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4.0 out of 5 stars
Fascinating anecdotes but there are surprising omissions, 7 Nov 2011
When RTÉ commissioned an eminent historian to write the official history of RTÉ Television on the occasion of its fiftieth anniversary, who better than their own resident historian, Dr. John Bowman to write it? Bowman has worked for RTÉ over most of the last fifty years and has been part of (in some cases) or very near to the key events and the key personalities who shaped the station over that time.
Much of the book is peppered with stories about these key personalities. We learn that Pat Kenny spoke directly to the RTE Authority about his wishes for pay parity with Gay Byrne - at a time when Byrne himself was a member of the same Authority. We learn how Hilton Edwards wrote to Brian O'Nolan (Myles na Gopaleen) on Telefís Éireann headed paper to confide in a not-so confidential way about what exactly he thought (not a lot) of a recently commissioned Sean O'Casey play on T.E. We read of how Director-General T.P. Hardiman grabbed Charlie Haughey by the lapels at a state function when Haughey offered unsolicited advice about how no one was interested in current affairs on RTE Televison and how Hardiman's immediate apology resulted in praise from Haughey for his assailant. C.S. ("Tod") Andrews, who succeeded Eamonn Andrews as the chairman of the RTE Authority is clearly shown to be implementing Sean Lemass's description of RTÉ as an "instrument of public policy", not just in well known incidents such as the removal of an RTE crew from Vietnam but in other direct interventions as well.
It is also revealing that some myths get debunked in the book. My impression on reading the book is that Bowman did not have a lot of time for Michael O'Hehir. O'Hehir features in a short passage about how Phillip Green, the head of Sport on Radio Eireann and remembered for being the RTE voice of soccer for many years, was passed over for head of Sport in the new Telefis Eireann service by O'Hehir, possibly, suggests Bowman, because O'Hehir would be more acceptable to the GAA. This may well be true given the times, but Bowman goes on to dismiss O'Hehir's practice of replicating his televised GAA commentaries on radio.
There is, as you would expect, a rich seam of stories on RTE in the book. Yet I found the book curiously unsatisfying. Much of my dissatisfaction lies with the layout of the book. For a work like this, to tell RTE's story in a purely chronological order would not be practical - there are so many categories in RTE that dedicated chapters on Sports coverage, the Late Late and current affairs would be more appropriate. But Bowman does not do this. The book is laid out into chapters, but these chapters often do not have a linking theme. Instead the reader is presented with a series of essays mostly relating to the RTE Authority and their relationships with the governments of the time.
There are many surprising omissions from the book. We learn much about Ernest Blythe and his relationship with RTE, much also about Conor Cruise O'Brien's campaign to get RTE available in Northern Ireland and his campaign for BBC 1 to occupy the then proposed second channel - but nothing at all about Tara Television, its forced closure and the subsequently still born RTE International. Setanta Television is not mentioned at all, or the technical achievements in the creation of RTE 2 and the roll out of Digital Terrestrial Television. Key figures such as Terry Wogan, Eugene Lambert and Jimmy Magee are barely mentioned and the way in which many Irish television programmes were created in challenging conditions are not mentioned at all.
This is book is a valuable document and provides much information for anyone interested in Irish broadcasting. I would go far enough to say that this book compares content wise with Maurice Gorham's superb Forty Years of Irish Broadcasting. But where Gorham's book captured beautifully the atmosphere of the old Henry Street studios, this book seems to put its focus on capturing the essence of meeting after meeting of successive RTE Authorities. The full and unexpurgated story of RTE remains to be told.