Gay Byrne was a wise, witty and mischievous broadcaster whom people trusted enough to welcome him into their homes, writes Roger Childs
As I write, a pall of genuine sadness hangs over RTÉ’s Montrose campus, following the news of Gay Byrne’s death. Twenty years after his supposed retirement, there are still so many people here who worked with him – on The Gay Byrne Show on Radio One, on his Lyric FM show, on For One Night Only or Who Wants to be a Millionaire? on TV and, of course, on The Late Late Show. The Guv’nor is gone.
The admiration which RTÉ colleagues, past and present, felt – no, feel – for Gay Byrne is palpable, but he was so much more than a consummate broadcaster. The talk is all about his kindness as a mentor; his laser-like instincts as a producer; his talent as a listener; and the unbelievable work ethic that enabled him to lead from the front for six decades in broadcasting.
What underpinned all of that was Gay’s talent for human relations: a natural curiosity, which, combined with his personal warmth and generosity, convinced people, on and off air, that he was someone they could trust.
He was. Viewers and listeners trusted him enough to welcome him into their homes, kitchens and cars – a wise, witty and mischievous uncle, simultaneously entertaining and challenging them and, in the process, nudging the nation forward, without ever losing the run of himself.
My own first meeting with Gay Byrne wasn’t exactly auspicious. I had approached him through a third party about the possibility of presenting a series I was cooking up for RTÉ television, The Meaning of Life. Who better to bring a mainstream audience to religious conversation than Ireland’s most famous entertainer? I received a summons to lunch at his favourite Chinese restaurant, Furama, in Donnybrook, and it was clear from the word go that it was I who was being auditioned, not the other way round.
“It will never work,” he told me bluntly. “Sounds like radio on the telly: two people in a room talking about God. I can’t imagine anything worse.” But there was a twinkle as he spoke. He was interested.
One of his main concerns about this approach from the new, English blow-in Head of RTÉ Religious Programmes was that I might be asking him to be religious, publicly. I wasn’t. (Heaven forbid!) And that was the right answer. Gay knew all too well that he wouldn’t have lasted so long in broadcasting, if he had nailed his own colours to the mast, politically, religiously or in any other dimension.
Thank you, Gay. You’ve set my mind a-whirring…”
As soon as you do so, you raise the hackles of anyone listening – or indeed, any contributor – who disagrees with your point of view. You also give them your permission to pigeon-hole you, which is broadcasting death.
No, the referee wears black. Not that that stops people wondering. If I had a euro for everyone who suggested to me that “someone should interview Gay about the meaning of life”, I would be very wealthy. But he’d never have agreed to that.
Already, I’m reading, online, comments about Gay being a master of broadcasting. That’s true. But it’s important to analyse how that mastery worked. In our 13 series, 78 programmes and two books of The Meaning of Life, I noticed that Gay was unfailingly meticulous in his preparation. He would read, watch and listen to everything our team put in front of him, but what he most wanted was a coherent series of draft questions – a daisy chain which anticipated the sort of answer each question might elicit, in order that he could seamlessly progress to the next question, without appearing intrusive or random.
Gay would then spend up to a day committing these questions to memory, in order that he could do the unthinkable during the interview itself: put his cards and notes down and listen, think and respond, instinctively, to what his guest had to say.
It’s surprising what a rarity that is. One or two of our A-list guests referred to the effect as “sorcery” or “voodoo”, when they found themselves unexpectedly digging deeper than expected and revealing more than they had anticipated about their beliefs, values or the experiences that shaped them.
Not that they ever seemed to resent the intrusion. Quite the opposite: they seemed genuinely grateful. “Thank you, Gay. You’ve set my mind a-whirring,” said Brenda Fricker, at the end of an interview, where she had spoken about her previously secret experiences of depression and sexual assault. We’re back again to that idea of trust: people confided in Gay, because they trusted him. But he earned that trust.
Several people have already asked me, “what was he really like?” as if the mask slipped whenever the red recording light went out. It didn’t, because it wasn’t a mask. Again, you don’t last very long in broadcasting, if you’re phoney. People – whether on air, behind the scenes or watching and listening at home – can sniff out inauthenticity a mile away.
What I can tell you about the ‘real’ Gay Byrne was that he was remarkably generous and thoughtful. Far into his illness, he and Kathleen (“the present Mrs Byrne”) regularly hosted parties, lunches and dinners, bringing together friends from the different areas of their lives with ne’er a thought about return invitations.
Professionally, he was surprisingly self-critical, his antennae always twitching for any sense of disapproval at the end of a show and his lungs steadfastly refusing to inhale the plaudits that came his way after a ratings hit. Onwards had to be upwards.
He accepted his three-year illness with a quiet dignity and patience, quickly deflecting pity and regularly reminding visitors – and himself – what an uninterrupted run of good health he had enjoyed before he discovered, as so many others had before him, the deadly enemy within.
The admiration which RTÉ colleagues, past and present, felt – no, feel – for Gay Byrne is palpable”
A showman to his fingertips, he didn’t like people to see him looking fragile, but he never cursed his luck.
He was endlessly effusive about the kindness and support he received from his beloved Kathleen, from his daughters, Suzy and Crona, and from their husbands, Ronan and Philip, as well as the many friends who did their best to prop and cheer him up. I hope he realised how widely and deeply he was loved.
Finally, just supposing, as he used to demand of his guests, that it’s all true, and Gay Byrne finds himself now at the Pearly Gates. What will he say to God? My guess is he’ll say surprisingly little: just enough, as usual, to elicit the answers we all want to hear…and then, he’ll listen.
Now, that’s an interview I’d like to hear.
Roger Childs is Commissioning Editor, RTÉ Religious Content.