A politician once said that there was no sex in Ireland until television came on the air and he may have been referring to The Late Late Show. It is the longest running show on Irish TV, on the air since 1962.
It originally started as a short summer filler but it proved so popular that it is still on the air. Gay Byrne will forever be associated with the show and apart from one year, when Frank Hall took the chair, he presented The Late Late until 1999. He was succeeded by Pat Kenny and then lately by Ryan Tubridy.
It would be fair to say that, when it started, it revolutionised Ireland. With a wide range of topics, entertainment and a panel to keep things moving along, it generated much of the day-to-day chat for ordinary people for the following week. Whether it deliberately set out to shock or to modernise Ireland, it certainly got the country talking and in the process generated quite a number of motions for county and urban councils and corporations. Very few of them were complimentary.
Ted Bonner and Ulick O’Connor were regular panel members and they took no prisoners. The guest list of the show is a veritable who’s who of the world of religion, politics, music and entertainment.
The political controversies were memorable. Peter Brooke lost his job as Northern Secretary after singing Clementine on the show and there were Pee Flynn’s outbursts – how he found it hard to run three houses while earning over seven times the average industrial wage and how he described Tom Gilmartin as being ‘not well’ and ‘out of sorts’. Terry Keane and Annie Murphy revealed their private lives and rosaries were said outside RTÉ when two lesbians were due to appear in 1985.
The earlier lively incidents, and the ones that gave rise to Ballmagash-type reactions related directly to bishops. Brian Trevaskis criticised the Bishop of Galway for spending a huge amount of money building the Cathedral, which he described as a monstrosity. The other great moment related to another Galway Bishop – the Bishop of Clonfert. He took great offence to an item on the show and issued a statement saying he was scandalised by the pornography on the show, calling for it to be taken off the air and the resignations of the heads of RTÉ for allowing filth and dirt going out on the airways. It kept the country talking for months.
What had happened was a simple little game with members of the audience. Gay questioned a husband and wife about their knowledge of each other. He asked what colour nightie the lady in question wore on her wedding night and in transpired that she hadn’t worn any. The audience enjoyed the episode but the Bishop was offended by the nightie. Sermons were preached, letters were written to editors and the country was told that we were facing hell’s fire and damnation because of the filth that was being shown on RTÉ.
Forty years later it is hard to imagine, but, the controversy ranged for months until another lively incident on The Late Late Show. As the slogan said, ‘It started on The Late Late Show’.
That particular ‘Bishop and the nightie’ controversy started on Saturday, February 13, 1966 – 44 years ago this week.
n Michael Torpey