Oliver Callan’s even better at meaningless fluff than Ryan Tubridy

Radio: The talented mimic is adept at filling airtime but oddly reserved when talking to others

Oliver Callan: the presenter has an amusing turn of phrase

Oliver Callan: the presenter has an amusing turn of phrase

 

For all his gifts as an impersonator, there’s one role Oliver Callan can’t quite nail. Try as he might, his efforts at playing a talkshow host are never convincing. He is back for his latest stint as stand-in presenter on The Ryan Tubridy Show (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays), and, although he is adept at filling airtime with all manner of daffy caricatures, when it comes to speaking to the audience in his own voice he makes less of an impression.

The mimic-comedian has his virtues as a presenter: he starts out well during the opening monologue, normally the litmus test of a radio host’s hidden shallows. His newspaper round-up is peppered with take-offs of those in the news, with the Taoiseach a particular favourite: “You can never have enough Micheál Martin on your show for comedic purposes,” Callan comments. 

Such elements keep things moving briskly, though the nagging suspicion persists that he’s workshopping material for his own show, Callan’s Kicks (RTÉ Radio 1, Friday). Indeed, the weekly satirical revue plays the same role for the guest host as The Late Late Show does for the usual one, providing a ready supply of self-referential material to ponder.

Oliver Callan chats away gamely. But he struggles to establish the easy chemistry that Ryan Tubridy so readily strikes up with his guests, no matter how slight the topic

Callan marvels at his soothsaying abilities for running a sketch about Boris Johnson getting married, before reports emerged of the UK prime minister’s secret wedding: “We have an awful habit of accidentally predicting the news.” 

Callan can also spiel aimlessly with the best of them. He complains about shopping baskets not being stacked properly, muses wistfully on Wagon Wheels and wonders why “granny trollies” are so called. Although he jokily describes himself as “the understudy to Mr Tubridy”, Callan actually manages to surpass Tubs at talking meaningless fluff.

When it comes to talking to others, however, Callan is strangely reserved, his interviews drifting along without urgency or even personality. His conversation with Gwen Adshead, from Broadmoor, the British high-security psychiatric hospital, initially seems promising: he hopefully warns listeners that upsetting details might be forthcoming. Adshead, however, is disappointingly reasonable. While the host asks about cases involving decapitation, she talks of “radical empathy” for patients guilty of violent crimes.

To be fair, Callan chats away gamely. But he struggles to establish the kind of easy chemistry that Tubridy so readily strikes up with his guests, no matter how slight the topic. 

It’s not all bland. As well as his various celeb alter-egos, Callan has an amusing turn of phrase, drily characterising Tubridy as a “formally trousered man”. He also appears to have dialled down his previous expressions of irritation at political correctness, a wise move given how wokeness is kryptonite for so many comedians, in as much as they cease being funny once they start moaning about it. But his stand-up abilities notwithstanding, Callan’s spell as a stand-in is unlikely to give the incumbent host many sleepless nights.

Callan’s portrayal of Micheál Martin as an earnestly staid bumbler beside Leo Varadkar’s vacuously self-promoting, mojito-drinking taoiseach-in-waiting mockingly encapsulates the Coalition’s rickety dynamics

To hear the impressionist at his best, Callan’s Kicks is the proper destination. The Friday-evening sketch show allows its star to expand the scope of his mimicry, mixing uncanny likenesses with cartoonish exaggeration to pleasing comic effect. True, the approach isn’t as biting as it could be – the tone is one of gently surreal ridicule rather than mercilessly focused scorn – while some skits don’t gel, such as Simon Harris’s supposed social-media obsession.

But Callan’s portrayal of Micheál Martin as an earnestly staid bumbler beside Leo Varadkar’s vacuously self-promoting, mojito-drinking taoiseach-in-waiting mockingly encapsulates the Coalition’s rickety dynamics. All in all, Callan is better sticking to someone else’s voice.

One of Callan’s deadliest sketches features Miriam O’Callaghan interviewing two Tommy Tiernans, a “loud and inappropriate” version of the comedian and his “quiet and meaningful” TV-host iteration. It’s a close-to-the-knuckle go at a fellow funnyman – so much for professional solidarity – but the impersonation of O’Callaghan is even more lethal. Although Callan’s characterisation trades in well-worn tropes, it unnervingly resembles a real-life edition of Sunday with Miriam (RTÉ Radio 1). 

Certainly, as she helms her talkshow, O’Callaghan’s trademark empathetic sighs are so ubiquitous that her “hmmms” will surely soon be demanding separate billing. More seriously, the programme is hampered by an unwieldy format, and further undermined by the host’s cookie-cutter approach to her interviews. At first glance the template appears to offer listeners good value, with O’Callaghan conducting three conversations in less than hour. In practice, however, time pressures result in the items often being perfunctory.

When Miriam O’Callaghan talks to the actors Marie Mullen and Brian Gleeson, some of her questions are crushingly unimaginative. ‘How did you find lockdown?’ she Gleeson

An interview with the English novelist Esther Freud touches on the writer’s famous family ancestry and her mother’s Irish heritage (including a possible brush with mother-and-baby homes). But O’Callaghan doesn’t explore these themes in any great depth, although, admittedly, her efforts aren’t helped by her “dodgy line” to Freud.

The presenter’s chat with the actors Marie Mullen and Brian Gleeson is even more cursory. With her guests appearing in a streaming stage play, there is chat about script and logistics, but despite the actors being open and articulate, O’Callaghan’s questions are otherwise crushingly unimaginative. “How did you find lockdown?” she inquires of Gleeson, cutting across Mullen’s answer to the same question in the process. Pursuing this original theme, the host later asks Mullan if she’s “sick of Zoom”. On this showing, one can understand why O’Callaghan may not be a fan of the video-conferencing app: she prefers to phone it in.

That said, there are times when O’Callaghan sounds like the experienced broadcaster she is. Although her encounter with the musicians Fiachna Ó Braonáin and Clare Sands includes probing questions such as “Is enthusiasm something you have to work at?”, it also has the kind of breezily relaxing air ideal for Sunday-morning listening. It helps that Ó Braonáin is an accomplished radio performer himself – check out his weekend editions of the nocturnal music show Late Date (RTÉ Radio 1) – but the conversation has a pleasingly easy flow, as does the accompanying music. 

It’s also striking that the host spends more time talking to Ó Braonáin and Sands than to her other guests, allowing a mood to build. Rather than hoarding guests to generic effect, O’Callaghan might be better focusing her conversational efforts on just one or two personalities. You can have too many voices.

Moment of the Week 

As part of the regular Conspiracy Files slot on The Pat Kenny Show (Newstalk), the reporter Simon Tierney outlines the increased belief in flat-Earth theories: millions of young Americans now embrace the loony-minded notion that the world isn’t round, further bolstered by evangelical Christian dogma. Tierney hears the flat-earther Mark Sargent zealously explain how we live on an enclosed flat plane surrounded by an ice barrier, a fact covered up by the authorities (of course). It’s yet another illuminating yet alarming glimpse into the conspiratorial online world, which the congenitally rational Kenny views with bemused disdain. We may live on a globe, but it’s enough to send the listener over the edge.

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