We may be in the midst of a crisis that has apparently turned everything we know on its head, but there are still reassuring reminders that the old world hasn’t gone away completely.
On Wednesday's edition of The Hard Shoulder (Newstalk, weekdays), Ivan Yates takes a break from coronavirus coverage by allowing listeners to indulge in the nostalgically escapist pastime of bashing the Brits. Lest anyone think that ancient local rivalries have dissolved in the face of the global pandemic, it's an opportunity that's embraced with some alacrity.
Needless to say, this is no accident. Indeed, it's completely contrived. The moment Yates knowingly introduces his guest, Giles Wallace-Beardsley, as someone with a "controversial" proposal, it's obvious the host is expecting some argy-bargy. Sure enough, Wallace-Beardsley proposes to repatriate to Ireland a statue of Queen Victoria that used to stand opposite Trinity College Dublin, but is now in Australia.
If Wallace-Beardsley's ostentatiously plummy accent and cartoonishly posh name aren't enough to raise doubts, the moment he asks "why we cannot bring Her Majesty home" should prompt listeners to check the date. Sure enough, Yates later reveals that his guest on this April Fool's Day is actually Newstalk reporter Simon Tierney, in not-very-convincing disguise.
But while it’s a mildly diverting gag, the reaction it prompts is far more entertaining, if predictable. Angry texts pour in condemning the royalist sentiments, colonial attitudes and patrician superiority of “Wallace-Beardsley” before the ruse is revealed, though Tierney’s hammy insistence on referring to Co Laois as “Queen’s County” has surely already given the game away to many.
Yates does his bit to prime the pump, branding his fictional guest a “west Brit”. Then again, he’s not above such jovial name-calling during real interviews. In normal times, the spluttering expressions of nationalist fervour from Yates’s texters might be dispiriting, but there’s something almost comforting right now, particularly when they’re being trolled with exquisite ease.
It’s also surprisingly enjoyable to hear Yates cut loose once more, albeit against a harmless caricature. As the crisis has developed, the host has adopted a noticeably sombre tone, with his discussions less of a duel than usual. Wednesday’s show features a Q&A session on the newly introduced wage subsidy scheme with Declan Rigney of the Revenue Commissioners, which is commendably helpful but lacks the host’s trademark needle towards bureaucratic institutions. Much as the current situation can trigger an unexpected pining for traffic jams and overcrowded buses, so one occasionally misses the boorishly swashbuckling antics of Yates, if only as a throwback to less dystopian times.
Meanwhile, Covid-19 continues to reveal itself as a foe so perfidiously invasive that even the reliably underhand Albion looks like a rank amateur in comparison. The most commonplace of household chores now has much the same daunting quality traversing a minefield, judging by the programmes advising listeners how to handle groceries safely.
A few weeks ago, the idea of a current affairs magazine show such as Today with Sean O'Rourke (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays) offering tips on how to unpack shopping would have been absurd. But things have changed so much that O'Rourke's discussion with TCD virologist Kim Roberts on the potential hazards of handling food deliveries now seems a more pressing item than his interview with Green Party leader Eamon Ryan about government formation. As it happens, the conversation with Roberts is comparatively heartening, as she suggests that the possibility of the virus being transmitted by groceries and packaging is low, so long as people observe hygiene and distancing protocols.
But any incipient sense of calm dissolves as Cian McCormack reports on the same issue for Morning Ireland (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays). In real terms, environmental health specialist Niall Roche offers essentially the same information as Roberts. But McCormack's report is delivered with the urgent pitch of a news item, which stresses the risks more: when Roche says his guidelines aren't intended "to create anxiety in the general public", it somehow has the opposite effect.
That said, Morning Ireland also does its bit to raise morale. For two days running the programme features items on musicians who are adapting to reach audiences in the current environment. On Tuesday, Rachael English talks to singer and bouzouki player Daoiri Farrell about the weekly ballad sessions he's performing on social media, attracting thousands of viewers. Providing a much-needed glint of optimism, Farrell says that while he misses playing live, "this could be the start of something brand new".
The following day, Bryan Dobson speaks to pianist Dearbhla Collins, who is to perform in a series of online recitals organised by the Royal Irish Academy of Music. Dobson clearly wants to share his guest’s enthusiasm, but his newsman’s eye – or rather, ear – gets in the way. He offers Collins the chance to play a snippet of music, proudly informing her that she’s on the country highest-rated radio show, but is underwhelmed by the tinnily phased sound of the piano. “We’re getting that over the phone, perhaps we’re not getting the full impact,” he says, by way of mitigation.
Even so, it's telling that these rare uplifting moments should involve music. Whether it's the nocturnal sounds of Cathal Murray and Fiachna Ó Braonáin on Late Date (RTÉ Radio 1, nightly), the infectiously upbeat presence and indie rock of Tom Dunne (Newstalk, Sunday-Thursday) or the reliably adventurous and laconic John Kelly on Mystery Train (Lyric, Sunday-Thursday), music radio provides respite and solace after the draining daily procession of coronavirus coverage.
Even here, however, it’s hard to escape the new reality. On Tuesday, Kelly plays several haunting pieces from David Lynch film soundtracks. It’s almost too apt. So far through the looking glass are we that it now feels we’re living in a Lynch movie, from the unsettlingly quiet atmosphere of our streets to the inchoate sense of menace lurking unseen in our homes. It’s enough to make the most raucous rebel ballads seem like cosy lullabies.
Radio Moment of the Week: Callan kicks Kenny
With Ryan Tubridy laid low by Covid-19 – we wish him a speedy recovery – Oliver Callan takes over the morning slot on RTÉ Radio 1, adding his irreverent impressions to the opening monologue. Callan isn't afraid to ruffle feathers, but he also displays a deft grasp of broadcasting politics when he dissects the previous weekend's Late Late Show, hosted in Tubridy's absence by Miriam O'Callaghan. Mimicking the voice of the "sharp and commanding" O'Callaghan, Callan cheekily remarks, "There was no studio audience, so unfortunately the atmosphere was so cold, it was like the Pat Kenny years all over again. Is that too mean?" Maybe. But in praising RTÉ's star while sniping at Newstalk rival Kenny, Callan proves he can kiss up as well as kick out.