Dreaming of Camelot
31 October 2010
By Nadine O’Regan
Ryan Tubridy is hurrying down the corridors in RTE, looking for a quiet spot to do this interview. He hellos everyone as he passes, offering up quips and waves.
As he continues, despite his fogey-esque, V-neck jumper and down-to-earth manner, a little celebrity sparkle shimmers in his wake, invisible but tangible, light from a passing media star.
We arrive at a small studio, and I wonder if this is where Tubridy does his new 2FM show.
Earlier this year, he took over the bulk of the primetime three-hour morning slot once occupied by his good friend, the late Gerry Ryan.
No, it isn’t, Tubridy says. Would I like to see his studio? Off he leaps down the corridor again, all nervy hustle and bustle, apologising for walking in front of me ‘‘but you don’t know where you’re going’’.
Had he planned it, Tubridy could hardly be offering a more literal interpretation of former Late Late Show host Pat Kenny’s acid line, delivered to the incoming host via the RTE Guide: ‘‘He’s a young man in a terrible hurry.”
This week, that ‘hurry’ continues. At the age of 37, Tubridy has just published his first book, JFK in Ireland: Four Days That Changed a President.
That means that Tubridy is now not only one of RTE’s youngest and most successful broadcasters, but a relatively young first-time author too. (And, no, he didn’t use a ghostwriter.)
Not bad going, then, for a self-confessed ‘‘slightly stuffy, whimsical sort of cynic’’, whose appeal, many felt, would always be too narrow to translate to a mainstream, primetime television audience. Although the interview was planned to tie in with the publication of the book, no advance copy was available, due to a media embargo.
This may suit me better than Tubridy, as it means there is more time to discuss not only his media career, but the topic that the public seems to have an insatiable appetite for – his love life.
Much to his distress, Tubridy is among the few presenters considered fair game by newspaper bosses. His girlfriends have been tailed and extensive broadsheet and tabloid coverage has been devoted to his now seemingly extinguished romance with former Rose of Tralee, Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin.
Everyone, from his own colleagues to fans of his television and radio shows, wants to know the same thing: What happened with Aoibhinn?
But before we hit the rocks in the shallow waters, there is the book to tackle.
‘‘HarperCollins came tome and said, ‘We think you could write a history book’,” Tubridy explains, as he settles himself on a leather couch in the production and reception area of his studio, which is larger and more impressive than the one we’ve just left.
‘‘When we discussed ideas, the JFK in Ireland idea came up fast and they loved it. Diarmaid Ferriter’s Judging Dev to me is the model. I was saying to Diarmaid – I know him a little bit – that I want to make history accessible.
“No child should be bored by history. This book is the adventure of a man who leaves famine Ireland in 1848 and heads to Boston. He’s called a pig, a dog. But he works really hard and within three generations, [one of] his family has become the president of the United States, and within three years, he comes home to Ireland and says, ‘Look, what I’ve got’.
‘‘You open the book up and you’ve got this letter from Jacqueline Kennedy, handwritten to Eamon de Valera months after Kennedy was dead, and she was just saying how important Ireland was to the president. The book takes in Kennedy family history, but it’s brief. I call it popademia – pop culture meets academia. It’s meant almost as a Ladybird guide to the Kennedy story.”
The book is not such a surprising project for Tubridy. Some of the presenter’s former peers say he always looked more likely to write a history book than front the country’s main chat show.
At UCD, where he was quite a popular student, Tubridy studied history and politics, and served as the auditor of its History Society.
‘‘He was obviously smart,” says one former UCD classmate. ‘‘He was a very good auditor of the History Society and he had a natural confidence that a lot of the Blackrock boys have.
“There were the stirrings of political ambition – he was active in Fianna Fáil – though they were subsumed into his career ambitions. But the communications talent that he had was not so much in evidence. One would never have marked him out for greatness. Ryan didn’t really stand out at college.”
Tubridy doesn’t flinch when the comments are read back to him. ‘‘Yeah, that’s a fair point,” he says. ‘‘I wasn’t a show-off in college. A lot of people were and they peaked too soon. I was holding my fire. I would look at them and think, ‘they’re so confident, but why are they showing off?’
“It’s like the jock in school. He’ll get the girls, but these guys generally hit 26 and they’re bald and fat and stuck in a job in the Irish Nationwide.”
So, meanwhile, Tubridy was hatching a plan to occupy a key role in primetime broadcasting? ‘‘No,” he exclaims. ‘‘I wasn’t Dr Evil sitting with my cat and plotting how to take over the world. I was simply a comfortable nerd. I drank and met girls and read books and had a ball.
“I didn’t feel the need to separate myself from the pack at that stage. There wasn’t a grand plan.”
Tubridy began his broadcasting career at the age of 12,when he wrote to RTE to complain that there weren’t enough films on television for children.
RTE invited him to appear on Anything Goes, its Saturday morning show, to review films, and he graduated to reviewing books as a teenager for Poparama, a 2FMshow hosted by Ian Dempsey.
Now in his second year of presenting The Late Late Show, Tubridy still seems self conscious in the role, but has a nerdily enthusiastic, quick-witted charm.
The chatshow itself, however, often seems like a creaky vehicle beamed in from television’s past: the lack of A-lister firepower and reliance on formulaic content is starting to grate.
Tubridy may not mind critiques of his college days, but he’s more touchy on the subject of The Late Late Show. Asked how stress manifests itself in him, he says he ‘‘might become a little introverted’’.
That tendency to withdraw becomes obvious on two occasions during this interview.
The first comes when I ask why he refuses to watch his own performances on The Late Late Show. Surely, he could examine the footage for flaws and perhaps learn from it, in the same way as top athletes watching game replays?
‘‘It could be a mistake but I don’t want to watch,” he says abruptly. ‘‘We’ll do a postmortem as a team. We’ll talk about every guest and item, but I don’t watch it back. I was there the first time.”
The second topic was always going to be thorny – the apparent demise of his relationship with Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin has cast an inevitable shadow on the broadcaster.
Tubridy’s first marriage, to RTE producer Anne Marie Power, with whom he has two daughters, broke up in 2006. Then, after several short-term romances, he had seemed to have found a high-profile partner who was in it for the long haul; the couple were continually forced to deny they had thoughts of wedding bells.
Asked when exactly he and Ní Shúilleabháin broke up, Tubridy replies: ‘‘I don’t talk about that.”
So has Tubridy ever envied some of his RTE colleagues for having formed lasting, long-term attachments prior to becoming household names? ‘‘I’m fortunate. I don’t really envy anyone else. Sometimes I’ll drive by the Corrib and envy the man sitting on the boat casting a fly. But life has been good to me.”
What is he going to do now? Is he dating? ‘‘Are you still on relationships?” Tubridy says. ‘‘I’m shifting the interview away from that. Why should everyone know about my personal life? I can choose not to answer. I’m surprised by the question.
“I was surprised The Irish Independent sent a photographer into the bushes. Into the bushes! The Indo!” These questions are inevitable, but despite my alternating between cajoling and flattering, Tubridy is not for moving. ‘‘You know I do this for a living, right?” he says, giving an amused arched eyebrow.
Is he willing to say anything at all? Tubridy sighs. ‘‘Relationships are very complicated and I’m probably quite a difficult person because of the nature of my job and the demands it puts on me. I’ve a lot of things going on in the world. So I just don’t know what’s going to happen next.”
Thanks, I say. ‘‘Nuremberg Trials here, go on,” he says, with a relieved look in his eye. On reflection, perhaps the Late Late Show comment cut him more deeply – or at least surprised him.
Nano-seconds later, he’s apologising for being so stringent and is back to himself, wisecracking about this interview taking so long that he feels like a Chilean miner: ‘‘I should have got you some coffee, shouldn’t I? I should have brought down some food and a shovel.”
Half the reason for the delay, of course, is Tubridy’s tendency to turn the questions around: although not uncomfortable with the idea of being interviewed, he seizes any chance to turn the tables.
Where do I live? he wonders. Where did I go to college? How old am I? What are my favourite box-sets? ‘‘Is he charming?” people ask later.
Yes, he’s charming: amusingly abrasive; and eager, it seems, to be liked. During the hour and a half I spend talking to him, it’s difficult not to be caught up in the headlights of his attention.
Later, I wonder if this is the real him. But Tubridy says that what you see is what you get. This is him, he insists, in every format. Later, he sends a tweet: ‘‘It was an interesting engagement. A very long engagement but an interesting one, thanks and try not to be too mean.”
Over the years, media portrayals of Tubridy haven’t always been flattering.
The accusation has been levelled that he is possibly too politicised for a radio and television host – he’s a nephew of former government minister David Andrews and former MEP Niall Andrews, and his cousins Barry and Chris Andrews are Fianna Fáil TDs.
‘‘I think if you scratch the surface of any presenter, you’ll find politics,” he says, politely rebuffing the charge. ‘‘This is Ireland. But all politics get left at the gate. If you look at the interviews I did with Cowen and Enda Kenny [on the Late Show], they all get the same style of question, so I plead innocent.”
Will he enter the political arena himself?
‘‘I’m not going to say ‘no’ to anything. If you look at my career to date, I don’t stick around doing anything for too long. I like the idea of fluidity and change and excitement and adventure. I don’t want to be doing the same things over and over.”
Tubridy is at his most wistful when he conjures up images of what makes him happy: long walks, Connemara, fishing – even though ‘‘the fish laugh at me. They think I’m Francis of Assisi’’.
The death of RTE broadcaster Gerry Ryan made him take stock of what was important in life. ‘‘It does change your perception about your career, your kids,” he says.
But although he speaks romantically of retiring to a cottage in Connemara, he’s far more convincing when discussing a career enhancing move to England, or even, holiest of holies, to America.
Notably, he was asked by the BBC to replace Jonathan Ross for ten weeks during the summer, which he turned down.
‘‘There are queries [from other stations abroad],but that’s all it is,” Tubridy says.
For a young man in a terrible hurry, the day may soon come when RTE is simply too small for the scale of his ambitions. Or, as he puts it himself: ‘‘I don’t want to be carried out of here in a box.”