Claire Byrne Live: This isn’t really the audience’s show, it’s Claire’s
Presenter chairs new RTÉ show with emotive discussion on same-sex marriage
Presenter Claire Byrne on the set of RTE’s new current affairs TV show. Photograph: Andres Poveda/RTÉ
She has the cameras, the studio audience and the panel of guests waiting to take their place. Claire Byrne has done this before, but this time it’s her name “above the door”. In the seconds before the debut Claire Byrne Live goes on air, she reminds the audience to enjoy themselves: This is their show.
The topic is the same-sex marriage referendum, and it’s not enjoyable - it’s depressing. Bookies may have slashed the odds on Leo Varadkar, Ireland’s first openly gay Minister, becoming the next Taoiseach, but inside the studio, statements that trumpet faith above equal rights are met with fervoured applause.
A gay man patiently explains he wants to married by the State not the Church. His partner is sitting next to him, and for the rest of the show, the “No” side patronise them as a Lovely Couple, But. They’re a Lovely Couple, But Don’t Call it Marriage, or a Lovely Couple, But What About the Children?
“Yes” panellist Una Mullally reminds the “Nos” in the audience that heterosexual people can and will continue to get married even if - gasp - the referendum is passed.
Next to her, Labour TD John Lyons looks forlorn as the debate is consistently dragged off in the obfuscating direction of children’s rights in surrogacy and adoption, and wonders if there has been some mix-up. This referendum is about marriage, right?
In the centre of all this sits Byrne in a neat black suit. It’s teamed, as they say in the fashion press, with sombre grey lace, the choice of outfit being almost as steely as she is under the current affairs lights.
One unfortunate reference to a goat aside, Byrne handles everything well. When an audience member brings up homophobia - prompting an audible “can you say that?” bristle from the audience - she is swift to give the panellist to whom the remark was directed, columnist Breda O’Brien, the opportunity to respond. Homophobia, post-Pantigate, is now very much the “H”-word at Montrose.
It’s hard to believe that just a few years ago, RTÉ was tucking Byrne away on afternoon television and had yet to give her a radio show (Saturdays, 1pm) either.
She has, as her boss, RTÉ’s managing editor of current affairs David Nally says, an “innate sense of fairness”, credibility, trustworthiness and, best of all (this being television), a “studio presence”.
This isn’t really the audience’s show, it’s Claire’s. Her name isn’t just above the door, it’s all over the set (mauve-and-turquoise, with wood panelling). Although Nally says it doesn’t matter if the programme doesn’t improve upon the ratings achieved by the Monday Prime Time it replaced and The Frontline that went out in the slot before that, there is still some pressure here. They didn’t have to call it Claire Byrne Live.
As for the format of the show, it’s hard to tell what is different about it yet. The question posed beforehand in a poll - do voters have the right to know the sexuality of Ministers - doesn’t quite relate to the topic of the debate. The producers say that most weeks there will be more than one topic up for discussion, so, perhaps oddly, the opening show isn’t representative of what’s to come.
On the other hand, a pre-recorded interview with Colin Farrell is a nice coup, especially as Farrell combines charisma with articulacy. The BBC’s Question Time and Newsnight and ITV’s The Agenda have all embraced celebrities as part of the current affairs mix, and there’s no harm in Claire Byrne Live doing so from time to time either. The Late Late Show has, after all, been doing that for years.
After the end-credits roll, Byrne thanks the audience - a mix of about 100 ticket applicants and invitees - for coming and says they can head back to the green room if they like. It fills up. But it’s hard to imagine the “Yes” and the “No” side ever being truly comfortable with the other, not even over biscuits and RTÉ wine.