Monday nights just aren’t the same without an RTÉ current-affairs panel show where everyone is shouting at each other. It’s a tradition as old as time itself. Or at least as old as John Bowman’s Questions and Answers, followed by Pat Kenny’s The Frontline and, in recent years, Claire Byrne’s Claire Byrne Live.
In the case of Claire Byrne the shouting was sprinkled with surrealistic improv. There was the episode where the host sorted through her recycling live on air. And the time RTÉ encouraged us to remain calm in the face of a once-in-a-century pandemic by having her broadcast from her Shed of Terror. Nobody realised it in the moment – and we were too scared to notice in any event – but broadcasting history was happening before our eyes.
We’re just one episode in, but already it is clear that Upfront with Katie Hannon (RTÉ One, Monday, 10.35pm) will be closer in spirit to Questions and Answers, the OG Monday-night shoutfest, than to Claire Byrne Live. It’s strait-laced, maybe slightly po-faced. Except when it’s trying to be cuddly. Then it is unbearable.
Hannon, a former print journalist and Prime Time presenter, has said that the series will be “driven by the Irish people”. But week one seems to be driven by a set designer working through their goth period. Wow, it’s dark. Hannon is in almost all black; the backdrop looks like Santa’s Grotto if Santa were also the lead singer in Nine Inch Nails.
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But if the look is dystopian chic – either that or RTÉ is filming it in the deep, dark hole into which it has chucked Toy Show the Musical – the initial tone is wonky. Upfront starts with Hannon reeling off big events from the week just passed. “Enoch Burke watch” entered “a new phase”, we heard. Sinn Féin discovered that the “air was thin on the moral high ground” with its Sipo Snafu. And so forth.
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Then, alas, the awkward factor is dialled all the way. The four guests – including the former tánaiste Michael McDowell and the Irish-Syrian journalist and activist Razan Ibraheem – are introduced with a “quirky” piece of trivia. Here “quirky” means toe-curling beyond the capacity for human comprehension. There is something about McDowell not believing in hereditary politics despite being descended from a Civil War nabob. The Fine Gael Minister of State Jennifer Carroll MacNeill dons her finest rictus grin amid an anecdote about the family sweetshop. Dong! The big hand has just struck cringe o’clock.
It isn’t the most promising of beginnings. Hannon, though, has seen things the rest of us wouldn’t believe, in so far as she has sat in for Joe Duffy on Liveline. Launching a flagship current-affairs panel show at a time of unprecedented social strife will surely prove a cinch by comparison.
She is a steady pair of hands in this first broadcast. The debate is divided into two segments. The first focuses on asylum seekers in Ireland and the rise of the far right. Then there is a back and forth about the housing crisis.
The first subject is more fraught, and there is indeed some of that familiar RTÉ current-affairs shouting. The host, to her credit, keeps the conversation moving forward. More than that, she is no-nonsense without turning into Simon Cowell surprised in the bath by Jedward. Or Jeremy Paxman back when bull-in-china-shop news anchors were all the rage.
As an insight into Irish society and politics in 2023, it is all a bit grim. Nobody can agree on anything – unless it is that living with your parents when you’re 45 and thinking of starting a family is less than ideal.
Judged strictly as TV, meanwhile, Upfront with Katie Hannon, is off to a solid if not earth-shattering start. In the weeks ahead the host and her team will no doubt do their best to illuminate Ireland’s most pressing issues. They might start by bringing some light into that stygian studio.