We believe in one Gaybo, the father, the almighty, maker of TV heaven on Earth
RTÉ marks Gay Byrne’s 60 years in broadcasting with highlights from ‘The Meaning of Life’
Does He exist, this divine figure we imagine? If so, how does He allow bad things to happen? And what would you say – following a long and eventful life, hopefully – when you finally met Him?
At some point, we have all asked these questions about Gay Byrne.
Benign but indifferent, all knowing but inscrutable, the godhead of Irish broadcasting is a figure that commands faith. Richard Branson recalls asking Irish kids whom they believed in, whether Catholic or Protestant: “Gay Byrne,” they replied.
Looking at the man himself in Once More With Meaning (RTÉ One, Wednesday, 9.30pm), white of hair and graven of face, you see their point. All that’s missing is the beard.
This is a compendium of clips from Byrne’s interview show, The Meaning of Life, broadcast to mark his 60 years in TV and radio. In 2009, when the programme began, it looked like a retirement hobby for the preeminent interviewer. It has since generated 13 series in which awe-struck celebrities wrestle with soul-searching one-on-one questions that skew religious.
Much has been said about Byrne’s apparent ambivalence on this matter, never confirming nor denying his belief in an Almighty. But it always struck me as a broadcaster’s ticket to heaven, or, at the very least, an audition tape for the role of St Peter.
If, many years from now, you find yourself at the Pearly Gates and an immaculately dressed man with a singsong voice unravels your worthiness with a few short questions, don’t be surprised. Roll it there, Gabriel.
The uncomfortable thing about Once More With Meaning, mingling highlights with recent tributes to Byrne himself, is how frequently people speak of Gay in the past tense. Diagnosed with cancer two years ago, Byrne is not well, but the appearance of a lonely trumpet player, forlornly playing on a park bench, gives the show an uneasily valedictory quality.
Some of the interviewees would beatify Byrne in his own lifetime as “an icon” (Charles Spencer), someone with “a mystique about him” (Eamon Dunphy), or a man in possession of “some sorcery” (Brenda Fricker). But Byrne’s genius has always been to allow people to speak, to give attention without pressure, and do something God never appears to do – to listen.
“What will you say to Him, Her, It?” Byrne often asks, a question that presupposes the existence of a God. None of the answers are as interesting as what people will say to Gay, though.
Byrne is the nation’s confessor, and a profanely unguarded Colin Farrell, a genial Michael Parkinson and a stunned Andrea Corr almost say as much. People are so compelled to speak the truth to him that even Bono loses his feed-the-world carapace when discussing U2’s offshore tax arrangements.
“Why can’t U2 be tough in business?” he says, discussing the only other certainty in life, and certainly the easier one to avoid. “This thing of the warm fuzzy feeling … I want people to get over that. Because that’s not who I am.” Amen.
While everyone remembers Stephen Fry, ruthlessly admonishing “a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God”, as Byrne reels from the heat of his response, or, perhaps, the querulous Bob Geldof, so imprinted in faith that even his rejections end in prayer (“Is there a God?” “No. Thank God.”), the most intriguing dissenter is Terry Wogan.
Like Maeve Binchy, Wogan has since left the world, and that makes the words of this other revered Irish broadcaster seems weightier. “I didn’t flee to God. I was extremely resentful,” Wogan says, remembering the death of his infant daughter, Vanessa. “Of God?” Byrne interjects. “Of fate,” Wogan says flatly.
Eamon Dunphy, a true believer, is praying for a second coming. “I would want to see him back,” he says. “He’s one of the reassuring figures for me. If Gay’s there, it’s all right.”