“We have a Hollywood actor on the show tonight folks,” says the Irish presenter of a popular Friday night chat extravaganza. The audience cheers – more in quiet shock than enthusiasm as it is revealed comedian Rob Delaney is in the house. And it truly is a surprise that the speaker is not Graham Norton on BBC One but Patrick Kielty, introducing his third Late Late Show on RTÉ.
When the Late Late returned with a new host a fortnight ago, the feeling was that, while Kielty was a breath of fresh air, RTÉ needed to raise its game guest-wise. Were the Two Johnnies and Tommy Tiernan – neither exactly strangers to the airwaves – the best it could do? Look at Graham Norton, said the Late Late sceptics: his guests are A-list knockouts week after week.
But not this week. As Norton begins his 31st season on the BBC, there’s no glossing over the sheer RTÉ-ness of the enterprise. Yes, there is Kylie Minogue, eternal pop goddess. But otherwise, those arranged on Norton’s tangerine couch of chat are the BBC equivalent of the Two Johnnies and Vogue Williams. Actor Stephen Graham is plugging his new Sunday night drama. He is joined by comedian David Mitchell (a kind of mild English Tommy Tiernan) and comic Mawaan Rizwan. Plus there is a musical appearance by Mae Muller, whose 2023 Eurovision entry made Ireland’s Wild Youth sound like Abba jamming with Måneskin.
The gossip is that Norton’s bookers have been devastated by the Hollywood actors’ strike (Delaney is on the Late Late to talk about his memoir about the death of his child, rather than in his capacity as an actor). The industrial dispute has prevented big names from flying into London to promote their movies. Instead of Tom Cruise and Jennifer Lawrence, Norton has to make do with David Mitchell plugging his new book about the dark side of the British monarchy (who knew, etc, etc).
Over on RTÉ, Kielty continues to succeed simply by being nothing like his predecessors. The show starts with the sort of three-way interview that is a Norton favourite as he talks to jockey Nina Carberry, boxer Carl Frampton and fitness coach Joe Wicks.
They’re a mixed bag, chat-wise, and seem to have been thrown together simply because they’re all a bit sporty. However, the sequence finishes with Kielty riding the horse version of a mechanical bull, a device used to train jockeys. He maintains his dignity and has a chuckle with the stunt.
It’s not great. But it could be worse. Veteran Late Late watchers will be haunted by the apparition of Ryan Tubridy or, scarier yet, Pat Kenny whopping it up on the back of a robot nag. Such a vista would have stalked our dreams for months, potentially years.
Kielty brings with him the confidence of having done well in the much bigger pond, the UK comedy circuit. And he genuinely seems to love being on RTÉ – not something that can always be said of people appearing on the broadcaster.
Back on BBC One, Norton similarly blends an understated Irish twinkle with a comedic zing. He’s an empathetic interviewer and talks movingly to Minogue about the dark side of fame and her early struggles as a young woman in the spotlight.
Over on RTÉ, meanwhile, country singer Cliona Hagan is in Rathangan knocking on a contestant winner’s door with tickets for next week’s Late Late country special.
The segment ends with the duo belting out John Denver on a cold night in Kildare. This is not something you’d ever seen on the BBC. It suggests that, for all its flaws and against the backdrop of Montrose’s ongoing existential meltdown, the Late Late still has a reason to exist.