Comm Clinic
Comm Clinic
November 5, 2019

Gay Byrne: A native speaker of television with the courage of a lion

Gay Byrne regarded himself as highly professional but much less relevant than he actually was in the course of modern Irish history, writes Terry Prone

The first key thing about Gay Byrne is that he was a native speaker of television. He understood the grammar of it, the peculiar inflections of it, the dangers of it, the way to make it heard and attended to, like nobody else before or after him.

The second key thing about him is that he had the courage of a lion.

The third key thing is that he regarded himself as highly professional but much less relevant than he actually was in the course of modern Irish history, quite apart from Irish broadcasting.

The first time I met him was when I was booked as a Late Late Show panellist when I was 14. I’d appeared several times on Bunny Carr’s Teen Talk, and Gay — who produced as well as presented the Late Late, decided a much younger panellist than the rest might be an interesting wheeze.

About 25 minutes before airtime, he knocked at the door of the dressing room I’d been allocated, introduced himself and told me he was sure I would not wait to be invited to speak.

No comforting noises about managing nerves. No flattery. Just a clear-eyed cool statement of expectations: perform, take the initiative, and we’ll all be happy.

Three days later, he sent one of his classic personal notes — witty, short, handwritten sideways on a personal compliment slip. The sort of note you could not but keep, while you hoped for another appearance on the programme, if only to watch him warm up the audience so that by the time the signature tune played, half of them adored him and the other half wanted to belt him.

His mastery of a studio was unimaginably good. He would know that in row three to the left was a woman who, given a little nudge, would share some tragic secret, and that over to the right near the front was a man who knew nothing about anything but who, if he ever started to talk, would be virtually impossible to reverse into silence.

He used autocue like nobody else did, so that audiences had no clue the technology was in play.

He listened like a hawk, identifying among the detritus of ordinary conversation the gem to be separated out and focused on. Programmes like Graham Norton’s have an endless supply of A-list celebrities who can be relied on but who can still be edited, post-factum and before transmission.

Gay had nothing but the people in front of him, a phenomenal memory, an entertainer’s instinct and an unerring capacity to work out what the viewer wanted, at any given moment.

The pace, the purpose, the ad breaks were all set by him. And that was when things were going right. It was when things were going wrong that he lifted it to another level of art, because what he did was art, not craft.

If every camera but one went down, Gaybo would manage and how he did it would become a war story among the techies who adored him. They adored him because he was the quintessential pro. He was on time.

Script to hand.

Research done. Pronunciations checked. And pronunciation mattered enormously to him. He was one of the few broadcasters in Radió Éireann who loved the pronunciation unit run by Brigid Kilfeather and Una Sheehy. That precision lasted right down to the last years on Lyric. The south Dublin soft “T” drove him nuts.

That’s the shame of living a long, long life: people who know you only for what you do in your late-70s have no clue what you did in your 20, or 30s, or 40s, and what Gay Byrne did was innovate, develop standards and show constant courage.

The various histories of Irish broadcasting come back, again and again, to him being excoriated in the Oireachtas or in media with demands for his silencing or firing.

And yet he was a devout coward in some areas. Medical topics gave him the screaming meemies. He had to steel himself to do them, but nobody watching him interview a woman whose entire face, post-cancer surgery, had needed to be completely reconstructed, would have known the discipline he mustered to conduct the interrogation.

At the end, he reached out and touched her cheek with his palm so gently, because that was the right thing to do, in broadcasting terms.

It was always about the audience, never about him. The night he trounced psychiatrist RD Laing for coming on the show three sheets in the wind, the issue wasn’t his personal affront. It was clinical laying down of the law. To look at the footage these decades later is fascinating.

When a man in the audience shouts at Gay in defence of Laing, you can almost see, as Gay turns to hear him out, the cogs in the broadcaster’s brain welcoming this unexpected and ostensibly unfriendly input. It was all grist to the mill.

That’s what they all were. Bands. Politicians. Comedians. Writers. Harmonica players. He could spot the charismatic shining hungry ones a mile off. Likeability wasn’t the issue. What he wanted was performers who were interesting, different, lively. If they were funny, that was jam on the egg.

Nobody ‘gave’ to comedians or more generously played straight man than did Gay Byrne.

The technical guys loved him because he did what he said he would do, at precisely the moment he said he would do it. He picked up the microphone and looped its cable while finishing one item — plenty of notice for everybody that he was about to turn to the audience.

He moved like a dancer, suffused with adrenaline, the neat averageness of him suddenly outsize in its authority and confidence yet concentrated all the time on managing the infinitely delicate balance between the emotions in the people in the tiered seats in front of him and the people stuffed into their couches at home.

He understood change without understanding what he understood. He had no theories or philosophies about it. He was simply in tune with the waves breaking on the shore of old Ireland.

When he did the first special where the gay community talked openly of their lives in a world that criminalised the expression of their love, they knew he would be courteous and fair to them, not because he agreed with them, but because he wanted to explore ideas whose time had come.

He had a deep understanding of TV that precluded ding-dong contention.

While he never sought thesis/antithesis/synthesis argument to a conclusion, he never bought the idea that mutual battery using non-sequitur statements of disagreement or hatred amounted to discussion.

He was not modest, but he never told stories about himself and his triumphs. At a dinner party, he was either the perfect host or the perfect guest, cueing others to tell their stories, keeping the conversation going, but rarely, if ever, talking about himself.

That was partly because he didn’t remember what to others were breakthrough moments in radio and TV, like when controversialist Desmond Fennell was due on the programme on some hot topic but didn’t turn up, sending a lengthy statement instead. Gay told the audience that the guest wasn’t turning up, explained that the guest had sent this material and then contemptuously tore and tossed the whole lot of it in the air. Reminded of it, decades later, he shrugged.

No recollection of it whatever. Just as important — no need for recollection, because his life wasn’t a competition between himself and others leaving the sad traditional sequaelae of the old man: a series of yarns in which he stars as the victor. Gaybo was just there to do TV.

Novelist Brian Cleeve wrote a thinly disguised fictional version of him. The Cleeve character was brought to life by the studio brightness, the circling cameras, the red lights. Brought to a larger life than was his by nature, and when each show ended, the character shrank into a grey emptiness.

That was not a fair portrait of Gay. He was not empty. But he was not an extrovert. He liked his own company — significantly, he preferred solitary activities like cycling, motorcycling, walking and reading. When he came to our house, he would wander the bookshelves, select three books, ask permission to borrow them, and return them within a month, without fail.

A few weeks after I got home from hospital, in a wheelchair, after a major car crash, he and Kathleen arrived on their bikes to where we then lived, in a little terraced house in Baldoyle.

Tom, my husband, brought in tea and biscuits in time to hear Gay ask me, for the third time, how I was coping apparently so easily with the catastrophe.

“You’re not asking that for her,” my husband said, handing him a mug. “You’re asking for you.” “You’re absolutely right, Tom,” Gay said. “To this day, I’m not over what Russell Murphy did to me. Do you know, for the first year, my very signature was unreadable? I was destroyed. Just destroyed. So close a friend…”

Russell Murphy stole and squandered Gay’s life savings, which to a man of a generation that saved and took care of its family responsibilities would always have been a blow, although Gay was young enough — just about — to earn his way back to comfort.

But that someone he loved would do such damage to him, so gratuitously, wounded him so deeply that he had to work hard to trust anybody thereafter. If this could happen at the hands of a dear, trusted friend — godfather to one of his children — what else might? It rocked him to the core and collapsed the certainties by which he lived.

One of those certainties — the exceptional one that could not be collapsed, ever — was Kathleen Watkins. He always talked of Kathleen as infinitely powerful and decisive in their family life, particularly in the last year, when she indicated he shouldn’t be thinking of going back to Lyric, no matter how much he loved it.

He simply accepted that she knew what was best for him and that was the end of it.

Towards the end of his life, he worried that he had not been kind enough to those who worked with him, although most of us who spent time on his teams relished his rare crisp reproofs nearly as much as we lived for the brisk words of praise.

He loved talent and attended upon it like a sacrament, building Joe Duffy and countless others into major figures in broadcasting and journalism. He never offered advice unless it was sought. He was appreciative and kind and wouldn’t sit through anybody telling him that Ireland wouldn’t be the country it is today without him.

If you started any of that stuff, he would reach out for the cap and the stick and announce he was for home. But then check that you had transport yourself…