A funny way to fight a war


It was meant to spark a battle of the chat shows, but Eamon Dunphy's effortis bad enough to make the 'Late Late' look good, writes Shane Hegarty.

It is three months to the day since The Dunphy Show's début, and its host still cuts an awkward figure on stage at the Helix theatre, from where his programme is broadcast. When he stands away from his desk, Eamon Dunphy's body looks unruly, as if his legs have taken fright and are straining for a return to cover. He introduces musical acts with a peculiar diffidence. He reads from the cue cards with the uncertain rhythm of a man squinting at an optician's wall chart. It was the same that opening night in September, but at least Dunphy could then take comfort in the knowledge that the kinks would be smoothed out in time.

They haven't been, and just as Dunphy should be looking forward to a well-earned Christmas holiday - he reportedly recorded tonight's show last weekend, to help get his holiday season off to an early start - the programme's impending five-week break is instead being construed as something more sinister: the beginning of the end, the first cracks in the hull of TV3's flagship show. Almost 200,000 people are watching Dunphy every week. But 150,000 are watching Judge Judy every day.

There is a sense that The Dunphy Show is not learning its lessons. A man once famed for his unpredictability fronts a programme that has developed a worrying monotony. Dunphy has overindulged in journalists, politicians and sports stars: the sort of people, in other words, he feels conformable talking to rather than those we necessarily want to hear.

At the beginning, for instance, that Peter Mandelson, Alastair Campbell and Robin Cook arrived in quick succession showed an enthusiasm for the machinations of the British Labour Party that will have been shared by few in the audience. Dunphy also has a wearisome habit of bringing almost every conversation around to the war in Iraq. When it's with Mandelson you can accept it. When it's with Chris Eubank it's time to turn over.

He remains an inconsistent interviewer, sometimes getting more than you would expect from his subject, sometimes getting nowhere at all. Even with sports stars he is unreliable. Robbie Keane, he explained, had been one of the guests he had been most keen on talking to, yet it was an interview of unremitting blandness. That he interviewed Roy Keane, whose autobiography he ghosted, represented only Dunphy's ultimate indulgence.

Outside of his specialist topics the guest list becomes shallow. Eubank, Keith Duffy, Peter Stringfellow and Jordan. This is increasingly the guest list of a Northern Ireland chat show. The Late Late Show has the luxury of RTÉ's schedule from which to pluck guests. It can call on Hector Ó hEochagáin or raise Duncan Stewart from his hospital bed.

Along with its more regular musical interludes, it at least gives the programme a comparative effervescence and a changing texture that Dunphy's lacks.

In fact, Dunphy's most bothersome achievement is to have made Pat Kenny look good. Kenny can explain a competition. He can introduce a guest. He can read from an autocue. He can stand up straight on national television. The Late Late Show, though, is the same programme with the same problems as it was pre-Dunphy. Nor has Kenny been upgraded. There are constant reminders of his weaknesses. He remains one of television's greatest straight men. His interview with Eddie Izzard last month was a classic of mortification, an interview during which Kenny attempted to match the comedian's pace only to be dragged along mercilessly.

Izzard is now as famous for his transvestism as he is for his comedy. "The royal family," began Kenny. "Do you fancy any of them?" On Izzard's success in America: "Did the success of Mrs Doubtfire help you?" You wanted to climb into the television and, on behalf of all of Ireland, dissociate yourself from the questions.

On other occasions, though, he has displayed notable composure. The only people to mention Dunphy on The Late Late Show have been its guests, and Kenny has largely ignored the bait. The Dunphy Show, meanwhile, acts like the little guy trying to pick a fight with the ex-champ. Its Gay Byrne puppet sketches are a triumph of witlessness. It has mistaken spite for satire, and the result is a drain on the show's dignity and a constant reminder of an institution it has yet to erode. The show cannot forge its own personality while it continues to refer to that of another.

That, ultimately, is at the core of The Dunphy Show's problem. In both format and time slot it chose to take on The Late Late Show at its own game, but it may have found that its eyes were bigger than its stomach. Perhaps it was financial need, or maybe a mix of opportunism and bravado, that led it to decide to do that, but in doing so it gave itself no time to develop. It might have been wiser to launch on another night over a shorter time slot, to have played to both TV3's experience and Dunphy's strengths in a format that concentrated on itself rather than on what was happening across the dial.

Dunphy is right when he asserts that competition is good, but there are ways of being competitive without playing chicken with your opponent.

The Dunphy Show is on TV3 at 9 p.m. today. The Late Late Show begins on RTÉ 1 at 9.35 p.m.

HOSTS Eamon Dunphy can get good conversation from bad guests but also bad conversation from good guests. Pat Kenny is still best at current affairs and poorest at show business. His Eddie Izzard interview reminded us of how bad he can be. Verdict: The Dunphy Show wins

GUESTS The Dunphy Show has sport, politics, a little more sport, a little more politics, then some political sport to round the evening off. The Late Late Show's variety means Rachel Hunter and her puppies might be followed by Clive James and his poetry. Verdict: The Late Late Show SETS The "beautiful Helix theatre" as Dunphy seems obliged to call it, was electric the first night but has been damp since. The Late Late Show's set is garish and its studio is always filled with distracting background noise. Verdict: draw

GRABBED HEADLINES The Dunphy Show has been surprisingly quiet, although its host's admittance that he used recreational drugs caused a minor stir. Getting Duncan Stewart out of his hospital bed was a minor coup for the Late Late, but otherwise it too has been relatively quiet. Verdict: draw

RATINGS The Dunphy Show has about 200,000 viewers - and will need more. The Late Late has about 550,000, although a million watched the toy show. Steady since this time last year. Verdict: The Late Late Show