Time for one last question

 

THE SATURDAY INTERVIEW:Although he turns 67 in July and ‘Questions and Answers’ airs for the last time on Monday, John Bowman has no plans to wind down towards retirement

HOW TO interview the consummate interviewer? Any such plan suddenly seems a tad pedestrian at the mews in leafy Pembroke Lane, in the heart of Dublin 4. The death of a child defines a family; for them the worst has happened. And as it happens, John and Eimer Bowman have just returned from St Clare’s national school, Harold’s Cross, from the annual presentation of creative-writing awards in the name of their eldest child, Jonathan, whose own son, Saul, was a pupil there. Nine years on, beyond the forbiddingly high wooden gate, inside the sunny, unpretentious city garden with its pear and magnolia trees and simple, concrete slabs, Jonathan’s forever young, mischievous spirit seems to flit around us, taunting the techno-idiot from The Irish Times, daring her to dream up an original question and discombobulate his old man, the one who knows bloody everything but – according to family convention – knows only five jokes.

This joke business is something that John Bowman has obviously thought about in various contexts. Much later, when asked how they produced such exceptional, confident children, he replies: “Eimer. Eimer is the answer.” How so? Such questions clearly discombobulate him but he tries. “Ah. In so many ways. She’s very talented.”

Hmmm. Can you elaborate a little? “She has a much better sense of humour than I have, I think,” he says thoughtfully – before briskly and finally putting a lid on the topic: “Anyway, she’s a very exceptional person.”

He doesn’t say so but Eimer’s mother was Eva Philbin, whose unusual status (being a woman) as professor of organic chemistry in UCD may explain Eimer’s presence among that small band of pioneers at the first Irish Women’s Liberation meeting in Gaj’s restaurant in 1972. She and John met when he – already working for RTÉ Radio and en route to a second Trinity degree – arranged to interview her following her intrepid visit to exotic Hungary, behind the Iron Curtain. “I met her for lunch in the Bailey and knew her from then on . . . We got married when I was 27 and Eimer was 25.” And no, he can’t quite remember any further details.

Eimer – who had her first child and conceived a second in the months before her medical finals, then proceeded to a psychology degree, eventually becoming a practising psychiatrist – was a singular mother, one wont to test Piaget’s theories on a child’s concept of volume on her own children in the bath. But the greatest influence, as she recalled in a book commemorating Jonathan, was a course she took on behaviour modification. “BF Skinner’s theory that a child learns almost entirely through conditioning and that reward rather than punishment is the most successful way of bringing about a desired behaviour change made a lot of sense.”

Both John and Eimer Bowman were reared in Ballsbridge and never moved out. John’s father worked in the personnel department of Great Southern Railways (later CIE) and his mother – a Fitzpatrick from Scotshouse, Co Monaghan – was a nurse, who probably babysat her cousin, Tom Fitzpatrick, later ceann comhairle of the Dáil and a member of the Cosgrave government.

As a schoolboy in Belvedere College in the north inner city, one of John’s key influences was Fr Charlie Byrne, the man in charge of the school operas. Frankly, John would talk forever about those halcyon days playing the role of the Mikado, Bunthorne in Patience, the Fairy Queen in Iolanthe. “That was my first time on stage and I loved it,” he says, with surprising glee. “Whenever I hear the overture to Patience, I still get a tingle of apprehension. It brings me back to that fear of failure of performing.” The old Gilbert and Sullivan experiences also gave him a taste for songwriting and a spur to the “old jazz” music he adores.

The honoured place of language here is evident in the small limestone table outside the kitchen door. It was a gift from Eimer to John on his 50th birthday in 1992, inscribed with all their names and the line “Nothing is durable but flimsy words”, taken from a book of Greek epigrams translated by Eimer’s second cousin, William Philbin, Bishop of Down and Connor.

To the right of the kitchen stands John Bowman’s own monument to words – a deceptively simple, two-storey structure, housing thousands of books and papers in a long, narrow, ingenious corridor, up steep flights of stairs and into room-sized landings. The steps finally lead to the roof, where a few metres away a secret door is concealed in the brick wall, leading to the couple’s bedroom.

At ground level, where we sit in John’s newly liberated, quarry-tiled work room, with its paintings and stove, Eimer conveys with rolling eyes how it once accommodated his vast collection. The transition was painful – the family had to move out for a full year while Shelley McNamara of Grafton Architects and David Coyne of Oikos builders created the new space – but John’s gratitude to them and pleasure in the calm order of his new work space are palpable.

It was a long time coming. Later, when asked about the loss of Jonathan and its effect on family life, he pauses, then answers haltingly in terms of a life force temporarily drained: “One thing it actually did was it delayed this project . . . It was quite hard to get over without . . . I know we went and worked through it but I find it hard to measure what impact it had on stamina. We got through it.”

They got through it partly in a way made visible to the outside world, in the hugely attractive book of memories and tributes to Jonathan assembled by John – who takes obvious pride in his cover design – with Eimer. The book is distinguished by a four-page “afterword” by Abie, whose courageous, clear-sighted take on his older brother amounted almost to a dissenting judgment two years after his death. “As time went on, I felt myself increasingly playing the ‘bad boy’ at home, reminding my parents of Jonathan’s failings when I felt they were being overly romantic about him,” he wrote.

That the family was able to compromise and accommodate this, publicly, at such a time, possibly explains why – as one observer put it – “you’d spot a Bowman child half a mile off”. Today Abie is a helpful, busy presence in the house. Last week he received an MLitt from Trinity for his peace studies thesis How Many Comedians Does it Take to Change a Government?and has taken political-comedian show, Jesus: The Guantanamo Yearsto Edinburgh. “It made money, I know, because I own 5 per cent of it,” says his father.

Emma, the only daughter, is a practising psychotherapist and “a very good gardener, responsible for all the lovely lettuce and greens out the back”, says her father. Daniel, the youngest, a second-year business student in Trinity, “is the businessman in the family. That was a total surprise,” he says happily.

AS WE TALKED, John didn’t know that, as he presided over the presentation of the national media awards that night, the final envelope handed to him would declare him the recipient of an award for his own outstanding contribution to Irish media over the past 40 years. On Monday, after 21 years of argy-bargy, he presides over the final Questions and Answers.

Though he turns 67 in July, he looks and sounds nothing like a man winding down towards retirement. As recently as February, the show was attracting audiences of over 450,000 – with an average draw of between 310,000 and 350,000 – extraordinary pulling power for a no-bells-or-whistles current affairs programme aired at a late hour on a Monday.

No panellist ever took it lightly. Even the most flippant guests worriedly rang around for a current affairs crash course. Seasoned cabinet ministers quaked with nerves beforehand; one confessed as we had our noses powdered that he hadn’t slept for several nights. But Bowman was also known to ring people following a show to praise their contribution – a huge fillip for nervous newbies, who were always discouraged from using notes.

Before going on air, panellists always got the courteous spiel about keeping it tight. “The show goes far faster than you imagine. People think it’s an hour long, but it’s not,” he would explain. Back in the hospitality room, happy to argue the toss about topics raised until the last guest departed, he would be heard lamenting a question that had to be dropped or didn’t get enough air.

Today, he doesn’t even wait for a question, just gallops away with what’s on the top of his mind. “People ask me am I going to miss Questions and Answers,and I will. I will miss it. But it’s also true to say that the one thing I won’t miss is trying to get through the agenda we attempt, with the speakers we have and a duty to bring the audience in, in 50 minutes. I really regret that I didn’t just refuse to do it unless we had another 10 minutes. Far too often, what I’m working at is hiding the fact that it’s 50 minutes and not an hour. It really gets to me every Monday. They gave me an extra panellist about four or five years ago and took about four or five minutes off the programme at the same time. They just thought the programme needed speeding up. Perhaps it did,” he says, clearly unconvinced.

To illustrate, he mentions a recent show with a cabinet minister, a senior journalist and trade unionist on the panel – all mothers, crucially, when a proposed question was to ask for their thoughts on the French justice minister who was back at her desk three days after a Caesarean delivery. “But time ran out,” he sighs. “I would have opened with that question. It’s a huge topic. More than that, I wouldn’t have known what way the panel would have spoken. Most of the time, I tend to know the views of the panel and I reckon that people who follow the programme might be the same, so I don’t think often enough we get to areas where you’re getting people offtheir subject, and I think that’s what programmes like Questions and Answersshould be doing much more often. Yes, I fought for more time, but looking back on it now, I should have just said it’s undoable.”

IS IT POSSIBLE – despite the viewing figures – that the critics are right? That the show was getting tired, the politicians more pedestrian as government ministers welched out, the audiences more predictable? He nods agreement with startling vigour. “I’ll tell you what was wrong with Questions and Answers– and I don’t think my team necessarily thought it was the funniest thing ever – but Newton Emerson had an article in The Irish Times[on March 18th] when the end was announced. I roaredwith laughter. One of the panellists was called Mona Lott,” he says, almost gurgling. (Bowman was John Ploughman, the Fianna Fáil junior minister was Pat Bogman, the Fine Gael senior spokesman Dermot Grocer. The panel also included “Union of Quango Workers and Non-Workers chairman Mack Looney, anti-poverty pro-children anti-racism campaigner Mona Lott and Sunday supplement socialite Hosanna de Burger”.) “Absolutely terrific. It captured all the weaknesses of the programme. It certainly put the boot into us. I thought he was bang on.”

But now that the deeply self-critical Bowman has spent recent days trawling through the 21 years of questions for Monday’s archive-based programme, he has come through it with a “higher opinion” of the show overall. “The most important bit was in the last three weeks and that was Michael O’Brien [the audience member who outlined the sexual, physical and emotional abuse he suffered as a child at an industrial school]. It was just the way he told the story”.

Next comes the late Brian Lenihan, his ill-fated presidential campaign in 1990 and the controversy surrounding a controversial call to president Hillery, as a Fianna Fáil government teetered on the brink. “His first trouble came on Questions and Answers. There’s a theory in some circles that we were in on a [Fine Gael] conspiracy and I believe there could well have been a conspiracy to tackle Brian, but . . . it was hatched in the Fine Gael back room. They knew our editorial values and it was very easy to spring a trap on Brian.”

Bowman’s theory is that Fine Gael anticipated the kind of question that would appeal to the editorial team, offered Garrett FitzGerald as a late replacement for Jim Mitchell knowing Questions and Answerswouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth, and the scene was set. “So when the question came in from the Fine Gael side about the powers of the president to decline to dissolve the Dáil, that’s when Garrett came in and said ‘I was in the Park’. It was perfectly legitimate politics to do it but I’m just saying that Questions and Answers was not in on it.”

Other memorable moments included the refusal of Sinn Féin’s Pat Doherty to condemn the killing of Det Garda Jerry McCabe – “that raised a huge storm”. But in tandem with such outcries he has noticed the slow, incremental change and shift in policy around the North through such questions as: “Is Peter Brookes’s offer on talks with the IRA a kite or a gaffe?” Easy to say now that it was a kite; not back then.

FUNNY MOMENTS INCLUDED desperate attempts by Des O’Malley – champion of free trade but also a TD for Limerick – to explain the Shannon stopover to Nell McCafferty and John Gormley’s response to a question about the merits of giving money to someone on the street. “He became quite indignant. He said ‘I gave a fellow a quid the other day and then I saw him going into a bookies’ shop’, as if John still owned the pound. I wish there were more of those,” he says wistfully.

The end of his tenure came more quickly than expected. Despite a broad agreement that he would move on to some history projects marking RTÉ’s 50th anniversary in 2011, he thought he might do another year. “So in those terms, I was a bit disappointed perhaps . . . If they’d asked me, I would have done another year. But when they took the decision on timing, when we had agreed the broad change of gear, I had nothing but relief in a way. I now have such a focus on history and I suppose now I’m going to be working more and more as a historian, both in print and broadcasting and in radio.”

And that’s a whole other interview. In the words of none other than Enoch Powell, John Bowman’s PhD thesis became “the essential key to understanding British and Irish policy towards Ulster”. It was eventually published under the title De Valera and the Ulster Question 1917-1973.

He has emphatic views on how history should be done on television: honour the primacy of research and the script; less of the impressionist, celebrity-filtered, movie-making produced by failed actors. He also notes that all five documentaries made by him were backed by independent producers.

His approach to history and television is summed up in his answer to the hackneyed old question about his most memorable moment on television. It occurred during the referendum count on the Belfast Agreement. A detailed RTÉ/Lansdowne exit poll had been designed, for which he had worked out “a particular mathematical formula based on six variables”. So as the official results poured in, he and his analysts, Paul Loughlin, Noel Whelan and Richard Sinnott, were able to feed all this information into their cerebral mincers, allowing John Bowman to look into the camera and say “leave aside who voted north or south; of the people on the island of Ireland, 85 per cent voted for this agreement”. Never before in the history of the people who live in the geographical space we call Ireland had they been in agreement about what should happen next, he marvels. “That’s why I thought the vote was so important. It was self-determination.”

JOHN BOWMAN:

Born

Dublin, 1942

Educated

Belvedere College SJ and Trinity College Dublin, where he gained a PhD in political science and was awarded an honorary fellowship last month.

Career path

Historian and broadcaster, who has worked in broadcasting for 47 years. Winner of two Jacob’s Awards in 1970 and 1981 for current affairs and a national media award this week for outstanding contribution to Irish media over the last 40 years. Questions and Answers, which he has chaired for 21 years, ends its run on Monday.

Publications

These include De Valera and the Ulster Question, 1917-1973; Jonathan: Jonathan Philbin Bowman – Memories, Reflections, Tributes; Portraits: Belvedere College, Dublin, 1832-1982