Dustin in need of fresh foil as Darcy deserts `The Den'


Ray Darcy emerges from RTE's tiny Studio 8 and takes a drink from the water dispenser. Two young girls, Nora and Karen, are waiting to compete in something called the Furry Blue Telly Quiz. Darcy chats to them before they go live on air. He takes sips from his plastic cup and grins an infectious schoolboy grin. "I'm just going to talk to you about stuff like your hobbies, music, boyfriends . . ." he says but gets no further before Nora interrupts.

"Er, Ray, my sister fancies ya" she giggles.

"What age is she?" asks Ray.

"Um," says Nora, "She's 12."

Perhaps it won't have quite the same devastating effect as Ronan's Keating's recent marriage or the breakup of Take That, but next Friday is Ray Darcy's last day in The Den, and that is not good news for the nation's smitten 12-year-olds.

For the past eight years he has played straight man to a turkey called Dustin, been "mammy Ray" to a sock monster and been attacked at regular intervals by an inanimate teddy bear. They think it's all over, as Dustin is fond of musing. It is now.

Darcy has taken so much abuse from Dustin (part-time politician and sometime pop star) that wherever else he ends up he knows he can always form a support group for exhosts of The Den.

"Seriously, I think I am going to be emotionally and psychologically scarred in later years," he says.

Just today, for example, Dustin has hinted for the hundredth time that Ray is conducting a romantic liaison with newsreader Anne Cassin. Worse, he has told the entire nation that "Rayo has a dose of the runs". Darcy adopts a pained expression. "I have a medical condition and he is telling everyone," he complains.

Darcy was in his mid-20s when he started in The Den. He took over from DJ Ian Dempsey, who had hooked up with furry aliens Zig and Zag and made Dempsey's Den a programme as popular among college students as it was among schoolchildren. It was, to put it mildly, a hard act to follow.

Eight years later the graduate in psychology has made the afternoon TV slot his own. He edits the mix of competitions, quizzes and programmes. The live section is largely unscripted, Darcy providing the perfect foil for foul-beaked Dustin. It's Men Behaving Badly for children.

The Kildare man has been known to say things like, "I can't believe I have a job where I can just have a laugh all day." So why is he going? The nation should be told.

Darcy sort of sighs when you ask him that question, as though he could tell you a lot more than he actually does. "It's difficult to stay upbeat in interviews because every question leads you down the same road, that you are leaving something you love. I'd be lying if I said I was fed up with The Den. My leaving is a corporate decision, and in a way I am glad that the decision was taken out of my hands," he says.

It sounds suspiciously as if he was, if not exactly pushed, then helped to jump. His other programme, Blackboard Jungle, a schools quiz, is also being scrapped and will be replaced by one called Gridlock. He would like to do more radio but his Saturday morning stint on Radio 1 was shortlived. "It was light, not issue driven and fun," he says. A bit like Darcy.

His successor is likely to be chosen from hopeful amateurs around the country. But Darcy won't be watching.

"I will probably take a very mature view and not look at Den TV when it comes on," he says.

So it is, as Darcy ruefully observes, "out with the old and in with the new". Eight years is a very long time in children's television but Darcy talks as though he could have stayed in The Den forever. "It was home," he says.

Now he has to find a new one. A programme is planned for three nights a week on Network 2, starting in August. An irreverent, video-driven show with two co-presenters.

"Let's just say I have a couple of trump cards up my sleeve," he says. Whether these cards are from the planet Zog and currently reside in breakfast TV he is not saying.

"The hope would be that it will hit a broad spectrum. It is interesting because RTE has never done anything like this before. And the station hasn't had a great record in entertainment," he says.

But for now he is concerned with what Dustin has planned for his last seven days in the Den.