For years ‘The Late Late Show’ seriously debated issues facing the Irish people, such as gay rights and abortion, but as it celebrates its 52nd birthday this weekend, is it still touchstone for Irish societal reform? Rob Buchanan doesn’t think so.
That unparalleled Irish institution, The Late Late Show, was first broadcast 52 years ago this weekend. For decades it was compulsive viewing. It was a meter stick for what Paddy Public had on his mind, and a litmus test exposing what was toxic in our society. Some even say Irish sex began on The Late Late Show, although perhaps it’s truer to say that being dug into a tiny, black and white, flickering box for hours on a Saturday night did more for population reduction than the Famine.
The list of legendary controversies and confrontations it featured is too long to mention. Bishops and bigots, politicians and plutocrats were bolstered and cheered, stupefied and shamed. Simultaneously, righteous causes previously without a voice, or actively being censored by the stifling conditions of the time, were given a soapbox. Feminism, contraception activists (Uncle Gaybo taught us all how to put on condoms), LGBT rights advocates, victims of clerical abuses, lovers of shamed Bishops – all had multiple and balanced appearances.
It introduced us to the classically unedifying debut of Boyzone, the only slightly less cringeworthy U2, and the first out lesbian on Irish TV. And it gave us the dizzy, stay-up-late excitement of the annual Toy Show in which a selection of precocious middle-class kiddies, with a peppering of rough, got to try out toys most of us would never get our grubby, non-D4 mitts on.
Even if, like me, you believe it’s glory days are over, The Late Late is still the longest running talk show in the world. Officially it’s had three main presenters. Everyone remembers Uncle Gaybo and Uncle Pat, and of course we now have their embarrassing nephew, Ryan. But the mammoth of Irish TV in the 60s and 70s, Frank Hall, did an honorable stint for one season in 1964, and there’s been the odd notable stand-ins, including the late Gerry Ryan.
Like most long-lived TV behemoths, The Late Late had very shaky beginnings. It was initially seen as temporary filler with lightweight topics and patchy presenting, but the Irish took it to their hearts and to this day it is the go-to on national television for any celebrity or wannabe who wants to be seen and heard. But is it still relevant?
Lost Its Way
In recent years The Late Late Show has almost entirely lost its way. Market forces combined with a lack of willingness to engage with changing demographics have served to drive it into the ground. The national broadcaster’s flagship show has a duty to be the lightening rod for difficult topics, but The Late Late is now stuck in a quagmire of charming, yet passive mediocrity. It is ‘light entertainment’ in every sense of the words.
Perhaps it’s fairer to say that where once the show thrived on scandal and moral panic, there is simply an ever-decreasing degree of that kind of fodder. The ‘moral majority’, which once delighted in taking offense, clucking their tongues and crossing themselves in a frenzy, are now the marginalised ones. But there are still hot topics which have barely had their surface scratched on the show, at least not sufficiently to alleviate the national itch.
Race relations in our ever more culturally diverse island or marriage equality for LGBT people and their families have been only addressed in the most passing fashion. The mental health of the nation and the spiraling damage that the economy and urban isolation have caused, have hardly had a look in.
It was Gay Byrne’s hard-hitting confrontational style and realistic subject matter that dragged the Irish nation kicking and screaming in to the latter half of the 20th century. With him there was a sense of editorial authority and credibility, which has grown exponentially lacking with each new host.
I think the greatest downfall of the Kenny era was the ridiculous decision to usher guests off-set when their segment had been completed, instead of leaving then on to add to the chemistry and opinions. Some of the greatest dynamics and discourse occurred in the Byrne era when unlikely celebrities sat side by side and interacted with each other.
Pat Kenny, who had the unenviable task of giving up his own show to fill the shoes of a mythical nemesis, famously said that in his opinion the show should have been “parked” after Gaybo’s departure. The irony of Pat’s tenure, of course, was that although he was hardly a national treasure of the Gay Byrne standard, his ego in the position and subsequent self-involvement made him far less approachable. The guests’ chair went from being a confession box-come-witness stand to the uncomfortable couch you sit on when left alone with your mate’s parents, making small talk.
Still, despite my criticism of Pat, I’m not fully in agreement with The Late Late Show stage invader, who back in 2006 informed Kenny to his smug, though shocked face that he was an “insufferable arsehole”.
Event TV on RTÉ is a thing of the past. And, yes it can be blamed on the plethora of channels and the pervasiveness of social media and alternative portals for current affairs reportage and entertainment. Instead of innovating in reaction to a newly competitive environment The Late Late has become all gimmickry and vapidity. It’s a headlong race to the bottom, with Mr. Tubridy grinning in the front seat.
Look at all the great talk show hosts of the last and current era, even those of the more silly Saturday night fodder. They are all more interested in listening to answers than simply asking questions. They aim to disappear from the platform and expose the subject, like a good author does. They have an aura of command, at least in regard to bringing difficult or evasive guests to accountability.
Is Ryan Tubridy intelligent and likeable? Certainly. But the Friday night format demands a gravitas and sensitivity, both tools for obtaining the truth and revealing hidden nuances, for getting to the heart of the issues and characters. ‘Adorkable’ he might be, sensitive he ’ain’t.
Perhaps it’s unfair to compare anyone to Gay Byrne. Let’s not forget that he holds the record for being the host of the same chat show for the longest period time, a staggering 37 years, which was a veritable lifetime of trial and error, and the development of the impressive, rounded performance he graced the eager nation with weekly.
To make The Late Late Show relevant again, I wouldn’t get rid of Tubridy. Instead, I’d pair him up with someone else and make it a two-hander in which Ryan handled the light entertainment, and then let the grown-ups talk.
Even though polls suggested that viewership of Tubridy’s Late Late was approaching Gay Byrne levels, I would question the influence it has on actual society anymore. It used to be provocative. Now it’s like falling asleep drunk with one of those inane all night home shopping channels on. Indeed the show’s dwindling relevance may be as significant as that other great barometer of the Irish psyche, falling mass attendance. Keeping the national pulse has now been forfeited in favour of tedious sales-pitch conversations with whatever scraps Graham Norton, or God forbid, Alan Carr has cast from the master’s table. Certainly there were fluffy guests when Gaybo was in the seat, but they were the exception, not the rule. On a very simplistic level, The Late Late Show isn’t irrelevant because it’s uncool; it’s irrelevant because it desperately wants to be cool.
Could Be Great Again
Like a washed up comedian on the circuit, it has taken its audience for granted. It has rehashed safe material and unwittingly became both dated and condescending. In fact if it was any more uncool it would be in danger of becoming ironically bad, thereby gaining a whole new hipster audience.
I would suggest steps be made to make The Late Late Show a truer reflection of the concerns of the Irish people, rather than a pit stop on the campaign trail for celebrities hocking their products and the shameless, nepotistic promotion of RTÉ product. It could be great again as a forum on which a nation airs its dirty laundry. We Irish are a nation of talkers and if RTÉ is no longer willing to listen then there are plenty of others eager to – TV3, for instance.
Instead of trying to sell us crap or just trotting out whoever happens to come through Terminal 2 in Dublin airport, perhaps the national broadcaster should try listening to license payers’ opinions. They might get a lot of kitchen-sink, domestic issues aired, but grassroots concerns are what really matter to the people, and that’s how to recapture the serious attention of the Irish viewers.
© 2014 GCN (Gay Community News). All rights reserved.