Bunny Carr: Game show host who changed how Ireland communicates

Obituary: former RTÉ presenter and founding father of Carr Communications was a household name in the 1970s

 

Born: July 31st, 1927
Died: September 19th, 2018

The personal as well as the professional life of Bunny Carr (91), former RTÉ presenter and founding father of Carr Communications, resounds with glamorous and tragic events. His ups-and-downs matched the hilarity of his Quicksilver quiz show which ran from from 1965-81 – and the PR scripts he prepared for politicians and business executives.

On black and white single-channel television, Quicksilver was a mishmash of flashing numbers reducing the amount of prize money left on the board, as a clock ticked away the seconds it took a contestant to answer. Contestants would shout “Stop the lights!” when, not knowing the answer, they frantically tried to avoid losing prize money, which was counted in pennies, shillings and half-crowns rather than pounds.

An accompanying Trinity College divinity graduate and organ player, Norman Metcalfe, would give struggling contestants musical clues, often to no avail. With such a haphazard format, howlers crept in with one contestant suggesting Mahatma Gandhi’s first name was “Goosey-goosey” and another saying Hitler’s Christian name was “Heil”.

Prelude to broadcasting

Born in Dublin and reared in Clontarf, the five-year old Bernard Carr’s first day at Holy Faith school was immortalised by a nun hoisting him up by his big ears to present him to the class as “a little bunny rabbit”. Today, such insensitivity might be classified as emotional and physical child abuse.

His parents, James and Margaret, were members of a local theatre group. James’s party piece was Robert Service’s bawdy ballad The Shooting of Dan McGraw, which was also lustily recited by Bunny’s older sister, Gladys, to the discomfort of visiting clergy. Although James had served with the British Army in India, she was called Glady’s Peace Carr, because she was born on December 6, 1921, the date of the signing of the Treaty with Britain that ended the War of Independence. She became a second mother to Bunny and his younger sister Edna before becoming a jobbing actor in more than 100 films.

After leaving the Christian Brothers’ O’Connell School, Carr joined the Bank of Ireland, a prelude to broadcasting also taken by Terry Wogan, Andy O’Mahony and Frank Delaney. He attended the launch of Teilifís Éireann by Cardinal John Dalton on New Year’s Eve, 1961, and quickly understood its capacity to weaken the power of both the Government and the Catholic Church. Indeed, in his memoir, The Instant Tree, he criticised the then taoiseach Seán Lemass for calling RTE “a tool of government”, while on the religious front, he fell foul of Cardinal William Conway in 1970.

By then, he was director of the newly founded Catholic Communications Centre in Booterstown, where he trained priests to adapt their sermons to the “open church” charted by the Second Vatican Council. However, when one of his lecturers, Fr Tom Savage, from Armagh, left the priesthood, Conway told Carr to fire him. A defiant Carr insisted that Savage was just as competent as a layman. The bishops halved his budget leaving him no choice but to leave.

Media training

Carr’s departure, accompanied by Dominic McNamara and Aidan Meade, resulted in their forming Carr Communications, which expanded when Terry Prone and her new husband Savage joined the business. It became a brand-leader in Ireland and exported media training services to 17 countries. Carr was sponsor at the baptism of Prone and Savage’s son, Anton.

Prone described her mentor as an intellectual heavyweight who changed how Ireland communicates. In book reviews for John Mulcahy’s Hibernia, for instance, he lauded the writings of American theologian Harvey Cox on the downside effects of secularisation and urbanisation for young people’s attitudes to religion.

Although overshadowed in cultural chronicles of twentieth century Ireland by fellow Dubliners, Eamonn Andrews and Gay Byrne, in his heyday people drove out to Sutton on weekends to get a glimpse of Carr’s seaside home and a sighting of him out walking his wife Joan in a wheelchair after she had contacted polio in 1960.

Carr fronted numerous TV shows including Teen Talk, which asked young people for their views on controversial issues such as contraception, divorce and abortion, for which he won a Jacob’s Award in 1964. He was particularly proud, too, of a documentary he made on a famine in Tanzania which led to his fundraising role for the third world charity, Gorta, which also enabled him to travel frequently abroad with Joan.

Mourners at his funeral Mass in Sutton were told by Fr Liam Lacey of his enduring devotion to Joan, especially when after suffering a heart attack and cancer diagnoses, he was worried he would die before her.

As a consequence of his own longevity, Carr became the forgotten man of Irish broadcasting. But he hit a chord with older viewers on his death when RTÉ carried old footage of him from its archive.

Pre-deceased by Joan in 2005, he is survived by daughters Carolyn and Philomena (Philo) and son Alan, 11 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.