C: Screengrab / Via RTÉ

The mortifying, awful, embarrassing Late Late Show sing-song

Most of you, by now, will already have seen the clip I am talking about here. If you have not, then I can only apologise, from the bottom of my heart, for what it is that I am about to do to you. Keep the volume down good and low on this one, for your own sakes:

The first thing to say about this clip is perhaps the most important, because it is purely factual: This was not a spontaneous outburst of singing by the audience. This was planned, well in advance, long before any audience arrived, by the Late Late’s production team. The little green flags were planted. The floor managers will have drilled the audience well in advance of the show going on air. They almost certainly got the whole audience to practice it, at least once. In other words, this really is RTÉ’s idea of a good time.

And once you understand that – that this was a carefully arranged, carefully choreographed, carefully presented segment, then we can begin to ask other questions. Questions like: what is the viewing public supposed to think of it?

For me, there are a few very notable things: First, it is nationalism, but of a very specific kind. This isn’t the Irish nationalism of Pearse and McDonagh, or Wolfe Tone, or even Paul McGrath. It’s the Irish Nationalism of Montrose and Dalkey: Sanitised to within an inch of its life. The national flag is absent, replaced with a little nod towards the colour green. The national anthem is replaced with the rugby anthem. The Irish language isn’t even a thought. This is about as self-consciously middle class as Irish nationalism can get.

The second thing that jumps out at me here is the facemasks. Or to be more precise, the distribution of facemasks, which is just about perfect. Masks, in the Late Late Show’s telling, are for the little people. There’s Ryan Tubridy, in the middle of the crowd, jumping around, bellowing that awful song at the top of his voice, and not even the remotest chance exists that he would ever wear a mask. The masks, in this setting, are to protect Tubridy from the audience, not the audience from him. There is almost no other setting in Irish society where this kind of divergence would be allowed: If you attend mass with the Archbishop of Dublin, the Archbishop will wear his mask. TDs in the Dáil wear their masks, including the Taoiseach himself. In office settings, the person in charge wears a mask. But in RTÉ, there is a very clear divergence drawn between the little people – brought in as props – and the great and the good. The message is that Ryan Tubridy is special.

The third thing to say is that this is, obviously, a celebration, albeit one that is so forced and over the top as to feel calamitously bizarre. But a celebration of what?

After all, seven days prior to the broadcast of the Late Late Show last Friday, the official message to the country, both from Government and RTÉ, was that things were so bad, and so dangerous, that one could not even stay in a pub past 8pm at night. A week later, and RTÉ is hosting several hundred people roaring themselves silly in a confined space. The Coronavirus, of course, has not surrendered in the interim. The science has not changed. Which leaves two possibilities: Either the restrictions were absurdly silly, or the Late Late Show is absurdly silly.

But of course, that gets to the root of it, doesn’t it? This is RTÉ, and RTÉ is nothing if not absolutely, totally, rigidly, and entirely conformist. The Government have said that the restrictions are gone, and it is okay to party. RTE’s response to the restrictions was, by and large, absurdly over the top, with constant fear and hyper-caution and unquestioning acceptance of whatever Government said on a given day. And this is the mirror image of that: absurdly over the top, hyper-exuberance, and unquestioning acceptance of whatever Government has said. Government has said “thou mayest party”, and so by God, RTÉ was going to make that audience party.

What we’re seeing here is RTÉ in its truest form: An organisation that exists for the primary purpose of leading the little people on behalf of the great and the good. We’ve seen it two weeks in a row: When the official signal from Government in response to the Ashling Murphy murder was “talk about misogyny”, Tubridy appeared in full self-flagellation mode the following Friday, weepy-eyed and miserable, talking in that quiet, sad, voice about how “men need to be better”. When the Government says “it is okay to have a party”, Tubridy duly appears in his court jester form, jumping and hollering and clapping hands, doing his best to shape the mood of the nation. The objective, always, and every time, is not to inform, but to try to align the national mood with the mood of the establishment class. If they decide to lockdown again this week, for some reason, Tubridy will appear on Friday night, sombre and serious, unquestioning and sober, to talk about the sacrifices we are all making for the common good. The only time he ever bares his teeth, like an obedient terrier, is when somebody his master does not like appears: Nigel Farage, say, or Peter Casey, or some American who owns a gun. Then he’ll turn from Scooby Doo into Scrappy Doo, in an instant.

That’s what it is, the modern Late Late show: Not about changing Irish society, as it was under Gay Byrne. Say what you will about Byrne, but his Late Late show regularly asked questions that made those in power uncomfortable. Has Tubridy ever, in his entire career, done that? Certainly not on any issue that really matters. For the most part, the modern Late Late show exists simply to parrot – in the most exuberant and excessive way possible – the beliefs of the political, media, and business classes.

Sometimes, though, it backfires, and looks ridiculous. And, more and more, slowly but surely, people are starting to see through it. Just not fast enough, for my tastes.

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