Behind the scenes of Gay Byrne’s Late Late Show
Gay Byrne was competitive, ambitious and the consummate professional
Gay Byrne on the set of The Late Late Show in 1966. He hosted the primetime TV show live every Friday evening until 1999, often without the aid of an autocue or earpiece. Photograph: RTÉ
In every life, there are pivotal events and experiences, ones that shape you. As a young man of 29, producing The Late Late Show with Gay Byrne was one of those for me. I can honestly say that the three years I spent working with him from 1996 to 1999 gave me insights and understandings that shaped my consequent appreciation of communication, storytelling and life itself. From him, I learned much of what I know about professionalism, engagement, listening, structure, production, leadership and determination.
“The Late Late Show never changed Ireland,” he always said, we were just a vessel through which Ireland changed herself. He always believed this, and he was always right.
Gay Byrne’s legacy will not be his thoughts, philosophy, reflections or opinions. His legacy is that he gave thousands the ability to form, develop and air their opinions. He provided the platform through which change was explored and expressed and he proved that a good ear, a few well-placed questions and plenty of time would unveil all. In fact, he often told me the interviews in which he said least were the best ones. The connection between the guest and the audience would be complete.
We knew the routine – a flurry of panic and the week’s only tantrum would unfold before we settled him in to his dressing room with his suit, his notes, a cup of tea and one cigarette. He did this every single Friday without fail
Of course he wasn’t blasé about ratings. He was much too competitive for that, too ambitious, too aware of the power of a nation sharing the same conversation. Public service television to Gay was television that would serve all the public.
Every Monday, he and I would pore over the ratings. Each show was dissected surgically. He wanted to know how we had done part-by-part, item-by-item, minute-by-minute. “They liked that, I knew they would like her. Where did they go for his part? Why did we lose them? We need to address that part of the audience next week.”
When Father Ted was coming out on Channel 4, it was scheduled for Friday at 9.30pm. Gay sat and typed a letter to the head of Channel 4, Michael Grade, asking him to reschedule in case it might damage our numbers, such was his passion for ratings.
He was a man of certainty and habit – you don’t remain at the top of your game for 40 years if you are not. On Fridays before the show, Gay had a routine. We would eat lunch in the RTÉ canteen, then take a walk around the block to run through that night’s show one more time. Gay would then go for a nap in one of the dressing rooms down by the studio. When it was time, a knock on the door to wake him up. We knew the routine – a flurry of panic and the week’s only tantrum would unfold before we settled him in to his dressing room with his suit, his notes, a cup of tea and one cigarette. He did this every single Friday without fail. The Gay who went into the room was a grumpy, bad-tempered worried fellow, the Gay that came out 45 minutes later was the epitome of calm, resolve and steely presence. I used to think that Gay had left his body so that he could effectively be a vessel or a channel for the next few hours. This is when the thoughts of a million people would be reflected, challenged and nurtured as our guests told their stories or shared their views.
Gay was the consummate professional. He knew the history of showbiz, the development of the talk show, the various styles of every presenter from the more thoughtful approaches of Johnny Carson and Michael Parkinson to the bold but charming Jonathan Ross and Graham Norton.
A star isn’t just someone who can produce a magnificent performance – a star is someone who can do that consistently, and on cue on Friday night at 9.30pm for 40 years. And Gay did that
He regarded the talk show as an art form where each of the elements, from the welcome to the goodnight, were like pearls on a necklace. Introductions had to have different styles depending on the content they were introducing.
His welcome would suit the guest – would he welcome them from his chair or stand up and do it from his desk? Or would he cross over and walk them on to the stage? Segueing between two items of contrasting tone was something I have never seen anyone else master like he did.
On a busman’s holiday once in New York, I went to see big shows – Conan, Letterman, Rosie O Donnell, Good Morning America. They all knew about Gay – this legend who insisted on going live for two hours every week, without autocue or earpiece and get audience shares of 75 per cent regularly. They knew what that took and their respect was close to awe.
A star isn’t just someone who can produce a magnificent performance – a star is someone who can do that consistently, and on cue on Friday night at 9.30pm for 40 years. And Gay did that. Regardless of whatever was going on in his life, he turned up, every cell and breath of the man – and because he did, we did.
Gay left The Late Late Show stage in 1999. I left with him. My years with him had been a privilege, and there was no point in pretending it would be the same again. Although we no longer had our Friday nights, Gay continued to be my loyal and loveable friend. We had many walks, lunches and dinners since, where we gossiped, griped and talked boats, religion and whatever else was the flavour of the day.
For everything Gay Byrne gave me, and so many others, his friendship was his most valuable gift. Since 1999, every Christmas without fail, Gay, his wife Kathleen and their daughters Crona and Susie would host the annual long, languid, love-filled lunch where about 20 of his broadcasting colleagues would meet to connect, remember and re-live. They were the finest days of our lives and the man who made them loved them as much as we did. Go dtuga Dia slán thú a chara, ní bheidh do leithéid aris ann.
Cilian Fennell was series producer of The Late Late Show from 1996 to 1999