A new heavyweight in light entertainment

Thu, Mar 31, 2011, 01:00

Obstinate, opinionated, with a reputation as a formidable inquisitor – Vincent Browne is a strange choice to host a light entertainment show. How did the veteran journalist become an unlikely TV star?

FOR A man normally so sure of his abilities, it was a rare admission of weakness. “I’m completely out of my depth,” sighed an exasperated Vincent Browne, as he struggled to control the guests on the Friday edition of his late-night TV3 talk show. The unruly charges in question were not politicians, academics or journalists – as is normally the case with Browne’s panel – but pop stars John and Edward Grimes, aka Jedward, whose teen lingo and manic behaviour left the veteran journalist and broadcaster looking utterly bewildered.

Browne may have described the encounter as “the most excruciating interview I’ve ever done in my life”, but it was symbolic of his own improbable transformation into a television star.

Despite its graveyard slot and conventional format, Tonight with Vincent Browne, the nightly political discussion programme he has hosted since 2007, has become one of TV3’s most high-profile shows. The week’s informal closing show, newly revamped and rebranded as Friday Late With Vincent Browne, is the latest evidence of the presenter’s unlikely success, with Jedward’s appearance attracting 280,000 viewers.

So how did Browne, one of the most influential figures in Irish journalism, wind up hosting the most enjoyable light entertainment programme of last Friday evening, a chaotic tonic to a lifeless Late Late Show?

Given Tonightis, after all, primarily a current affairs programme, Browne’s impressive pedigree is a crucial factor. As co-founder and editor of Magillmagazine, he blazed a trail for investigative journalism in the late 1970s and early 1980s, while he blooded a generation of reporters as owner and editor of the Sunday Tribune. (He has been a regular columnist for The Irish Timesfor several years.)

His background, coupled with his irascible style and views on inequality and social justice, makes him a formidable presence as he helms his wide-ranging discussions. He regularly berates those guests, particularly politicians, who do not answer his questions satisfactorily.

His intemperate language also adds spice: his off-colour suggestion that Enda Kenny should go into a dark room with a gun and a bottle of whiskey landed him in trouble, but also added to the show’s aura of unpredictability. Browne has also enjoyed good timing, benefiting from the public’s increased appetite for current affairs in the wake of the economic crash.

But another part of Browne’s appeal is that he regularly seems out of his depth, at least when it comes to slick presentation. He trips over his words and gets his guests’ names wrong – last Friday he introduced entrepreneur Norah Casey as “Norah Carey” – thus coming across as a slightly absent-minded attack dog. (Those journalists who weathered Browne’s volcanic rages in the newsroom may balk at this lovable eccentric image.) His apparent befuddlement at aspects of contemporary culture – he regularly refers to “the Twitter machine” – only adds to this.

The mores of the digital era have contributed to the show’s cult status, however, with Browne’s more vituperative outbursts rapidly going viral.

His bust-ups with the likes of politicians Joan Burton and Conor Lenihan were quicklyposted on YouTube and highlighted by blogs such as Broadsheet.ie. With the growth of broadband, Tonight’s late start has become less of a handicap, with viewers able to catch up on missed episodes on TV3’s website.

Another indicator of Browne’s enhanced position in popular culture is the amount of satire he has inspired. He has become a de rigueur figure in any self-respecting Irish impressionist’s repertoire. His show has been lampooned on Après Match, by Oliver Callan of Nob Nationand by Gift Grub’s Mario Rosenstock, whose sketches for TV3 nailed Browne’s “knowing but slightly evil look”, to use the comic’s phrase.

Such turns may play on the broadcaster’s idiosyncrasies, but they also increase public awareness of his late-blooming career as a popular media personality.

IT IS SURPRISING that it has taken this long for Browne to make such a breakthrough; his show is essentially a television version of the programme he presented on RTÉ Radio 1 for more than a decade, it even shares the same title. But he was unable to replicate the free-flowing energy of his radio show – which was cancelled in 2007 – in his incarnations as a television presenter.

Midnight Court, the short-lived discussion programme he hosted for RTÉ television in 2002 and 2003, was a conspicuous failure, notable for its stiff style and strange choice of topics, such as regular items on trees.

It is telling that Browne only captured the rambunctious spirit of his radio show after departing Montrose. TV3 was willing to take a punt on the show in a way the public broadcaster was unable to. A nightly current affairs discussion show hosted by a 60-something journalist is not everyone’s idea of TV gold, after all. But with large blocks of airtime to fill and limited budgets, it was a risk worth taking for a private station like TV3.

The show’s popularity has grown gradually since. Browne has become more comfortable in his ringmaster role, while some of his panellists, such as economist Constantin Gurdgiev, have also increased their public profile from regular appearances. The political drama of the past year has lifted the show to a new level – in 2009, its ratings peaked at 166,000, compared to last Friday’s high – with Browne enjoying a good Election.

Meanwhile, the show has blindsided RTÉ, which is now playing catch-up in the late-night talk stakes. It is not easy to emulate Browne’s achievement, as was proved by the Eleventh Hour, RTÉ 2’s would-be competitor during the Election. The latter show boasted experienced anchors, offbeat segments and detailed discussions but never matched the freewheeling spirit of TV3’s show, never mind the abstruse tendencies of its host.

For all its impressive figures, the new Friday night approach is a potentially retrograde move, particularly if it trades on Browne’s discomfiture in an informal chat show format, as the Jedward segment did.

Enjoyable as it was, such a car crash approach has a limited lifespan, and goes against Browne’s real strengths as a tenacious inquisitor and compelling polemicist. His success has rested on making life excruciating for his interviewees: having found his level, he might want to stick to it.

Vincent Browne versus . . .

Joan Burton

During a pre-Election show, Labour’s Joan Burton set a combative tone when she inquired whether the host was “asking me a question or just trying to harangue me?”. Burton repeatedly interrupted Joe Higgins of the Socialist Party, allowing Browne to wind up the Labour TD: “Joan, you get hyper-irritated when anyone harangues you so please don’t harangue Joe.” She continued to do so. Arguably the show’s most famous watercooler moment.

Charlie O’Connor and Darragh O’Brien

Browne aired an interview with the two Fianna Fáil politicians recorded outside Leinster House after the vote of confidence in Brian Cowen, during which O’Brien lectured the presenter that TDs were Irish citizens who wanted the best for their country.

When the clip ended, an in-studio Browne looked dolefully at the camera and muttered: “God, it would do your head in, wouldn’t it?”

Conor Lenihan

When the Fianna Fáil TD refused to resign his junior minister’s post after Brian Cowen’s botched leadership stroke, Browne asked if there was “a happy coincidence” between the national interest and Lenihan’s personal interest, sparking some on-air rage.

“It’s easy for you to be cynical about people who go into public life and I really do resent the sneering insinuation that you’re trying to put to me,” Lenihan said, his voice rising. “Conor, you’re not going to shout me down and you can take me full-on on this if you like,” Browne responded. Lenihan did, leading to more heated exchanges.