Sarah McInerney and Cormac Ó hEadhra have transformed Drivetime into compelling radio

Ó hEadhra’s focused outrage and McInerney’s cooler tenaciousness has rejuvenated one of RTÉ Radio's flagship shows

Sarah McInerney and Cormac Ó hEadhra: driving Drivetime to new heights

Sarah McInerney and Cormac Ó hEadhra: driving Drivetime to new heights

 

Wear masks, make short trips to households for goodies and avoid the viral menace lurking at every turn: listening to the advice for safe seasonal celebrations on Drivetime (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays) one could be forgiven for thinking it’s Halloween rather than Christmas. And that’s only in the Republic, where the mood is positively festive. Elsewhere, real horrors are unfolding.

Talking to Drivetime co-host Sarah McInerney on Wednesday, Dr David Nabarro of the World Health Organisation praises the efforts of Irish authorities in tackling Covid-19 as it surges across Europe, while musing on the Hobson’s choice between risking increased infections by opening up or damaging public morale by closing down again. Either way, Nabarro suggests limiting family visits if possible and the wearing of face masks when socialising with relatives, “at the same time as having a good laugh”. Nabarro sounds genuine in his latter wish, but so restricted is this vision of festivities that staying at home suddenly seems attractive. Which of course is probably his intention.

Even so, McInerney and her on-air partner Cormac Ó hEadhra can allow themselves a little celebration as an otherwise grim 2020 draws to a conclusion. After a year that saw Radio 1 undergo its biggest changes in a decade (triggered as much by Marian Finucane’s still-shocking death and Sean O’Rourke’s retirement as by strategy), the rejuvenated Drivetime has become the most compelling slot on the station’s revamped schedule.

Cormac Ó hEadhra could not hide his exasperation when interviewing Moyagh Murdock of Insurance Ireland about a Central Bank report into dual pricing. Photograph: RTÉ
Cormac Ó hEadhra could not hide his exasperation when interviewing Moyagh Murdock of Insurance Ireland about a Central Bank report into dual pricing. Photograph: RTÉ

This is mainly down to the presenters, who are somehow more relaxed yet also more dogged than Mary Wilson, their earnestly methodical predecessor. McInerney, for instance, sounds personable and sympathetic as she pitches listeners’ questions about airline refunds to travel journalist Rory Boland. But she shows her assertive side on Wednesday – “flying solo” in Ó hEadhra’s absence – when she interviews Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) leader Steve Aiken about the nightmare before Christmas that is the North’s deteriorating Covid situation.

Prickly atmosphere

Asked what has gone wrong, Aiken says people aren’t following regulations, which he ascribes to the bad example set by the crowds attending IRA member Bobby Storey’s funeral in June. The atmosphere grows more prickly when he describes Dr Gabriel Scally as a “so-called public-health expert” for calling on Aiken’s UUP colleague Robin Swann to resign as health minister. Meanwhile, McInerney sounds irked as she pushes back on her guest’s assertions.

It’s an arresting if dispiriting exchange. Indulging in such testy point-scoring amid an ongoing health disaster doesn’t reflect too well on Aiken, but it’s indicative of the general political discourse in the North. McInerney’s conversations with political figures south of the Border aren’t quite as ill-tempered, but she’s palpably frustrated as Minister for Justice Helen McEntee dodges questions about ministerial transparency in a proposed new judicial appointments process.

Sarah McInerney showed her assertive side when she interviewed Ulster Unionist Party leader Steve Aiken about the North’s deteriorating Covid-19 situation. Photograph: RTÉ
Sarah McInerney showed her assertive side when she interviewed Ulster Unionist Party leader Steve Aiken about the North’s deteriorating Covid-19 situation. Photograph: RTÉ

Ó hEadhra, meanwhile, continues to combine gregariousness with withering disdain for the slightest whiff of male bovine excrement. On Monday, he employs the latter trait when interviewing Moyagh Murdock of Insurance Ireland about a Central Bank report into dual pricing, whereby long-term customers are charged higher premiums than new ones. Murdock explains dual pricing is an “incentive” for consumers to seek “new products”. She adds that the practice exists across the services industry, prompting Ó hEadhra to remind his guest: “We’re talking to you about the insurance market.” After more evasive corporate public-relations speak about “getting the balance right”, the host cannot hide his exasperation. “This is breathtaking, Moyagh,” he says. “The insurance companies cream it. Explain to me how I’m wrong.”

Of course, it’s doubtful such vocal indignation will make any difference to the cost of insurance premiums. But it certainly makes for stimulating radio, particularly when Ó hEadhra’s focused outrage is coupled with McInerney’s (usually) cooler tenaciousness. They are aided by longer-serving Drivetime assets, such as reporter John Cooke whose stories on direct provision are vital listening. Moreover, amid the on-air arguments, the co-hosts sound like they’re enjoying themselves, an all-too-rare quality at the moment.

Much-needed reflection

As a tumultuous year draws to a close, some much-needed reflection arrives courtesy of Drama On One: John Boorman’s Nature Diary (RTÉ Radio 1, Sunday), in which the veteran English film director recounts his 2020, immersed in the Co Wicklow countryside that has been his home for half a century. It’s not actually a radio play, rather a meditation on age, memory and landscape adapted from his book of the same name. But Boorman’s reading imbues his own words with a nuance, spareness and poignancy as resonant as the best theatre.

The internationally-renowned film-maker, responsible for such seminal movies as Point Blank and Deliverance, is now 87 and of limited mobility, so his Wicklow home has become “my minute, vast universe”, his keen eye further sharpened by a pandemic that has “stopped the clocks, locked us up”. As Boorman observes the flora and fauna around him, he also looks back on his life, musing on the Himalayan larch he planted in memory of his late daughter Telsche and recalling the Battle of Britain dogfights he witnessed as a child.

But two motifs recur and intertwine: his fragility as the years advance (“Old age is a series of retreats”) and the looming permanence of a large oak tree near his home, which he can no longer reach using his walker. When Boorman eventually makes it to the tree, helped by his son Lee, the scene is deftly drawn and recounted with quiet restraint, yet has the emotional impact one expects from such an accomplished artist. Meanwhile, for all that Boorman’s writing doesn’t flinch from hardship and mortality, it is also life-affirming. “The beauty and mystery of nature can salve us,” he says, “but only laughter and a sense of the absurd can sustain us.” After the past year, it seems a fitting festive message.

Radio Moment of the Year: Trying times for tired Tannenbaums

On Lunchtime Live (Newstalk), host Andrea Gilligan wonders what can be done to help wilting Christmas trees, an increased problem this year as people put up decorations earlier than usual. Talking to tree farmer Isaac Wheelock, Gilligan asks, “Is there any way back for the poor old trees?” Wheelock’s answer is to the point: “No.”

He suggests some stopgap panaceas, from additional carpet under the tree to a water stand, but the central fact remains: “At this stage, if it’s dead, it’s dead.” For anyone with a drooping tree, Wheelock’s advice is equally simple: “Get a new one or put up with the one that you have.” Gilligan commends her guest’s bluntness, but her chuckles suggest that she knows the morbidly funny item is an apposite item for this surreal season.

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