The faraway country
Could The Late Late Show’s roving Daleks have been telling a bigger story?
The Circling Fin
As a boy in the early ’70s, I was very struck by the Late Late Show policy of not hiding the equipment used to make the programme. A lot of what was being spoken about by Gay Byrne and his guests – contraception, Wood Quay, the Troubles – was double Dutch to me, but every so often the presentation would cut away from the interview to reveal massive, Dalek-like cameras roving about between the audience and the guest podium. Now that was interesting!
Such openness seemed to symbolise the culture of the programme. Unlike the wooden news bulletins, Gay Byrne’s Late Late was an unscripted part of RTÉ’s schedules. Talk could be freer and ideas broached and explored that were under wraps in the normal public life of the country.
And that was certainly needed: The public life of the country when the show began was so repressed that little of consequence seemed to get aired, outside of the pages of novels deemed scandalous and often banned as a result. The brave writers of such books, stigmatised for merely recording what they saw, suffered greatly: John McGahern was fired from his teaching job; Edna O’Brien had her books burned; Flann O’Brien and Patrick Kavanagh drank themselves to death.
Ireland’s past is not only a different but a faraway country, where things were done very differently than today. Before the government licensed our first national broadcaster, there was quite a debate among the political and ecclesiastical elites over whether such a station could be afforded, both financially and morally.
Looking back on it I wonder now if there ever was a conscious decision to let viewers peek behind the curtain, to show off the Late Late cameras in such a deliberate way. Perhaps the main reason RTÉ developed this tradition was more of a human than a corporate one: We were simply proud to have our own national television service. Indeed there were programmes on RTÉ in the mid-1960s that took viewers on a tour of the station to show them what was going on behind the scenes.
You will be familiar with the scenario of visiting someone’s home and the man of the house letting you know in detail about whatever new equipment is involved in playing music for you or watching his films … even though the content is no different from before. From rabbits ears to BitTorrent we’ve all suffered that lecture. Men in particular – and I don’t exclude myself from this charge – like to show off, sometimes subtly, whatever new technology they are using.
Recently, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to see a full episode of the Late Late from 1971 featuring Eamonn Andrews, Jack MacGowran, Matt Busby, Peter Sellers and Trevor Howard. All, bar Gaybo himself, have long shuffled off their mortal coils, but hearing them converse was a real treat. Not only the Late Late, but chat shows generally, really were better then.
Fin Keegan is a writer based in Westport. This column is based on his weekly radio essay, heard on WRFM radio, and online at thecirclingfin.com.