I worked as Pat Kenny’s television producer during the late 1990s and, alongside my colleague Noel Curran, over-saw the presenter’s first ever Late Late Show as host, which was broadcast live on RTÉ One on September 10th, 1999.
I’d produced Pat on his Saturday night chat-show, ‘Kenny Live’, the previous season and found myself on the fringes of the small group charged with the transition out of the Gay Byrne-era and onwards to different pastures. The whole experience was as challenging, stressful, exciting, frustrating and, ultimately, as terrific as you’d expect and, in the years since, I’ve become even more certain that we worked as hard as we could in taking on what was always going to be an invidious task. As was remarked by the late George Byrne in a prescient preview piece in The Irish Independent at the time, Pat Kenny was damned if he took on The Late Late Show and he was damned if he didn’t.
Having seen Pat in action close-up from the inside and the outside, I think that history will be far kinder to him once he steps off of the field for good than it was during that point in both of our careers.
Although best-regarded as a skilled political and current affairs interviewer, there was always a bit more side to Pat. Fifteen years previously, I’d been one of his loyal listeners when he presented a Saturday evening album review show on what was then Radio 2. Produced by Julian Vignoles, ‘The Outside Track’ was where I first heard Microdisney played in the national schedules before the dead of night ;- reviewing the band’s first album, ‘Everybody Is Fantastic’, Pat played a couple of tracks – one of which was certainly ‘Escalator In The Rain’ – before steering his small panel of reviewers through an informed assessment of the record. You’d hear all sorts on that programme, a reflection of the influence and breath of musical reference brought to the table by both presenter and producer, who pulled from far and wide. From blues, pure folk and traditional Irish music to pop, rock and even contemporary alternative, nothing was off limits.
Given my own background and the many years I spent hanging around bands, loitering and sticking my oar in, I’ve always tried, whenever possible, to showcase as wide a range of music as possible – new music, more often than not – on all of my television assignments, be that in children’s programmes, documentary, sport or entertainment. And I have many other colleagues, both inside RTÉ and outside, who do and think likewise.
One of the real freedoms we enjoyed on ‘Kenny Live’ was the scope to push the envelope a bit when it came to music. While the big visiting acts to Ireland were offered, more often than not, to The Late Late Show – it had a bigger audience, longer history and an international reputation – excellent music bookers like Caroline Henry and Alan Byrne worked long and hard to mine different seams and we never shied from giving anyone a leg up once a tune or a performance stood strong. During the last season of ‘Kenny Live’ in 1998/1999, for instance, we continued a habit long-forged on the show and featured several blistering studio performances by the likes of The Frames, The Prayer Boat and Sack, who provided magical interludes on running orders that, otherwise, would have lacked distinction.
Unlike Gay Byrne, Pat had a real affinity for rock and popular music and wasn’t sceptical of or patronising to young performers. As a one-time ballad singer on the Dublin circuit during the late 1960s, he tended to cut all musicians an even break and, over his many years on radio and television, has consistently supported emerging music and engaged with it. It was on ‘Today With Pat Kenny’ on RTÉ Radio One, for instance, that I first heard a young James Vincent McMorrow who, between two startling live acoustic performances, gave his host a nervous but warm interview and, consequently, left an impressive calling card. In the best traditions of the music anorak, I pulled my car over that morning to savour the item, careful to note Pat’s back-reference and the young performer’s name and details. And to maybe, however fleetingly, help me to purge the memory of Pat’s partisan support for Garth Brooks and Charlie Landsborough, the amiable Liverpudlian who, during one dire live performance of ‘Molly Malone’ on ‘Kenny Live’, sang the words not from his heart but from the autocue.
I still remember Pat’s instinctive reaction when, late one Saturday afternoon, he dropped by Studio 4 just as Sack, one of my pet Dublin bands from that period, were sound-checking the wondrous ‘Laughter Lines’ ;- he was genuinely bowled over by the breath of Martin McCann’s live vocal performance as this incredible song was careering into it’s apex. Following the band’s performance live on the show later that same evening, he went off script to compliment the band in his back-reference. As someone who had long heard one horror story after another about the experiences of young bands and musicians on the floors of the RTÉ studios, I saw Pat’s enthusiasm as one of the few areas where we had a real edge over our rivals. An edge that was never really going to translate into viewing figures, shares and numbers but which, far more importantly, was part of a wider public remit.
Pat was a bag of nerves on the day of his first Late Late Show in September, 1999, as indeed we were in the production gallery. One of the programme’s researchers, Neasa McLoughlin, moved heaven and earth to land the footballer, Roy Keane, as the opening night’s star turn and, on a show that also featured Sonia O’Sullivan – and her baby daughter, Ciara – as well as the journalist Ed Moloney among others, I felt like, whatever about the rest of the country, I’d certainly done my bit for Cork.
George Martin also featured on the line-up that night. Accompanied by a sixteen-piece orchestra, he cut an impressive figure at the grand piano as he performed an instrumental version of The Beatles’ ‘Here, There And Everywhere’, which he’d produced on the band’s ‘Revolver’ album in 1966. With another nod to the Cork quota, the string players featured, among their number, an old friend of mine from Watercourse Road, Eileen Murphy, as one of it’s principal violinists.
The Dublin-based promoter, Pat Egan, had booked George Martin for a live show in The National Concert Hall and, as part of the marketing campaign around that event, had offered the legendary producer and composer to The Late Late Show late in the day. But it mattered little ;- we were always going to accommodate George Martin and, as well as confirming him for a live performance, also proposed a light, five-minute interview with Pat towards the end of the first part of the show. The other live music acts on the night were The Bumblebees, a terrific, all-female group of edgy traditional and folk players who included the Buncrana-born fiddler, Liz Doherty, among their number and also Mary Black, the well-known singer and a staple of Late Late Shows past. All of the acts were booked by Alan Byrne, still of Something Happens and a classically trained double-bassist who now directs the show.
Gearóid McIntyre, who was working with Pat Egan at the time, accompanied George and his wife, Judy, to the studio complex earlier that afternoon and, on pulling into the front of the studio block, they were greeted by a small group of press photographers, there to cover the day’s events as they unfolded. George was well into his seventies at that stage but I remember him clearly as a tall, handsome man, in a snappy charcoal-coloured suit, crisp shirt and red tie. From the moment he entered the building until he left it hours later, he was as warm and generous as the tributes to him have been since his death was announced yesterday.
The sound-check itself was an absolute non-event ;- with the piano freshly tuned, and with the small orchestra already in situ and sight-reading their parts from scripts, George was quickly and unfussily in concert with them. He introduced himself, briefly instructed them on the pace of the piece and, together, they just instinctively went at it. Once we’d rehearsed for camera angles and once our sound team was happy with levels and balances, I was introduced to George, shook his hand and thanked him for doing us the honour. The pleasure, he told me, was all his and I got the sense that, despite where his career in music had taken him, and despite his long-running issues with hearing loss, that he still got a kick, certainly from playing and performance, if not necessarily from listening to music.
Six months previously, in the same studio. we’d hosted a fully-mimed performance and painful interview from the American singer, Mariah Carey, who’d arrived on site with a string of PR flunkeys in a slew of high-end hire cars and who’d insisted on a full studio lock-down for the duration of her time on the premises. Her team had been an almighty pain in the hole to deal with and, on the morning of the recording, our office took a call from one of Carey’s handlers asking, without a trace of irony, if the RTÉ concourse was big enough to take the number of stretch limousines that were due to arrive onto it later that day. I’m not sure I helped anyone’s humour when, on greeting the singer in the foyer, I mis-pronounced her name and referred to her as Maria. And yes, she’s an easy target but the gulf in class between her and George Martin, on every conceivable level, couldn’t possibly have been wider.
On the morning after our first Late Late Show, I rung my mother and asked her for her thoughts on the previous evening’s events. She hated what we’d done to one of her favourite shows and she wasn’t holding back. Resorting to one of her favourite local slang words it was, she concluded, ‘a bake’. Pat was no Gay Byrne, the guests were shocking, we hadn’t given enough prizes to the studio audience and there was little or nothing in the mix for her or for her friends. ‘But George Martin’, she was careful to add, ‘Well … he was absolutely beautiful’.
And, as ever, she said it better and said it best.