David Blake Knox: 'Gay Byrne was prepared to confront the issues that other broadcasters preferred to evade or ignore'
Many years ago, when I was a very young and inexperienced TV producer in RTÉ, I was assigned to work for a couple of months on 'The Late Late Show'. I was a little apprehensive because I was acutely aware both of my own inexperience, and of the show's status as the station's (and, in many ways, the nation's) flagship programme.
On the morning of my first day, Gay Byrne asked me to meet a possible guest and assess whether or not he deserved a slot on the following week's show. When I met the potential guest, I quickly came to the conclusion that he was likely to bore our viewers rigid. However, I was nervous that I might seem too negative about my first assignment. I spent that evening rehearsing how I could describe the pros and cons of including him in the next week's line-up.
The following morning, I began to present Gay with my somewhat convoluted arguments, but he cut to the quick of the matter at once. "So, do you think we should use him?" "No," I said. Gay nodded and we moved immediately on.
What impressed about this very minor incident was not only Gay's editorial decisiveness as a producer, but also the trust he placed in the judgment of the most recent member of his team. That degree of professional trust and Gay's sense of loyalty to his team was reciprocated by 'The Late Late' personnel and may explain why so many outstanding and gifted members of RTÉ's staff chose to remain with the show for many years. Of course, it was also tremendously exciting to feel that we were, in a sense, close to the heartbeat of the nation. This was, after all, a time when it seemed that every edition of 'The Late Late' provided the basis for conversations all over Ireland on the following Monday.
Gay has often been praised for his professionalism, and, once again, I can testify to the truth of such praise. As a rookie producer, I was struck by the forensic skill with which Gay analysed each 'Late Late'. In every show's post-mortem, he subjected his own performance to the same rigorous critique as he did to other elements. But to describe him as a consummate professional is, in some respects, to sell Gay short. His work as a broadcaster was also driven by what seemed like an insatiable intellectual and emotional curiosity about Ireland and its people.
Nowadays, Gay is often fondly described as "Uncle Gaybo", but he was not always regarded as an avuncular figure. In the early years of 'The Late Late', he was frequently subject to severe and public criticism from members of Ireland's political and clerical establishment. Similar criticism came from the station's senior managers, and the future of 'The Late Late' in RTÉ's schedule often hung by a thread. This threat did not deter Gay, but his survival frequently depended on his profound understanding of popular entertainment, as well as his ferocious appetite for work.
Gay was also prepared to face issues that had previously been regarded as sacrosanct or taboo in Irish society. Once again, I have personal experience of his courage. A documentary that I had made was dropped by RTÉ at the last minute before transmission. This was because it dealt with homosexuality at a time when homosexual acts were still illegal in Ireland. I was devastated by RTÉ's decision, but the next day I received a call from Gay asking if he could watch my film. After the viewing, he told me that he had decided to run an item on the same subject in that week's 'Late Late'. Gay kept his word, despite strenuous attempts by RTÉ management to prevent the item going ahead.
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Time and time again, Gay showed himself prepared to confront issues other broadcasters preferred to evade or ignore. And this determination was not confined to TV. Indeed, in some respects, his radio programme, 'The Gay Byrne Show', made a bolder and even more dramatic impact on Ireland's social mores.
This was dramatically illustrated in 1984 when, following the death of a schoolgirl called Ann Lovett during childbirth, Gay presented an entire programme in which he and two actors read harrowing stories of rape, abortion and sexual abuse that had been sent in by the show's listeners. By the time that show ended, it is no exaggeration to state that a fog of repression had been blown away, and a greater sense of some painful realities had been created. Gay consistently chose to understate the personal contribution that he made to democratic debate and social change, but his influence is indisputable. His instincts as a broadcaster of the very highest calibre, and as a compelling journalist, are also beyond dispute.
Gay's radio and television career did not end with his departure from his established television and radio shows. He proved that he could still generate news headlines when his interview with Stephen Fry, in his TV series 'The Meaning of Life', was picked up by media around the world. Gay also made a number of television documentaries. Among these was a powerful and moving film about his father in which he explored some of the conflicting loyalties that can be found in Ireland's fractured history. Perhaps, it was at the heart of such deep-seated conflicts that Gay's own broadcasting career was born.
Throughout his long and distinguished life, Gay could rely upon the constant support of his wife, Kathleen Watkins - an acclaimed broadcaster and author in her own right - and the rest of his family. Irish people can only be grateful that a person of such exceptional abilities chose to live and work among us for so many fruitful years.