busily preparing for the first broadcast of 'Claire Byrne Live' on RTE 1 on Monday night didn't know about the impending interview - although by Saturday evening rumours were beginning to surface. Serendipitously, they had planned a studio debate on same-sex marriage - details of the referendum wording were imminent, and also the station had just aired Donal Óg Cusack's documentary on coming out in various countries.

"I just heard about Leo's interview on Saturday night and that it was happening on Miriam's programme but I wasn't entirely sure. It was one of those stories where nobody's going to be playing their cards too far away from their chest anyway," said Claire. "But it worked fantastically for us, it meant we were right on the story of the week".

On Sunday morning, Leo arrived at RTE with his two advisors, Nick Miller and Brian Murphy. He sat alone in his car for a while beforehand, obviously thinking through what he was going to say. But over coffee and a chat with Miriam before the interview began at 10am, Leo displayed his nervousness. "Just before we went on air, he said, 'I'm not sure how I'm going to say this.' I remember laughing and going, 'Ok, look, whatever you want to say,'" recalled Miriam.

She told him that they were going to do 12 minutes on his childhood first, and then she told him the key question she planned to ask, 'You're 36 today, you're very eligible, but you've never settled down?' And he said 'ok'.

In the studio, everyone was on tenterhooks. Then Miriam asked the prepared question, but Leo baulked. Miriam then tried asking him what sort of relationship he was looking for, and this time he answered fully.

"The minute he said it, the tension went from the studio, and I could see people outside the glass, everyone was giving a big sigh and saying, 'Yes, he's done it'. I wanted to do well by him. The next time he comes into my studio, I'll be as tough as ever about waiting-lists in A&E. But at that moment I wanted it to go well for him," she explained.

Afterwards, Miriam gave him a hug and shortly afterwards took a taxi home. The cab-driver informed her that he'd nearly crashed the car during the interview.

At home, she started cooking a fry and chatting to her youngest son - none of the teenagers were out of bed. "Suddenly it came on the news, and I realised it was probably the biggest interview of my career in terms of impact and import, but nobody in my house had a clue!" laughed Miriam.

Leo's interview also provided a perfect springboard for the launch of Claire Byrne's new show the following evening. As well as chairing the studio debate on same-sex marriage, she had also recorded an interview with actor Colin Farrell, whose brother Eamon is gay. "We pre-recorded it pretty late one night, as he's in Los Angeles filming 'True Detectives' at the moment," explained Claire. "He was really strong and articulate, and then it was picked up by the Ellen Degeneres Show".

In the sort of publicity-boost which money can't buy, the US chat-show host tweeted a link to Claire's interview with Colin to her 38 million followers, commenting how the actor "explains his support for marriage equality in a beautiful way".

And the show's debut went off without a hitch, with over a quarter of a million viewers tuning in for the full show. "I was champing at the bit to get going - I seemed to have been talking about the show forever, so when the countdown began in the studio, I felt huge anticipation," said Claire. "We're tough on ourselves and found things we wanted to tweak, but my main thought was, 'right, there's one down, 39 more to go'," she laughed.

With the staff of both 'Prime Time' and 'Claire Byrne Live' all sharing a relatively small space in the newsroom, there is what Claire calls "a healthy rivalry" between them all to land the big stories and best guests.

"But I think there is space for all of us - we take different approaches and the shows have different structures. I think the current affairs unit as a whole had a good week this week," she said.

And indeed 'Prime Time' landed a top-class guest on Tuesday evening, when Miriam secured an exclusive interview with IMF chief Christine Lagarde, who was in Dublin for a conference.

"She was very friendly - she's fantastic-looking," said Miriam. It was a current affairs interview, but Miriam would've preferred to do a more personal interview - Lagarde is too experienced at deflecting news-hounds looking for a story. "I tried my best, but there was no way I was going to get probably the most powerful woman in the world, the head of the IMF, to give me a scoop and rock all the markets? That's not going to happen," Miriam declared.

And what about the third RTE broadcaster to cause a splash? Neither Claire nor Miriam had any idea that their colleague Marian Finucane was getting married to her long-time partner John Clarke in a civil ceremony last Tuesday.

"Fair play to her, it's great, and I just emailed her to congratulate them both," said Claire. "And the way things are going, I might go that way myself - what with work and the babies there's not much time to plan a wedding."

Miriam agreed. "I thought she looked fab. I loved her outfit. You've got to love Marian - in many ways she's the opposite of me, because everyone knows everything about me. If I was getting married, the world and its mother would know," she declared. "But it's great to see women out there, making news, doing their thing. We'll have more of that, please," added Miriam with a smile.

Irish Independent

Editor's Choice

Also in Irish News