It's entirely appropriate that Brendan O'Connor (RTÉ Radio 1, Saturday and Sunday) should be interviewing David Duchovny when he asks a question seemingly so uncharacteristic that one wonders if other forces are at work.
Duchovny, best known for playing the conspiracy-theorist FBI agent Fox Mulder in The X-Files, has been talking about his new novel when O’Connor says he took “a sharp intake of breath” after the book’s female protagonist deems the #MeToo movement a “psychosocial overcorrection”. O’Connor then asks if his guest shares this opinion.
Coming from a presenter whose columns for the Sunday Independent would regularly eviscerate right-on pieties, such concern sounds perilously close to political correctness. Much as it seems outlandish that a natural provocateur like O’Connor could succumb to consensual Montrose groupthink, one’s inner Agent Mulder nonetheless kicks in: so RTÉ has got to him too?
'Ireland has a sense of exceptionalism, though maybe tinged with more self-loathing than the American dream,' Brendan O'Connor remarks, with biting insight
Certainly, since taking over the late Marian Finucane’s prime weekend slot, O’Connor hasn’t been the flamboyantly controversial host that some of his print (and indeed television) output might have suggested. But if he seemed surprisingly tentative as host during the early days of the pandemic, O’Connor now sounds more sure of himself, even as he maintains his considered approach. He can be smart and sharp but also thoughtful and even empathetic, as Sunday’s interview with Duchovny underlines.
The conversation is light on Hollywood gossip, instead focusing on Duchovny’s unexpectedly strong literary pedigree, which includes a thesis at Princeton on Samuel Beckett’s novels. They muse on whether Beckett is bleak or hilarious (Duchovny thinks the latter) before discussing the mythic self-image of both the United States and Ireland. “Ireland has a sense of exceptionalism, though maybe tinged with more self-loathing than the American dream,” O’Connor remarks, with biting insight.
There’s also some wry observation about the prescience of the X-Files conspiratorial themes. “Back then we thought it was science fiction, now it’s run of the mill in the newspapers,” Duchovny notes. As to the question of #MeToo, the actor is evasive: “I don’t know, we’re in the midst of it.” Not that O’Connor’s attitude is particularly woke, sounding more chary on the matter: “It’s tricky stuff for a man to write about.” Even so, the interaction between host and guest makes for an absorbing encounter.
The show’s centrepiece Sunday-newspaper panel is similarly engrossing, with quality rather than quantity being the watchword. Instead of corralling multiple guests, as was the case previously, O’Connor now oversees more cogent conversations within a slimmed-down group of informed panellists unafraid to speak their mind. The former Fine Gael TD Kate O’Connell, for instance, offers her unvarnished opinion that Tánaiste Leo Varadkar is in trouble over the Garda investigation into the GP contract leak. “I wonder when Leo is going to deliver for Fine Gael,” says O’Connell, who lost her seat under Varadkar’s leadership.
There are still flashes of O'Connor's sharper side: when a guest chef's line breaks up on Saturday, the host snaps in irritation: 'Talk into the phone'
The restaurateur Richard Corrigan is even more outspoken, holding forth with a cheery gusto that unnerves even O'Connor. Talking about the pandemic-related challenges besetting his business, Corrigan names recalcitrant landlords in London, prompting his host to plead "stop stop stop stop". When Corrigan later calls Boris Johnson "a clown" who "lied his way to office", his assertion is contested by the host. "Excuse me, I live there," Corrigan replies with indignant conviction, launching a salvo against the British government's "terrible mistakes" in the Covid crisis. "I don't think anyone should be jealous of the UK," he says, tempering the vaccine envy felt by many here.
The pitch of the discussion seems right for a Sunday morning, neither dull nor shouty but stimulating and good-natured. O’Connor keeps the conversation moving with only the odd editorial aside, such as pandemic policy needing “more creative thinking”. There are still flashes of his sharper side: when a guest chef’s line breaks up on Saturday, the host snaps in irritation: “Talk into the phone.” Overall, though, his approach is clicking. If O’Connor’s iconoclastic instincts have been tempered by the mainstream demands of his RTÉ berth, it’s been to his benefit.
Restraint is off the agenda as Jennifer Zamparelli (RTÉ 2FM, weekdays) opens Wednesday's show in pithy fashion. "I'm back, bitches!" she says, having been away the previous day. It's a suitably subtle start to a programme that sticks to a trusty attention-grabbing formula of sex and drink and rock and roll.
Zamparelli approaches the latter topics in freewheeling style, talking to production team member Susie Condon about outre rider requests from the likes of Oasis and Lady Gaga. Condon then recounts an actual shaggy-dog story about waking up in a kennel covered in canine hair, having “skulled a bottle of port” beforehand. Cue listeners phoning in with similar tales of waking in unusual spots, generally after overzealous alcohol consumption, as Zamparelli hoots with appreciative laughter.
Whether one finds tales of waking up in strange places hilarious, outrageous or tiresome depends on one's sensibility and age. Not that this bothers Zamparelli
Whether one finds this hilarious, outrageous or tiresome depends on one’s sensibility and, of course, age. Not that Zamparelli is bothered. “I love scrapping. I think it’s healthy,” she tells Condon, suggesting conflict is inevitable in an industry with “big personalities”. By way of evidence, the presenter laughingly recalls an argument with her frequent collaborator Bernard O’Shea that grew so heated he threatened to crash the car they were in. Whatever else, there’s no faulting her honesty.
Significantly, however, sexual themes are treated with more seriousness. Zamparelli talks to her resident sex therapist, Rachel Cooke, about sexual addiction, a condition that defies easy definition, although the host gives it a good shot: "If it's causing problems in your everyday life, that's when you can say you have a problem."
Cooke goes on to outline the damaging effect of pornography or degrading sex practices, as well as the troubling connections between sex addiction and abuse by powerful men such as Harvey Weinstein: “If it’s used as a justification, that’s a huge problem.” The notion that #MeToo is somehow an “overcorrection” is conspicuously absent from the discussion between the two women.
As is often the case with self-consciously zippy magazine shows on music radio, such charged items sit uneasily beside knowing ribaldry and unabashed rudeness. But the format clearly has its appeal, with Zamparelli holding her own as other 2FM shows stall. As O’Connor knows, go with whatever works.
Moment of the Week: James O’Brien talks liberties
Famed in Britain for his deadpan skewering of Brexit follies, the radio presenter James O'Brien gives Irish listeners a taste of his lethally dry style when he talks to Kieran Cuddihy on The Hard Shoulder (Newstalk) about the pandemic in the UK. O'Brien excoriates the anti-lockdown libertarian wing of the Conservative Party. With the UK population being vaccinated so quickly, O'Brien says the pandemic has reminded people how "ridiculous" the concept of small government is. As for Tory "headbangers" who fulminate against restrictions, he is damning. "People who aren't quite bright enough to realise how unintelligent they are come up with ideas like libertarianism," he says. Oof.