A prime time for comics to get edgy

Tue, Nov 11, 2008, 00:00

For its eighth season, topical show 'The Panel' is moving to an RTÉ1 slot, which is, according to its producer, an opportunity to raise the satirical bar. Richard Fitzpatricksits in on the first recording

'THE BEST QUESTION I've ever been asked," says Neil Delamare, "was from a fella who wanted to know: 'Is The Panelall filmed in one batch or do you do it week to week?' I said: 'It's a topical news show that lasts for 12 weeks. How would we know what that show will be about in 12 weeks' time?' "

The Offaly man and his fellow panellists are good, but they're not that good.

The Panel, which began its eighth season in five years last Thursday, has shifted from its regular Monday night slot on RTÉ2 - where it sat in the middle of a series of light entertainment shows - to the national broadcaster's primary station. It will follow Prime Time. The move suggests a maturing.

"Going to RTÉ1, the important thing is that we have to go for a harder news agenda," says series producer Séamus Cassidy. "Hopefully, they'll be saying harder things about the news than they would have been on RTÉ2 and it'll be a more topical show, and the edge of the show won't be taken off. The edge will sort of shift - less effing and more politics."

The show's stock-in-trade is irreverent comment on current affairs and the obscure cultural flotsam of the day, sometimes wonderfully anarchic and reaching satirical heights, at other times skirting the waters of giddy, puerile poor taste. The Panel, however, has received few complaints to date, which isn't necessarily a badge of honour. This state of affairs might alter with the demographic change in its new TV audience.

"There's nobody on the show who's there to be a gratuitously offensive comic or to be a bad boy," says Cassidy. "There's nobody on the show who's there to do that job. They're there to talk about what's happened over the week, they're not there to deliver a dose of filth. It's not like Podge and Rodge, where the joke is that they're very rude."

As to the most memorable incidents in the show's history, Cassidy cites Colin Murphy's flight of fancy about killer ladybirds; the appearance of Miriam O'Callaghan, which gave the fledgling programme an imprimatur "from a proper grown-up presenter"; and the baiting of Sinn Féin's Mary Lou McDonald, when she "made like a goldfish" after being confronted with details of what was being sold on the party's website in the way of IRA memorabilia. Cassidy admits, though, that there hasn't been enough of that kind of moment.

"With politicians in general, we haven't had enough of them on," he says. "We don't need to give them a hard time gratuitously, but subject them to a certain amount of questioning. If you look at something like The Daily Showin the States, it's the show that a lot of young people watch to get their news. The presidential candidates went on. I can't imagine a comedy show in Ireland where party leaders would go on in the run-up to an election.

"We have to set our sights on The Panelthat bit higher because it's been a very funny show, but I think we need to give ourselves a wee bit more of an edge now."

It's already on something of a precipice. The show is stacked with stand-up comedians whose natural bent is to provide light entertainment rather than probe with the journalistic what-lies-is-he-telling-me-now? instincts of Jeremy Paxman or even of Ian Hislop, an ever-present on the British show, Have I Got News for You, who is also a jobbing editor of the satirical magazine, Private Eye.

THIS SEASON, Delamare is rejoined by regular panel members Colin Murphy, Andrew Maxwell and Dermot Whelan. Fellow stand-up Jarlath Regan injects some new blood, while other panellists will once again include Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin and Mairead Farrell. The job of hosting the show will rotate until after Christmas when, according to Cassidy, "a reasonably big name, a very big name actually" will take over the anchor role.

For the first programme of the series, Ray D'Arcy brought his likeable, class prefect-type qualities to the position. He's to be followed by Daithí O'Shea, Gráinne Seoige, grizzled old comedian-cum-DJ Phil Jupitus, and Marty Whelan. The latter is someone whose moustache is unlikely to be bested despite the efforts of the male panel members to sport a "mo" for the month as part of "Movember", a fundraising event for Action Prostate Cancer, an Irish Cancer Society initiative.

The production values of the show remain largely the same, with the promise that more video clips, in a nod towards the growing wonder of YouTube, will be used. The Panelis still recorded in theatres: 10 of the season's 14 shows will be at the 450-seater O'Reilly Theatre in Dublin's Belvedere College; others will be shot at Draíocht in Blanchardstown, Bray's Mermaid Arts Centre and, for the first time, Trinity College's Samuel Beckett Theatre.

The show is recorded on the evening before broadcast, as is the case with Have I Got News for Youand Mock the Week, another BBC topical comedy show. The delayed transmission allows legal eyes to pick up on anything contentious - a hot subject in the wake of the Ross/Brand affair - but also, more prosaically, acts as a quality check, helping to cull some of the longueurs.

IN THURSDAY'S episode, for example, whole sections - guff about eyebrow transplants, a website that alerts men to their partner's pre-menstrual symptoms and Dublin City Council's plans to pay €350,000 for the capital's Christmas tree - were left on the cutting-room floor. Ray D'Arcy scored a huge laugh with his tongue-twister that only one first-rate musician failed to back the new US president: "Burt Bacharach doesn't back Barack Obama." But his attempt to use the line at a later stage in the show was stillborn and was consequently cut.

Jarlath Regan's observation that Brian Cowen "has the face of a man who walks into your class to tell you that the school tour is cancelled" survived, while his suggestion that Enda Kenny's face is like that of "a man who borrows your father's wheelbarrow" was left out. From more than two hours of material, the show is ultimately pruned to 45 minutes, although, looking on from the Green Room before entering as a guest, journalist Kevin Myers is at a loss to pick out the dross.

"They don't need guests. This is great," he says, his barbed critical faculties having departed him. "They don't need me at all."

From van to can Shooting 'The Panel'


6am Two staff from The Panel's production company arrive at Temple Street to secure seven parking spaces for the show's 40ft, €3 million mobile control room. Inside the truck, three rows of seats are packed together, facing 60 monitors. It's from here that director Patrick Cowap, the series producer, a lawyer, and sound, vision and technical engineers will watch the show being filmed.

9am The engineering and rigging crew start to turn up.

3pm Host Ray D'Arcy and panellists meet for a brainstorming session.

5pm Dinner is dished up for the 50 people who make up the crew and panellists.

5.30pm The panellists' make-up is done. 6.30pm The audience, having secured tickets via e-mail (from a waiting list "in the thousands"), congregates in the bar.

7.30pm There is a half-hour soundcheck for host and panellists (or "the height of their rehearsal", as one associate producer puts it). "Can we say shit or shite?" wonders Neil Delamare about the implications of the move to RTÉ1.

8.15pm The audience enters the theatre.

8.30pm Neil Delamare "warms up" the crowd.

8.45pm Recording starts, wrapping up two hours later. During filming, the show's series producer, Séamus Cassidy, feeds D'Arcy with cues ("We have enough of that story . . . Why don't you talk about this story? . . . Ask the guest about this? . . . Say something funny . . .") via an earpiece.

11pm Cast and crew repair to the pub for après-show drinks.

Overnight The tapes of the show, recorded on analogue technology, are digitised, which takes several hours.


9am Editing, which lasts about seven hours, commences.

3pm Lawyer Michael Kealey vets a "rough cut" for potentially libellous material.

6.30pm The tape is couriered from Happy Endings' studio to RTÉ.

10.15pm The 45-minute finished product, which has a 20 per cent share of audience ratings, is broadcast on RTÉ1.