Radio: Merry John Murray doesn’t always hit the right note
The RTÉ Radio 1 host’s lighthearted style has its appeal, but a more thoughtful interview technique wouldn’t go amiss
Playful air: John Murray’s jolly front belies his ability for acute observations
In the uncertain world of radio, where positions are constantly under scrutiny and quarterly listenership figures cause ripples of anxiety, admitting that your real ambitions lie elsewhere is not the smartest move for a presenter. So one has to admire the candour of John Murray, who concedes that, although having a radio show is good fun, he longs to pursue another career. This is no casual slip: the presenter spends much of Tuesday’s John Murray Show (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays) expounding on the idea that “my true calling was to be a rock star”.
Far from being a vocational cri de coeur, Murray’s revelation is made for sound professional reasons, as he brings a playful air to his report on the Brighton Institute of Modern Music, in Dublin, a kind of Fame Academy for aspiring musicians. It obliterates any faint illusions that the terminally square Murray is rock-singer material, but it highlights his strengths as a broadcaster. Which is just as well, because his limitations are unfortunately evident elsewhere.
As it is, there are moments during his visit to the institute when there is a overwhelming temptation to switch off in embarrassment. As he encounters the college’s students and staff – the latter a Where Are They Now? file of erstwhile Irish indie stars – Murray adopts a relentlessly avuncular manner, urging musicians to “give us an auld blast” of their instruments while airing his mantra of “I want to be a rock star” to ever-decreasing comic effect.
But his jolly front belies his ability for acute observations. When one class greets his arrival with an audible lack of enthusiasm, Murray undercuts the students’ affected coolness by remarking how “everyone has a beard”. The presenter mischievously asks an earnest young singer if she has considered entering the TV talent show The Voice.
Murray tops it all off with a gloriously wobbly rendition of AC/DC’s Highway to Hell, leading him to reassert his rock-star ambitions, no matter his lack of vocal talent nor, indeed, his baldness. “Maybe I’ll get some advice on hair implants from my colleague Marty Whelan,” he concludes, alluding to the Lyric FM presenter’s recently revealed procedure. Such moments turn a potentially pointless segment into a surprisingly enjoyable romp.
The item harks back to the irreverent reports that were his trademark during his time on Morning Ireland and The Business, but his interview with the Australian author Thomas Keneally is frustrating. Keneally, plugging a musical about Irish convicts voyaging to Australia, is an eager conversationalist with fascinating anecdotes, such as how his novel Schindler’s Ark sprang from a chance meeting with a Holocaust survivor in a California shop.
Yet despite the rich potential, Murray’s questions aim in the wrong direction, with the emphasis firmly on the parochial, such as musing whether his guest approved that the lead role in Schindler’s List went to an Irishman, Liam Neeson. Gamely, Keneally responds, but one would prefer to hear him muse on matters closer to his heart. He quotes an old letter his great-grandfather wrote from Cork to his son in Australia, which laments that “I shall never set my eyes on any of my exiled children”. It neatly illustrates Keneally’s point that emigrating to Australia is no longer “the death sentence” it once was. But this poignant personal insight about Irish emigration is unprompted by the host. Murray’s lighthearted style has its appeal, but a more thoughtful interview technique wouldn’t go amiss.