Brightest light on the airwaves is extinguished too soon
What would the impish broadcaster have thought as some of RTÉ’s finest Twittered about his passing?
“MY TALENT is to imbue a project with much more significance and theatricality than it actually deserves. This gives a lot of incandescence to it that makes things that are not all that bright shine very brightly. I can bring that to the party.
“But, like it says in Blade Runner, the light that burns twice as brightly burns twice as fast. How brightly I have shone.” In light of his early death at 53, Gerry Ryan’s own words as they appeared in his sharply self-aware, self-mocking, autobiography in 2008, take on a starker hue.
What would the impish, irreverent, crass, supremely intelligent broadcaster have been thinking yesterday, as some of RTÉ’s finest Twittered about his sudden passing? As people who disdained his broadcasting were suddenly feeling a lurch of dismay that he was gone?
Would he perhaps be rather pleased about it all, that he would be the first iconic presenter to pass away, that he would not grow old as they would, shuffling towards an inglorious fade-out in a world where youth, vigour and motor mouth are paramount?
“I don’t think so. I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t be too happy about this,” said his long-time friend and producer, Siobhan Hough. “And I don’t say that necessarily because of the new relationship he was in, but because of his five children. He absolutely adored them. They were his life and his soul. He was completely devastated when his daughter Lottie went to New York last year. Now he’s not going to see them married, or hold his grandchildren.”
He was also regaining his equilibrium after the break-up of his 26-year marriage in March 2008, said Hough. “He was still very good friends with Morah. He was already making plans to go off to Disneyland with the kids in the summer. I think he was in a good space, so it’s all the more tragic.” She believed too that he had had found happiness with his new partner, Melanie Verwoerd. An interesting woman herself, she served as the South African ambassador to Ireland from 2001 to 2005, and her former father-in-law was Hendrik Verwoerd, the principal architect of apartheid.
Though Gerry Ryan’s life was always the stuff of farce, mischief, scatological self-revelation and high drama, the way he handled his marriage break-up was “one of the best things he ever did”, said journalist and friend, Kate Holmquist. “Throughout it all, neither he nor Morah ever broke faith or broke cover.”
For listeners long used to the saucy innuendo about Morah, and such things as an intimate knowledge of Ryan’s digestive tract and blocked sinuses, as well as the tabloid reports of the rich friends, the first-class flights, champagne and the lavish lifestyle, such discretion was a revelation.
For those who knew him well, it was simply further testament to his loyalty. It was also indicative of his consistency as a broadcaster. He took no time off work and unknowing listeners would have noticed no difference in his exuberant chatter.
Some eight months later, when newspapers were providing saturation coverage of his new relationship, he was equally discreet. “I’m in a lot of the newspapers this morning,” he said. “Modesty forbids me from commenting.” And he never did.
Perhaps the combination of a regular, middle-class dentist for a father, and a mother, Maureen Bourke, who was a member of the Dublin theatrical family and Dame Street costumers, fashioned this blend of drama and discretion.
Reared in Clontarf, he used to tell stories of how he was expelled by the Holy Faith nuns and claimed they tried an exorcism on him. By the time he arrived in Trinity, after a dreary year as a solicitor’s apprentice, he was already wearing costume-style clothes, frock coats and fancy shirts. “He was a naughty, naughty, wild, wild boy among that whole generation of students,” said Holmquist.
He began his broadcasting career in pirate radio, then presented evening pop shows on RTÉ before moving on to the more prestigious late-night slots. Reprimanded at an early stage for talking too much, he attributed his career in Donnybrook to a shortage of “people who can talk”.
Then in 1987, came the “Lambo” incident that could have wrecked anyone else’s career. Out on an SAS-style survival course with a bunch of volunteers for The Late Late Show, he claimed to have clubbed a lamb to death with a rock in a sock and eaten it. It turned out to be a hoax; he had lied outrageously to the public, but it was the making of him.
“When you think about it, he was way ahead of his time. He was doing the ‘ I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here’ stuff 20 years before anyone else”, said Holmquist.
Yesterday, Siobhan Hough laughed at the memory of his chutzpah. “His own headed notepaper and envelopes were printed with a lamb on it. No, Gerry was never penitent. Far from it. That notepaper lamb sums up his sense of mischief.”
Despite the nay-sayers who reeled at his coarse, hammy, bombastic radio persona and his delight in appealing to his audience’s crassest instincts, he was a consummate broadcaster. Chris Evans, the equally brilliant British talk radio host who recently took over Terry Wogan’s morning show, credits Ryan with putting him on the road to recovery after he “lost the plot”, and wound up in Killarney.
It was when he heard Gerry Ryan on 2FM that he suddenly missed the special bond between a good broadcaster and his audience, he said. “If I was looking to escape the magic of radio, I had chosen entirely the wrong country to do it in,” he wrote in his autobiography.
Anyone who has ever been interviewed by him – as this writer was on many occasions, often on legally sensitive topics – will attest to his ability to listen, to pick up on a fresh line of thought rather than stick to the script, to let his interviewee speak, to allow a silence develop, while asking the questions Darren and Sharon out there would want to ask, given the chance. He would have read the brief and could be trusted not to land anyone in the High Court amid flying libel writs.
Yet Ryan’s repeated attempts to make in into television never quite worked, despite the succession of vehicles conjured up by RTÉ; they included Secrets, Gerry Ryan Tonight, Gerry Ryan’s Hitlist, Ryan Confidentialand Operation Transformation.
While some of these shows were relatively successful, Ryan never managed to crack it as he did on radio. Siobhan Hough suggests that “television had just one idea of what he was. He was always being formatted into silly programmes. They had an idea of this mad, zany persona, but they hadn’t the budget to support it. The one place he found his niche was on Ryan Confidential. And the other one he loved was Operation Transformation, partly because it involved our listeners.” He knew he hadn’t the sleek image for a health programme, but he didn’t care.”