Radio: Brendan O’Connor misplaces his broadcaster’s instincts

Review: ‘The John Murray Show’, ‘The Last Word’, ‘Sunday With Miriam’

Dropping the ball: Brendan O’Connor

Dropping the ball: Brendan O’Connor

 

Listeners tuning into Brendan O’Connor’s first day as stand-in host of The John Murray Show (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays) will not be surprised by what they hear: the grumpy fulminations of a mouthy Cork-born broadcaster and columnist at a loose end as his controversial television career draws to a close. The only problem is that the Corkman in question is not O’Connor but his guest George Hook, the recently retired RTÉ rugby pundit and presenter on the rival station Newstalk. When it comes to generating aural fireworks, O’Connor is a surprisingly damp squib.

Expectations that his radio stint will crackle with the antagonistic energy of his newspaper missives or the occasionally cutting wit of his TV chatshow start to dissolve from the moment he begins talking. In his opening segment O’Connor lauds the announcement of the Ireland rugby coach, Joe Schmidt, that, with the Six Nations won, he is off to look after his epileptic son. It’s not the substance of O’Connor’s monologue that’s perplexing but the style in which he delivers it.

“Rugby is just rugby, but your kid is your kid,” the presenter says. “And maybe, just maybe, how he looks after his kid is how Joe Schmidt judges himself.” It’s the kind of sentence that might pass muster in a why-oh-why column but on air sounds like a sub-Oprah platitude. John Murray’s cheerily cheesy comic monologues sound like searing satire in comparison.

Then again, maybe O’Connor is just a “sentimental Cork boy”, as he remarks to Hook. In their discussion, which leaves out mention of Newstalk, Hook has the odd memorable phrase, such as likening his relationship with Tom McGurk to the Good Friday agreement. In contrast O’Connor bandies about phrases like talking to “the real George” without apparent irony. It seems a far cry from the sceptical persona O’Connor projects elsewhere.

But there are welcome flashes of wry humour. When Hook talks of his delight at leading the St Patrick’s Day parade in his hometown O’Connor is deadpan in his response: “All you needed to feel wanted was for all of Cork to turn out.” Talking with the broadcaster Mary Kennedy about her family life, he is disarmingly honest about the difficulties of minding children with a Sunday-morning hangover, while suggesting that his guest is far too “fragrant” to be familiar with such a scenario.

As it turns out O’Connor’s family provides his most revealing moment. On Wednesday he describes how children with a so-called mild diagnosis of Down syndrome, such as his own daughter, have been long cut off from State services and extra school help. He then reveals that “this morning is a very happy and emotional day in our house”, thanks to the Government decision to allocate two and a half hours a week of resource teaching for all pupils with Down syndrome. The uncharacteristic tug in the presenter’s voice only hints at his depth of feeling.

Talking to Minister for Education Jan O’Sullivan about the decision, he is candid about how he feels. “I’ll just warn you, this isn’t going to be the toughest interview,” he says. “I feel like giving you a little hug.”

He is as good as his word in the softball encounter that follows – although we don’t see if he actually embraces his guest. But the whole item is affecting in its unabashed emotion. O’Connor may occasionally misplace his instincts as a broadcaster, but his unvarnished sincerity as a parent is winning.

Differing visions of family life are debated on The Last Word (Today FM, weekdays) when Matt Cooper hosts a lively exchange between Colm O’Gorman of Amnesty International and Keith Mills of the pressure group Mothers and Fathers Matter.

Mills trumpets the argument, increasingly pushed by those opposing the same-sex-marriage referendum, that if such unions are redefined it will impinge the rights of mother and fathers to get preferential treatment when it comes to adoption. For good measure he adds that most Irish people think it better for children to be raised in heterosexual families, citing two polls as support.

O’Gorman, who is gay (like Mills) and a parent (unlike Mills), disagrees, citing Cambridge University research suggesting that supportive environments are the key factor. He also remarks that current legislation favours no particular type of family when it comes to adoption, which seems to quash any notion about existing rights being impugned.

When Mills shoots back that two men cannot provide a child with a mother, O’Gorman is devastatingly understated in his reply. He believes that two men can provide a nurturing and loving environment for child, “but I didn’t say a man can replace a mother; clearly that’s not the case”.

On the show to discuss the possibility of a “conscience clause” should same-sex marriage pass, O’Gorman sounds uneasy at his family life being in the spotlight. But the vigour he addresses the matter with reflects referendum campaigners’ increasing focus on this emotive angle. Some people, it seems, aren’t content to confine their parental priorities to their own children.

Moment of the week: Brenda Fricker’s raw emotion
Appearing on Sunday With Miriam (RTÉ Radio 1), Brenda Fricker gives an interview that is by turns unbearably raw and refreshingly unsentimental. As well as talking about the death of her husband, the Oscar-winning actor recalls the traumatic experience of having several miscarriages, painting a particularly visceral image of the aftermath of one late miscarriage, when she saw the dead foetus. “That was cruel,” she says. But she also resists Miriam O’Callaghan’s query if she found closure when she realised she wouldn’t have children after such tragedies. “I didn’t feel anything like that,” Fricker says. “I was enjoying trying. I have to face it, that went parallel with the disappointment.” Her stoicism is bracing – “That’s the cards you’re dealt” – which only makes the interview more heartbreaking.

radioreview@irishtimes.com

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