From stabbers to cigarette sandwiches – Gay's Late Late thrived on unpredictability

One of the attractions of The Late Late Show in its early years was that anything could happen.

It was entirely unpredictable and the line-up was never revealed beforehand.

Guests could be drunk, rows could suddenly break out, the fascist leader Oswald Mosley might be interviewed after a song-and-dance act – and Gay Byrne seemed to revel in the controversy that could only be measured in column inches in the days afterwards.

At times it was hard to know what was staged and what was real. On one occasion, a “guest” seemed to attack the set with a hatchet, but it was all a set-up, planned by researchers.

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Towards the end of the Gaybo era in 1995, the punk band Pop will Eat Itself set about attacking the set with their instruments, and that was genuine.

Frank Crummey has the distinction of being the only guest on The Late Late Show to be punched by a member of the audience.

Speaking from his home in Firhouse, Co Dublin, Crummey this week recalled the argy bargy which occurred in the Late Late studio when he appeared on a panel to oppose corporal punishment.

The veteran campaigner says that at the end of a heated debate in 1967, he stunned viewers when he said: “As I sit here tonight, the Irish Christian Brothers are abusing our children.”

Crummey adds: “Just at the end, a little fecker ran up from the audience and threw a punch at me.

“The great thing about Gay Byrne was that he might not agree with you, but he would let you speak.”

In its early years, the Late Late staged the sort of stunts that are inconceivable now.

There was a chorus of criticism in 1968 over the appearance of “stabbers” on the show.

Three young men appeared to boast about their ability to settle disputes with knives.

At the same time, three victims also appeared and they all seemed quite casual about it all.

One of the youths told how he received several stitches in a stabbing: “We settled it between ourselves and I gave him stitches two weeks later… I got him going home when he was drunk….”

The show frequently switched between debate and vaudeville entertainment with barely a pause for breath. After one debate in 1968 about the link between cigarettes and cancer, a gentleman was introduced whose pleasure it was to eat cigarettes sandwiched between slices of bread.

The show was unpredictable from the start, and sometimes RTÉ managers could not be sure if Gay himself would appear. While he was always a stickler for punctuality, at one stage he was presenting the BBC programme Open House, and had to fly to Dublin to present the Late Late on the same day.

Once he was delayed, and part of the show was presented by Ronnie Walsh.

The presenter learned that it was perhaps wise to keep the line-up a secret, not only because it created serendipity and kept the audience guessing. It also stopped the powers-that-be preventing a guest from appearing.

Sometimes a guest could create uproar without even coming on air. The “bunny girl” incident caused a furore when it was reported that a planned guest on the show, Victor Lownes, was planning to recruit Irish bunny girls for the Playboy club in London.

After protests, the planned appearance was axed and the Director General of RTÉ Kevin McCourt wrote apologetically to the Archbishop of Dublin John Charles McQuaid: “Your Grace, I knew of that ‘bunny man’ and thus had his intended appearance cancelled immediately when the intention to invite him came to my notice…”

McQuaid complained about The Late Late Show’s “attempts to publicise ‘Bunny’ girls, hypnotism, pornographic literature, as well as permitting obscenities that are unheard of in normal Irish society”.

In 1970, members of the Vocational Education Committee in Westmeath were among those who complained about the appearance of a “semi-nude woman” on the show, and a member said that there wasn’t a “beardo” or “weirdo” in the British Isles who had not been brought on the programme.

According to a member of the show’s team in the early days, Gay constantly urged his team of researchers to come up with ideas which would spark off a row in the audience. Audiences could be “packed” accordingly with adversaries strategically placed close to each other for a good slanging match.

While sex and religion where a constant theme, audiences could be just as heated on issues that are no longer so controversial or are largely forgotten – the Irish language sparked furious rows, and on a show in 1974, the audience and panellists scrapped furiously over plans to beam the BBC into areas that only received RTÉ.

Controversy and celebrity were the key ingredients, and sometimes they blended in together with the stars joining in the rows.

After a debate on the Irish language, Gay and Spike Milligan had a furious row. A researcher recalled how the comedian and another participant were fighting over the language, and there was skin and hair flying right until the end of the show.

Gay was thrilled and went over to the combatants and told them: “Lads, lads, come on – the show is over.”

Spike shouted back: “That’s the bloody problem with you – it’s not over, we’re still talking about the issue – we care about the bloody thing, but it has no relevance to you, except as part of a bloody television show.”

Perhaps it was appropriate therefore that towards the end of the Gaybo reign in 1997, Father Brian D’Arcy gave the entire audience general absolution in a ceremony after the show.

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