Born to be thrown into things
With distinctive self-deprecating humour, it's tempting for Brendan O'Connor to credit external forces for his success. But Emily Hourican insists it's the journalist and TV personality's direct approach, shot through with warmth, that has earned him a primetime chatshow
'IWAS saying to a friend of mine that people keep saying, 'Just be yourself and it'll be great.' But which one of me should I be? And he said, 'Be all of them -- it'll be more fun.'''
Brendan O'Connor, editor of Sunday Independent LIFE magazine and a huge success on TV3's The Apprentice: You're Fired series, is talking about his new Saturday-night chat show on RTE One in the heady, primetime slot, previously held by Tubridy Tonight.
"There are definitely one or two of me who were born to do this," he goes on, deadpan. "And I think if I get a chance, a few weeks, to relax into it, and if all of me are still speaking to each other, it might be OK." It's typical Brendan: funny, self-deprecating, and slightly confrontational. In the 10-odd years that I've known him, this has always been his approach: direct, even blunt, but shot through with warmth and humour.
We're drinking coffee in the offices of the Sunday Independent and talking about what seems to me to be Brendan's biggest step yet, and an extraordinary one for someone who already has a full-time job. But then, I'm not sure he sees it in quite the same way.
He's been no slouch so far, and in some ways this is no more than a natural extension of many disparate bits of his life. After all, who's to say where the limits to another's imagination are?
From a family of six, in which he is the youngest boy, and with only one sister, Brendan's background is the kind of rock-solid Cork middle-class that, at its best, produces the golden combination of creativity coupled with the stability to see it through. His father was head of the microbiology department in Moorepark ("he would have been the guy on the news any time there were milk scares") while his mother stayed at home.
It was a "traditional house, but there was a big gang of us and we always had a laugh," is about as much as Brendan will say. Mythologising his early years is clearly of little interest to a man who is far more focused on the now. But then, one of the great, unsung benefits of a stable childhood is the ability to leave it where it belongs.
He studied commerce in UCC ("an arts degree without the stigma"), where he got involved with debating and drama. "It was kind of wherever the drink and the women were. Debating was a way of getting attention and stuff, it was instant access to a good enough social scene." He also, rather contrarily, laid the foundations of his conservative, even right-wing credo. His party-oriented lifestyle saw him fall in with a "quasi-bohemian camp", which "I liked in ways. I liked the party aspect and the women, but I realised the bohemians and lefties, they were very happy to sponge off people. I always worked or made money in some kind of way."
He ended by thinking this crew, though fun, was "slightly spongery. It turned me against the whole idea of threesomes and open relationships and that kind of stuff."
One of the things he did for money was to MC comedy gigs. However, despite the persistent rumour, he was never actually a comedian. What happened there is an object-lesson in why you should not make jokes in print. "When Don't Feed the Gondolas came on, RTE looked for a biog. I put in that I was a failed comedian as a joke... Never do that," he advises.
Despite a "wildly differing" academic record -- "one year I'd get a scholarship, the next year I'd get a pass" -- he was awarded a postgraduate bursary sponsored by Ford, which bagged him "I think €10,000 for the year" and some extra time. That year, which was great fun but produced no thesis, dragged itself out until a friend, catching him watching Home and Away one afternoon, suggested he apply for the journalism course in DIT. The deadline was just days away, but the friend was on his way to Dublin and offered to drop the application off.
There is definitely a path of least resistance to some of Brendan's life. At crucial points, other people intervene, a kind of deus ex machina, to propel him forward, often despite his protestations. As he says himself, "My life is a series of getting thrown into things that I think I can't do."
He moved to a bedsit in Dublin and did the postgrad, headed by Muiris Mac Conghail who suggested Brendan send a piece he had written to Anne Harris at the Sunday Independent. The piece was published, and from there he continued writing "semi-regularly" for the paper, steadily increasing his output, and occasionally crossing the line between commentator and participant.
When LIFE magazine was launched, the external forces got busy again. "I was happy at home, but they had an open competition for the job of magazine editor, and Anne Harris said you should put yourself forward for this. The really inspirational thing about Anne is she doesn't believe you need to have done something before in order to do it, so she said, 'Look, you can do this, we'll all help you,' and I said 'No way, I couldn't ... '"
But he could, and did.
Along with his dislike of forensic introspection, comes a refusal to be pompous about his undoubted writing talents. "I can string a sentence together and I can do it fast," he says. So what motivates his fairly prolific and wide-ranging output? "I enjoy provoking people and entertaining them. I enjoy an argument and think I have genuinely no desire to be loved." Is everything he writes sincere? Or does he occasionally permit himself the luxury of being deliberately divisive? "Mindless consensus is never a healthy thing in the country," is the answer.
As a judge on You're a Star (and again, he claims no credit for getting the gig: "it came about by accident. Simon Delaney pulled out at the last minute, and they rang me and said, 'Do you have a suit?'") Brendan was tagged with the 'Mr Nasty' label -- one of those boring but necessary caricatures of reality TV.
It always seemed unfair to me, because of his very genuine passion for whatever talent there was among the contestants, and the warmth of his praise when he felt it was deserved. Even his so-called nastiness was rarely more than what everyone else was already thinking.
So was he surprised at the label? He laughs, "I thought they were getting the rich nuances of what I was doing ... but it's a talent show on TV -- they're not thinking long and hard about it... But yes, it did come as a surprise."
And then he did The Apprentice: You're Fired, and suddenly the consensus was that he had become nicer. Well? "When people began to say, 'Oh you're a much more rounded person,' I did wonder, 'What did they think of me before ... ?'" He concedes that, "I possibly have mellowed a bit, but I never went out of my way to be nasty."
Asking Brendan about his marriage to the remarkably poised and pretty Sarah Caden, who also writes for the Sunday Independent, is another point where he struggles with the required level of self-analysis. "I don't know like, I guess it was just ... a lot of things ... I think we should consult Sarah on this ... " Which maybe says as much as we need about the relationship.
They met on Sandymount Strand while doing a picture for "Culture Vultures", a kind of earlier version of the 03 team that the paper ran, and began dating, but secretly because of a natural reluctance to out themselves among their work colleagues. At one party, Brendan got "fairly drunk" and forgot the rules; he declared his love for Sarah to the hostess, also a colleague. "She didn't know there was anything going on and just thought that I was Sarah's stalker!" At the office Christmas party, he recalls "talking to Hugh Leonard and half holding hands with Sarah under the table. They were exciting times."
The couple are married 10 years and had their first child, Anna, nearly two years ago. And on this subject there is no holding Brendan back. "I never knew I was capable of loving another human being the way I love Anna. I think part of it is that she was born by Caesarian and, for the first few hours while Sarah was in recovery, the two of us were there together.
"I was s**tting it because I thought she seemed to look like me a bit; I was freaking out that she was going to be this big, lumbering girl with an angry face. So we went through the first two hours of life, both of us wishing Mum would come back. The great thing was when she did and we heard her voice, Anna opened her eyes." Those hours created an adamantine bond between father and daughter which, although he won't say so himself, is almost certainly reflected in his mellowed personality, a sort of smoothing of the rougher edges.
Life is much calmer for Brendan these days. This is partly the natural result of fatherhood, and partly a deliberate decision to safeguard his state of mind. "A hangover for me could go on for three days, and I really have to manage my mood, particularly if I'm doing TV stuff.
"I don't think I have bad moods as such, but I have a tendency towards the darkness. I would always have had a tendency towards an introverted, fairly dark kind of mood; it's not self-loathing really, it's sadness. And it's not necessarily unpleasant, just not helpful if you need to present a TV show." Not that he's making the mistake of taking his moods too seriously. "If you're out making an a***hole of yourself in public like I am, it makes it much easier to kick the s**t out of yourself."
"Where I come from, you automatically think that anyone who is on TV is a w***er, so that's a big one you have to get over if you're going to be on TV yourself." And silencing those pressures is a matter of sleeping right, getting some exercise and staying off the drink when the pressure's on. In all, a pretty healthy kind of coping mechanism. But, given the attendant difficulties, why, I wonder, does he feel the need to do these high-pressure gigs?
"I don't think I have any great need to," he insists. "I do them because that's how my life seemed to pan out, and it's something I'm reasonably good at. But I have a job, a great job that I love, and TV is something extra. It's work and it's very hard work, but of course it's great fun and to entertain people is the best buzz." And so there is a certain amount of dread in him, but coupled with huge excitement.
What exactly made him say yes? "It's an incredible opportunity ... you couldn't say no," is the short answer. Also, as ever, it's all about timing. "I am happier now than I have ever been and I think it's a good time for me to do this because I have no axes to grind, nothing to prove, and I'm not desperate to be liked, the last one of which to me is the downfall of most people on TV. No one should be on TV until they are old enough to have got over themselves; I'm not fully over myself, but I might be as close to it as I'm going to get!"
The Saturday Night Show starts on January 30 on RTE One, after the Nine O'Clock News