Mr Charm School

 

IT IS many years since Bunny Carr was the first most famous face on Irish television; nowadays he is known through his involvement with Carr Communications. The former television icon has become an image maker, associated with preparing politicians to meet their public. Yet he was once enough of a national institution for people to either - love him or hate him for himself. During one of the PRSI tax protest" marches a lone placard was hoisted high above the heads of the crowd. "I hate Bunny Carr," it declared.

Carr has a good story about the reality of fame in a small country. Once, while driving back to Dublin from Cork, his wife Joan noticed a bakery and suggested that he buy a cake to bring home to the children. Carr disappeared into the bakery. Thirty minutes later he emerged from the shop minus the cake. "I had bought it but somehow it just got lost along the way."

Of course everyone wanted to shake his hand. The crowd of between 200 and 300 assembled around his parked car caused a traffic jam. The guards had to escort the Carrs on their way. There are many other stories. He enjoys telling them. He likes talking. He enjoyed being famous. But he says he outgrew it.

The case and confidence of the voice contrast with his sad, sympathetic, slightly battered face. He has had his share of hardship; career stress and serious illnesses of his own, as well as his wife's, and believes suffering is important. "Experience gives a deeper meaning to language and also increases your understanding of things." Carr smiles easily and is an animated talker, rarely permitting his large, somewhat haunted eyes to move from those of anyone with whom he happens to be speaking. Yet when engaged in listening, he has a restless weariness.

Few details escape his notice be seems to be an obsessive observer. "I'm an optimist, and a lucky person," says the professional Mr Nice Guy, who speaks of how his cancer was discovered by chance when he was being treated following a heart attack in 1988. Behind the smile, he is direct, candid to the point of being confrontational.

The Carr who features in the anecdotes he tells is a blunt character, never shy of telling a managing director his approach to business is all wrong. And while as a broadcaster he personified a caring friendliness which immediately drew many listeners in, there is the other side to him. The tough professional one, always appraising, evaluating, balancing the strengths and weaknesses.

On being asked whether he feels that being professionally involved in refining communication techniques has an influence on the way he responds to people, he says: "I can't answer that. You're the journalist, you'll have to decide that. You'll have to decide whether I'm a spontaneous or calculating sort of a guy."

Though critical of jargon, his style of personal presentation is far more American than Irish. As for Carr Communications, believed to be thriving on the returns of, coaching anxious politicians, he says: "The public seem to think that at Carr Communications we teach politicians how to tell lies. That's not so and, anyway, they only account for about three per cent of our business. Most of the company's clients are corporate conscious businessmen.

Far more analytical than he would admit, it is unlikely that Carr would drive away from a petrol station without having formed a three dimensional impression of the attendant - or how that attendant could improve his presentation.

Carr's intense career, ranging from radio pop to television quiz and panel games, to chat shows and current affairs programmes, began two weeks after RTE itself was born and, initially, lasted about seven years. Admittedly it was a humble enough beginning, as a commercial reader, reading adverts - not even voiceovers accompanying moving pictures. This was 1962, when advertisers relied on a single slide and a few sentences of uninspiring copy written with no view to being spoken aloud. No story within a story, no music. Only a five second burst of words from a faceless voice. "I can remember once having to read 35 ads in a row. I didn't know which ones were coming up. It is funny looking back at it, but I wasn't laughing at the time.

For Carr, the restless bank clerk with an invalid wife and three children to support, it could be a beginning, an escape from banking. It had to be. And it was.

THE Carrs live in Sutton, overlooking Dublin Bay, in a comfortable, anonymous house designed for ease of movement for Joan's wheelchair. She is remarkable and has never complained about the polio which interfered with her life over 30 years ago during her third pregnancy. She even drives.

The sun is shining and Carr, in a sports shirt and wearing deckshoes, has the demeanour of a teacher or a priest on holiday. He isn't though. He is approaching the business of being interviewed as seriously as if he himself were writing the story. Carr does not pretend we are having an informal chat. The first thought on meeting him is that his either answering to, or even tolerating a name such as "Bunny" defies credulity.

Leading the way into a large living room he says: "We'll sit here. This is the corner where all the talking is done. Two chairs sit side by side, separated only by small table overlooked by a large window.

Born and raised in Clontarf, "let's say somewhere between 60 and death", he is a Dubliner with an indeterminate accent. "I was sent to Ballinasloe by the bank, the west softened my accent" he says, and adds "it all opened my mind to the fact I was living on an entire island." Considering his background, being sent westwards was more than useful for Carr. His mother - "whom I loved dearly, God be good to her" was the definitive West Brit.

"London was closer to me and my sisters growing up than the rest of Ireland. She did not trust life beyond the Pale." Growing up "in an atmosphere of certainty", he says, "my mother was definite about things - there were no doubts. She made us feel that we were special; better than everyone else. Of course that wasn't true. These certainties were really a product of her love for us. They were given, to us so that we wouldn't feel we were walking on quicksand but that we were on a well designed path. She believed that people who lived in flats never returned, library books."

Mrs Carr was a lovable snob. Her snobbery may have added to her son's love of snooker, a sport he still enjoys. It seems odd, though, that she would have a son called Bunny. Did she call him that? "No, she called me Luvvie." The young, Carr began life as Bernard, usually answering to Luvvie, until he arrived at the Holy Faith Convent in Clontarf aged five. On his first day there, one of the nuns took him by the ears, announcing loudly to the other youngsters: "Look, children, we have a little bunny rabbit here." The adult Carr's ears look ordinary enough; it is only when he says, with heavy mock irony, "before you say anything, I like to think I have grown into my ears," that it seems possible that yes, perhaps they are not particularly small.

Anyhow, dimensions aside, the name stuck and from Holy Faith on and later at O'Connell's School where he was taught through Irish, he remained Bunny. As a broadcaster he found the name useful, "especially when interviewing. It's a friendly name. No one called Bunny is going to set out to carve an interviewee up.

According to Carr, a Christian Brothers education was a great experience for winners, and a horrendous one for losers. "It was not really education, it was more a transfer of information. Conformity was rewarded." Creative trailblazing had no place in this scheme of things, he adds.

Winners thrived, losers were crushed. The winners were divided into the top streams and taught through Irish, leaving the weaker students in an English speaking bottom class. "O'Connell's was very competitive - if you were caught speaking English you were biffed, and you certainly were not supposed to speak to anyone from the bottom class. It was like a form of apartheid. They were not seen as likely successes." He did well and describes himself as a winner; playing football made it easier to pursue his interest in debating.

While he is quite funny on the subject of his mother's social pretensions, his attitude becomes gentler, almost protective when remembering his father. "He had served in India; he spent 14 years in the British army. He belonged to the closing days of the Raj. My dad was a lovely man, a poet. We lived in a book filled house. He spent most of his working life in Ireland in the civil service, waiting for his pension. Dad hated his job. When it got too much he would write a poem or play his violin."

James Carr died at 62, three years before his long awaited retirement and pension. For Bunny Carr, his father's life and early death acquired an importance beyond grief and mourning. It helps explain Carr's surprisingly complex professional restlessness and ambition. The son quickly realised he did not want to live a repeat of his father's life, wishing his life away while waiting for a pension. "I think a career should be like a train journey, you shouldn't be afraid to get off along the way."

ASKED in 1972 to write a history of Irish broadcasting, Carr decided instead he wanted to write his story. "I thought that my tory would give a sense of how broadcasting developed in Ireland. After all, I was there from the early days and my experiences certainly reflected that. I knew I didn't want to write a straightforward history which would have ended up being used as a textbook by professors teaching broadcasting.

The Instant Tree (Mercier, 1975) is, Carr's story. In it he writes: "For me, the pattern of life was very clear. The clever ones went to the civil service. The rich ones went to university. The average tried for insurance and allied trades. Those on whom the gods smiled got the bank. Talk about security.

Apparently the gods smiled on him. Six weeks after beginning his Bank of Ireland training period, he was called in and told: "Carr, you're going to Ballinasloe." He asked "Why?" The answer was simple: "Because you speak Irish."

His mother was shocked, but for Carr it was a valuable experience. From there, he was transferred to Longford before returning to Dublin almost four years after he had left it, to become ledger keeper at College Green and later, a cashier at the O'Connell Street branch.

"I began to need to write. I didn't dislike working in the bank. But counting other people's money is not all that fulfilling. I didn't especially want to be a writer; I just needed to write." Most of his efforts appeared in the East Galway Democrat and the bank officials association magazine. He also became involved in local musical and dramatic society productions.

By the time he returned to Dublin, however, he was determined to move beyond banking. A concerted assault on RTE began, and on finally being granted an unofficial audience he was asked "What do you do?" Carr's response was accurate: "I talk." Unfortunately the man facing him was unimpressed. "Lots of people talk."

Carr, however, reacted as one whose talent had been slighted, and mounted a campaign intended to alert RTE to what it was missing. Within two weeks of the station opening, he had earned an audition. Within eight minutes of the audition, he had a job. "I was putting my coat on and I was told I was on." Behind the Boy's Own excitement of beating the system, by establishing a radio career while still employed as a bank clerk, there was also a desperation. Carr had to contend with Joan's illness.

They had married in 1954 and soon had two children. Joan was working as a physiotherapist. It appears she contracted polio from one of her patients and suddenly was lying in an iron lung herself. Both Joan and the baby she was carrying at the time survived. But not before Carr experienced a breakdown of sorts. Working in the bank by day, driven by having to balance his cash before arriving at RTE for duty - for a job the bank understandably frowned upon - he was under a crazed, self imposed pressure.

Encounter, Teen Talk, a long running quiz show called Quicksilver which brought him all over Ireland, Going Strong, The Politicians - for some years, Carr appears to have been almost inescapable. So many programmes I had never seen.

Facing a person like me who had never seen or heard him must have been a novelty. He still believes that Quicksilver is unfairly remembered for "the funny wrong answers, not for its warmth and the fact that people were taken from the audience to answer questions on live television. Nowadays it would be very difficult to find a person who has not been on television - then it was different."

In the early 1980s Carr, who had been chairman of both the Drugs Advisory Service and of the Health Education Bureau, was involved with The Friends of Gorta, the famine relief charity. "Rumours began to circulate about my having run off with funds. I did nothing about it for about six months and then I went on the radio and asked the gossips to tell me all about it. No one phoned in and that was that."

Stress and pressure helped push Carr to a heart attack in 1988. Aside from broadcasting, there was also the strain of promoting his highly successful company, Carr Communications. These days Terry Prone is its director but Carr still chairs the board.

How does he feel about broadcasting now? "I kind of envy young broadcasters now, because of the opportunities they have thanks to the amount of local radio stations. Those of us who went into broadcasting in my day either made it on to the national team or didn't play. On the other hand, going back to when I started, if you made it, you became nationally known. So broadcasters were more influential and more important than they are now."

Of the emerging generation, he says there aren't too many younger broadcasters about to challenge, the existing broadcasting establishment.

Speaking about the difficulty of sustaining one's interest in broadcasting, he says: "Once you have played the 5,000th record, the buzz is not as great." As for selecting one of the most memorable broadcast performances of recent years, Carr nominates Jim Sherwin's commentary on Michelle Smith's first Olympic gold medal. "Here's a guy who has covered so many swimming events over the years when Irish swimmers had no hope. Hearing his voice cracking with emotion, he should win a Jacobs Award for it.