Gay Byrne’s punk radio: 'I’d say we’re down to about 300 doddery old fools'
The Sunday show, a mixture of jazz and giving out, is becoming cult listening, mainly for the darkness of Byrne’s presentation. His subject matter takes in everything from the pope’s fitness and spitting to Pat Kenny’s move
Gay Byrne presenting his show on RTÉ Lyric FM. Photograph: Alan Betson
In studio Gay Byrne is a vision in cornflower cashmere. He has his newspaper clippings, which he reads out during the show, carefully pasted on to A4 sheets. His jazz CDs are transported in a crisp hessian bag patterned with ladybirds. It is as sunny a scene as you will find in radio, with Gaybo back doing one of the things he does best: giving out.
He opens the programme by saying that there won’t be too many people listening today. “Because of the match,” he says, without a smile. “I’d say we’re down to about 300 doddery old fools.”
Then he’s into the A4 sheet, which contains details of Rupert Murdoch’s divorce settlement. “She’s half his age,” he says. As well as the Manhattan apartment worth €32 million, Rupert Murdoch has allowed Wendy Deng to keep a house in Beijing, apparently. “As if anyone would want a house in Beijing,” he says witheringly. Still, he adds, maybe her sister or her mother could use it. And then we’re into our first number, Mack the Knife.
Gay Byrne’s Sunday show, despite his avowed best efforts, is becoming cult listening. This is partly the music – the clear, crisp jazz of the 1930s and 1940s, or, as he himself describes it: “Charlie Parker, yes; John Coltrane, no.” But it is mainly the sheer darkness of Gay’s presentation, a style perhaps best described as “Sunny Side Down”.
He reads out a poem from a listener, which is anonymous – “and when you hear the poem you’ll know why”. All musical requests are denied, or at least postponed for a week. “I keep on telling you we don’t have the keys to the library,” says the presenter as a 12-year-old asks for a song. He is vituperative during what he calls “my regular rant on the soft Irish T”, and goes on to attack its use in an advertisement.
He reads out another clipping about how spitting is to become illegal in the UK once more, and in one area is now subject to fines. “Enda Kenny will be on to this like a leech, wait and see,” he says.
The pope’s buttocks
We go straight into an instrumental version of People Will Say We’re in Love. In all Byrne and his producer, Eithne Hand, try to get 20 tracks in over the two hours, but this isn’t possible because of all the chat. Shortly after a number featuring Pee Wee Russell on clarinet, we’re into the pope.
“I was just looking at him the other night,” he says, and you know he’s launching into something, “and he seems very agile and very fit.”
Byrne says he has seen the pope ascending a ramp. “It was very interesting to see, and it’s always a good indication – he was pushing from his buttocks, rather than walking from than the knees, and only people with strong backs do that. If you notice people walking, which I do.” This the sign of a fit person, he continues.
In a country where our so-called independent radio stations even have their ad breaks at the same time, this could quite easily qualify as punk radio. Committed fans maintain that in the recent past a nice couple wrote in to say that they loved listening to Byrne every week, after their dinner. His on-air response: “I think you’ll find that’s lunch.”
Crankier than Wogan
In the interests of full disclosure, I find it impossible to be objective about Gay Byrne. Many years ago I worked as a researcher on Byrne’s RTÉ radio show for a year, but that doesn’t explain why I feel emotionally invested in this most ruthless of interviewers.
He doesn’t want a big audience, he says later, “because then you have to start doing what they want to do”. He calls his programme The Time Warp (Lyric does not call it this) and says that the radio valves will crack if the listening figures go over 1,000 (in fact the figures are at 45,000 and probably higher). I say that The Time Warp seems very like Terry Wogan’s The Old Geezers. But he is much crankier than Sir Terry. “ I suppose I am,” he says evenly.