‘The audience knew they were in the hands of a master’

A musical number, a chat with a Hollywood star. A debate on the ‘burning issue’ of the day followed by a poem from the woman in the third row, a wave from the man in the fourth and then something for, well, everyone in the audience.

His work ethic was legendary, at the height of his career he was producing and presenting the Late Late, as well as presenting a daily radio show on RTÉ Radio 1.

And that wasn’t all – in the 1980s, while most of the country was enjoying the last days of summer, Gaybo had already started his autumn term, presenting the Rose of Tralee live from the Dome in the Kerry capital.

Add in the ‘Calor Gas Housewife of the Year’ competition and it was no wonder he was known as ‘Uncle Gaybo’ – for some he was as familiar a presence in the home as members of their own families.

Despite his ubiquity however Gay never became complacent about his work and both his television and radio shows broke new ground.

The Gay Byrne Hour, which became the Gay Byrne Show on RTÉ Radio 1, pioneered listener engagement, with listeners writing in and later phoning Gay about the issues of the day or problems close to their hearts.

“Consumer issues, recipes for fruit cake, relationship woes – in the days before social media Gay Byrne was the conduit for all kinds of discussion and debates”

One of the show’s most memorable broadcasts featured letters inspired by the death in childbirth of teenager Anne Lovett in Granard, Co Longford, in 1984.

When news of the tragedy broke, Irish men and women from all around the country wrote to the show with their own stories of abandonment, neglect and fear, stories from the heart which were broadcast to the nation.

Meanwhile, first on Saturday and later on Friday nights, Gay was also steering the juggernaut that was the Late Late Show.

Although this was a bigger, flashier beast than the radio show, there was still a strong sense of connection with the audience who read poems, waved at the monitors instead of the cameras and generally followed the ringmaster’s lead.

Alongside “stop the lights”, the phrase “one for everybody in the audience” looks set to survive in Hiberno English long after the original meaning of the phrase has been forgotten.

The Late Late’s big moments will be played and replayed this week – P Flynn’s houses, the Bishop and the Nightie, and the moment Gay demonstrated how to use a condom leaving the nation unified in mortification.

Peter Ustinov and Billy Connolly seemed to be on a rotating, although very entertaining loop, and Sinéad O’Connor and U2 dropped in on their way to world stardom.

The show wasn’t perfect, how could it, given the length of its run? And Gay didn’t always get the tone of the interview right or read the mood of the audience correctly.

“But on many, many occasions he proved himself a world class broadcaster and the Late Late provided many discussions for the crowd leaving Sunday mass, long before Irish people had water coolers to gather around”

My own most memorable moment came one night, late in the show’s running time when the host could have been forgiven for sitting back and coasting towards the credits.

Gay’s final task that week was to call a woman live on air to tell her she’d won the weekly postal quiz. But instead of being delighted with her win she told the host, in a voice of quiet despair, that her daughter, who had posted the card for her, had been killed in a road traffic accident.

It’s hard to say how most of us would react to that news in a private situation, let alone on live television, but Byrne handled it with such grace and professionalism it was as if he had known about it all along and the final words from poet Brendan Kennelly ended the show poignantly and perfectly.

“All watching, at home and in the audience, knew they were in the presence of a master”

Gay Byrne retired from the Late Late in 1999 but didn’t retire from public life, becoming chairman of the Road Safety Authority and appearing on many other TV shows, including his very popular ‘The Meaning of Life’.

In later years he perfected the image of the ‘grumpy old man’ – even presenting a programme on the topic – and railed against his pet peeves including what he saw as a terminal decline in Irish standards of pronunciation.

He also hugely enjoyed presenting a jazz show on Lyric FM during which, once again, listeners felt he was speaking directly to them.

Even late in his career his passion for broadcasting didn’t desert him.

As recently as 2015, his interview with Stephen Fry on ‘The Meaning of Life’ made headlines around the world, garnered millions of views on YouTube and even provoked a row about blasphemy at home.

Fry’s comments have been shared and analysed but it’s also well worth watching the reaction shots which show Gaybo probing, analysing, nodding thoughtfully, listening and at the same time clearly realising he had once again achieved broadcasting gold.

Source: ‘The audience knew they were in the hands of a master’

Leave a Reply