Why the Late Late doesn’t toy with the toy show
It should be a consumerist nightmare, but instead ‘The Late Late Toy Show’ has earned its place as a national treasure
There but never in the way: Ryan Tubridy with some of the children appearing on the RTÉ Christmas special
The Late Late Toy Show returns this week. Boo to this annual tradition, said the Irish Times television critic in 1975.
That year was “particularly chaotic, resembling nothing so much as a gigantic commercial break two hours long”, he wrote. “I suppose the sellers of toys and games wouldn’t be so eager to load the studio with their goods if they were to be subjected to any stringent form of examination of standards.
“But without this, and without the mention of such dirty words as ‘price’ and ‘money’, the whole thing was no more than a gratuitous advertising catalogue.”
Today the programme is a peerless national institution for which much of the country stops to watch – but only once they’ve changed into their pyjamas and brushed their teeth.
Without having the 1975 Late Late Toy Show to hand it is unfair to judge such apparent humbuggery by the modern viewpoint. Instead we have to accept that the critic must have had a point.
Here was an idea fresh to Irish television, aired during the pester period before Christmas and stuffed full of consumer goods getting the greatest commercial display of the year. The very next year, and using the most 1970s jibe possible, an Irish Times editorial described the toys on show as requiring “an oil sheik’s ransom” to afford.
It should still be an easy criticism to make. Here is a show that on the surface is the greatest commercial a toy maker, games developer or book publisher can get in the run-up to Christmas. It is, arguably, a consumerism wonderland, in which major brands are allowed to frolic through an unbroken landscape of shiny, noisy goods.
But the success of The Late Late Toy Show comes not because it disguises this element, or forces you away from it. Arguably, it has found an accommodation with it.
National affectionsSo, although there is singing, dancing, a big celebrity and a bad jumper, what keeps The Late Late Toy Show so steady in the national affections is that its Christmas is about the balance of three things in particular: the toys in the studio, the kids brought in to show them off and the parents acting daft in the audience.
Mostly, though, it is about the children. Only the kids remember the toys. That adults occasionally remember something the host does – and Ryan Tubridy is particularly excellent at being there yet never being in the way. But this year, as usual, some six-year-old will cycle in, ream off the table of elements, or something, and cycle off again having lit up the night and social media.
It is now more than a decade since The Late Late Toy Show wasn’t the most-watched programme of any particular year. Its audience has grown steadily, so that last year’s 1.5 million viewers made it the most watched Irish programme of any for almost 20 years. (The rest of The Late Late Show’s year has been far less stellar. Its ordinary run brought in only the 15th-most-watched show in last year’s Irish top 20, meaning the show is getting an unusual midseason redesign in January.
Battles with modernityBut the toy show is a formula that has been more or less free of controversy or fashion. This is no mean feat. Look at the Rose of Tralee’s ongoing battles with modernity, or RTÉ’s inability to keep pace with Eurovision trends, and you’ll see that years of high ratings seldom come without a tussle.
Or look across the water, at the problems of British television, where the crimes of presenters now mean that entire archives of young people’s shows will never again see the light of day, and where there are generations whose nostalgia has been usurped by disgust.
And while the toy show gives RTÉ its most expensive advertising slot – €25,000 for 30 seconds in recent years – the show itself has a hard-won sincerity long ago stripped from more straightforward Christmas advertising.
The ad industry has managed to turn Christmas ads into supposed cultural icons carved from recycled blocks of nostalgia and sentimentality.
Dunnes Stores has a particularly egregious one at the moment, featuring every trope under the tree: nostalgic dad, grating prose, a light dusting of snow on Dublin streets, the foisting of a present on a child who clearly wishes Dad would stop giving her gifts based on his middle-aged angst over lost youth and creeping mortality and just bring home an Xbox already.
The toy show has the classic books and the Xbox consoles. It has everything in between. Yet, ultimately, it is not asking you to buy anything in particular. That’s a pretty neat trick for the country’s biggest commercial to pull off.