The Late Late Show: Slicker, suave Patrick Kielty starts brightly – if better guests lie ahead

New host appears up for the challenge. He certainly isn’t afraid to kick RTÉ where it hurts

The Late Late Show owl swoops across the screen, the familiar theme strikes up, and a fresh chapter begins for the oldest institution in Irish broadcasting. But with the opening credits out of the way, it’s new host Patrick Kielty who bares his talons. “The Late Late has been off air. I say off air. It’s been on Morning Ireland, Prime Time, Liveline,” deadpans Kielty, who takes over from Ryan Tubridy after a summer of discontent at Montrose.

It’s clever of Kielty to address the elephant in studio 4 – the problematic pachyderm being the Tubridy payments controversy that has plunged the national broadcaster into an existential crisis. He’s just getting started.

“We’re trying out a brand new format where the host gets to ask the questions instead of answering them at the Oireachtas,” continues Kielty, with perfect timing. Ooof – somewhere out there, his predecessor might feel he’s been poked with a red-hot voodoo pin.

Kielty’s background is comedy, and he deploys his standup talents like a verbal bazooka as The Late Late Show unveils its grand redesign. All has changed utterly. A slicker, more suave Kielty replaces Tubridy. The set has been tweaked: electric blue rather than the old Tubridy-esque scheme of smart mahogany. Still, a pillar of Irish broadcasting cannot thrive on a studio makeover alone, and the entire endeavour rests on the shoulders of Kielty.

First impressions are that he’s up for the job and brings the correct mix of quickfire wit and sincerity (with perhaps just a twinkling of smarm). The gags flow like cash from a barter account. The Late Late tune has barely faded and he’s cracking a joke about Joe Duffy and the Wolfe Tones – a zinger his forerunner would never have dared in a month of Tubridys. However, scorched-earth humour gives way to earnestness as Kielty shares the history of his family’s journey from Wexford and Dublin to Dundrum, Co Down, where he watched the Late Late with his parents.

“It truly is the honour of a lifetime to say welcome to The Late Late Show,” he says, blinking away tears. It’s an impressive opening. Yet we’re a mere 20 minutes into a 90-minute broadcast (the running time trimmed from the previous nearly two-hour marathon), and there is a lot of road left to run. So it’s unfortunate the Late Late then pivots towards the pedestrian as Kielty welcomes his first guests, the podcasting trio Tommy Tiernan, Hector Ó hEochagáin and Laurita Blewitt. Tiernan, in particular, is a regular on RTÉ, and the Late Late stumbles towards that old cliche that it’s just one Montrose star interviewing another. Guestwise, viewers will hope that better lies ahead.

One of Kielty’s strengths is that he can be heartfelt as well as funny. The mood switches to earnest when he welcomes the former president Mary McAleese. She talks about the national aspiration for reunification and, in the context of the Belfast Agreement, pays tribute to the host’s father, whom the UFF murdered. “A lot of people, including your daddy, died for it,” she says of the peace deal.

There’s a danger of whiplash as McAleese is followed by the 2 Johnnies, two lads from Tipperary who have parlayed being two lads from Tipperary into lucrative entertainment-industry careers. They’re affable, though you worry a conveyor belt of “RTÉ canteen” guests could leave the new Late Late as becalmed as the old.

Kielty seems to have picked up a few tricks from Graham Norton – specifically, the BBC broadcaster’s love of a good gimmick. For instance, there’s a live feed to a boozer in Kielty’s home town, where the punters have been promised a free round if he says “Dundrum”. He says it often, and he says it loud.

The evening ends with an interview with the soccer international James McClean, who is about to go from Aviva Stadium famous to Hollywood famous after signing with Ryan Reynolds’s Wrexham AFC. Kielty does well teasing out the complexities in McClean’s life. The Derry sportsman talks about the sectarian abuse he suffers in the UK, which he feels flows from a mindset of “arrogance and ignorance”. And he discusses his autism diagnosis. “I’m on the spectrum and I’m proud.” It’s well handled by Kielty, who displays impressive reserves of empathy.

Earlier in the day Kielty revealed that Tubridy had been in contact. “I got a little message from Ryan wishing me good luck, which I thought was very nice,” he told the media on Friday afternoon. His ambition for the Late Late, he said, was to inject a sense of excitement. “It’s kind of about having fun,” he said. “If things are fun and things go wrong, I think that’s kind of hopefully the tone of the show… I think there’ll be ebbs and flows and hopefully something in there for everybody.”

It’s been a busy 24 hours for RTÉ's biggest franchise. On Friday morning the broadcaster unveiled a new sponsor for the Late Late, with Permanent TSB replacing Renault. But while new RTÉ boss Kevin Bakhurst will be pleased with having secured corporate backing for the Late Late, the ultimate decision over the show’s future will lie with the audiences. The payments controversy has cast RTÉ into gloom and confusion.

More and more people are refusing to pay the licence fee, and the ultimate cost to RTÉ could be in the region of €21 million. That’s a huge black hole to fill, which means The Late Late Show now represents more than a reliable source of high ratings. It could be the difference between survival and ruination. That’s a heavy burden on the shoulders of Kielty. First time out, however, he appears up for the challenge. He certainly isn’t afraid to kick his employers where it hurts – and what an invigorating changing of the guard that represents.

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