'Birdbrain' is a real hoot for Joe Duffy

Sat, Sep 15, 2012, 01:00

RADIO REVIEW: JOE LAUGHS! It might not have the same ring as “Garbo laughs”, but so singularly wondrous was Joe Duffy’s chortling on Wednesday’s Liveline (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays) that it called to mind the famous tagline about the icy Swedish movie legend’s first onscreen expression of mirth.

Duffy’s laughter is hardly a rare commodity, being frequently heard on his show’s regular Funny Friday editions, even if one wonders whether the comic stylings of Sil Fox and Doc Savage warrant such guffaws. But in this case Duffy was overcome with hilarity by, of all things, a questionnaire.

The presenter spoke to Clare, a spirited 72-year-old Dublin woman flummoxed by the questions on a form for a proposed new public-service card, ultimately aimed at replacing the free-travel card for pensioners. The information being sought was indeed incongruous: what was her childhood nickname, where was her first holiday, what was her first car? Clare had answered these odd inquiries in a light-hearted spirit that was highly contagious, at least in Duffy’s case.

When his guest said that her nickname had been “birdbrain”, the host giggled sympathetically. When she said she listed her first holiday destination as the Sunshine House in Balbriggan he hooted uncontrollably.

When she said that she put her first car down as “pram” he was rendered helpless. Duffy then proposed a few questions of his own, such as the colour of Clare’s nightie on her honeymoon, struggling to speak through paroxysms of laughter at his own humour.

It was quite a performance. Duffy’s affection for his vivacious guest was palpable, but his reaction came across as a bit stagy. It also underlined the presenter’s acuity at gauging his audience. Amid the jollity Duffy highlighted a larger issue, namely the possibility of the Government removing free travel for the elderly.

As Clare said how much she enjoyed using her travel entitlements her host commented that he sensed there would be “trouble on the streets” if the benefit were abolished. Later, when an Arklow hotel owner rang in to offer Clare a free overnight stay, Duffy used the opportunity to establish that pensioners were an “important constituency” for the hospitality industry.

It was a point also made by Paddy O’Gorman on Monday’s edition of Today With Pat Kenny (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays). As the roving reporter spoke to a selection of older passengers waiting to journey from Busáras, it became clear that free travel not only gave them a sense of independence but also spread their spending across the country.

But O’Gorman’s item lacked the memorable soundtrack of laughter that marked Liveline’s take on the subject.

In making the segue from light relief to hot-button topic, Duffy again underscored why his show, for all its frequent descent into cacophonous griping, scores large ratings, appealing, as it does, to listeners’ everyday concerns.

Indeed, such is the presenter’s stature that some trust him more than the authorities of the State. On Tuesday Duffy spoke to Paul Stewart, who had been with the murdered dissident republican Alan Ryan when he was shot.

While hazy on the details of Ryan’s shooting, Stewart was more forthcoming with the host than he had been with gardaí, whom he said were “complicit” in the death. By way of proof he pointed to the Garda’s apparently tardy arrival on the scene, while alleging some detectives made jokes about Ryan as he lay dead.

Duffy walked a fine line. He dismissed Stewart’s outlandish claim of Garda collusion as a “conspiracy theory” and expressed scepticism at his militant republican beliefs while trying to elicit more juicy details about the “catastrophic and savage assassination”.

In doing so he let some of Stewart’s more ironic assertions pass unremarked, such as that the drug gangs he believed were responsible for Ryan’s murder had “no concern or mercy for anyone who stands in their way”. Given dissident republican groups’ record of indiscriminate violence, this was a bit rich, but Duffy said nothing. But he did urge his militantly inclined guest to “soldier on” before correcting himself to say “move on”. Now that was funny.

Proof of Liveline’s wider influence came in the form of last week’s Documentary on One: Fighting on All Fronts (RTÉ Radio 1, Saturday). Elayne Devlin’s programme followed the last months of Cathy Durkin, a cancer sufferer who last year appeared on Duffy’s show to campaign for access to the expensive but potentially life-saving drug ipilimumab. Though the material was tragic – despite eventually being treated with “ippy”, Durkin died in July – the documentary initially danced around the difficult subject of her impending mortality, preferring awkward interviews with her family.

Eventually, however, a more sombre mood took hold. Durkin’s husband, Michael, said he was coping well “until people ask me”. Later, as Durkin lay terminally ill in hospital, her sister Celine told how the news had been broken to Durkin’s three children. Her daughter said she wanted “to go with” her mother but was told that her job was to grow up and have children of her own. It was a poignant moment, without being prurient or sentimental, throwing Durkin’s dreadful plight into heartrending perspective. The success of her campaign to get widespread access to ipilimumab suddenly seemed small consolation. By the end even cracking a smile was an achievement.

Radio moment of the week

An irritating trait of modern Irish life is the term “high street”, a British retailing phrase increasingly applied to our primary thoroughfares. So kudos to Conor Brophy, business reporter on Morning Ireland (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays), who on Thursday stuck to the traditional nomenclature by talking of the “main streets of Ireland” before adding, in a defiant act of reverse cultural colonialism, “and Britain”.

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