Friday 16 November 2018

The matriarchs of Montrose

Susan Daly profiles the female presenters in the RTÉ power stakes and looks at who's hot and who's not...

Susan Daly

There must have been a few bitter laughs in the RTÉ canteen last March when the national broadcaster announced its latest lifestyle show. What Am I Worth was a career makeover programme which advised participants on getting a job they could be passionate about -- or at least a better-paid gig.

It's the kind of advice several RTÉ 'personalities' could do with themselves. If you think the office politics in your workplace are tricky, take pity on the denizens of Donnybrook. In what one RTÉ insider described to Weekend as "a game of snakes and ladders", getting to the top of the broadcasting food chain is an unpredictable journey.

Whether your star is in the ascent or descent is as much a result of luck, who is championing who, the dealings of showbiz agents and unofficial 'trends', as it is based on talent.

Female line-up

This is particularly true for RTÉ's female front-liners, few as they are. A recent RTÉ Radio 1 advertisement featured a line-up of its showcase presenters: only two of these were women, Mary Wilson and Marian Finucane. Where was Aine Lawlor, one of our sharpest, most experienced broadcasters, co-presenter of Morning Ireland, the country's most listened-to radio programme?

'Personalities' are top trumps in RTÉ. Every second cover of the RTÉ Guide -- which one must presume peddles the party line -- seems to feature Grainne Seoige in an evening gown, Pat Kenny squeezed into a tuxedo or some childrens' presenter in an 'all grown-up' ensemble.

Mary Wilson, who fronts the hugely-demanding Drivetime and has a long career in outstanding journalism behind her, has as yet not managed to make it into RTÉ's annual list of top 10 earners -- unlike, say, Derek Mooney and John Kelly.

So how are our matriarchs of Montrose faring in all the froth? One hesitates to use the word 'veteran' in relation to Marian Finucane and Anne Doyle. Yet, pitched alongside some of RTÉ's new generation of highly-publicised female presenters, Doyle and Finucane are like survivors of a nuclear holocaust in which smart women were wiped out for having something of note to say.

The superbly empathetic Finucane has earned her place in the top 10 highest-paid in RTÉ without having to self-promote. Her company, Montrose Services Ltd, was paid €455,190 in 2006 (the last available figures from RTÉ). Only Miriam O'Callaghan -- straddling current affairs in Prime Time and the chat show couch in Saturday Night With Miriam -- joins her in the elite top 10, with her Baby Blue Productions taking €221,383 for 2006.

Finucane -- who was quick to insist that her PPI Outstanding Achievement in Broadcasting award wasn't one of those end-of-career recognitions -- has a phenomenal legacy. Her work on the Women Today programmes in the 1970s moved Irish broadcasting into a new era. "We were always in trouble," she said of the programme. "I remember one senior manager at RTÉ saying to me after one programme that he could not eat his dinner and that he did not know how far we were going to go."

Yet, three years ago, Finucane was moved from her morning weekday slot to the weekend. She has gone on to reinvigorate the weekends and pile on the listeners -- in spite, one might say, rather than because of RTÉ's faith in her.

The newsreaders

Anne Doyle has had a similar experience with the mandarins. She still fronts the main evening RTÉ 1 news bulletin -- the Nine O'Clock news mostly edges just ahead of Six One in the ratings. Hugely liked by colleagues for her wicked sense of fun, she represented staff on the board of the RTÉ Authority from 2000 to 2005. However, of the three evening newsreaders -- Sharon Ní Bheoláin, Doyle and Brian Dobson -- only one appeared in this year's RTÉ top 10 earners list: Dobson.

In 2000, rumours abounded that Doyle was getting the push to the weekend and Mark Little was to take her place in the evenings. Doyle allegedly blew up and RTÉ bosses backed down. Doyle later said "it wasn't quite like that", and that the weekend news is, in any case, a ratings winner, but the fact is that the lady was not for moving.

Ageism at play?

Is there ageism at play at Montrose? One eye on broadcasting trends across the water might spot a swing towards younger female presenters. When Moira Stuart lost her prime current affairs slot on BBC News at the age of 58 last year, the Beeb was accused of sidelining her for a younger face. The producers of Channel 4's Countdown didn't exactly fire 47-year-old Carol Vorderman last July; they just told her she would have to take a 90pc drop in pay if she wanted to stay.

Mary Kennedy -- beautiful, gracious and a consummate professional -- might have some private thoughts on the issue. At the age of 52, she finds herself on the fringes of RTÉ, co-presenting Nationwide. Her popular Open House slot with Marty Whelan is long gone, replaced by Bláthnaid Ní Chofaigh and Sheana Keane's girly The Afternoon Show.

In the past year, she has lost two important annual presenting gigs -- Up For The Match and the People of the Year Awards -- both to Grainne Seoige, a point which Ryan Tubridy pressed home in a recent radio interview with Kennedy. A few days later, Tubridy interviewed his Noel Kelly talent agency stablemate Grainne Seoige on her delight to be landing the plum jobs.

Only Prime Time host Miriam O'Callaghan appears to be making her way into Pat Kenny/Ryan Tubridy prime-time entertainment territory. Insanely glamorous, affable and intelligent though she undoubtedly is, mum-of-eight O'Callaghan has described herself as "an accidental presenter". There is a very obvious push behind O'Callaghan to get her to the next level: she is being touted by many as the next presenter of the Late Late Show. The Saturday Night With Miriam summer runs have been given much more publicity than, say, Kennedy (Mary Kennedy's summer stint) ever did.

In a 2006 interview, O'Callaghan told how she was irritated by "beauty fascism" towards female TV presenters. She must have been very annoyed indeed by the promo ads for her chat show this summer, which put a montage of Miriam and all her charms to the tune of Stevie Wonder's Isn't She Lovely.

Young gaelgeoirs

It was the kind of promotion one might have expected to see Sharon Ní Bheoláin labouring under when she was moved from her News 2 slot to the Six One job. For a time, Ní Bheoláin was RTÉ's most gorgeous gaelgeoir and seemed destined for all sorts of glamorous gigs, just as Grainne Seoige is now. She joined RTÉ2 (then Network2) when the station was on the hunt for a panel of 'young gaelgeoirs' to sex up the Irish language content. She was on air within three weeks.

Presenting the Ryder Cup to a global audience of one billion in 2006 put Ní Bheoláin out there as one of RTÉ's most valued assets, but since then she has failed to take centre stage. Ní Bheoláin's desire for privacy since her split from husband Kevin Cantrell and time with daughter Faye are her priorities, and much of her occasional PR work centres on causes that have a personal meaning for her, especially animal rights campaigning.

Besides, there is a new gorgeous gaelgeoir in town who has made a more obvious leap from news to entertainment. Grainne Seoige had her detractors in RTÉ when she arrived there in early 2006. There were grumblings of discontent that she had her own hair and make-up artist, and tensions were raised at the start of Seoige & O'Shea when she had a run-in with a set technician.

But someone up there likes Grainne Seoige. As well as her late afternoon show, now with sister Sile on board, and her advancement as golden girl for Mary Kennedy's old gigs, she has also been holed up recording pilots for a variety of shows. One of these include a show with Dustin the Turkey -- a bid, perhaps, to finally rid Grainne of the 'ice maiden' tag.

One wonders what will happen to sister Sile should Grainne move on to bigger, better things. She temped on the Afternoon Show before finally getting her big break alongside big sis. Will Bláthnaid and Sheane have to budge up and make room on their cosy couch?

While RTÉ decide what Grainne will do next, her extra-curricular engagements are also building a head of steam. As mentioned, she is a client of Noel Kelly, by far the most successful showbiz agent in Ireland. His NK Management business has changed the face of Irish celebrity in the past 10 years, with Gerry Ryan, Tubridy, Dave Fanning, Lorraine Keane, artist Graham Knuttel and many others benefiting from his promotional skills.

Unsurprisingly, the third in the holy trinity of RTÉ gaelgeoirs -- Bláthnaid Ní Chofaigh -- has been making her presence felt. Last week she was the RTÉ Guide cover girl, she presented the Christmas Day Fair City Sings, took her turn on The Restaurant and has been the one constant on the couch of The Afternoon Show since its inception in 2004. She and Sheana Keane, who dipped out of the limelight for a year to focus on her children and returned to the show in 2007, found their show neck-and-neck in the ratings with Seoige & O'Shea's second series. When The Afternoon Show returned this season, Blathnaid and Sheana attracted their highest September viewership ever.

One thing might soften the blow of not being the only head girl at Montrose in the afternoon: Grainne now has to traipse down to the communal make-up room with sister Sile like every other RTÉ staffer.

Being in favour with the gods, as O'Callaghan and the Seoiges are, is crucial to advancement. Radio's roving reporter Evelyn O'Rourke, for example, made a huge leap in the past two years to act as sub for Joe Duffy on Radio 1's Liveline and for Gerry Ryan on 2fm. In the first half of 2007, seven complaints were made to the BCC about Liveline -- three on Duffy's watch, four on O'Rourke's short stint. The three against Duffy were found to be without basis; all four against O'Rourke's time were upheld. Her profile continues to grow, however, with Operation Transformation allowing her to make the jump to TV.

The winds of change are also blowing strongly in the direction of No Frontiers presenter Kathryn Thomas, Podge & Rodge survivor Lucy Kennedy and The Café presenter Laura Woods. Thomas and Woods are being firmly moulded into Saturday evening entertainment faces, with slots on high-rating Lotto shows. Glossy magazine spreads along the lines of 'At home with Kathryn and her Garda boyfriend' and RTÉ Guide interviews with Woods about her holidays have become de rigeur for the personality-led programming RTÉ fosters.

Ladette style

Lucy Kennedy's Livin' With Lucy series capitalises on the wit she showed, pre-P&R, on the Ex-Files dating show. If one RTÉ starlet is to be believed, though, presenters are often pigeon-holed as being "RTÉ1 or RTÉ2". Kennedy's ladette style might just be what bosses envisage, fairly or unfairly, as second-channel 'yoof' material.

Fame is fickle in RTÉ. Pamela Flood and Caroline Morahan have not exactly disappeared since getting the axe from Off The Rails. Their smiling faces, once the biggest photograph in the RTÉ reception, have been replaced. Flood presented Marry Me on RTÉ2 and an episode of Who Do You Think You Are? Morahan has been a judge on Class Act. But these are hardly due reward for the two presenters who fronted one of RTÉ's annual moneyspinners, Off The Rails Live.

What next for them? It's hard to tell what will be in fashion next season in RTÉ. This year it is young female fluff, next year it could be boys, boys, boys as far as the eye can see.

Perhaps the only option for long-term success is to take a tip from Mistress Marian and make your work, rather than yourself, the star. Keelin Shanley, who has begun to make a heavyweight name for herself substituting for Miriam O'Callaghan on Prime Time and for Mary Wilson on Drivetime, looks like she might be worth a punt. Her background credentials for being handed such big jobs are substantial: she earned her stripes with award-winning work on PT investigations, her highly-regarded Up Close Faraway series and years of hard graft in the back rooms.

Shanley is out on maternity leave until early next year, but be prepared for the comeback of the long-distance runner.

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