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

Wed, Dec 4, 2013, 11:00

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.

Back in studio – although Byrne does not leave it for the two-hour duration of the programme, not even to go to the bathroom – he is saying, “If you hear clicks that’s just the photographer from The Irish Times. And Ann Marie Hourihane is here. God knows what they’re going to say about us.”

We’re into a Jimmy Dorsey number. The listeners are texting and emailing their messages in at quite a rate. They are not as inadequate or as bewildered as Byrne makes them out to be. Marie texts: “I want to tell you in your lifetime that I’m very fond of you. Can you say hello to my husband, who isn’t well?”

Eithne Hand prints this message out carefully, but Byrne doesn’t read out the compliment, just the bit about the husband. Another woman writes in to say that she is making pumpkin Swiss roll with cream-cheese filling. “I think not,” he says crisply. He is a conservative person.

Byrne crashes in and out of ad breaks with refreshing brutality. He is in control of the buttons that open the ad breaks, and he likes to talk over the start.

“He’s hit a promo instead,” says Hand calmly, even though we had been expecting ads. Hand, when not producing, is writing a thriller set in a radio station where all the female presenters have vanished – except one.

The smoothest component of the show is the jazz that both Hand and Byrne love. “He really knows it,” she says. “His knowledge is encyclopaedic.”

He knows which musicians were married to each other and refers to a lot of them by their first names. “Nat on piano, obviously.” “That happened with another of Louis’s songs,” ( this is followed by a pretty good Louis Armstrong impersonation, but his best impersonation, performed in a previous programme, was of the British cast in a touring production of an Agatha Christie play that was in Dublin recently.


A taste for jazz
His feet are still firmly planted in variety. Sometimes he uses jazz expressions, such as “tasty”, which for some reason is unsettling.

Early on in the programme he explains that the guitarist Oscar Moore, playing with Nat King Cole on that 1941 recording, finished on a ninth chord with a flattened fifth adding that it was “the first time that was used in a recording”. I have no idea what this means, but it is home ground to him. “My very first radio gig was presenting Jazz Corner on Monday nights from Radio Eireann in Henry Street,” he says.

At school in Synge Street most of the boys were into the beginnings of rock, but Byrne has loved jazz all his life.

At a time when most radio competitions consist of questions such as “How many L’s are there in ‘please’?” the competition on Sunday with Gay Byrne is to name the old English folk song on which Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree was based.

Later on they play some Gerry Mulligan Quintet, Too Marvellous for Words, from 1953. “I thought it might be a bit much for you,” he tells the microphone. “But no, it’s not.” This is the warmest it gets in studio.

When the show is over, presenter and producer sit down straight away at Byrne’s desk with Rubex vitamins and Manuka lozenges and Cuticura Hand Hygiene Gel to sort out the following week’s show.

“We need an opener,” he says. He is working out of a small black notebook with a spiral spine. Later he says, “Would you ever dream of Leonard Cohen? Would you find Bunny Berrigan I Can’t Get Started – December 1936, that version? You could put in something by Fats.”

I say I won’t interview him now because it’s been a long day. “No,” he counters. “Up at six and bed after the Late Late is finished – that’s a long day.”


Kenny conundrum
We meet the following week in a Dublin hotel. His cap and leather jacket lie on a seat. He is getting our order at the self-service counter.

“I knew you were trouble,” he says, coming back for clarification on the decaf. He’s having orange juice and a Danish. He won’t let me pay, saying he’s happy to do it “for The Irish Times in its hour of need”.

He is in great form, having just been arranging dates for his one-man show, For One Night Only, to play in the New Year. “It’s good. A bit of discipline. It’s good for you.” Kathleen Watkins aka Mrs Byrne does 15 minutes of poetry reading. “She’s a performer too. She enjoys it.”

We have a very enjoyable few minutes giving out about the standard of writing on Irish radio news bulletins. “Who writes the news?” we say plaintively.

He is philosophical about broadcaster Pat Kenny moving to Newstalk. He spoke out in support of Kenny at the time. Of course, Byrne was approached over the the years, but “RTÉ have been very good to me”.

In fact, the Sunday radio started largely because RTÉ had kept him on a retainer after he retired, and he wanted, he says, to do something for it. He doesn’t want to talk about his earlier experiences with RTÉ management. “I’ve left all that behind. If I live till next August I’ll be 80. What do I care?”

On the other hand, he thinks it was the right move for Kenny. “Perhaps the underlying attitude was ‘he’s 65, he ain’t going nowhere’.

It will take at least a year to see how the move will work out, he says. “And we all know it’s the devil’s own job to move people on the dial.”

His main concern is typically basic. “It’s bloody difficult to get Newstalk outside Dublin and unless that is taken care of . . . ”

He won’t talk about losing money. “We all lost a lot of money,” he says. He had some things that didn’t “go wallop”, as he puts it. And some investments where he got out in time. He is not complaining at all. “What about your parents?” he says.


Talented Mr Byrne?
He doesn’t think that he was even particularly talented. “I think Maureen Potter was talented. Rosaleen Linehan is talented. Fiona Shaw is talented. I think what me and people like me have is a facility for appearing to be ourselves on television.”

He will accept, though, that he might have been talented as a television producer: he produced The Late Late Show throughout its groundbreaking days.

His brother Ernest used to send him the scripts from the news bulletins at the television station where he worked in Little Rock, Arkansas, and the young Gaybo used to rehearse reading them in his bedroom on the South Circular Road, and rehearse looking into an imaginary camera while he read them. That is why, when he finally badgered Granada into giving him an audition, he ended up reading the news live on air that very night.

He misses living in Howth: “That long view.” Kathleen doesn’t miss it at all.

What is most admirable about him is that he is not self-satisfied. He is not serene. “I’m quick to recognise serenity in other people,” he says. In fact, he is restless by nature and does not deny this: “I’m usually thinking,” he says. He rarely takes a nap.

Look,” I say, as he ends the interview. “I can’t interview you properly because I like you too much.”

And Gay Byrne says: “I know.”

Sunday with Gay Byrne is on RTÉ Lyric FM, 2pm-4pm each Sunday

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