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With his jaundiced eye and sarky humour, it’s business as usual for Brendan O’Connor. Then his poise deserts him

Radio review: The Radio 1 presenter keeps his head when all about him are losing theirs. But awkwardness can creep in

For anyone looking for a carefree weekend morning, Brendan O’Connor may not be the ideal company with whom to while away the hours. “At the moment it feels like one crisis after another, all layered on top of each other,” he muses on his eponymous show (RTÉ Radio 1, Saturday and Sunday). “There’s a tone of anxiety in the discourse, and it’s kind of infectious.”

Undeterred by the prospect of discomfiting casual brunch diners nationwide, the presenter lists his reasons to be fearful. “Fires, fuel, food, war, heatwaves, cost of living,” he merrily enumerates. “How do we keep our heads when all this is going on?”

The question is ostensibly directed at the psychologist Tony Bates, but in O’Connor’s case, at least, it seems like a rhetorical one. After hearing that catalogue of catastrophe, his listeners may well need his guest’s advice, but the host has never been one to sound agitated on air, keeping his head with an assuredness that Rudyard Kipling would have approved. O’Connor isn’t necessarily a model of philosophical calm when those all about him are losing the run of themselves, but the jaundiced eye and sarky humour with which he runs things projects a certain phlegmatic detachment.

Niamh Hourigan makes the well-worn but still crucial point that framing climate change as a divisive rural-urban issue benefits no one: ‘If the planet burns, we all burn’

These characteristics are especially evident during the Sunday newspaper panel. (The Bates interview is conducted in respectfully minimalist manner.) Discussing proposed reductions in carbon emissions in the agricultural sector, Amii McKeever, the editor of Irish Country Living, talks about “negativity” being directed at farmers on the issue. “Are you saying their feelings are kinda hurt at the moment?” O’Connor asks, not sounding entirely sympathetic.


But there’s more to the discussion than dismissive asides. The sociologist Niamh Hourigan makes the well-worn but still crucial point that framing climate change as a divisive rural-urban issue benefits no one: “If the planet burns, we all burn.” At the same time, mooted environmental solutions remain out of reach for the bulk of Irish society. The entrepreneur Norman Crowley, described by his host as an ecocapitalist, says the total running costs of electric cars outweigh the initial high outlay but admits that “29 grand for a lot of people is still a lot of money”. Yep. Crowley has interesting insights on tackling environmental change, but such comments do little to dispel the charge that it’s an elitist concern, however much we should all worry about it.

O’Connor is alive to such themes. He notes that, in contrast to other sectors, Irish household emissions have gone down: “The only people who brought down emissions were Joe and Josephine Soap.” But despite the gravity of the topic and the differences in opinion, the conversation has a relaxed air, helped by the host’s presence, at once wryly removed and ready to pounce.

Alexei Sayle is laconic about the philosophy engendered by his family’s politics and father’s railway job. ‘We thought there was no problem that couldn’t be solved either by the violent overthrow of society or by getting on a train’

Oddly, it’s only when O’Connor turns to less consequential matters that his poise deserts him. Saturday’s interview with the veteran English comedian and author Alexei Sayle has an awkward feel as host and guest struggle to find the same pitch. Whether it’s the impersonal phoneline or merely weekend-morning lethargy, Sayle doesn’t sound fully engaged, laughing half-heartedly at O’Connor’s wisecracks and making silly voices that leave his host flummoxed.

Yet it’s the show’s most absorbing interview. The host sounds sceptical about his guest’s upbringing by “hardcore communist” parents in Liverpool, wondering if the young Sayle craved fizzy drinks when holidaying in eastern-bloc countries, but gets a perceptive answer: “It made me see that there were other possibilities.” Sayle is also entertaining about the birth of the UK alternative-comedy scene, his spiel encouraged by O’Connor’s palpable interest in the subject, and is laconic about the philosophy engendered by his family’s politics and his father’s railway job: “We thought that there was no problem that couldn’t be solved either by the violent overthrow of society or by getting on a train.” After a shaky start, the conversation ends up firmly on track. It takes more than comedy, communism or climate change to derail O’Connor.

The latter topic looms large throughout the week, with the tortuous negotiations between Coalition parties on the Government’s climate-action plan receiving extensive coverage from Philip Boucher-Hayes, guest host on Today with Claire Byrne (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays). On Wednesday Boucher-Hayes speaks to the Green Party chairwoman Senator Pauline O’Reilly about the fraught matter of agricultural emissions cuts, displaying contrasting sides of his on-air persona along the way.

After a while Philip Boucher-Hayes’ interview with Pauline O’Reilly of the Green Party delivers diminishing returns: the host’s formidable interviewing style doesn’t translate into an appealing broadcast style

Anxious to discover the Greens’ red lines on reductions, the host harries O’Reilly, who’s reluctant to state a party position while talks are ongoing. “You can’t take a unilateral decision, but you can have an opinion you would encourage members to adopt,” Boucher-Hayes says with firmness. When his guest eventually admits that a 22 per cent cut would be insufficient – “I don’t think the Green Party can put up with that kind of low figure” – he presses her on what constitutes a minimum figure. “You do have an opinion on this,” he repeats, presumably lest O’Reilly doesn’t know her own mind.

As a journalist Boucher-Hayes does his job admirably, getting a wary politician to commit to a difficult position. But after a while the interview delivers diminishing returns: the presenter’s formidable interviewing style doesn’t translate into an appealing broadcast style. Although authority is required from a current-affairs host, Boucher-Hayes’ deliberately measured tone can be akin to a parent explaining things to a wayward child, exuding an inadvertently lofty tone.

Similarly, the host’s analytical approach works well in his long-form documentary strands, but he can lose sight of the big picture. On Tuesday he assesses the life and legacy of David Trimble, picking through the often contradictory political stances of the late Ulster Unionist Party leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner. Speaking to the former UUP leader Mike Nesbitt, the host talks of Trimble’s hardline past and his “flinty, grumpy” personality, eventually asking about his key role in the peace process. “In purely, calculatedly naked political terms, what was in it for him?” “Peace,” Nesbitt replies simply. It’s a pithy reminder of Trimble’s huge achievement, the obvious reason why he’s being discussed in such depth. In this instance Boucher-Hayes overplays his clever approach – sometimes it’s better to remain cool.

Radio Moment of the Week

Paul Muldoon, the Pulitzer-winning Irish poet, is a reliably erudite and stimulating interviewee, and his encounter with Seán Rocks on Tuesday’s Arena (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays) is no exception. Promoting his music and literature theatre show, Muldoon’s Picnic, the poet shows off his wide frame of reference, from traditional ballads to The Beatles. Muldoon, who also plays in a band, gives a glimpse of elegant intelligence when Rocks asks what is the difference between writing a poem and writing a song. “The poem brings its own music,” says Muldoon. “The song needs music to allow it to be what it most might be in the world.” Spoken like a true poet.