Ray D’Arcy: ‘My dad was in the Army, had nine kids and drank a lot’

Chairman: Ray D’Arcy. Photograph: Crispin Rodwell
The RTÉ presenter, who is leaving his TV chatshow for a new programme with Zig and Zag, says his working-class roots make him crave security and fear failure

Ray D’Arcy is by nature self-conscious, he says, though he has learned over the years that self-consciousness tends to delay photography, so he gamely soldiers through. Currently, the Irish Times photographer has him posing before a huge pile of stacked chairs. He frets aloud about what some clever editor might do with the caption.

“Chairman?” I say.

“In search of an audience,” he says.

D’Arcy’s air of good-humoured weariness is part of his public image now, but he seems in very good spirits today. The Ray D’Arcy Show has just released a book, A Page from My Life, a collection of stories from listeners in aid of the LauraLynn Children’s Hospice. He’s also returning to The Den with Zig and Zag and Dustin, the beloved children’s programme that originally made him a household name back in the 1990s, and that returns this weekend as a family show.

I caught myself in the monitor and it was an out-of-body experience, because I was catapulted right back to the 1990s

He has also, for a chunk of the pandemic, been putting out a very entertaining weekly podcast, Jenny and Ray at Home, with his wife and former producer, Jenny Kelly D’Arcy, in which they just chat about what’s going on in their lives and the world.

“Jenny had this itch she wanted to scratch for quite some time,” he says. “She produced the radio show on Today FM and she came here [to RTÉ] as well. And then she stopped [about] 4½ years ago. We just decided to do that, as [our son] Tom was of a certain age and [we were] experiencing the same stresses to the same time schedule. She loves broadcasting and talking in front of a microphone.

“So three Christmases ago I said to her, ‘We won’t buy each other presents and I’ll invest in a little set-up.’ So I did that and I’d been fiddling around with trying to get the sound right. It was entrapment really in the early part of the lockdown. I said ‘Come in, I want to test the microphone in here.’ And we sat down and chatted. And I said ‘That works’ and we put it up.”

How is it different from doing a radio show? “It’s an active experience for the listener, as opposed to a sort of passive moment. If you want to listen to a podcast, it takes a number of steps, so the people who arrive and eventually listen to us are there because they want to hear. A lot of it is nostalgia around Today FM. I look forward to it and enjoy it. And Jenny is the star of it, not me.”

And he can curse on it. I listened to one in which he said “Fuckity”.  

“Fuckity isn’t a curse,” he insists. Could he say it on his radio show? He laughs. “No.” Though he has been known to curse on air in the past, he says – “sparingly”.

Den again

The idea to relaunch The Den first came from Darren Smith, the founder of Kite Entertainment. Smith was D’Arcy’s best man and he runs Green Nose Day/Comic Relief with Deirdre O’Kane. “They came to me and said would you get The Den back together [for Comic Relief]? And I said, ‘Yeah.’ ”

A few days before that broadcast, he went down to see the set, an exact replica of the one from 1990. “I caught myself in the monitor and it was an out-of-body experience, because I was catapulted right back to there. It was such a big thing at the time, for me. I was doing it five days a week for what, 40 weeks of the year? For eight years.”

Before he became a children’s TV presenter, D’Arcy had earned a psychology degree at Trinity College Dublin, had a day job at AnCo (the forerunner of Fás, now Intreo), and DJed around Kildare. He lists off venues that, as a fellow Kildare man, I recognise: Nijinsky’s, the Keadeen Hotel, the Rising Sun, Lumville House.

The Army meant you had an influx of young males into the town. Which wasn’t great when you were a young male yourself and you’re competing against them and they had money and aftershave

In Kildare there were two industries, he says – horse-racing and the Army barracks – “so you had an influx of young males into the town. Which wasn’t great when you were a young male yourself and you’re competing against them and they had money and aftershave.”

Is that why he became a DJ? It wasn’t, he says, though he remembers DJing when he was 15 and an older girl asking him out to dance. “My brother was going, ‘If you don’t let me dance with her, I’ll tell her what age you are.’ ”

He DJed on local and pirate radio, walking three miles to a station based in an old caravan in one instance and DJing in Irish on another station run by a local councillor. “Anois AC/DC le Touch too Much,” he says and laughs. “I think I still have that seven inch … I think it was the radio station’s and I liked it so much that it found its way back into my record box by mistake.”

Did he want to be a professional DJ? “There was no such thing as a professional DJ. Everybody had another job. Nobody said, ‘This is going to be my job.’ ”

In the mid-1980s, when RTÉ did a callout for presenters for the teenage magazine show Jo Maxi, he knew the “only man in Kildare with a video camera” and made an audition tape. At Jo Maxi, he says, he got his apprenticeship in television techniques. “Piece to camera with autocue. Turn. Ask four questions. Do your piece at the end. That’s a building block of any chatshow … We did a piece on skateboarding which was just so embarrassing.”

It recently did the rounds on Twitter. “I’m not on Twitter, so I wouldn’t know,” he says.

Later I ask him why he steers clear of social media. “Why would I invite that into my world? You’re doing a very precarious job. You know that a lot of people may not like you, and there are nasty people out there and all they want is a reaction.”

The Den, 1990: ‘Sometimes, I’d dress in women’s clothes’

D’Arcy took over from Ian Dempsey on The Den in 1990. The Den always looked like great anarchic fun. “It was. I used say to everybody that I got paid for laughing … The health and safety people hadn’t stepped in. And I mean that as an umbrella for people who say, ‘You can’t say that and you can’t do that’. It was the best crack ever.

“Sometimes, I’d have to dress up in women’s clothes or something for some sketch we were doing. To get from the wardrobe up to Studio 8 was really embarrassing. I would have rat runs around RTÉ and I’d be looking around corners to make sure nobody could see me. And yet I’d then go out on front of the nation. Once I get into Studio 8, there were no cameramen or soundmen. They were all outside. It was just us. It was very like a radio studio.”

Ray D’Arcy with Zig and Zag in the 1990s
Ray D’Arcy with Zig and Zag in the 1990s

He has also said that The Den stunted his development. “Well, it did,” he says, “because for eight years of my life, I didn’t really have to bother myself with world events, or developing opinions on social issues because my world was a little bubble of The Den. In a way, being involved or thinking about any of that stuff might have affected my performance. It had to be a safe place a world away from reality.

“The brilliant thing about Today FM [where he moved in the late 1990s] was slowly there I was able to develop my opinions in this big conversation with the listeners. Things came up in an email, and then I’d have to think, ‘What do I think about that? And why do I think that way?’ And the brilliant thing for me was I was arriving places on my own, as opposed to recycling somebody else’s thoughts and opinions.”

Did he have any radio heroes he wanted to emulate? “I was asked, ‘Who are you going to be? Are you going to be Gay Byrne or Gerry Ryan?’ and I said ‘No. No. No. I’m going to be Ray D’Arcy.’ The only ambition we had was that it would sound like we were having a chat around the kitchen table, because a lot of the people who would be listening were at their kitchen table. It had to be that loose.”

Family: ‘Fear of failure is a big thing’

He met his wife, Jenny, on that show, though initially he was a bit timid around her. “This is ridiculous but I remember, when we started doing dry runs, I said to [the then producer] ‘Can you ask Jenny to leave?’ because I was self-conscious. Again, the self-conscious trait. So she had to leave the studio. Imagine that? And now we have two children together.” He laughs. “I’m probably in the wrong profession.”

How did his relationship with Jenny develop into marriage? “It developed because we were in close proximity together … And Jenny makes me laugh. I don’t make her laugh as much as I should, but she makes me laugh. And we’re a very good team.”

They’re different people, he says. “Jenny hates when I trot this out, but we are from very different backgrounds … I’m from a family of nine in a council estate. My dad was an NCO [in the Army] with nine kids and he drank a lot. So there wasn’t much left over for food.

“And Jenny’s father was a solicitor, Foxrock, three children, boarding school. That does shape who you are. Though Jenny keeps reminding me that I’ve been middle class for a lot longer [than working class].”

How does his background affect him now? “I think fear of failure is a big thing,” he says. “And your approach to being secure is another thing. [I’m] risk-averse but I’ve never been in a full-time job. I’ve been contract to contract now for over 30 years.”

Does that still feel insecure? “Yeah, of course it does.”

Where has he failed? “Mostly personal stuff. The important stuff.” He laughs. “I’m not going to share it with you.”

Leaving Today FM: ‘Can you keep doing this?

Part of the reason he left Today FM for RTÉ in 2014, he says, is that he felt he was ageing in public with the Today FM show. He had received offers from RTÉ previously but this time he had turned 50.

“What we were doing was backing us into a corner because you have to be aware of what age you are, and the worst thing you could possibly do is pretend to be something that you’re not … That was the main driver, I think. Thinking about hitting that age. Can you keep doing this thing? And the audience profile was going to get older. And radio doesn’t allow you to be something you’re not. Live radio is very unforgiving.”

He has few regrets about the move, he says, “but when I look back at it, I regret not being able to say goodbye to everybody. I feel really sad about that. I was sort of thinking, in my naivety, this is the way you do it. You don’t play people off each other. You negotiate, and you make a decision. And then you just present it as a fait accompli.

“I went in on a Friday after the show. I told them, and then that was it. In an ideal world, you’d go on and explain your reasons and all that sort of thing. ‘I loved our time here. You’re brilliant.’ To this day people come up to me still: ‘We miss it, we miss it.’ ”

Hosting a TV show: ‘I thought I was dying’

Was the opportunity to do television also a reason he came back to RTÉ? “The approach came from a telly person,” he says. “But the radio was the reason I made the move. I enjoyed doing telly but it was very stressful at the start and the first season [of his Saturday night Ray D’Arcy Show], I would prefer to forget it.

“To think that you could start a radio show with all the things that we’ve discussed already and then eight months later start a TV show – it was stupid. I should have called ‘halt’. I was getting physical manifestations of stress.”

We compare our physical reactions to stress for a few moments. His were: “Tingling in my face and my fingers ... I thought I was dying.”

There’s an interview with D’Arcy from the 2000s in which he seemed to say he wouldn’t be interested in doing a chatshow. He laughs when I mention this. “No. I think what I said was, ‘I’d have no interest in interviewing someone from EastEnders.’ And I did end up interviewing someone from EastEnders and that didn’t go too well … I don’t say things lightly. Although, you know, sometimes I regret saying things.”

There’s a problem with running two chatshows every weekend, he says. “It became quickly very obvious to me that you’re fishing in a very small pool,” he says. “And in our first year or second year, the pool became smaller, [Because] The Late Late Show started going more and more for Irish guests … and then you’re competing against this huge beast, which is older than me. And it’s impossible to compete against that.

“So the team, we did really well. We had some really big interviews over the years, and I really enjoyed it.”

I didn’t want to be in an empty studio with somebody on Zoom. No thanks. Hats off to Ryan Tubridy because it’s a very difficult thing to do

He recounts some of his favourite moments on that show. They include his interview with Vicky Phelan, a dance with Holocaust survivor and ballet dancer Edith Eger and haphazardly wallpapering with PJ Gallagher. “I love live television,” he says.

The show was meant to return this year, but he didn’t want to do it in lockdown. “There were various talks about how we would do this. And at every step I was going, ‘That ain’t going to work … That ain’t going to work. I’ve no interest in doing that. That ain’t going to work.’ I didn’t want to be in an empty studio with somebody on Zoom. No thanks. Hats off to Ryan Tubridy because it’s a very difficult thing to do.”

Was it his decision? “They wanted something for half nine on a Saturday night, and in sitting down with me, nothing we both agreed on came up. Whatever way you put that, I was involved in making that decision.”

The decision was based entirely on the current situation, he says, and it may still return. Does he want to do it again? “I actually don’t know … We’re a small country and the world has changed and people are communicating in different ways. And people don’t feel the need to hop on a plane and come to Ireland to publicise their book if they have six million followers on Instagram or Twitter ... We had some of those brilliant moments, which I will look back on with pride.”

There’s a restrictive notion of a Gay Byrne-style career trajectory for broadcasters in Ireland that always culminates in a chatshow. He’s conscious of this. “People assume … this linear thing,” he says, “and now here I am back to somewhere midtable or somewhere back down the way. And it feels great. And again, nothing I would have planned to do, but I love the fact that it’s happening.”

The Den, 2020: ‘It’s anarchic. It’s silly’

He’s very enthusiastic about The Den. Many old features of that show are returning. A highlight for me was when Ray would fight a large inanimate teddy bear called Ted who would “attack” him at random moments. Is Ted returning?

He sighs. “Unfortunately, yes … When we were going to do Comic Relief, I kept saying over and over again, and I’m sure it was annoying, ‘We have to do this as if we’re going on at three o’clock on Monday, as if we were never off the telly. This is not something different. This is the same.’ I like to think I understand why it had an appeal and I can see things that would mess with that appeal. Like a script, for example.”

He laughs. “It’s anarchic. It’s silly. It’s a complete distraction. An explosion of colour. And it’s going be to live. Zag insisted on that. He wasn’t going to sign the contract unless it was live … You can’t be in a situation where people get into a room and watch it going, ‘Should he have said that?’ ”

He has also been really happy with his radio show’s engagement with the listeners over the course of the lockdown. “People’s relationship with radio has sort of been reignited. If there’s any question marks over the power of radio, they’ve been put to bed for another few years.”

That relationship with listeners is represented in the book that they just launched, which has been nominated for an An Post Irish Book Prize. “Today is a big day for me because on Today FM we published five books, and I didn’t realise how difficult it would be to do similar stuff here for various reasons. So today we have the book and that gives me great joy.”

Later I suggest that the new Den is a rare example of something moving from planning to execution very quickly in RTÉ. “And isn’t that great?” he says. “Isn’t that brilliant? See what you can do? I rest my case.” He laughs.

Does that experience open his brain to new ideas? “No. It reopens my brain. This is the way things should be done.”

The Den is on RTÉ One on Sunday at 6.30pm