Stepping into the shoes of Uncle Gay

 

A fresh new face or just another bloody Northerner? If, as expected, Patrick Kielty accepts RTE's offer to host The Late Late Show next season, he won't just have the television critics to answer to - he'll have the whole State. Leaving aside all the usual job specifications of age, talent and experience, Kielty's first trial by television will be to overcome the lingering resentment of a small minority of people in this State towards "bloody Northerners".

And no amount of the GAA medals he picked up in Croke Park as a youngster playing for Down will help him over this first hurdle. The comments made in certain quarters this week about Kielty's eligibility for the job - on the basis that he comes from the north-eastern part of this island and presumably as such is constitutionally unable to grasp the finer nuances of life in the Republic - cast a surreal reflection on what really matters in this State.

A President may be one thing, but replacing Gay Byrne on The Late Late Show is another. Obviously then, as a self-confessed Northerner, the first question Paddy Kielty will have to answer at the press conference that unveils him as the man who would be Gay will be: "Do you now or have you ever voted for Sinn Fein?"

Kielty, using all his sharp stand-up skills and the sort of diplomatic awareness that one gets only from co-hosting the BBC's National Lottery Show with Anthea Turner, will be able to play the "inclusiveness" card: he counts Billy Hutchinson, Martin McGuinness and Mo Mowlam among his biggest fans. All three regularly pay in to see him perform at Belfast's Waterfront Theatre whenever he's back home.

While all three politicians no doubt admire the brilliance of his Eamonn Mallie impersonation, what they make of his tirade of jokes about the IRA, the UDA, John Hume, Ian Paisley, Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern (most of which are very close to the political knuckle and not one of them repeatable in a family newspaper) has not been recorded. Always an equal opportunities comic as regards which political targets he has in his sights, Kielty's material about para-militaries in particular takes on a sombre note when you consider that his father was shot dead by loyalist para-militaries in a sectarian attack 11 years ago.

Those who thought that Kielty's Northern Irish-specific humour wouldn't see him doing anything outside the area obviously underestimated his all-round entertainment skills, as shown by how quickly he became a television celebrity when he moved to London four years ago, culminating in a starring role in the prime-time National Lottery Show. What probably most impressed RTE was how he transformed himself from an edgy young comic into an all-round light entertainer, but old stage habits die hard and he was carpeted by the BBC for some less than flattering references he made about Camilla Parker Bowles live on air. But the experience did teach him a lot about the rules governing "mainstream" television: "That was an education, there is an element in middle England that makes England tick and if you go too far down that "dangerous" route, you'll offend people." Substitute the term "rural Ireland" for "middle England" and you realise how much less a risk the new mainstream-friendly Patrick Kielty will be as the new Late Late Show host.

The other apparent risk RTE took in offering him the job was his age. At 28, he is vastly inexperienced in the realms of live broadcasting, compared to Marion Finucane, Gerry Ryan or Gerry Kelly (the three other names who were mooted for the job). In his defence, he can say that he regularly appears live in front of an estimated viewing audience of 15 million people on the National Lottery Show and is no stranger, through his live stand-up work, to standing up in front of an audience and having to entertain them for two hours. Also, he's funny.

All of the concerns, though, about how he will replace Gay Byrne are predicated on the notion that the Late Late will return in September in its current format. E sources say that while the name of the show will be retained ("it's like McDonalds or Microsoft, you can't change it now" says one), it's likely that Pat Kenny will get what he's long wanted - - the Friday night slot and the Late Late will move back to Saturday.

As for the new young man's ability to handle the "weightier" topics of child abuse, breast cancer, clerical paedophilia or even the more "middle-aged" concerns of the Late Late audience, it's worth noting that a lot of fallacies exist about who actually watches the show. Far from the insulting received wisdom that it's just a bunch of "auld wans", the most recent statistics for the show reveal that 25 per cent of the audience is made up of 1524 year olds (the show has a higher youth reach than Don't Feed The Gondolas) and it is winning more and more viewers in the crucial (for advertising) 25-40-year-old group.

It goes without saying that Kielty will not be giving away gifts to "everyone in the audience" every week for the next 37 years. He makes no secret of the fact that he has the lucrative US chat show circuit in his sights, and he is a young man in a hurry.