Radio: Douze points as Derek Mooney hosts a dawn chorus for Europe

Review: ‘Mooney Goes Wild: The Dawn Chorus’, ‘The Ray D’Arcy Show’ and ‘The Ryan Tubridy Show’

Derek Mooney: “Don’t make me sound any weirder than I am”

Derek Mooney: “Don’t make me sound any weirder than I am”

 

It’s a pan-European broadcasting event, an annual gathering of warblers whose cacophonous songs unite an international audience for one night. The Eurovision may still be some days away, but in the meantime Mooney Goes Wild: The Dawn Chorus (RTÉ Radio 1, Sunday) provides sustenance for fans of singing birds from foreign locations and faulty links between oddly accented presenters.

For the uninitiated it’s all part of International Dawn Chorus Day, a celebration of morning birdsong that has been transformed into a unique radio occasion. For two decades Derek Mooney’s show has marked the date with a live transmission of birds saluting the new day. This year Mooney has gone one step further, collaborating with fellow members of the European Broadcasting Union – the same body responsible for the Eurovision Song Contest – to capture this sea of avian sound as it sweeps majestically over the continent.

That, at least, is the theory. But as Mooney embarks on a six-hour marathon in the company of fellow presenters from places as far apart as Russia and Northern Ireland, the programme seems more like a primer in the perils of transnational broadcasting. For one thing there are linguistic barriers. From his perch in Cobh, Co Cork, Mooney talks to his counterpart in Moscow, their banter interrupted by the interpreter’s translations. Actually, this exchange is raucously good-humoured, as the Russian uses the reliable tactic of slagging off colleagues and jokes about his sound engineer’s height.

With multiple outside broadcasts from different countries, technical glitches unsurprisingly abound. There are dodgy connections and wonky microphones, not to mention occasional mix-ups over the panoply of unfamiliar names: at one stage Mooney confuses Jan, from Finland, with Janek, from Poland.

More worryingly, most of the twittering comes from the presenters rather than the birds, early on at least. Listening out for capercaillies in Norway, Niall Hatch of BirdWatch Ireland jokes with Mooney about the species’ mating rituals. “There will be some frustrated males – I know you have some experience of that,” Hatch says. “Don’t make me sound any weirder than I am,” Mooney replies. (It turns out he was once chased by a randy capercaillie in Scotland.)

Later he talks to Rob in the Netherlands about the godwit, a bird so characteristic of the country that a Dutch act has recorded a song about it. Mooney proceeds to play this inane slice of Europop, which he admits “could well have been entered into the Eurovision”. Shouts of “douze points” are conspicuously absent.

All this somewhat detracts from the wonder of the occasion, but the enthusiasm and expertise of the assembled ornithologists compensate for such daft patter. When the birds finally burst into song as the sun rises over Ireland, it’s a sound worth waiting for, as a remarkable symphony of whistles and chirps, squeaks and squawks unfolds. Mooney stays silent for the final hour, but he could be forgiven for crowing about such an unforgettable piece of radio.

Birdcalls of an earthier variety are in focus on Wednesday’s edition of The Ray D’Arcy Show (RTÉ Radio 1). The presenter meets Charlie, a parrot with a gift for mimicking profanities. According to Charlie’s owner, Tuska, the bird curses all the time. But listeners waiting to be offended by ripe language are disappointed, as Charlie merely imitates Tuska’s asthmatic cough.

It’s a slight item until Tuska says that she got the bird for company when suffering from depression. D’Arcy, normally so attuned to true-life drama, does not explore this, perhaps because the segment is meant as light relief after a harrowing discussion earlier in the show. When Kathy Ryan recounts being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease at the age of 50, the host sounds particularly shaken, and with good reason.

Ryan does not sound like someone with dementia: other than one second of hesitation – “Sorry, I’ve a blank,” she says – she is an articulate guest. It’s a shock when she admits that she would have to consult her diary to see what she did the previous day, but rather than feel sorry for herself she is practical about her situation. She highlights the lack of counselling for Alzheimer’s patients, outlines the strategies she uses for everyday life, and details the work she does with support groups. “I want to give this disease a kick in the ass,” she says.

It’s only when she talks about the effect that her condition has on her teenage sons that Ryan’s composure starts to crumble. She tries to be philosophical, but then she reads out a letter she wrote to her boys about her incipient dementia. “I’m sorry that I’m the one who’s going to bring such hardship and sadness into our lives,” she reads, her voice trembling.

Although he strives to balance sensitivity with curiosity, D’Arcy’s approach risks tipping into contrived prurience: it is he who suggests that his guest read from the letter, saying that he finds it hard to do so. That the item isn’t gratuitously maudlin is ultimately testament to Ryan’s honesty and formidable strength. But it makes for a compelling show. No wonder D’Arcy sings her praises.

Moment of the Week: Bad day for Gerry Adams

After his controversial use of the “N-word” on Twitter, the Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams appears on The Ryan Tubridy Show (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays) to clear up the matter. He explains how, having watched the anti-slavery western Django Unchained, he saw parallels between the experience of northern nationalists and African-Americans. “I was making a political point, quite stupidly and inappropriately,” he says. Tubridy does not unduly press Adams, instead asking him to “give a little insight” into how he spent his Sunday. Adams recounts walking around west Belfast, visiting spots where associates had been killed. Tubridy eventually speaks. “You were having quite a grim Sunday by the sound of it.” Quite.

radioreview@irishtimes.com

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