An Evening with Mike Murphy

An Evening with Mike Murphy

March 1984


An aunt had submitted the family’s names on a form, without telling them, and they got accepted for a quiz show on the condition that the elder son got rid of the beard. The show was for teams of two parents and two children and they’d never had a nineteen-year-old child before, not to mind one with a beard.

On the day, it became clear the two other families had seen the previous week’s episode, which formed the basis of the practice round. The elder son had not, which caused him to get very worried at the thought that they might make a show of themselves. Darkness fell and at teatime in the station canteen he was unable to eat. They were relying on him and he kept thinking they were going to look like fools.

Three pretty hostesses each had a family to mind. Theirs was a very slim redhead with her hair cut short and a Canadian accent. She was a part-time model. He said very little, hoping his parents and aunt wouldn’t strain their necks looking at the personalities or point their fingers at them. More relatives arrived but he was barely able to acknowledge their presence. He felt sick.

The dad of the family that had won the rehearsal then went and changed from one expensive suit to another, before the real thing, like it was just going to be a lap of honour. Behind the black drapes in the wings of the studio stood the show’s host, Mike Murphy, otherwise Ireland’s king of the candid camera. He was completely blasé with an affable smirk but, as he explained, he did this all the time.

He then kept them waiting while he talked sh*t interminably to the studio audience. Still hidden, they had to be careful not to trip over cables and loose lengths of timber. Old cameras hung from the ceiling and the elder son could hear his mother cursing under her breath.

In the real thing, though, the other families werent quite as sharp or clever as when they knew the questions in advance, while the scare meant our crew had their fingers firmly at the buttons at all times. Once they got going at all, the elder son felt like ice. They won, in terms of money and prizes and knocking out the other families, but the prizes varied in quality, with the worst being a generous five tins of paint. Contrary to Dungarvan lore, though, one prize that was not carried off was the sun roof for the family’s Volkswagen Beetle.

Then there was the matter of the shoot-out. The grand prize was a car. To get it, one person from the family had to move to a black leather chair in a spotlight and answer a series of questions. He could only afford to miss one out of six. The first asked him the year of the American Bicentennial. 1976. The second asked the name of the Biblical character who dreamed of a ladder going up to heaven. The film Jacob’s Ladder wouldn’t be made for years yet so he hadn’t a clue. He could afford no more misses. The third concerned the author of Crime and PunishmentDostoevsky. The fourth asked the language of Panama. Spanish.

He fell at the fifth. Not watching enough television had diminished his general knowledge of rum, sodomy and the lash (i.e. the Royal Navy). Nelsons Victory had been in the news, not that he knew that or remembered the ship’s name.

“I’m sorry, I don’t know.”

“Ah, I’m so sorry, you were very good,” said Mike.

He closed the show and the audience started to clap as the technicians came on to clear up. The question setter then told the boy in the hot seat what the last question would have been. It was something about Thomas Bowdler and 1616. The date would have given him the answer. Shakespeare.

The car was worth eight thousand at the time, which would have paid for both sons’ education, but that much just wasnt meant to be. The episode lies preserved on one or two old video cassettes on which the cars lights can be seen blinking in the background. They are still blinking, like Christine.


Bernard Pivot & Les Mots de ma vie

Bernard Pivot & Les Mots de ma vie

Bernard Pivot was the literary face of French television for thirty years, chiefly on the long-running shows Apostrophes and Bouillon de culture. On p. 38 of his lexical memoir, Les Mots de ma vie (2011) there is a quote describing the author (“un concentré de Français”) that suggests his book will reflect both sides of the French coin – bittersweet romance and meaningless abstraction – but coins have three dimensions and here there are also many passages of wit and comedy.

Pivot seems to have been especially amused by Vladimir Nabokov. Marguerite Duras turns up a couple of times too, such as when he didn’t want to encourage her after she rang him at two in the morning to read some newly written text over the phone, but the account of Nabokov’s studio demands is perhaps the funniest.


That Nabokov’s teapot contained whiskey was well known but on Apostrophes the great man didn’t want to present the French public with the spectacle of a man drinking on live television. Therefore a verbal formula was devised to enable him to tipple away discreetly on set. Encore un peu de thé, monsieur Nabokov?

The novelist also insisted, on the basis of some prostate trouble, that an emergency urinoir be installed behind the studio decor but this demand was quietly ignored and of course Nabokov forgot all about it. He kept talking long after the final credits and then used the regular toilets like everyone else.

Such a happy ending did not ensue the last time someone was allowed smoke on Bouillon de culture. An unfortunately-placed camera made it look like a female guest – Jacqueline de Romilly, already nearly blind – was engulfed by the cigarette smoke of Philippe Sollers. This led to the switchboard being inundated by protest calls and a snowstorm of letters accused Pivot of complicity in such boorishness and barbarity.

Invited by RAI to watch an episode of an Italian programme he was told was inspired by his own, he emerged horrified after an hour of shouting – fuelled by a noisy presenter – in which the guests brandished books like the Red Guards waved the thoughts of Chairman Mao. Though he never learned English properly, Pivot also mentions he was reliably informed that English political and literary talk shows, in contrast, were just boring. A wild guess could have told him the same.

He claims that foreign writers, especially Americans, were surprised to be able to talk about their books on French TV with a host who had actually read them. This happened without being interrupted by ads or having a minister, a stripper or a golf champion on as fellow guests. Funnily enough, he does not mention the appearance of Charles Bukowski on his show in September 1978. Bukowski’s departure from the studio was like a scene from the restaurant in the Jacques Tati film, Playtime (1967).

Pivot likens the differences in talk shows to different national styles of playing soccer. His love of le foot is a recurrent theme that helps put a more regular face on the writer. In other passages he is an anorak, not least about food. Only a Frenchman could be an anorak about food, though his exploration of its impact on French slang and idiom is instructive. There is also a pair of funny food stories, as in the time Pivot, as a young journalist sent to report on a theatre, was nabbed trafficking spuds into Belgium.

On his way to Brussels he stopped off to see his wife’s family in the Pas-de-Calais, where a thirty-kilo sack of potatoes was placed in his car boot by his father-in-law. A Belgian customs officer demanded that he open the same boot, whereupon a bunch of them converged to accuse him of smuggling potatoes. They asked if he didn’t know Belgium was already a great producer and consumer of chips / fries and if the sack was a present for the director of the theatre he was about to visit. In the end he had to turn the car around and give the potatoes back to his beau-père.

In the entry on freeloaders and gatecrashers, Pivot distinguishes between those who come just for the show and those literary ones who come to eat and drink, wolfing glasses of wine and sandwiches in the morning and champagne and petits-fours in the afternoon. Always located very near the table or the bar and sometimes shoved aside by impatient publishers, without ever protesting they give way just enough to regain their strategic position with minimum delay.

Not all Pivot’s comedy is intentional, though, as in the classic line, Certains couples lisent au lit, puis mettent un marque-page, referment le livre, éteignent et font l’amour (‘Certain couples read in bed, then place a bookmark, close the book, switch off the light and make love’). Only a Frenchman could solemnly sketch that scene that in the English-speaking world would always be played for laughs.

Pivot retired as a regular TV host in 2005. The day after the maiden broadcast of his first programme, Ouvrez les guillemets, back in the early Seventies, the channel boss Jacqueline Baudrier phoned him to tell him the show had not been good but that was normal, as it was his first time out.

Ne remettez cette veste : vous aviez l’air d’un garçon de café. Je suis sûre d’une chose : vous êtes fait pour la télévision.

(‘Don’t wear that jacket again, you looked like a waiter. I’m sure of one thing. You were made for television.’)


The Irish Fight Clubs

The Irish Fight Clubs

The first credit on Na Chéad Fight Clubs means ‘Based on an idea by Michael McMahon and research by John Flynn’ (see above). In late 2007 I submitted a written proposal for a TV history documentary to an Irish production company that took it up with enthusiasm.

For a year or so it seemed I was in the loop. Then silence descended again, due to funding issues, I thought, until I discovered by accident in April 2010 that the thing had been commissioned by the Irish-language channel TG4 and was already in production. My father happened to be visiting an old friend who had whitewashed buildings in his yard when a location scout knocked on the door.

Legal advisers were then called in – a single letter from ours had the production company meekly offering to settle – and happily the project soon got put back on the rails, contractually. Plus we got paid. As did their very expensive lawyer. The legal lesson for all concerned was that copyright isn’t just about plagiarism, it also covers adaptation. Méaracha dóite is the Irish phrase for burnt fingers.

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