“I’m so glad you’re writing about this because, you know, it needs to be remembered.”
You could talk to Niall O'Flynn for hours. He has a good few years under his belt, several decades of which saw him as a driving force behind a nationwide variety competition, sponsored by big tobacco and televised by RTÉ.
Describing the John Player Tops of the Town to someone unfamiliar with the concept is challenging. It's sort of like recounting the Rose of Tralee to someone not from these parts, only instead of "it's kind of like a beauty pageant but with no swimsuits and seven versions of Caledonia" you lean more towards "big companies and supermarkets around Ireland would put on an amateur variety show, with songs and skits, and they'd compete in rounds and then there'd be a big final on telly every year and the whole country would watch."
“And it was sponsored by . . . cigarettes?” they might ask, slightly stumped.
“It was,” you’d probably reply, “but it was a different time. And believe me, it was kind of wonderful.”
I saw potential for a relationship between the show and the company, and we started developing it around the country
It was indeed a different time in 1964 when O’Flynn, public relations manager for John Player in Ireland, recommended that the company get involved in sponsoring a variety competition for community groups and businesses.
The competition had started in Waterford two years earlier. “I saw potential for a relationship between the show and the company, and we started developing it around the country,” O’Flynn says. “We had 18 centres in total at the height of it.”
"Centres" were the regional competition hubs, where not only bigger companies but smaller community groups would graft for months to put on shows in the hopes of reaching the national final. Inevitably, those finals would read like a who's who of big business in Ireland. In 1971, it was Waterford Glass versus Limerick Insurance; in 1978 it was Carrigaline Pottery versus Aer Lingus; 1990 saw Packard Electric take on Telecom Éireann.
Aer Lingus was beaten by Carrigaline Pottery in 1978, but it was back in the national final in 1989, beating Anglo Irish Bank to the trophy. Paul Furey was Aer Lingus group leader that year.
The good thing about being a bloke is they were always stuck for men anyway
“I got roped in in 1979. One of the girls in the office said, ‘Oh, we’re looking for a few men,’ which is always the case.”
And so he joined in and he caught the bug, sticking with it "through the 1980s, being on the losing side every single year". Aer Lingus's win in 1989 was the cherry on his Tops cake, but it was the airline's last year taking part. Furey went on to compete instead with Bank of Ireland, Irish Life and An Post. "The good thing about being a bloke is they were always stuck for men anyway."
Sandra Kehoe's dad, Frank Corrigan, worked in Jacobs Biscuits in Tallaght, Co Dublin, and that's how she got involved in 1978, at the age of 14. "Back then, you had to be an employee or an immediate family member of an employee to participate. I joined up right away and would go straight from school at St Paul's in Greenhills up to rehearsals at the factory on the Belgard Road, doing my homework in between numbers."
Those numbers were often hugely impressive in their scale, imagination and execution – well, as impressive as amateur performers can get. Niall O'Flynn's favourite from all the years of the Tops was one from Carrigaline Pottery's 1978 win. "They did a fantastic Mull of Kintyre piece. I think the whole of the town was involved somehow. Everyone had a relation who worked in the factory."
Aer Lingus's 1989 win opened with an energetic take on I Hope I Get It from A Chorus Line, reimagined as I Hope I Make It (The Flight) and set at a departure gate. Big numbers from Les Mis, Phantom of the Opera, Blood Brothers and Cats were commonplace. Groups received marks for both Irishness and comedy, so whatever was in the news that year was sure to be lampooned at some point.
In 1989, Anglo Irish Bank included a Brendan Grace-esque sketch about the torment of filling in the CAO form. Bausch and Lomb sunglasses plant in Waterford performed a 1992 skit called Haughey and Mara: Caught with Their Pants Down.
Production could last a year from inception to final, if you were lucky enough to get that far
Puns were also de rigueur: Bausch and Lomb's show was called Shades of Variety; Telecom Éireann presented Fax of Life; and Dunnes Stores went with Check It Out. Quinnsworth head honcho Maurice Pratt even appeared on stage once. Paul Furey remembers him "dressed as something from the Yellow Pack range".
Niall O’Flynn says the boost in morale provided by participating in the Tops was invaluable to companies. “A lot of the big American firms – the likes of Digital in Galway, Dell in Limerick – they saw it as a personnel human relations project.” And they poured huge resources into the shows. Production could last a year from inception to final, if you were lucky enough to get that far. Teams dedicated months of their lives to participating.
Sandra Kehoe, working with the Jacobs group as a teenager, says she "learned a lot from the hard-working employees who were showing up at rehearsals several times a week plus Saturdays, while also working a full-time job". Jacobs won the national final in 1882 and "all that hard work paid off and it was like winning the lotto".
Furey remembers prepping for Bank of Ireland shows “and you’d be able to park your cars on O’Connell Street. We used to rehearse there. There was one lad there who was in charge, Charlie McCann was his name, he had about 700,000 parking tickets cos he used to park on the island in the middle of O’Connell Street.”
The early to mid-1990s saw the competition returning to its community roots, with more traditional variety groups making it to the national finals. Bigger companies were re-examining the resources they were pumping into the Tops, and began pulling out. The smaller groups were delighted to be given the space to thrive.
Jean Hanrahan made it to the last national semi-final in the Cork Opera house in 1997 with Ferns Community Group: "People involved in the village still speak of that weekend; a wonderful experience from start to finish." After the 1997 final, John Player withdrew as the sponsor of the event due to changes in cigarette advertising, and that was the nail in the coffin for the Tops. O'Flynn approached other organisations in an attempt to keep the show going, but to no avail.
Paul Furey runs a family entertainment company and says it's down to doing all of those shows over the years
Now, a modest Facebook group, boxes of memories in attics, the odd reunion and some digital archives seem all that is left of a 35-year phenomenon. But the Facebook group is active and warm with members sharing pictures, videos and memories. Friendships have endured. Sandra Kehoe, who now lives in New York, has stayed in touch with many of her Tops of the Town pals. Paul Furey runs a family entertainment company and says it's down to doing all of those shows over the years. He knows plenty more alumni still working in the same fields too.
Niall O’Flynn, who wants so much for Tops of the Town to be remembered, is so happy talking about it and is hoping there might be a documentary on the way. After all, he says, hundreds of thousands of people were involved over the years.
Furey says he used to joke to his fellow performers back in the day: “I’d say, ‘Ah listen guys. We’ll all be sitting in Sunshine Valley Old Folks’ Home rocking backwards and forwards in our chairs, but we’ll still have all these memories.’”