Thomas Myler looks back on the highs and lows of an Irish institution as it approaches its 60th anniversary
It started as a summer filler on the newly-opened Telefis Eireann, as RTE was known then, on Friday 2 July, 1962, starting at 11.20 pm when most people were either in bed or preparing to go to bed.
The idea came from a producer, Tom McGrath, who had seen episodes of America’s The Tonight Show while working for a Canadian station. He liked its lively discussions with celebrity guests and proposed the idea to Telefis Eireann.
McGrath suggested a young Dublin broadcaster named Gay Byrne, who had been with Granada Television in Manchester and was hosting a quiz show on Telefis Eireann called Jackpot at the time. He had been the first person to introduce the Beatles on television, on a Granada programme called People and Places. He was 27.
Telefis Eireann agreed to give it a try on a temporary basis, and so the Late Late Show was born. After the summer season, it was decided to keep it running on a weekly basis, but moving it to an earlier spot.
Sixty years on, it is still here, and showing no signs of stopping or even slowing down. It remains the second longest-running late night live chat show in the world, topped only by America’s The Tonight Show which started in 1957.
This current season will be Ryan Tubridy’s 13th to act as host, taking over from the retired Gay Byrne in September 2009.
Back in 1962, after a light-hearted, chatty start, it gradually developed into a forum for contentious opinion and debate, involving topics such as divorce, contraception and a number of areas hitherto unspoken of.
There were complaints from viewers all over the country, with many unprepared for a show bringing such discussions into their homes. The hierarchy clamped down heavily on the show, notably the likes of Archbishop John Charles McQuaid and the Bishop of Clonfert condemning it as ‘blasphemes, immoral, and totally unacceptable in a predominantly Catholic country.’
Following one show in which women’s nightwear was under discussion, Loughrea Town Council called it ‘a dirty programme which should be abolished altogether.’
Here we are now, 60 years on, wondering what all the fuss was about.
Will there be another 60 years of the Late Late? ‘It sounds ridiculous but 60 years ago I’d say they never imagined it’d still be running in 2022,’ Ryan Tubridy said. ‘It’s in a very healthy place. Irish people love to talk and love watching others talk.
‘The show still has a role to play in Irish life. You can stream to your heart’s content but you can’t download soul. There’s no other live chat show, as far as I’m aware, and I think people appreciate that. Long live the Late Late.’
Pat Kenny, who hosted the Late Late for ten years, has revealed that he was initially hesitant to take over the show on Gay Byrne’s retirement.
‘My original view of it was that it was so associated with Gay, 37 years of it, that I thought when he retired, that maybe the show would or should die then,’ he told the RTE Guide. ‘At the time I was doing Kenny Live on a Saturday night, which was very successful and I felt I could build on that.
‘But one way or another, RTE decided that the Late Late Show would continue with me in charge or somebody else, so I figured if it it’s going to be there as my competitor, well then maybe I should be the one hosting it.’
One of the most controversial Late Lates was in 1993 when a young American divorcee Annie Murphy came on the show, hosted by Gaybo at the time and spoke about her affair with Bishop Eamonn Casey 20 years earlier.
Casey had resigned in 1992 when it was revealed that he had broken his vow of celibacy having fathered a child, Peter, with Murphy during his tenure as Bishop of Kerry. Casey supported his son financially but had requested that this be kept quiet.
At the end of the interview Gay said if the baby was ‘half the man his father was’ he would be fine and Murphy replied that the boy’s mother, meaning herself, was ‘not so bad either, Mr Byrne,’ drawing applause from the studio audience. More than 20 years later, the Irish Examiner named the show one of its ‘Top 10 Moments of Irish Television.’
Then there was ‘the torn-up tickets affair.’ In November 2008, Pat Kenny telephoned a competition winner for a prize of a weekend in Dublin, £10,000 shopping money and two tickets to the very much sought-after Late Late Toy Show.
The woman, from Cork city, picked up her telephone and correctly answered the competition question, ‘Roald Dahl.’ When Kenny said, ‘The tickets are yours,’ the woman’s lack of enthusiasm prompted Pat to turn to Charlie Bird, who had been his previous guest, and say, ‘If they tortured her, they couldn’t get anything out of this woman.’ Bird laughed
When asked who would be accompanying her using the other ticket, the woman said she was ‘not particularly interested’ in the tickets anyhow or even attending the show.
She said the tickets should really be raffled so that a worthier winner might be found. This reaction angered Kenny so much that, with the phone receiver perched between his ear and shoulder, he pulled the tickets from his breast pocket, tore them up, tossed them over his shoulder and said, with a mixture of anger and frustration in his voice, ‘I think I’ll give up this job.’
There were gasps from the audience, and the airwaves were jammed with callers the following Monday morning, particularly to Joe Duffy’s Lifeline show, voicing their anger at the action. Kenny recalled: ‘I got into terrible trouble for tearing up those Toy Show tickets.’
Most of the controversies centered around Gay Byrne when he presented the show, not surprising considering he was host for 37 years. How well do you remember them?
There was the Padraig Flynn episode. In 1999 he appeared on the show as Ireland’s EU Commissioner, and talked about his donation of €50,000 to the Fianna Fail party. He also discussed the ‘difficulties’ in his own life and talked of having a salary of £100,000 and trying to run three houses, several cars and housekeepers along with regular travel.
The performance was seen as very much out of touch with reality, at a time when house prices in Ireland were rising dramatically, and the average industrial wage was £15,380.
Flynn also made remarks concerning Tom Gilmartin, a Luton-based Irish developer and investor. In response to Gay’s question that Flynn knew Gilmartin, Flynn answered: ‘Oh yes, yes. I met him. I haven’t seen him now for some years.
‘He’s a Sligo man who went to England, made a lot of money, came back, wanted to do a lot of business in Ireland, didn’t work out for him. He’s not well. His wife isn’t well. He’s out of sorts.’
Flynn seemed to attack the credibility of Gilmartin at a time when he was making allegations in the media of planning irregularities in Dublin. Gilmartin responded by publicising details of Flynn’s failed attempts to meet with him to get Gilmartin to change his evidence.
This led to Flynn’s career being effectively ended because the government would not endorse him for reappointment to the European Commission. This ‘vanity platform’ on the Late Late Show, prompted one newspaper columnist to say that ’Flynn managed to get both feet into his mouth and talk at the same time.’
A minor furore erupted in 1966 when the Bishop of Clonfert condemned the show as ‘immoral’ and Gay Byrne as a promoter of ‘filth’. The condemnation stemmed from a small item on the show in which Byrne was interviewing a number of couples to see how well they knew each other.
Gaybo asked the Fox couple from the Dublin suburb of Terenure what colour nightdress Mrs Fox wore during her honeymoon. Mr Fox implied it was ‘transparent’ but Mrs Fox said she had not worn any nightdress at all.
This response was received with laughter by Byrne and the studio audience.. However, the Bishop either misheard or ignored this contradiction, and still feeling the need to protest against this ‘filthy’ programme and the ‘filth’ which was being televised into the nation’s homes.
He sent a telegram to RTE: “Disgusted with disgraceful performance”, prompting a swift apology from the broadcaster. In any event, Meath VEC said the incident was ‘anti-national’, whilst Loughrea Town Council described the show as ‘dirty and should be abolished altogether.’ The furore died down after a number of weeks, but is still remembered. When the topic featured was on a TV3 documentary in 1998 called How The Irish Have Sex, the Irish Independent‘s Damian Corless said Éamon de Valera ‘won’t be turning on, but will instead be turning in his grave.’
The furore died down somewhat after a number of weeks, but is still remembered. When the topic was featured on the 2008 documentary
In 1992 the British secretary of State for Northern Ireland Peter Brooke appeared on the show. After a pleasant interview, Byrne coaxed and goaded the unwilling Brooke into singing Oh My Darling Clementine on a day when seven Protestant construction workers had been killed by an IRA bomb. Unionists were outraged at what seemed to be a moment clearly out of touch with grieving families, and instantly requested the resignation of Brooke.
Utterly humiliated, he subsequently lost his position as Secretary of State to Sir Patrick Mayhew after the 1992 British General Election.
Then there was Gerry Adams. As a response to a change in legislation, it became possible for RTÉ to interview the Sinn Fein leader in 1994. Gay’s team set up a show with a panel of public figures such as Dermot Ahern, Michael McDowell, Jim Kemmy, Hugh Leonard and Austin Currie.
Some of the panel openly loathed Adams, and Gay himself refused to shake hands with him, maintaining confrontational body language and staying some distance away throughout the show. However, Adams proved more skilful at debate than was expected.
During the show, a number of people phoned in stating that Byrne and the other panellists were acting ‘hostile and aggressive’ towards Adams. Byrne also had to state that nobody was specially invited to the audience.
The attempt to damage Adams politically backfired, as it appeared too obvious that he was being ‘set up’. Indeed, Sinn Fein’s popularity rating in the Republic increased significantly after the interview.
It could only happen on the Late Late Show.