Radio: Summertime, and the living ain’t easy for Tubridy and co

The seasonal news lull is certainly a challenge for talk-radio hosts, but last week’s items sank like a saggy mattress

Mattress Mick, who was hailed by a desperate Tubridy as “the stuff of legend”. Photograph: Dave Meehan

Mattress Mick, who was hailed by a desperate Tubridy as “the stuff of legend”. Photograph: Dave Meehan

Sat, Jun 21, 2014, 01:00

The sunshine may be giving the country a much-needed fillip, but not everyone welcomes the summer. Ryan Tubridy (2FM, weekdays), for one, bemoans the season’s arrival, as he attempts to transform a thin bill of fare into something more substantial.

On Monday the presenter talks to Catherine, who has phoned in with a tip for shooing flies out of bedrooms. As the caller painstakingly explains that turning off a bedside lamp and turning on a hall light prompts the insect to exit, Tubridy’s engagement with the subject palpably wanes, as does the average listener’s will to live.

Summoning all his reserves of professional enthusiasm, he dutifully asks how long it takes for the fly to leave, but he’s unable to suppress the cri de coeur welling deep within. “You’d never guess it’s summer,” he blurts out.

Quite. The seasonal news lull is an occupational hazard for talk-radio hosts. Reading the newspapers on Tuesday, Tubridy again remarks on the paucity of stories. Going by some of this week’s items, his anxiety is well founded.

Monday’s show has Tubridy hailing one of his guests as an “icon” and “the stuff of legend”. Given that such terms have been devalued in an age of pointless celebrity, one doesn’t hold great hopes for what is to come. Even so, for Tubridy to puff a bedding retailer in such extravagant terms smacks of desperation.

His interview with the Dublin businessman Michael Flynn, aka Mattress Mick, is much as one might expect from a conversation with a salesman whose reputation rests on an extrovert manner and long hair: its course has run long before its 10 minutes is up. Flynn seems an affable character, but tales of hugging female customers and lying on beds alongside prospective buyers are not the stuff of legend, nor even of mild diversion. That Tubridy is reduced to asking whether Flynn is a music fan (he’s not) suggests the presenter knows the item is running on fumes.

The frustrating thing is that Tubridy is well able to produce arresting radio with the right material. On Wednesday he talks to Nate Phelps, estranged son of the late Fred Phelps, the homophobic American preacher who picketed the funerals of US servicemen.

The conversation paints a riveting picture of a cowed, brainwashed family ruled by a manipulative and abusive patriarch, with Phelps’s clear-eyed account sharpened by the presenter’s astute questioning.

It would be nice to think that, come winter, Tubridy’s show will feature many more such items. But on past experience, not to mention 2FM’s ever more frenetic direction, perhaps you shouldn’t get your hopes up.

The hopes of the hundreds of thousands of Irish women who emigrated to Britain in the 1950s and 1960s, and the often harsh reality they encountered, are examined in Hail Marys and Miniskirts (BBC Radio 4, Wednesday). Presented by Orla Barry, the documentary often covers grimly familiar ground, but also the experiences of those women who left here in search of work and, all too often, basic freedom.

Evoking the atmosphere of Ireland at the time, academic contributors use hoary phrases such as “atmosphere of oppression and censorship”. But this bleak picture is backed by the testimony of the emigres themselves.

Margaret Lake talks about there being nothing for her in Ireland before she left for Liverpool; despite that, she missed Ireland, her family especially, for years after. Others were less homesick. Having spent most of her childhood and early adulthood in a Magdalene laundry, Mary Carrington is understandably bitter towards the nuns who allegedly cared for her, while harbouring no regrets about leaving Ireland.

The documentary comes up frustratingly short on some aspects. Beyond a few cursory tales about how the miniskirts of returning emigrants were deemed “immoral” by families back home, the social and cultural opportunities afforded by booming Britain remain largely unexamined.

Then again, few of the women, who tended to preserve their piety, led a stereotypical Swinging London lifestyle. Instead they gravitated towards ballrooms, where they would dance to visiting showbands and meet Irish men.

The resulting marriages were often harrowing affairs, particularly if the husbands were labourers on a casual wage, known as “the lump”. The men were often away, spending their money on drink and lodgings; when they were home, domestic violence was all too common. It was difficult not to hear the pain of such trauma etched in some of the women’s voices.

There were, of course, happier tales. The National Health Service provided a good job and promising future for many young women, who were often able to send a portion of their salaries back home. And those who carved out a new life in Britain, such as Lake, now help run community networks for those who may have been less fortunate, or simply are now left alone.

It may have been tailored for British audiences, but Hail Marys and Miniskirts gave a new, if bitter-sweet, twist to the Irish story, which resonates to this day. Who says there’s nothing to talk about?

radioreview@irishtimes.com

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