Radio: D’mammy happily plugs away in Marian’s chair

Brendan O’Carroll brings a big heart into studio – he’s like a modern-day ‘Danny Boy’

Stepping in as guest host for Marian Finucane (RTÉ Radio 1, Saturday and Sunday), O’Carroll’s talents are soon tested to the limit. Photograph:Brian McEvoy

Stepping in as guest host for Marian Finucane (RTÉ Radio 1, Saturday and Sunday), O’Carroll’s talents are soon tested to the limit. Photograph:Brian McEvoy

Sat, Jul 5, 2014, 01:00

Comedian, actor, writer, cross dresser, philanthropist and now film star: is there any role Brendan O’Carroll can’t perform without success? Well, radio presenter, possibly. Stepping in as guest host for Marian Finucane (RTÉ Radio 1, Saturday and Sunday), O’Carroll’s talents are soon tested to the limit, not least because he appears to get the roles of host and guest mixed up: his introductory riff on Saturday’s show is basically an extended plug for his new film, Mrs Brown’s Boys D’Movie. Though in fairness to O’Carroll, this free ad break possibly constitutes the bulk of the fee for his weekend’s work.

Hopes – or fears – that the comic’s potty-mouthed matriarchal alter-ego will be on microphone duty are soon dashed. Aside from the odd lame Miriam O’Callaghan impersonation, O’Carroll the compassionate and socially-aware public figure is instead in evidence. Talking to a panel of people affected by the downturn, he wants to discover the painful reality behind the statistics: hardly a novel tactic, but one which fits well with his natural openness and empathy.

At least, it should fit, except he has so many guests that at times he ends up hurrying some of them through their tales. He peppers the exchanges with homespun wisdom (“They say a rising tide lifts all boats, but you have to have a boat”) or mildly inappropriate similes (low-paid work is like being “shot with a sniper’s bullet”).

Such clunky moments do not detract from O’Carroll’s connection with those sucked into desperate straits, as he regularly draws on his own experience of indebtedness. He puts himself at the centre of proceedings in more spectacular fashion when he hears from Eddie, who chokes up recounting his struggles since the closure of his shop in Co Tipperary. When Eddie says he’s seeking investors for a business idea, O’Carroll responds with what initially looks like crass insensitivity. “I’ve a movie opening this week that is going to make me a fortune,” he says. “I’ll put €30,000 in front of you and see if that idea works.”

It is a stunning gesture of real human drama, one that has seized the headlines by Sunday morning’s show. If it gains him publicity, it’s in keeping with previous behaviour, such as his unsolicited donation to an indebted Liveline listener some time back. By now O’Carroll sounds more comfortable on air, largely allowing the newspaper panel to bicker among themselves, and making the occasional telling contribution.

When Minister for Energy, Communications and Natural Resources Pat Rabbitte tries to defend the Government by saying it’s impossible to avoid “fall out” in the current climate, O’Carroll challenges him robustly. “I’m saying, as a socialist, we can do better,” he says. “We can do it with heart, soul and a little contemplation of what people are going through on the ground.” It’s a stirring call to arms, encapsulating all that is best about O’Carroll’s big-hearted approach.

Prompted by his guest Joe Duffy, who sounds annoyed at the critical flak directed at his host’s movie, O’Carroll takes not-entirely-accurate aim at The Irish Times, suggesting the paper’s review is racist. (The charge is firmly rebutted by film critic Donald Clarke in his Screenwriter blog.) This underlying idea, largely proffered by Duffy, that a begrudging media elite seeks to stymie O’Carroll’s hard-earned success rings hollow. After all, the comedian has just hosted four hours of prime-time radio on the national broadcaster, a perk not conspicuously given to other popular entertainers. Marian Finucane will sound dull after this.

Compared to O’Carroll’s mainstream appeal, a documentary about the impact of a 100-year-old song on immigrant culture sounds like stereotypically highbrow fare. Except that the subject of The Lyric Feature: When Summer’s in the Meadow (Lyric FM, Friday) is Danny Boy, a ballad of such enduring popularity and critical opprobrium as to make it the Mrs Brown’s Boys of the Irish musical pantheon.

As Mary Brophy’s documentary makes clear, it is hardly Irish at all. Though based on an old Irish tune, the Londonderry Air, its lyrics were penned by English solicitor Frederic Weatherly, and it was his maudlin longing that gave the song its cachet among the Irish community in early 20th-century America.

The programme endeavours to discover how changing interpretations of Danny Boy have reflected the evolving fortunes of Irish-Americans, with some absorbing moments along the way. The archive recordings are wonderful, from the first scratchy 1917 rendering by Ernestine Schumann-Heink to a 1959 performance by Harry Belafonte. And if the story of Irish-American progress is familiar, it is spiced up with atmospheric sound portraits of an NYPD pipe band in rehearsal.

It’s only when Brophy tries to paint Danny Boy as the unofficial anthem of post-9/11 America that the programme strays on to shaky ground, coming across as a strained attempt to confer portentous status on a hoary old chestnut. Overall, however, When Summer’s In The Meadow is a stimulating piece. Popular entertainment and nuanced, artful radio need not be mutually exclusive. Moment of the Week: Kicking racism

On Wednesday, Brian O’Connell reports for ‘Today With Sean O’Rourke’ (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays) about Carrigaline United, the football team fined by the Cork Schoolboys League for refusing to play after racist abuse was directed towards a player. It’s an understated, effective item, with manager Mark McCarthy explaining. “I did it on behalf of a child, if that’s wrong I don’t know if I want to be part of an organisation”. The boy may not be back: “There’s only so much a young fella can take,” says McCarthy. It’s an unpleasant vignette of a supposedly more tolerant Ireland.

radioreview@irishtimes.com

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