The strain is starting to tell on Brendan O’Connor

Radio review: The coronavirus crisis has dulled his once-sparky morning programme

Brendan O’Connor: The pandemic flattens O’Connor’s usual spiky energy. Photograph: RTÉ

Brendan O’Connor: The pandemic flattens O’Connor’s usual spiky energy. Photograph: RTÉ

 

Is the strain starting to tell on Brendan O’Connor? Opening Sunday’s edition of his eponymous weekend show (RTÉ Radio 1, Saturday & Sunday), O’Connor talks about “third-quarter phenomenon”, the point more than halfway through long missions when spirits slump at the prospect of what still has to be done. “There is a lull in morale always at this point, so don’t worry, it’s entirely natural,” he says.

The presenter is referring to the wider public mood, but as the prospect looms of spending a third month of his new show talking about the pandemic, he could be forgiven for feeling less than effervescent himself.

Due to the coronavirus crisis, his programme isn’t as sparky as might have been expected when he was confirmed as host on the much-coveted slot previously occupied by the late Marian Finucane. As a columnist and TV presenter, O’Connor has long enjoyed exploring contentious issues, even generating a bit of friction on his own if needs be. The spirit of unity and cohesion that has thus far prevailed under the lockdown isn’t especially conducive to his favoured milieu of spiky debate. 

Instead, O’Connor has adopted an unexpectedly dutiful air, though he doesn’t always sound entirely comfortable with this persona. “We’ll try and keep it lively and distract you, and indeed entertain and inform as well,” he says, as though reading a mission statement. And certainly, he has his work cut out for him at times.

Saturday’s discussion on the haphazard enforcement surrounding the reopening of homeware stores is as riveting an item as it sounds on paper.

More significantly, Sunday’s newspaper panel, the fulcrum of the slot in the past, is noticeably flat. Perhaps it’s because there’s no politician among the guests to act as a readymade whipping boy, but there’s little fizz: even when O’Connor ventures into touchy areas such as the State’s takeover of private hospitals, the panelists are largely on the same page. Reflecting the seriousness of the ongoing situation, if the host has the impulse to lob in a contrarian grenade to shake things up, he restrains it.  

Pat Kenny even manages to imbue vim into items on Covid-19

Occasionally, however, there’s a glimpse of his edgier side, as on Saturday, when he suggests that teachers deciding Leaving Cert grades for their pupils could lead to local resentments. “It’ll be like the Civil War, these grudges will go down generations, I tell you,” he gleefully predicts.

Otherwise, it’s his interview with veteran journalist and feminist activist Nell McCafferty that stands out. McCafferty, long an enthusiastic thorn in the side of Catholic Ireland, sounds a fatalistic note as she discusses the indignities of growing old. When O’Connor gently inquires if she feels lonely, she talks about being “swept by lassitude”. There’s also palpable longing and regret as she recalls her relationship with the late Nuala O’Faolain.

But lest O’Connor be tempted to take pity on her, McCafferty rediscovers her old self when she talks about domestic abuse during the lockdown: “Why aren’t men being called out for the brutes they are?”

When O’Connor suggests men are more alive to the issue nowadays, McCafferty is dismissive.

“Are men going to admit to me that they’ve ever had an impulse to hit a woman?” she asks, “Are you aware of men talking about that?”

O’Connor replies there’s an assumption among his male friends that none of them would hit a woman.

“Why do you assume that?” McCafferty replies instantly. When O’Connor answers they aren’t the type, prompting his guest to invoke the old line, “Street angel, house devil”.

One can understand why the presenter sounds taken aback by his guest questioning his friends’ behaviour. But it’s a throwback to the fearless, necessarily provocative personality that sustained McCafferty in her long struggle for women’s rights. As she reminds her host, she was once labelled “intrinsically disordered” for being gay.

O’Connor ultimately appreciates his guest’s honesty. “Nell, it’s been an education,” he says. For sure, it’s a lesson in how a reflective, rebellious, unpredictable guest can enliven the airwaves.

With school still out, however, O’Connor may have to wait before he can fulfill his mission to provoke.

‘Elitist scumbags’

By contrast, Pat Kenny (Newstalk, weekdays) continues to sound like he’s enjoying himself amid the pandemic gloom: his conversation with author James Morrissey about the amazing world of bees isn’t the only buzzy item on his show. An item about the future of universities in the era of self-isolation is enlivened by Kenny’s wistful musings on what students will lose if academic life is confined to virtual classes. “How can [students] replicate getting hammered with a few friends during freshers’ week?” he wonders. It’s not exactly an academic concern, but it does touch on the wider, often unspoken, attractions of campus life.

Kenny even manages to imbue vim into items on Covid-19. TCD biochemistry professor Luke O’Neill is one of the pandemic’s unlikely media stars, but as a longtime science guest on Kenny’s show, he has an easy rapport with the host. Accordingly there’s an enjoyably loose feel to their discussion on the latest in the battle against the virus. O’Neill cheerily admits “the science is a bit sketchy” about transmission, but suggests “what really spreads it is shouting and singing”, an omen that doesn’t bode well for pubs. Either way, it’s that elusive thing, a discussion that’s informative and entertaining.

But the most arresting moment comes when Kenny talks to former Downing Street press secretary Alastair Campbell about the controversy surrounding Boris Johnson’s Svengali-like advisor Dominic Cummings. Campbell, another old on-air pal of Kenny’s, doesn’t hold back about Cummings’s 420km trip to his parents’ estate while everyone else was confined to home. The British prime minister and his adviser may profess populist politics, Campbell says, but in reality “they’re the biggest bunch of elitist scumbags”.

True, much the same accusation was levelled against Campbell and his former boss Tony Blair before the invasion of Iraq. But such bracingly forthright moments help enliven Kenny’s show at the moment.

Brendan O’Connor, for one, might have considered booking Campbell as a guest.

Radio Moment of the Week: Tori philosophy

On Wednesday, Ray D’Arcy (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays) interviews American singer-songwriter Tori Amos, highlighting the musician’s reflective, worldly and creative nature. Amos talks eloquently about dealing with sexual assault, the workings of US politics, her musical career and her relationship with her parents. She recalls being an eight-year-old who would disguise playing Doors songs on the piano “so my father wouldn’t know that I was completely corrupt”. But when as a teenage music college dropout she started playing in gay bars in Washington DC, her father chaperoned her, getting stick from his congregation. She fondly remembers his response to such criticism: “Is there a safer place for a teenage girl than a gay bar?” It’s a hopeful conversation for tricky times.

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