It’s only three days into his new show, and already Oliver Callan (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays) is resorting to cheap gimmicks to attract an audience. “We’ve a great programme for you today, especially if you’re interested in boobs,” he announces on Wednesday, promising a particular emphasis on “ample ones”. Fears that the host is about to go full saucy postcard are quickly dispelled, however; he’s merely flagging an eminently sensible item on how breasts can affect posture for women. Anyone expecting Callan to make a giant tit of himself now that he’s got his own talkshow will have to wait at least a while longer.
Best known as a comic impressionist, Callan indulges in little funny business as he embarks on his first week as permanent presenter in Ryan Tubridy’s old morning slot. Instead, Callan sticks to the general-interest formula honed by his predecessor. He even uses the dread phrase “interesting chats” without apparent irony. If anything, he seems more chary about rocking the boat than he did when helming the temporarily named Nine O’Clock Show during the post-Tubridy interregnum.
Certainly, there’s the requisite quota of guests sharing inspiring stories or laudable messages. Ger O’Dea of the National Ambulance Service recounts tales of lives saved by community first responders, while chef Nicky Foley tells of transforming his Dingle restaurant into a Michelin-recommended destination. And having got “the schoolyard skitters out of the way” with his initial salvo of boob humour, Callan attentively engages with the physiotherapist Siobhán O’Donovan, who stresses the importance of correct bra size for women if they wish to move from “dipped headlights” to “full beam”. “It’s a lovely image,” quips the host, sounding uncharacteristically embarrassed.
It’s commendable fare, though Callan sounds notably more at ease when talking to his fellow comedian Áine Gallagher, slipping in his signature impersonation of President Michael D Higgins. He still doesn’t sound totally at home with the lifestyle-oriented conversations that have traditionally filled out the slot, though he’s clearly striving to connect with his guests.
Similarly, his monologues have been straightforwardly topical, surveying the news in gently witty manner rather than skewering it. There are flashes of sardonic humour – he observes that political deals in the North involve “orange- or green-flavoured fudge” – but, equally, there’s more focus on the youthful Tyrone-born Liverpool footballer Conor Bradley than one might anticipate.
If Callan’s opening week is short on fireworks, it’s partly because he sticks to a template that favours snappiness and brevity over subversion or gravity. But there’s plenty of time for him to push proceedings in a more imaginative direction. He is at his most animated on Thursday, when interviewing the young Irish fashion student Oran O’Reilly – “awash with youth energy”, in Callan’s words – who details how various celebrities have ended up wearing distinctive quirky designs (“I’m the fella knitting on the bus”) and how living with diabetes has influenced his latest collection.
If Callan wanted to push the midmorning envelope, he might have asked about his guest’s creations finding favour with the drag community, but, quibbles aside, it’s an encouraging omen amid a careful opening week. As a mimic, Callan rarely holds back, but for the moment he’s finding his feet rather than diving in studs first.
There’s no such restraint from Michael O’Leary, Ryanair’s group chief executive, when he appears on Today With Claire Byrne (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays). The airline boss is in typically pugnacious form as he unapologetically defends his company’s bulk purchase of Dublin houses for staff to rent, and dismisses as “rubbish” the host’s assertion that aviation taxes are necessary. But O’Leary really hits his stride when discussing Dublin Airport’s cap on passenger numbers, berating “idiots on the left” and repeatedly calling Minister for Transport Eamon Ryan incompetent.
It’s too much for the host. “Michael, stop talking,” she says sternly, although she struggles to make herself heard even as she urges her guest to stop the “personal insults”. This seems a forlorn hope, given O’Leary’s gleefully rude public persona; moreover, it would deprive audiences of such enjoyably fractious encounters. Having been chided in this column only last week for not losing her cool more often, Byrne shows she can get riled with the best of them. (So much for this writer’s analysis.) True, O’Leary’s unyielding stance doesn’t allow for calm debate of the issues, but dull it isn’t.
Though it focuses on human interest stories, Lunchtime Live (Newstalk, weekdays) can draw out overlooked aspects of topical subjects, not least immigration. On Monday, following newspaper reports of truckers being offered money to smuggle immigrants, Andrea Gilligan speaks to hauliers who have withdrawn from continental work because of constant attempts by migrants to gain access to lorries. “We hear about drivers being threatened,” adds Ger Hyland of the Irish Road Haulage Association. Gilligan lets her guests have their say, though she rarely presses them – none of her speakers has first-hand experience of such intimidation – but it’s still a rare snapshot of the way Europe’s migrant crisis affects a logistics industry already squeezed by labour shortages and rising fuel prices.
Gilligan views immigration through a different lens on Wednesday, when she talks to Emma, a Donegal woman whose South African husband, Lawson, has been denied permission to join her in Ireland. Emma recalls meeting Lawson while in South Africa getting treatment for her elder daughter, who suffers from a severely debilitating illness; they later married there and have a child together. With Gilligan by turns sympathetic and inquisitive, Emma explains that she’s unable to sponsor Lawson to come here because she receives a carer’s allowance from the State. “It’s time for us to get back together,” Emma says tearfully, though a terse statement from the Department of Justice doesn’t offer much encouragement. But it underlines once more the way personal conversations can illuminate big issues: talkshows don’t have to be light or safe.