Making a living from being a boor
Brendan O'Connor is the star of Charity You're a Star. His brand of viciousness is essential to the show's success. By Scott Miller.
The PR girls say it straight out. Brendan O'Connor is the star of the show. The failed Cork comic has found his métier. Boorish viciousness. It works on Charity You're a Star. The show would not work without him. And Charity You're a Star certainly works.
It has audiences of up to 600,000. Astonishing for this time of the year. Better than Eddie Hobbs (remember him?).
The theatre, crowded with over 1,000 people, most of them not yet teenagers, explodes into rapturous cheers as four politicians bound on to the stage. Billy Keheller, Dan Boyle, Michael McCarthy and Frank Feighan are the third act to perform on Tuesday night's show. Its the kind of reception the two senators and two TDs have got prior to each of their six performances over the previous nine days. Belting into an amateurish rendition of 'Lean on Me', the crowd, many wearing t-shirts emblazoned with the names of the benefiting charities, sway in appreciation.
Dan Boyle, the Green party TD for Cork South Central, is doing his re-election chances wonders. His fellow TD, Billy Kelleher, of Cork North Central, has less re-election worries but Micheal McCarthy, the young Labour Party senator, is looking to increase his Cork South West vote from 9 per cent in 2002. Later he will joke that it was a close-run thing getting his party's approval to appear: "It was only after Ruairí Quinn and Micheal D had an arm wrestle over it."
In Tuesday night's vote, however, the 'Politicians' are to be unsuccessful. Beaten into fifth place by a travel-show presenter, a soap actress, a TG4 weatherman, and an ex-footballer. After the show, it is clear that John Aldridge, the footballer, desperately wants to lose and has done everything anyone could do to achieve, that but without success so far. He wants to go home to Liverpool. He can't sing, doesn't sing, but keeps getting voted in.
Were there a vote for the judges Brendan O'Connor would be voted out. But he is the show's defining personality.
He had challenged the politicians on Sunday night to come back on Tuesday with the Village People's 'YMCA'. They promised and then balked at dressing up in the San Francisco gay icons' trademark cowboy, builder, indian chief and US policemen outfits. The show's producers support the politicos' claim that they "were more than up for it" but had been constrained by rehearsal-time limits on attempting such a complicated act for tonight. There is even talk of a return by the four to perform 'YMCA' during the final show's interval on Sunday.
After Tuesday night's show the 6ft 4in, heavy-set journalist does not mingle with the contestants, fellow judges and their families in the concrete chamber that suffices as a green room in the Helix.
A former pupil of Coláiste an Spiorad Naoimh, Bishopstown, O'Connor's rise to prominence has involved several years hard work at self-promotion. He describes himself as a "a rocker, a raver and a lover". He first attempted to make a name for himself doing comedy routines and singing with a number of bands while he studied for an Arts degree at UCC. One of his best-known party pieces is a rendition of the George Michael song 'Faith'. While at UCC he was also involved in the philosophical debating society.
In a recent RTÉ interview, he traced back an interest in argument and literature to the influence of his now deceased older brother Brian, who read books to him at an early age. Moving to Dublin in the mid-'90s, he started freelance work with the Sunday Independent and developed an act performing satirical poetry at the Comedy Club Cellar in the International Bar.
It was here that RTÉ producers noticed his attempts to replicate the successful BBC comedy current-affairs programme Have I Got News For You'. As a team-leader on the show Don't Feed the Gondolas, O'Connor joined fellow comedians Sean Moncrief and Dara Ó Briain.
After two successful series, Moncrief and Ó Briain abandoned the show in 2001 leaving O'Connor to take over as host. The show's viewing figures nose-dived. O'Connor's penning of a Sunday Independent article bemoaning the lack of talent on the Dublin comedy circuit may have been partly responsible for the programmes difficulties in attracting comedians. It was axed by the channel after that year's run. But O'Connor was already developing his other ventures, having recorded a number one single, 'Who's in the House', as his comic alter-ego, Fr Brian.
His journalism was also being noticed by more than just his fellow comedians. A February 2001 article attacking anti-ageism provoked the ire of the Equality Authority. Niall Crowley, CEO of the Equality Authority, said in a statement to the Sunday Independent: "One had hoped that with the departure of Mary Ellen Synon extreme attacks on disadvantaged groups would cease." Crowley went on to question the sincerity of Angus Fanning and Gavin O'Reilly's apologies at the time over Ellen Synon saying: "Were they just in fact lying in the long grass until the dust settled? Or were they waiting for their 'cloning factory' to produce another journalist of extreme views who would gladly attack any disadvantaged group to sell newspapers."
As might have been expected, Crowley's concern did little to hinder O'Connor's Sunday Independent career with his humorous opinion articles becoming a near-permanent feature of the paper's front page. By 2003 he was firmly entrenched in the paper and it's culture of gratuitous self-praise. The former comedian even exchanged plaudits with the Sunday Independent's inner circle to a previously unforeseen level – one article included praise for Anne Harris's (the paper's deputy editor) "unforgettable" ass.
Other O'Connor articles from this time extolled the virtues of the paper's editor (and Anne Harris's partner) Angus Fanning and the fact that columnist (and Anne Harris's husband) Eoghan Harris had "got it right all along" in his vocal support for the invasion of Iraq.
He married fellow journalist Sarah Caden – daughter of John Caden, an independent television producer and political and personal associate of Eoghan Harris for over 30 years. The couple are said to share a passion for gourmet food and foreign travel which are constant themes of the Sunday Independent's Life magazine, which they both work for. (O'Connor took over editorial duties at the glossy supplement in early 2004.)
However, it has not all been plain sailing for O'Connor. In August 2003 he got into a spat with Bertie Ahern on a flight returning from the Taoisech's daughter's wedding. It was reported that he swore at Ahern for refusing to grant him an interview. In early 2004 he also provoked anger among some of his colleagues for strongly supporting management during an industrial relations crisis over forced redundancy.
More series of both You're a Star and Celebrity You're a star are planned by RTÉ. There is also talk of the national broadcaster considering other possible projects involving O'Connor. Meanwhile, some in the Sunday Independent think he is being groomed as editor of the paper when Aengus Fanning eventually makes his long-expected departure. One Independent Group journalist said: "O'Connor is seen by some in the inner clique as the only man that can maintain the paper's current editorial approach of water-cooler sensationalist journalism. Other contenders for the role, it is feared, might return the paper to a more conventional news-reporting role."
You don't have to be bright, sophisticated, erudite to make it in Irish media nowadays.
The show would be bland without him
BOC does boorish. Rather well. He is the star of the show. Take away BOC and Louis Walsh becomes noticeable. BOC is that important. Louis Walsh is a plank. Worse even than the other plank. Linda Martin is clever, attractive and informed. But she is not vicious, not boorish. BOC is. The show would be bland without him, maybe even worthy, with all those charities.
There is a charming awkwardness about BOC. Notice how he lumbered on to the stage on Tuesday night (8 August) with his left hand in his trouser pocket. A self-conscious gaucheness. Only when comforted by the prop of a chair could he relax and be what passes for himself. Viciousness punctuated by a repetitious "right". More self-conscious gaucheness.
He was funny about the politicians dressed all in black on Sunday night. "Trainee priests," said BOC. He had been awful to Áine Ní Dhroighneáin on Sunday and was awful again on Tuesday, when she sang, beautifully, the Mary Black song 'Katie'. He fell for Daithí Ó Sé's 'Delilah', an awful mawkish rendition of an awful, brutal song. Poor Linda Martin thought he was her "sex machine", well, compared with BOC, for her even the politicians were sex machines.
This programme works. It should be another stunning RTÉ failure but it isn't. The sheer awfulness of some of the performers gives it an innocence. Derek Mooney strikes the right note of levity, good humour and easy professionalism.
I remember BOC around UCC. He was insufferable even then. He used to go around with a clever, crazy, good-looking blond – we couldn't make out what she was doing with him.
He was thick then and uncouth. Should have known he would end up writing for the Sunday Independent.
See this week's radio column
His bark is as bad as his bite
There are relatively few groups and public individuals in Ireland who have not been the target of Brendan O'Connor's vituperative journalism in the Sunday Independent over the years. Travellers have borne the brunt of some of his most hostile articles. On 31 August 1996, he wrote an article entitled "Good relations knackered", which argued: "The conflict is not between settled and Traveller. It's between decent people and 'knackers'." On 25 May 1997 he launched another attack on "uncivilised travellers" in which he defended his use of the term "knacker": "Where I come from the word 'knacker' doesn't mean someone of any specific socio-economic or ethnic background. It means someone who behaves in a way that society abhors." However, despite this justification, the Sunday Independent archives turn up no cases of him using the term to describe anybody but Travellers and he has since made it clear that he does indeed apply the term to the entire Traveller community. On 2 November 2003, he argued that Travellers should reclaim the term as black people have reclaimed "nigger" and advocated the formation of rap bands with names such as "knackaz with attitude".
On 23 July 2000, in an article entitled "Romanian beggars can't be choosers", he contrasted the polite manners of our indigenous beggars with the aggressive "money grabbing" eastern European gypsies, who were "ruining it for the rest".
Conversely, on several occasions when politicians have been publicly denounced for making racist remarks, he has joined in enthusiastically, castigating the "venom against asylum-seekers expressed by Noel O'Flynn" in February 2002 and then, in September of the same year, describing Enda Kenny's infamous "nigger" joke as an example of "the most casual, rampant and insidious form of racism".
Politically, his writings have reflected the dominant editorial line of the Sunday Independent. Back in February 1999, in an article entitled "Sinn Féin is pushing us to breaking point", he recounted how Gerry Adams' "arrogant strutting" had finally woken the public up to the fact that Sinn Féin are "cynical gangsters and psychopaths". Five years later, in December 2004, in an article entitled "Tide of public opinion turns against Sinn Féin", he told us how Gerry Adams had finally "shown his true colours" and "pushed us to a place too far". Conversely, on 9 July of this year, he predicted that Sinn Féin might "lose a lot of its traditional support" if it gave up its "paramilitary muscle".
The left has not been spared. In particular, following the march of 100,000 people against the Iraq war on 15 February 2003, O'Connor repeatedly attacked the anti-war movement. Rather than attacking the movement itself, which was obviously popular, he portrayed the mass of marchers as having been "cowed into submission by a bunch of ill-informed but highly vocal anarchists and left-wing public intellectuals" and proceeded to attack this minority, encouraging the moderates in the movement to break with the anti-American "sinister revolutionary elements".
Indeed, this episode nicely sums up his style. He has a particular talent for identifying vulnerability wherever it may be, isolating the vulnerable from the mainstream and heaping scorn and ridicule upon the minority that can't fight back. It is not always political – more often than not he is content to mock sitting ducks such as Big Brother contestants or environmentalists ("hippies"), or to pour his scorn on individuals who are seen as traitors by Independent Newspapers. He refers to Eamon Dunphy as the "clown prince of journalism" and repeatedly makes allusions to allegations of him using cocaine. Nor does he confine himself to abusing the vulnerable. Occasionally he takes time out to heap praise on powerful figures such as McDowell and Ahern. Like any good bully, he can instinctively sense where vulnerability and power lie, and skillfully employs the tools of stereotyping and cynicism to mock the weak.
See this week's Newspaper Watch