Can The Late Late Toy Show thrive without Tubs? That is the question as Patrick Kielty dons an elf costume and emerges from a toy conveyor belt for the biggest night in the RTÉ calendar and the traditional starter pistol for Christmas in Ireland.
It’s an energetic opening from Kielty – though perhaps not quite the tinsel thunderstorm his predecessor whipped up each November on the Toy Show. In place of Ryan Tubridy’s beloved Xmas jumpers, his successor arrives, yellow tights and all, dressed as Will Ferrell from Elf – tonight’s broadcast doubling as a tribute/shameless plug for the movie which marks its 20th anniversary this year (and cough, cough, is returning to cinema).
Kielty knows he cannot compete with the eyes-on-stalks jolliness Tubridy brought and doesn’t try. An opening song and dance number featuring kids from the Spotlight Stage School is less ambitious than the extravaganzas of the Tubridy era. There’s a sobering note too, as Kielty references the recent violence in Dublin.
“Given the events of the last 24 hours it is important to remember what this time of year is all about,” he says in his opening remarks. “And that is holding your kids extra tight this Christmas. We’re thinking of every family who needs an extra hug tonight.”
Kielty has never pretending to be Tubs 2.0. Tonight he strikes a different tone. A two-and-a-half hour broadcast featuring elves, dinosaurs, Barbie, Ken, WB Yeats, Olivia Rodrigo covers and Irish rugby internationals can hardly be described as “understated” – but the new Toy Show is not quite as overwhelming as the old one.
The kids, as ever, steal the show. In the background, a miniature “Elfis” Presley throws shapes and and is soon all over social media. Sheamie, a Lego enthusiast from Clare, tells Kielty that the two have one thing in common: it’s their first Toy Show. Stevie from Kilkenny demonstrates his sporting prowess before being surprised by two Irish rugby internationals, Bundee Aki and Peter O’Mahony. And Sophie from Tipperary is shocked as a camera crew turns up at her screening of the Late Late and she is whisked straight to RTÉ.
Also in RTÉ is the family of grandmother Carol – they’ve come home from Australia without her knowing and she is in tears when they step out from behind a screen. Still, it isn’t perfect. Kielty is great with the children – relaxed and happy for them to be in the spotlight. However, there are no big-name cameos – you really do expect someone vaguely famous to turn up by the end and give us another Ed Sheeran/Dermot Kennedy moment. And goodness, does it begin to wear out its welcome as midnight comes and goes. In the blue studio light, Kielty looks like he’s aged about 30 years. Some viewers will feel likewise.
Hosting the Toy Show is Kielty’s most daunting challenge since taking over the Late Late. Before his abrupt departure, Tubridy had reinvented the annual extravaganza in his image. His 14 Toy Shows were the highest-rated RTÉ broadcasts this century, with last year’s bringing in 1.6 million viewers. For comparison, 1.37 million watched Ireland lose to New Zealand in the Rugby World Cup.
Tubridy’s live-wire style divided opinion. Still, nobody could deny the Toy Show was an engaging extension of his personality, combining knockabout energy with an almost manic fondness for Christmas. He was also beyond embarrassment, proudly sporting naff jumpers and delivering naff dad jokes. Could Kielty compete?
In the run-up, the newcomer said he wasn’t trying to go toe-to-toe with Tubs. “This isn’t my show, this is the kids’ show, and this show belongs to everybody, Irish home and abroad,” the host said at a press conference earlier. He described the Late Late as a seasonal coming together – an “Irish Thanksgiving.”
But will RTÉ give thanks following Kielty’s debut Toy Show? Thus far, he’s been solid at the helm of the longest-running institution in Irish broadcasting. Late Late ratings for his first six instalments averaged 550,000 – compared to 406,000 during Tubridy’s swan song season. Montrose appears confident, moreover, that Toy Show 2023 will continue the tradition of drawing lots of eyeballs.
That this year’s Toy Show should arrive accompanied by the customary hype is a testament to the regard in which it is held. The Toy Show Musical debacle, which saw RTÉ squander over €2 million on a pantomime pipe-dream, has badly damaged its brand. And yet, it has not tarnished the Toy Show itself – a reminder of its copper-plated popularity.
On the night, Kielty doesn’t quite reinvent it for a new generation. This, for better or worse, is still a very Tubridy-esque evening. But it is less over the top – a quieter Christmas from a presenter slowly, yet steadily, putting his own stamp on the Late Late.