‘I was a slow convert to Vincent Browne’s style of broadcasting’

Veteran broadcaster Andy O’Mahony analyses the flawed genius of Vincent Browne, the ‘sentimentalist’ Eamon Dunphy and TV chat shows’ narrowing horizons


When media historians look back on this past half-century of television, the talk show is likely to assume a prominent and, possibly, a defining role. When I began broadcasting in 1960, the genre did not exist, even in the United States, apart from the Jack Paar Show, which ran from 1957 to 1962. Then Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show took to the airwaves from 1962 to 1992, defining a whole era in American television. Gay Byrne did likewise in Ireland with The Late Late Show, which enjoyed an even longer innings from 1962 to 1999, and then continued with Pat Kenny and Ryan Tubridy.

What defines the talk show in the second decade of the twenty-first century (and for some time past) is that all the guests are now selling a product of some kind. There was always an element of product-selling, but of late it has become the defining feature. One welcome corollary of that is a greater availability once again of big-name performers. That represents a return to a period of almost 40 years ago when top showbiz names were equally available. The difference, as broadcaster Michael Parkinson keeps reminding us, is that in earlier times the public relations cohort kept a looser rein on their stable of stars in the matter of what would be discussed. The result was more spontaneous freewheeling exchanges with the likes of James Stewart, Bing Crosby, Orson Welles and Bob Hope. In those days, The Late Late Show had similar exchanges with stars like Danny Kaye and Fred Astaire. Bette Davis was a guest on BBC’s Wogan. Today, the Graham Norton Show, though attracting major stars, is obliged, according to Norton himself, to work within the narrow confines of what the public relations people ordain.

Another defining feature of today’s talk show is the absence of writers, artists and thinkers. Thirty and more years ago, this was a regular feature of such programmes from Johnny Carson to Michael Parkinson to Gay Byrne. Now, the material discussed on these shows has become more restricted: there has been a narrowing of horizons. This may be the way that national conversations are heading for the next century. It seems to me not unreasonable to invoke a rudimentary economic explanation for this to the effect that this is what current markets decree. That seems to me a more rational explanation than simply saying it is a matter of changing tastes.

As talk shows go, Vincent Browne’s show on Ireland’s TV3 is a unique phenomenon. It is an example of how the format can evolve, mainly as an expression of a particular host’s personality. Vincent was a latecomer to broadcasting, although in the early stages of his career in the late 1960s he was a researcher on The Late Late Show. He was a print journalist for most of his life, having been editor of Nusight and Magill magazines, and eventually editor of the Sunday Tribune. Not until the mid-1990s did he become a broadcaster, when he joined a Dublin commercial radio station at the age of 50. Shortly afterwards he moved to RTÉ Radio 1, where for a decade he presented a nightly radio show. Thereafter, he took over a late-night television news show for TV3. Browne has none of the obvious skills required for smooth radio and television presentation, but he is one of the most listenable to and watchable broadcasters working today.

He doesn’t have a particularly good voice, and his on-air skills are patchy. His introductions are marked by fumbling and mistiming, but this doesn’t matter, such is the power of his personality, the keenness of his intelligence and the infectiousness of his humour. Above all, there is the unwavering moral passion. He is one of the few who are completely themselves on air. Terry Wogan, Graham Norton and Chris Evans also spring to mind, though these broadcasters adorn light entertainment rather than broadcast journalism. I was a slow convert to Browne’s style of broadcasting because of what I thought at first was an excess of moral outrage. Often that was accompanied by a lack of preparation. It could grow tiresome when he would repeatedly say to whomever his guest was, “that is absolutely outrageous”. Even to this day, I get irritated with an excess of outrage on his part, mainly because once you have condemned something you have to move on; repeated condemnation of something or other for the duration of a show may have some moral justification but is not intellectually interesting.

Vincent can be a bully; he can continue badgering somebody long past the point of it being productive. But, on balance, he has decent instincts; he’s a fair man. Which leads me to his egalitarianism and his consistent flying of the flag for social justice on his programmes and in his columns. In that regard, he has remained true to those young members of the Fine Gael party, who in the 1960s gathered around lawyer Declan Costello in an attempt to move that party to the left. The Sixties, for all its faults, had its heart in the right place. Young people know that, in the end, politics is not that complicated, at least at the level of moral choice: you are either in favour of protecting the interests of the less well off or you’re not. Vincent Browne has never wavered on that one. It is easy with all this talk of moral passion to forget what a brilliant entertainer he is, not in the song and dance sense, but in the manner in which his complete lack of reverence for the electronic media allows him to behave as if in his own kitchen. There is also, of course, a lack of reverence for politicians and public officials, which just about stops short of outright disrespect.

The informality of his shows is unparalleled because of his supreme self-confidence. One night in the middle of a very harrowing discussion about an earthquake, Vincent suddenly turned to a guest and said: “Our former ambassador to the United States, Seán Donlon, has some great stories about being trapped in an earthquake in Iran; we must invite him in some night to talk about it.” What struck me about that remark was that it’s the kind of thing someone says at a programme conference, but not on air. For Vincent, the studio has no special, sacred status: it is just another venue.

Eamon Dunphy is also a print journalist who came to radio broadcasting relatively late in life, though he had considerable experience as a soccer pundit on Irish television. Like Browne, he is not what you would call a natural broadcaster. He too doesn’t have a particularly attractive voice, nor is he the skilful reader of a script, but such is the power of his personality that none of the foregoing matters. Above all with Eamon, what impresses me is his intelligence and his desire to understand the world. His political compass is less consistent than Browne’s. At best, he is the champion of the little guy, a posture that, unfortunately, can be made congruent with the most reprehensible of political positions. There is an element of the sentimentalist in Dunphy: easily brought to tears but still capable of condoning the kind of policies that led to those tears. The banking crisis of 2008 onwards was perfect fodder for him, with its big guy/little guy framework. I prefer Dunphy when he’s trying to understand the world than when he’s trying to change it, because I don’t think he has a coherent sense of the kind of change he wants.

This is an extract from Creating Space: The Education of a Broadcaster by Andy O’Mahony, published by The Liffey Press

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