THE LIVES OF MIKE

 

IT is ironic. Arts Show presenter Mike Murphy, one of Ireland's most accessible and personable "personality" broadcasters during a 30 year career, has never really had a personal public profile. While he is generally regarded as a smiling, almost oppressively good natured individual, neither given to petulance nor churlish outbursts, he is opinionated, surprisingly outspoken, even forcefully polite.

Having won four Jacobs' Awards his instinct is more deliberate than might be assumed. Capable of presenting an argument without resorting to aggression, he knows he is a valuable, likeable commodity and he makes effective use of this, such as when he resigned from the Cultural Relations Committee to protest against low arts funding. But his versatility has also worked against him.

Aware that elements of the Irish arts community objected, in 1988, to a non specialist "entertainer" - at that time, for many, his finest moments were his performances in the often hilarious candid camera sketches in The Live Mike series - fronting an arts magazine show, Murphy stood firm, confident of his own commitment to the arts. Deliberately targeting a balance between the popular and the serious, the show frequently achieves its objective. But some, residual resentment lingers.

Now 54, Murphy finds his personal life under public scrutiny for the first time and having almost completed his autobiography which will be published in October - "I'll be 55 then" - he agrees that the end of his marriage and experience of writing the book have forced him to look at his life. Introspection has never until now been particularly important to him as he has tended to look outwards: "I'm more reflective than introspective. I've always appeared more of an extrovert than I actually am, and it is the extrovert in me, the side that enjoys presenting Winning Streak that most people seem to recognise, whereas my introverted and more thoughtful side prefers the Arts Show."

If Murphy has a single quality which has ensured his success, it is his shrewdness; he was initially able to capitalise on his personality alone. "I am streetwise. I was born streetwise and I've always been interested, I like talking to people and putting them at ease it's been very helpful to me in my work." Being streetwise also proved helpful in ensuring the success of EMDEE Productions, the independent video production company Murphy co founded in 1987 and was involved with for six years before resigning in March 1993 to concentrate on broadcasting. Another of his business ventures, CMI Cable, is Ireland's third largest television cable company.

Public man or not, Murphy seems an unlikely autobiographer. "Well I suppose I'm writing it because I was told someone else was planning on writing one about me. That's why I finally decided to do it myself when I was approached by Town House, although I had been asked by a number of publishers over the past few years and had always refused." In attempting to confound prospective biographers, Murphy is surprised to find that he is unconsciously copying a writer he admires, John Updike, who wrote Self Consciousness (1987) precisely to discourage any biography.

MURPHY'S book is almost finished but he is now facing the most difficult part of recounting his own story - the ending of his 28 year marriage to Eileen. "The last two years has been the worst period of my life. Naturally I don't want to talk about this. But I think it was right that Eileen and myself were both honest about it and made a public announcement. It's been hard for everyone involved including Ann Walsh whom I now live with. But being honest about such things makes them a three day wonder, people understand and then they forget the whole thing. I think honesty is the only way to approach anything, particularly something like this, in a country like Ireland where so much is concealed.

While he appears to be relaxation personified with a friendly voice apparently perpetually poised on the verge of laughter, Murphy has a direct, emphatic demeanour and a habit of assessing information as if he were just about to present it to a class. His entire approach to presenting the Arts Shod has been shaped by this. He is determinedly anti elitest.

"I think you can get people interested in the arts without patronising them. I remember years ago when I became involved in Rosc 84 and then in ContemporEire the thing that struck me was that the arts in Ireland, particularly the visual arts, were, being controlled by a small core group who acted as if they owned both the arts and the artists. It was outrageously snobbish and, wrong." Painting and sculpture are his particular interests and he has always admired Tony O'Malley, Felim Egan, Sean MacSweeny - "I love that Jack Yeatsian energy, the risk taking, the verve. I've always loved Roderic O'Connor's work. I was so proud the other day when I was at the Tate and saw one of his works hanging beside - and comparing very favourably with Van Gogh. I've always liked Rothko's work." Back to the Irish painters, " I also like Paddy Graham, Colin Harrison and I find some of Graham Knuttell's work interesting." Art is his preferred subject, he does not speak readily about his life and if he is, currently more given to personal anecdote than is his habit, it is because he is uncharacteristically preoccupied by it at the moment. "I'm remembering everything. Revisiting my life."

In 1965 he married and joined RTE a few months later, working on sponsored radio programmes. He soon became involved in presenting as talking came naturally to him whether on radio or television. It became his career.

In 1969 at the age of 28 more or less at the time he was becoming well known he contracted meningitis and almost died. "I think I did die. I have an image of white satin and of hearing my brother's voice calling me. It was very strange coming so close to death."

Several years later during a Live Mike sketch, he had to walk into a cage with six lions at the circus. "I thought it would be fun." Unfortunately moments before he was on camera, the lion he was supposed to perform with, by making it jump from one stool to another, was attacked by one of its peers and was bleeding from the face, clearly edgy, possibly dangerous.

As the wounded lion jumped on a stool as planned a drop of its blood landed on Murphy's shirt. "The trainer told me not to fall down or the cats would jump on me. I was terrified but obviously, I seemed masterful to the lion."

Another time, a riding sketch resulted in a serious fall: "I had really got interested in riding, almost died that time as well broke five ribs."

Having presented arts programmes on television as well as radio, he feels that RTE has not as yet mastered the formula of effectively presenting the arts on television. It is true that invariably a slick, self consciously trendy tone is adopted. "Although I rate Glenn Patterson highly as a writer and as a presenter, I tend to find the Black Box pretentious supercilious and knowing. It seeks to either patronise or destroy. I think when I heard, in one of the earlier programmes, a contributor escape unscathed after using the phrase "the otherness of otherness". I suspected that the programme might be headed for a low public response. Maybe it's just a different philosophy. On the Arts Show I tend to approach it on the basis that I'm learning something new as I go along."

Neither playing a disengaged, onlooking host, guiding his guests towards an agreed agenda, nor posing as the sceptical guy in the street, he actively engages in the discussions. "If I have an opinion, I do assume a critical role. Aside from painting, I love cinema, theatre, books" and he has never made a secret of the fact that he is weak on music rock as well as classical music and opera.

I love history, especially the history of the New World. I spent a good deal of last summer in the United States studying Cortes and the conquest of Mexico. I had come to it through reading an account of it by Bernal Diaz - he was one of the foot soldiers in the Cortes army there were only 450 Spaniards in the army, the rest were disgruntled local tribes recruited to the cause, eager to overthrow Montezuma and the Aztec empire. The locals were sick of paying the Aztec taxes, never mind satisfying the constant demand for human sacrifice."

Murphy's interest in Cortes led him to Richard Lee Marks's definitive biographer of Cortes. "I tracked him down in Topeka, Kansas, and planned to do an entire show with him." Oliver Stone secured the film rights. Meanwhile Marks has developed spinal problems and Murphy's project has been postponed.

FEW people seem less shaped by either their family or their birthplace. It is as if Mike Murphy came from everywhere and nowhere, an entirely independent personality.

"I'm a Dubliner, born and raised. My childhood? What's there to say about it? I was the eldest of five. We moved a lot. We moved 14 times before I was 14, always in the area between Ranelagh, Rathgar and Terenure." Murphy is disarmingly direct about a childhood which was certainly Joycean in terms of the amount of moves involved.

"It was very unhappy. I was not particularly close to my father. My parents had a miserable marriage, almost no communication. It was a silent marriage. My mother was a disappointed woman and I was the eldest. I became her confidant, a kind of surrogate husband. She made me close to her." Writing his book has caused him to confront his relationship with her. "It's been very painful. My father worked in the motor business; he was aloof, remote. I didn't know him. As my mother would say, he was a street angel and a house devil. She was dynamic and wanted us to be interested in things to travel. Above all, to have courage.

At Terenure College, Murphy did well at acting and rugby. "I was a useful player and played wing forward in two Leinster Cup Finals. We lost both of them. But as for school in general, I was a disaster. I just read all the time. I loved acting and I loved the movies."

Media folklore enjoys referring to Murphy having failed the Leaving Certificate. "I didn't fail it; I didn't even get that far. I was taken out of school before the end of fifth year." There was never the faint possibility that he might join his father at the garage. "I hate messing with cars, even now if I lifted the bonnet, I might as well be looking at the sky at night. I've no interest in cars. I never did." As a father of four he has always been aware that he was far more anxious that his children like him "rather than love me in the formal sense."

After school he went to work in a wholesale drapery in the city centre. "It was great fun. I was mildly subversive, livelier than many of the other apprentices." Still reading everything - "often a lot of it rubbish; Harold Robbins was big at the time" - he left to pursue his interest in acting and at 17 joined the Brendan Smith Academy.

Almost immediately he toured Europe as assistant stage manager with the Dublin Festival Company which included David Kelly and Ray McAnally. Later, back in; Dublin, he appeared in The Rose Tatoo at the Elbana and the film version of Edna O'Brien's novella The Girl With Green Eyes. "For some reason Rita Tushingham couldn't stand me. I got on great with Lynn Redgrave but when I turned up on the second day, Rita Tushingham asked rather loudly, "why is he back again?"

RECALLING his mother's sudden death, killed by a young man on a motorbike while crossing the road in Rathgar on the way to 10 o clock Mass, Murphy says: "I was thinking about her the other day. She was only 62 when she died in 1975 and it was a horrifying death. She probably wouldn't have been displeased by the fact she was on her way to the church when it happened. I remember her giving me a book for my 13th birthday, Delight, a book of essays by J.B. Priestly." It was an unusual present for a boy of 13. "She was an unusual woman, very progressive for her time and had a profound influence on me, giving me that love of travel - `God made a huge and a wonderful world, Michael, and it's your duty to see as much of it as you possibly can'."

Mrs Murphy's hope that her children would travel certainly came true for her eldest son. "I have travelled a great deal. All over Europe and America, Australia, parts of Africa, India . . . My approach to travelling is not a tourist's one. I always want to discover the things that tourists don't see." Should he decide to change career, he would like to be a travel writer, wandering about like Paul Theroux or Jonathan Raban. "I learn about places by talking to the people who live in them."

Far from delighted at the recent rescheduling of The Arts Show to three afternoons a week, with edited highlights one evening, he points out that while its audience has trebled, he is worried about losing the niche evening listeners. Still, he enjoys the prospect that perhaps the move will alert listeners who have not previously given much attention to the arts.

As for his "nice guy" image, he disputes it. Does being a "personality" involved in light entertainment affect the credibility of an arts show presenter, considering that Melvyn Bragg, a novelist and media arts person has always faced criticism about popularising the arts?

"Firstly I don't think personality is relevant when dealing with a topic or when interviewing. The quality of the research counts. I have been famous since I was 28. It has its advantages; people listen to me. They take my calls. They make kindly comments. But it also means you have no privacy You are watched closely. I don't think I'm always nice, when I do turn, I'm told it can be pretty savage. I don't tolerate laziness or rudeness or bureaucracy."

Over the years he has managed to make this interests his work. "I would be going to those movies, those plays, those exhibitions, reading those books. Working in the arts is a privilege, especially at a time when there is a Renaissance in the arts in Ireland. "As for popularising a previously closed, elite scene, "there is nothing wrong with opening an exciting world to everyone - I'm delighted to be involved."