Wednesday 13 December 2017

'There are so many dull people on radio and TV...'

As they prepare to co-present for the first time in 20 years, Derek Mooney and Blathnaid Ni Chofaigh talk to our man about love, death, Mattress Mick and why, says Mooney, so many TV and radio stars are 'more concerned with looking fantastic' than doing their job

Derek Mooney and Blathnaid Ni Chofaigh. Photo: David Conachy
Derek Mooney and Blathnaid Ni Chofaigh. Photo: David Conachy
Derek Mooney and Blathnaid Ni Chofaigh on Echo Island back in 1995. Photo: RTE Archives
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

Derek Mooney and Blathnaid Ni Chofaigh are deep in discussion. "The last time I spoke to Mattress Mick was just before Gay Pride in Dublin," says Derek. "He said to me, 'I have been asked to put a float into the Gay Pride March. What do you think?' I said to him, 'Absolutely. But do your van up and on one side of it just have two bunk beds - with you laying on the top bunk saying: 'Mattress Mick always on top!'" the RTE broadcaster laughs.

"I remember Katherine Lynch when she was slagging Mattress Mick on her show," Blathnaid says. "I actually thought he was a guy doing stand-up, and then I realised he was for real. I am intrigued by him."

"I was the first person to interview him on radio. I thought he was fabulously entertaining," says the similarly fabulously entertaining Mr Mooney.

Proof of the dynamic diversity at work here this morning in the Westbury hotel is it isn't long before the discussion switches from Mattress Mick to mortality.

Derek Mooney and Blathnaid Ni Chofaigh on Echo Island back in 1995. Photo: RTE Archives
Derek Mooney and Blathnaid Ni Chofaigh on Echo Island back in 1995. Photo: RTE Archives

"I just remember a funny incident," says Derek. "I shouldn't be laughing. Eight years ago, my brother David, who had cancer, was dying... he was in Vincent's hospital and we were in this room and it was a Sunday and he died on the next day.

"Everyone was called in over the weekend because he was going, he wasn't going, he was going. But anyway, we were all there and my mother was sitting at the side of the bed. I said, 'Mum, it's time to go but you can come back again tomorrow."

"Is this on again tomorrow?" she asked her famous son who had presented everything from You're A Star to Winning Streak for seven years.

"We all roared laughing and my brother is on the bed going [Derek does the sound of poor David gasping]. "But we don't know whether he heard us because they say the hearing is the last thing to go. He died the next day. My mother died on a Monday too, five or six years ago."

Five months after his mum, Margaret, who had Alzheimer's died, Derek had a vivid dream about her. "I was holding this little girl's hand who was dressed like she was coming from school. Yet her face was like The Scream, the Munch painting. I am bringing her along and I go up to this woman who I have never seen in my life. Never. And I know who she is: it is my mother's mother. She said to me, 'It's OK. I'll take her now.'"

Derek says that when his mother passed away he was "glad to see her go in the end. That sounds like a horrible thing but she was suffering. I would be straight off to Dignitas", he says referring to the controversial Swiss organisation which offers assisted/accompanied suicide to their members suffering with terminal illnesses. "If I'm ill - get me on a plane!"

"I would have my dad back tomorrow," says Blathnaid, whose father died, aged 70, on August 3, 2008, of a stroke. "He couldn't talk. He couldn't walk. I would still like to have him back - nursing him. I became Dad's nurse. I loved having that role," says Blathnaid, crying.

From eccentric bedding support salesmen to death and assisted suicide to tears, Derek Mooney and Blathnaid Ni Chofaigh are no ordinary pair of characters to spend an hour or two with. There is certainly much chemistry between them.

Blathnaid: "I was born in November, 1970."

Derek: "I was born in March 1967, unfortunately. The big hit on the day I was born was Please Release Me."

Blathnaid: "Jesus!"

Derek: "A friend of mine said that it's not the kind of song you want played as the first dance at your wedding!"

Derek seems to have been at RTE since the beginning of time. "I've been at RTE since I've been 15!"

How did he get into RTE at 15? "I slept with everybody," he laughs. "I stayed awake with the important ones!

"I'm from Donnybrook, and I never wanted to do anything else. I used to knock on the door and drive them mad. I used to call a guy called Joe O'Donnell, who was acting head of young people's programmes. He was in charge of Bosco and I used to drive him mad. He told me to come up and he would let me have a look around. They were making Bosco."

Was that what drew him to Titian-haired goddess of Montrose, Blathnaid Ni Chofaigh? "His penchant for redheads!" laughs Ginger (extra) Spice herself Blathnaid.

"My destiny!" Del Boy, now 50, laughs. "But I was kind of mesmerised by this thing," he says meaning television, not Blathnaid (even though she has more than made her mark on the telly presenting shows like The Afternoon Show, Charity ICA Bootcamp as well as being a judge on The All Ireland Talent Show).

Derek and Blathnaid met for the first time in the old library building in RTE in 1994. They were soon co-presenting young people's programme Echo Island. More than 20 years later they are back co-presenting and will be on the airwaves on Saturday mornings (10am-11am) for the month of August on RTE Radio 1.

"I have been doing my Raidio na Gaeltachta show for two years," says Blathnaid. "We just got three awards. This show will be great. We will have people on of interest, not necessarily profiles, that will bring a discussion to it..."

"There are too many celebs on the TV and radio. I'm not interested in that," says Derek, whose Dawn Chorus radio show has become something of an institution. He recalls RTE department head and legend Kevin Linehan, who died recently. "He was always very good to me. Another thing about Kevin was he would give you a hug when men wouldn't hug men. They were afraid of gay men."

Blathnaid: "I remember Kevin said to me once about co-presenters, 'You don't need to be best friends with your co-presenter'. Then I remember after Season 1 of Echo Island, he said, 'It seems to have worked out for you two!'"

"I think you do have to be friendly with them," says Derek, meaning his co-presenters. "I have seen it a million times on TV and radio - they don't know each other and they don't care about each other. I am not fancying Blathnaid, I am not trying to get her into bed. Straight away if I am working with a woman they know that is not the case. So Blathnaid and I have a more honest and open relationship from day one," he says. "I think you have to know the person. You have to know how far you can go when you're co-presenting. You have to be generous enough to shut up and let them have their opinions."

"I think Kevin's point was - 'Don't expect to be best friends'," says Blathnaid. "Because when you are co-presenting 24/7 with someone they know everything about you. Everything."

Derek: "I drove her to the hospital when she was having the baby." "He did - on Sile!" Blathnaid laughs, referring to her daughter with her husband Ciaran Byrne (They are also have sons Peadar, Comhghal and Darach.) "You know what Derek did to me?" asks a laughing Blathnaid.

Derek: "I left her at the door and I didn't go in." Blathnaid, warming to the theme: "You know what he did to me? I had contractions. He had a lovely red Audi at the time and I was sitting in the front seat. It was my first child. I was 26. Imagine how scared I was. He opened the door and said, 'There you go', and he gave me a hoosh because I couldn't get out. Then he drove off."

Derek: "I wasn't having any of the baby stuff. But the point was we actually know each other. She is a real person. There are so many dull people on radio and television. Fact. Because they are more concerned with looking fantastic than doing what they're there to do. Since I was a kid, I wanted to present like a fella who wanted to be a train driver. I didn't want to be famous. I just wanted to be a presenter."

Did he ever want to do anything else? "When I was younger I thought I might have been a guard. I remember having a conversation with a guard in Donnybrook about standing outside buildings for hours that no one is ever going to attack. I kind of went off it." Derek's primary school was, he recalls, "right at the back of RTE. I would see Gay a few times", he says meaning that the apparition of the godfather of Irish television Gaybo fuelled Derek's early ambition to be on the box himself. If Derek was lying on the couch with the godfather of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud what would he want to know about his inner self? "I've seen a picture of Freud. I wouldn't be lying on a couch with him. There's a most unattractive man."

Blathnaid: "When you're a mother you constantly analyse yourself through your mothering. Am I doing right by them and have they your bad habits or your good habits?"

Does Derek have dark nights of the soul? "No is the answer to that question. I don't believe I have a soul. I am not a religious man at all."

Derek is currently watching El Chapo, the bloody drama on Netflix about Mexican drug-king Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman. This benefits the RTE star because he is learning Spanish on Monday and Wednesday evenings. "So, I am watching El Chapo and watching the subtitles to try to get the sound of the accent right."

Why Spanish? Does he have a Spanish boyfriend? "I don't have a Spanish anything. I don't have a boyfriend, and I don't have a Spanish one. I just wanted to learn a language. I don't even go to Spain. I just wanted to learn Spanish."

Derek says, "I used to think I would be at RTE all my life. I don't think that any more. I don't think I am one of their favourites. Clearly I'm not because I am not on television and radio and I want to be. There are others who are given opportunities. I am not."

I ask him why he thinks he is not their - RTE management - favourite. "I'm not on telly. I'm not on radio. Wouldn't that be the answer to that?"

In 2009 with Ireland in the grim grip of recession, Derek offered to take a salary cut. "I think if people who were on big salaries weren't prepared to take a pay cut at that time, shame on them," Derek said a full week before Niamh Horan's piece in the Sunday Independent about the gender-pay gap at RTE caused some reflection in Montrose. "I was one of the first people who took it. I know that for a fact. I was on very big money at the time. I am not on the same money as I was then. I don't do telly any more. I don't do the radio show that I used to do any more."

In December, 2014, he left his afternoon show on Radio 1. "That was absolutely my decision. I just needed a break from it." Does he regret it? "Yes, completely, I regret that decision. I should have just taken a break."

Does Derek think when he 'came out' it changed people's perceptions of him?

"I was never in. I never came out because I was never in. I never went out with girls. I never pretended to be straight. I have been in RTE since I have been 14, 15, on and off, and I never, ever, ever pretended to be straight in any of that time.

"If anyone ever asked me... in fact, if you think back to the time where I was supposedly 'outed' on another station [by] Des Bishop." [He refers to the April 2006 incident on Ray D'Arcy's show on Today FM when the American comedian's jokes pitched Derek's sexuality into the public realm.] "If you read Brendan O'Connor in the Sunday Independent, he wrote, or words to the effect: 'What's this about coming out? Derek Mooney has always been honest about his sexuality'. Whether it changed people's perceptions about it being well-known publicly or not - tough if they changed their perceptions."

Blathnaid: "Most people knew. I remember the time of the hoo-ha and some members of the public saying, 'Oh, Derek's gay?' and I went, 'Oh, yeah'. As his friend, I didn't see that it made much difference."

Derek: "Well, I think whether it made a difference you don't know, because you never know what people are thinking. You might have a guy in your job who doesn't like you because he doesn't like the look of you. People pick on weaknesses, whether you walk with a limp, whether you've long hair or whether you're gay or straight."

"But sometimes your strongest characteristic is turned to be your weakness," says Blathnaid. "People will say to me, 'Oh, you're so honest about yourself'. But when they don't like that it turns into something else..."

Suddenly you're a bitch?

"Yeah, because I have something to say," says Blathnaid, who has never held back her opinions on anything - least of all at times about her employers at RTE. [She can't discuss it, when I ask her subsequently, about the gender-pay gap in RTE: "No quotes, sorry all stopped here," she texted me on Tuesday morning having told me on Monday that she will give me quotes on the issue for my Tuesday deadline.]

"They are all over you when they like what you're saying. But then if I say something, I'm 'feisty Blathnaid'. If I was a man would they refer to me as being feisty? It baffles me. We should look at the way we refer to different genders and sexual orientation."

What adjectives would Derek use to describe Blathnaid? "Many!" he answers. "She is what she is. She is a friend of mine."

Does he have many friends? "No. I don't." (Derek was best man at Alan Hughes and Karl Broderick's wedding in 2011 at the Mansion House.)

What does he love about Blathnaid? "I think she's an excellent broadcaster. I know there is a touch of Marmite about both of us. There's a touch of Marmite about everybody. That's life. I just like Blathnaid. She is fairly straightforward."

What does she love about Derek? "I love Derek's loyalty. I always laugh when I leave a message for Derek and he rings me: 'What's up?' There doesn't necessarily need to be anything up but he is always looking out for me.

"I love that he checks in on me and I love that I have a cry with him."

The Mooney Show With Derek & Blathnaid, Saturdays at 10am on RTE Radio 1

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