Tune in for the season of the stand-in

As the summer holidays kick in, the replacements are released – and some are bigger than others

Summer holiday: Graham Norton at BBC Radio 2

Summer holiday: Graham Norton at BBC Radio 2

Sat, Jun 14, 2014, 01:00

Everybody knows Graham Norton, but it takes some effort to recall Jack Docherty.

In Ireland, where the UK television station Channel 5 was largely unavailable during the 1990s, the nightly Jack Docherty Show wasn’t on the radar. Neither was the discussion about his regular absences as host, requiring not just a sequence of stand-ins but the temporary renaming of the programme as Not the Jack Docherty Show. It was through this gap that Norton emerged.

The Irish comedian won a British Comedy Award in 1997 for his stint as fill-in host, a delight tempered only by the fact that he was sitting at the same table as the nominated, but empty-handed Docherty.

After that Norton headed off down the road to becoming a star. Docherty soon dropped the chatshow to become a television producer with some decent credits to his name. But when he’s mentioned it’s more often than not as the guy whose stand-in stole the show.

It doesn’t happen too often, though, and less so in Irish broadcasting, where the relatively stagnant pool of TV and radio presenters doesn’t get stirred too regularly. Still, it is the summer, and that means stand-in presenters.

It’s a season when a balance must be struck between not scaring off the public, not ruining the show, and not picking somebody who is clearly better than whoever’s normally paid to do the job.

It doesn’t happen so much on Irish television, where the programme itself usually gets the summer holiday. Vincent Browne’s bout of pneumonia has this month forced him off his show until September, with Tom McGurk as the emergency replacement. A lengthy summer break was planned anyway, according to TV3. Not that any game of presenter musical chairs could finish with a person other than Browne back in the host’s seat.

Radio is very different. Replacement hosts are commonplace. About as traditional as eggs at Easter or farmers’ tans in summer. It is a season when presenters become notable by their absences and their shows by their stand-ins.

Such is the focus on RTÉ pay that whenever a presenter clocks-out, slips on the flip-flops and heads for the airport, it is a subject of much griping among the public.

It doesn’t help that hosts can disappear for many weeks at a time. Marian Finucane has been the focus of the most awe in this regard, with lengthy summer holidays in at least one recent year. Just one stand-in sometimes wasn’t enough.

Independent stations let their hosts out every now and again, too, but not, it would seem, for stretches long enough to make the listener wonder if they should file a missing-person report.

Getting a competent stand-in matters because the listener is a creature of habit and can be dispirited by turning on the radio only to hear an imposter on the air.

Today FM takes an interesting approach to the locum conundrum by making the job of stand-in something of a specialist position. It most regularly employs Anton Savage to substitute for not just one show but two of its biggest, The Ray D’Arcy Show and The Last Word. Savage has done very well out of this supersub role, ending up with his own weekend show in addition to stand-in gigs, and there have been occasions when he has sat in for one for a week, then bounced over to the other for the next one.

Such a schedule is a test for the adaptability both of the presenter and for the two sets of listeners, each of which must find him reasonably appealing. Meanwhile, for those listeners loyal to Today FM, who like the variety offered by both shows, they would ultimately need to relish a steady diet of Savage.

The most interesting case is that of Ryan Tubridy, who has been sitting in on Graham Norton’s BBC Radio 2 show in recent summers. Norton must be more aware than most of the dangers of the stand-in presenter, but you get a sense that he has enough confidence in his position not to worry, and in Tubridy to keep the show ticking over.

Tubridy’s role became an interesting twist on the RTÉ presenter’s summer break. A star in Ireland but an unknown in Britain, he took the step down to be a stand-in all the while knowing it was really a step up. Graham Norton surely appreciated that. shegarty@irishtimes.com @shanehegarty

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