Some years ago, I was driving past Donegal airport early on a winter’s morning. I pulled up, jogged to the beach and took a quick look around. No one was about. I stripped naked, left my clothes and glasses in a pile on the sand, and jumped in the freezing ocean.
After about 20 minutes I was coming out when I heard that unmistakeable voice. “Young Joseph. What a sight for sore eyes.” It was Gay Byrne, out for his morning walk on the strand. “I see you are making trouble again” he said, as he strolled on, “Do make sure to keep it up.”
George Bernard Shaw said “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world. The unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” George would certainly have approved of Gay. He was the daddy of them all.
Ground breaking, fearless, independent and completely unreasonable, he made the Late Late a national event.
From unrolling the first condom live on air (to gasps, laughter and some anger from the audience), to championing gay rights, and to bringing the south’s bête noir Gerry Adams onto the show, he turned what was billed as a light entertainment show into a cultural and political juggernaut.
He famously said “If I am not getting into trouble with the powers that be in RTE, I am not doing my job.”
While enthralling the nation with his pushing of the boundaries, the complaints mounted up. Every week, thousands of them arrived at RTE, all about Gaybo. Every week, the top brass met to work their way through them. Gay would be summoned, but was entirely lacking in contrition. “My job is to entertain the nation and that is what I intend to do.”
And besides, as Gay’s resident pianist from those glory days -Frank McNamara – said (with a certain relish) to Ryan Tubridy during the Tribute program on Wednesday night, “We used to have over a million people watching in those days.”
Gay worked on the basis of instinct. Neutrality or balance were not part of his make-up. He understood that these qualities may be okay in the diplomatic service, but would only lead to boring television. So, we could roar in frustration at him (as we regularly did in the North when he was berating a republican) or clap our hands in delight and agreement, but whatever our background or bias, we couldn’t ignore him.
On Sunday morning, whatever spontaneous events had erupted the previous night on his show, these were the main topic of conversation outside mass, or in the newsagents, or in the pubs, or living rooms.
His programs gave rise to blasphemy investigations, defamation allegations, condemnation from senior Church figures, including then Bishop of Clonfert Thomas Ryan who denounced the show and said he was disgusted by the disgraceful content of the show ( during a Mr&Mrs type quiz, a husband in the audience was asked by Gay what colour his wife’s nightie was on their wedding night) and its likely impact on the people of Ireland. Gay didn’t mind.
He was a colossus in our living rooms, giving the country a break from the tedium of daily life, thrilling and surprising us and making us laugh or cry.
One of the guests on Wednesday night said that he told her before coming on the show “Do not wait to be asked to come in. If you want to contribute to the discussion just break in and say it.”
Because of this, because he was unafraid, he allowed the chat to develop, whether it became angry or funny or sad, even if the direction it was taking didn’t accord with his own views. Which meant that these discussions invariably took on a life of their own, and often had us on the edge of our seats.
This way, he created something mysterious and unexpected and real. Another effect of this fearlessness was that a naturally conservative man ended up making a massive contribution to liberalising a society which up until then had been soviet in its attitude to dissent.
Readers under forty will not appreciate just how thrilling, shocking and in turn transformative Gaybo was. In truth, they should have retired the show along with him.
Sadly, they didn’t, and that fearlessness has been replaced by a culture of control and blandness. The Late Late now is as real as the Tellytubbies. Questions are scripted, the answer is irrelevant and the trick is to quickly move to the next question.
Everyone is great and everything is nice and the thing is to get them on and off the set on time, in contrast to Gay, who would let a guest run on, even if it sometimes meant another guest didn’t get on at all.
In common with most live TV output by the public broadcaster, this safety first, avoid complaints at all costs culture, has created television that is as dramatic as a plate of scones. The presenter must be bland and uninteresting. Niceness is crucial. The script is everything. Criticism must be avoided and the tyranny of balance holds sway. This disrespects the audience, insulting our intelligence and leaving us entirely dissatisfied. It works well for the commercial interests and the bureaucracies, but that is about it.
Gay understood that his guests were part of the wider world and that the wider world is a stormy and dark and hilarious and corrupt and unpredictable place. He didn’t insult our intelligence. He didn’t avoid difficult subjects to please an advertiser or a sponsor or his bosses in Montrose. He didn’t stick to the safety of a script.
The central theme of his great creation was that human beings should be allowed to talk about important things, and joke about ridiculous things, not because he provided them with a public platform, but because that is what human beings do.