Late Late Toy Show auditions: ‘The mothers are worse than the kids’
Patrick Freyne meets the talented kids who try out for the annual toyfest
“Nothing phases him,” says his mother Maxine. “He doesn’t get nervous at all.”
“Pretend you’re nervous,” says French.
Jamie does an exaggerated shake. “Not ‘cold’,” says French. “I said ‘nervous’!”
At this, Jamie appears to cry and for a moment all the adults in the room look worried.
“He’s pretending to cry,” says Maxine.
It’s very convincing faux-crying.
“Seriously he’s only pretending,” says his mother. Jamie beams.
Jamie is about to play his mandolin for various members of the Late Late Toy Show team as part of the countrywide auditions for this year’s show.
A bespectacled child with a yen for trad and a penchant for enthusiastic monosyllables, he has played on the streets during the Fleadh Cheoil and has frequented pub sessions. He is going to play a medley of traditional songs for the Late Late Toy Show staff and he agrees to do an interview.
What kind of music does he like?
Who’s your favourite musician?
What does he like about Ryan Tubridy?
“He has sweets!”
Why does he like about the Toy Show?
What toys does he like?
“Minions and remote-control cars.”
Maxine tells me Jamie’s sister is fierce sad about having to go to school today. Does Jamie feel sorry for his sister?
“No,” he says gleefully.
Are you going to do something nice for your sister?
“No,” he says even more gleefully and with chilling finality.
The Late Late Toy Show team arrived down to Cork the night before in three Toy Show-branded Renault Kadjars. “I was wondering why everyone was being so nice to me on the road,” says Toy Show producer Nigel Power. “And then I remembered I was in a Toy Show car.”
Everywhere they go people ask them for Toy Show tickets, which are not in their power to give. “I pulled into Kildare Village and when I came out a child had left a note on the car,” says The Late Late Show’s executive producer John McMahon. Later he shows it to me. “‘Please can my mam have tickets to this year’s Toy Show.’ “It breaks my heart!”
The show has changed over the years. It’s the third year they’ve taken the auditions out on the road – this year to Cork, Galway and Mullingar. Ryan Tubridy has his radio team in tow and a separate film crew is also with them, documenting the process for a documentary series.
A lot of talented children want to be on the Toy Show and they send in their performances on USB keys. By the closing date for applications on September 29th, they have enough of them to fill three wheelie bins. “Everything gets watched,” says Power. “We’ve had plain white envelopes and ones with sweets and glitter and stars.”
“Two years ago, there was one in a cake,” says McMahon.
The Toy Show is a bigger deal than it has ever been. Once upon a time, it was a 15-minute item on Gay Byrne’s version of The Late Late Show. It grew slowly, says McMahon, so it’s hard to actually say what constitutes the first one. In Byrne’s day, the programme reached 1.5 million viewers while in Pat Kenny’s era it dropped to 900,000. But the eight most watched programmes in Ireland this century were editions of The Late Late Toy Show.
“1.57 million viewed it last year,” says Late Late Show producer McMahon. “It used to be a show about a bunch of toys, but it’s evolved into this West End production. We had 340 kids in last year’s show.”
‘Slime is always popular’
The planning apparently begins at the party after the previous year’s Toy Show. In January, members of the team visit toy fairs and test ideas on a white board. They learn a lot about what children are interested in from the audition tapes kids send in. Researcher and self-described “Toy Show elf” Kate Olohan lists some popular toys I’ve never heard of – Jo Jo Bows, Magic Trax, L.O.L. Surprise. “And slime. Slime is always popular.”
I ask about my favourite part of the Toy Show: the parade of sullen children on pedal vehicles. “We call them ride-ons,” says Olohan. “And we have people whose job it is on the night is solely to catch them when they roll off stage.”
The research never ends, apparently. “I spend a lot of time hanging around Smyths [TOY SHOP]eavesdropping,” says Power. “The trick is you bring your own child.”
What is this year’s Toy Show theme? “I’ve been telling people the theme is Dunkirk,” says Power. “They say. ‘Oh. Interesting.’”
“It’s not Dunkirk,” says McMahon.
Outside the audition room is a reception area overseen by Rowena Murphy, who greets and registers the aspiring performers and ensures polaroid photographs are taken of each one (“So that later the judges can easily remember who’s who”).
Children strum guitars and practise songs and talk earnestly to teachers and parents. It’s hard to be unmoved. “I think I must be pregnant,” says a Late Late staffer at one point. “All these kids making music are making me emotional.”
Jewel Katebe is a quietly confident multi-instrumentalist here to drum along to a song by Clean Bandit. He lists the instruments he plays but forgets a few, so has to be prompted by Aisling Flannery, his teacher from North Mon primary school. “Drums are my favourite though,” he says. “I’m a kind of hyper person so I like expressing myself by playing the drums.”
He doesn’t seem hyper, I say. He just laughs. “He’s extremely talented,” says Flannery proudly. “He just stands out.”
Ella Sladewski from the Joan Denise Moriarty School of Dance, later to be found collectively pirouetting to All About that Bass, shows me some ballet. “This is third position” She does third position. “This is first position for your hands.” She does first position with her hands. “This is a plié”. She does a plié. “I forget what this is called.” She does something else that is impressively beyond me. “It’s really nice to dance with your friends,” she says and beams.
Listening at the door of the audition room are Pat and Caroline Butler and their daughter Robin. They’re trying to hear their other daughter, 13-year-old Taylor Lilly, singing a beautiful version of Zara Larson’s Symphony for the panel on the other side.
“We’re more nervous than she is,” says Caroline.
Taylor Lilly has been in lots of competitions, they tell me. She’s been in the final of Waterford’s Got Talent and the All Ireland Talent search. “She does love to sing,” says Caroline. “She locks the bathroom door at home and just sings.”
“We can’t use the bathroom then,” says Robin, going into younger-sister mode. She listens at the door and adds, grudgingly, “She’s sounding better than at home.”
At one point, a crowd of small girls with ukuleles and flowers in their hair take over the room. They are from an outfit called the School of Uke run by Debbie Hayes and Martha Walsh. What are they going to sing? “How Far I’ll Go from the film Moana and Sweet Child of Mine,” says a little girl called Lucianna.
And it’s just girls? “Well, 16 girls and one boy,” says a girl called Fia. The sea of little girls parts to reveal a small boy holding a guitar. He gives me the thumbs up. “That’s Finbarr,” says Fia.
The fashion-conscious Irish Times video man asks them to explain their “look”.
Fia and Lucianna look at him like he’s a bit mad. “It’s Hawaiian,” says Fia.
“Kind of bohemian,” says Lucianna. “We don’t wear the flowers in our hair every day. Just for gigs and concerts.”
They play us a few bars of Sweet Child of Mine but then Greg French comes to usher them into the audition room. “Hey! I heard this was a group of girls with ukuleles but here’s a guy with a Spanish guitar!” he says on seeing Finbarr.
I follow them into the audition room where Power, Olohan, performance producer Stuart O’Connor, director Alan Byrne and Late Late Show music supervisor Dermot McEvoy sit at a table at one end of the room.
There’s some small talk. “Who’s the youngest and who is the oldest?” asks O’Connor. The children point out the relevant individuals and say their names. Large groups of children apparently answer questions in unison.
“You’re the only boy,” O’Connor says to Finbarr. “Do they wreck your head?”
“Only one of them,” says Finbarr mysteriously.
One little girl plays her uke while kicking a cajón drum. “Because you play the ukulele and the drum, do you get extra money for that?” asks McEvoy.
And then Ryan Tubridy is in the building. Or, more exactly, just outside it. You can tell he’s there because he’s surrounded by pirouetting ballerinas, bolstered by an energetic child drummer and serenaded by 17 ukulele-playing children. “Six-year olds with flowers in their hair playing Guns N’ Roses? Where else would you get it?” says John McMahon, now wearing a Christmas jumper.
Elaine Moore and her daughter Isabelle are watching. Isabelle has a guitar on her back and cat-ears on her head. They nearly didn’t make it to the auditions. “We missed the calls saying she got in because of Storm Ophelia,” says Elaine. “Our electricity wasn’t working and our phones were down. They were trying to get in touch for a few days. It’s lovely to be asked.”
What do her friends think about her auditioning? “They don’t know,” says Isabelle.
“I just thought it was a good idea to keep it a little quiet” says Elaine. “Out of respect for other people. They might have applied. Now that she’s in the paper it might be out now.”
Isabelle really, really wants a picture with Ryan Tubridy. We angle closer to him. He crouches down beside her and asks her to play a song to give him “a flavour of how good you are”. She plays and sings a song called Riptide.
He looks on in awe. “Imagine being able to just stand there with all these cameras gathered looking at you and play away,” he says afterwards. “I wonder is it a generational thing?” She reminds him of one of his daughters, he says. “And seeing kids that remind me of my own children, well, I melt.”
Everyone wants a picture with Ryan Tubridy. “I got a photo with Marty Whelan the other day,” says one woman as though she’s trying to make Tubridy jealous. He is soon waylaid by a posse of jive-dancing children from the Pauline Hynan Dancers. and their mothers.
“Jesus, the mothers are worse than the kids,” says a solitary male chaperone.
“The mothers are worse than the kids!” says Tubridy himself moments later.
The man elbows me and says. “See! What did I tell you?”
Soon several children and Tubridy are jiving and Tubridy is singing “Everyone is jive-talking,” which is, if you’re a jive-dancing child, the funniest thing in the world.
About 15 minutes later, Tubridy is in the back of a car heading across to the RTÉ Cork studios for the Today Show, followed by a visit to a cafe which had opened its doors to the homeless during the hurricane (“I just want to thank them”) and then on for a surprise stop at a primary school. As we leave the Clayton, some children in tutus run to the car. “Wave at him!” one of them says urgently.
“Being the Late Late presenter is like being the Taoiseach every Friday and being the Toy Show presenter is like being the president,” he says. “As Taoiseach everyone hates you and you’re to blame for everything . . . As president there’s a smell of fresh paint and the food is nicer.”
At Scoil Chroí Íosa in Blarney, he meets a row of teachers and it does look a bit presidential. He thanks them for “teaching the next generation and making sure they have good manners and a brain”.
“Maybe they could work for RTÉ?” says one.
“That’s a different class of playground altogether,” says Tubridy.
Then he walks into a class of junior infants and good-natured chaos ensues. The tiny people go crazy. He sings happy birthday to someone. He invites a barrage of knock knock jokes (some children struggle with the format). He organises a sort of Sponge Bob Square Pants-themed quiz, promises them no homework (he has that power) and answers questions about where he’s from. “The Late Late Toy Show is very far away, run by very strange goblins and elves . . . and it’s in a strange place called Montrosia.”
It all ends with a cacophonous rendition of You are my Sunshine, during which one little girl leaps on top of a chair to solo and one corner of the room begins spontaneously singing ‘Ole Ole Ole Ole’.
“They will remember this forever,” says a special needs assistant named Margaret Dwan and I think she means this positively.
“I always feel a bit guilty leaving them like that,” whispers Tubridy as we make our way back to the car.
The Toy Show selection panel sees 22 acts perform over the course of the day in Cork. “Last year, one family turned up [on spec],” says McMahon. “They got a photo with Ryan but we couldn’t audition them because that wouldn’t be fair.”
It gets emotional. “At one point at the Dublin auditions, I was bawling,” says Olohan.
There are trends, she says. “Five years ago there was an insurgence of kids with instruments.” This was something to do with Ed Sheeran, she thinks. “And there was a lot of Hallelujah this year in the audition tapes which is very strange.”
“And a lot of songs from Matilda,” says Power.
“The rights of Matilda were released last year for schools,” explains Olohan. “Annie has had a new resurgence as well.”
“I know,” says the press officer (his desk at work is near the Toy Show team).
“One of the things Ryan really wants to feature are the kids who are not usually the centre of attention,” says McMahon, “the slightly disenfranchised, gawkier kids. Me and Ryan when we were young, basically.”
They all want the process to be fun for everyone. It’s not, they repeatedly stress, “X Factor for kids”. At one point when McMahon erroneously refers to Olohan and Power as “judges”, the press officer says, “We don’t call them ‘judges’.”
“Sorry,” says McMahon, contritely.
At the end of the day in Cork, the panellists stand around looking at polaroids and tentatively put everyone into a ‘yes’ pile and a ‘no’ pile and ‘maybe’ pile. And then, a few weeks later they must ring some of these children and tell them they haven’t made it.
“It’s hard,” says Power, “because they’ve all spent an afternoon in their kitchen filming with their family and putting ‘Ryan Tubridy, RTÉ’ on an envelope.”
Does Ryan Tubridy get involved with the selection? McMahon laughs. “Ryan would just say ‘yes’ to everybody,” he says. “He can’t be on the panel.”
Olohan sighs. “There are just too many talented kids.”
The Late Late Toy Show airs on Friday, December 1st on RTÉ One at 9.35pm. The Late Late Toy Show Unwrapped, a three-part documentary starts on RTÉ One on Wednesday, November 29th at 7pm.