Pat Kenny 'To raise money for charity, we plotted to kidnap Gaybo and ransom him back to RTE'
Well-known broadcaster Pat Kenny reveals the first time he met Gay Byrne was when he tried to kidnap him during student rag week.
LEGENDARY broadcaster Pat Kenny reveals that his first encounter with Gay Byrne was as a student when he tried to kidnap The Late Late Show host during rag week.
Later in life, Pat and Gay would become close pals while presenting rival TV chat shows that battled to scoop each other every week with major celebrity guests.
Then, when time ran out on Gay's tenure at the Late Late, it was his old pal Kenny who had the honour of stepping into the Irish broadcasting giant's shoes on the iconic show.
The illustrious pair maintained their close friendship to the end, meeting for lunch just a few weeks before Gay died.
And Pat reveals that he was privileged to visit Gay at home during his final hours.
In an exclusive interview with the Sunday World, 72-year-old Kenny today looks back on his life and times with Gaybo, and remembers being instantly enamoured by Byrne's distinctive voice when he first heard him on Radio Eireann.
"Gay was, as far as I was concerned, the first modern voice I heard on Irish radio as a kid," Pat says. "He sounded like he didn't belong to the old 'valve radio in the corner' generation. He just had a youth and a spring in his voice. That is what marked him out when I heard that voice."
Before embarking on a career in radio and TV, Pat did a degree in chemical engineering at University College Dublin in the late 1960s.
And it was during his college days in UCD that he and fellow students hatched an elaborate plot to kidnap Gaybo.
"The first time I bumped into Gay in the flesh was when we decided, as part of rag week to raise money for charity, that we would kidnap Gaybo and ransom him to RTE," Pat tells me.
"We weren't going to look for a huge amount. Any donation would have been fantastic for students who kidnapped the great man. If we got a hundred pounds it would have been a fantastic bounty for the charity.
"We did our research, so we knew what time he would be leaving his home for The Late Late Show, and we lay in wait for him."
An 'accident' was staged to grab Gay's attention and force him to stop at the scene. "One of my pals lay on the ground with his bicycle askew," Pat explains.
"Gaybo soon arrived on the scene and quickly, as we emerged from the bushes, he sussed out exactly what the hell was going on. We were wearing student scarves, so we weren't exactly the stuff that terrorists are made of. He was driving a little sports car, I think it was a Triumph Herald, and off he sped down the hill.
"Gay, who was a master showman, then turned this to his advantage when he had us recreate the scene for the following week's Late Late Show. That shows the absolute showman that he was, by turning a student jape into a piece of TV entertainment."
Kenny joined RTE in the 1970s as a continuity announcer on radio.
"When I joined as an announcer I was broadcasting from the GPO in Henry Street and Gay had already moved his show out to the Radio Centre (in Donnybrook), which was brand new at the time," Pat says.
"I didn't meet Gay regularly until we finally transferred out to Donnybrook and had our own presentation studios, and then you'd come across the great man.
"He was always very courteous and nice. He was a very tidy man, the way he walked and everything. He'd say, 'Good morning', but he didn't engage with a humble announcer at that point.
"He certainly was aware of my existence, and we were all aware of his. He made a point of saying 'hello' and using your name and things like that, so he wasn't mister high and mighty, even though he was the mightiest of them all."
Kenny never aspired to be another Gay Byrne. "My ambition was to go down the serious route," he says. "I applied to the news room and eventually they auditioned me and gave me a job reading the news. My profile on TV as a newsreader gave me more credibility to do other things, so I was then doing music programmes and requests programmes on RTE radio.
"When I started doing a morning show, before he came on air, our paths crossed every day. I'd pop in to say hello to Gay and he was always rehearsing, rehearsing, rehearsing those funny one-liners and those funny letters, and all that. He rehearsed like a trooper, like an old pro in the theatre. He never left anything to spontaneous chance. He was very spontaneous, but when he had something that he knew he had to do, he would rehearse it to make sure it was right, and he'd test the way he'd deliver a line. So he was always in early rehearsing."
Then Pat got his own Saturday TV chat show, Kenny Live, which placed him in the same pool as Gaybo. "When I was doing Kenny Live there was a rivalry there that the press made much of, but it was a very friendly rivalry," Pat says.
"We used to talk about it, and it was about availability of guests. If someone was available on a Friday, Gay got them. If someone was available on a Saturday, I got them. Very few things were actually fought over.
"I remember we (Kenny Live) worked very hard to get Sarah Ferguson over. We brought her father, Major Ferguson, on as a guest on Kenny Live, knowing he'd go back and tell his daughter Sarah how well he'd been treated. He did. 'Irish television,' he said, 'treats me very well'.
"But it was Gay and the Late Late Show that got his daughter because, as it turned out, Sarah Ferguson would never have done Saturday. Every Saturday she would watch Blind Date with her daughters. That was quality time with them, so she was never available on a Saturday.
"Those were the kind of battles that were fought nominally, but the one thing we never used in the battle was money. We never used fees as the battleground. We had a gentleman's agreement that you didn't try to outbid each other because that ends one way, with every guest costing too much.
"We'd then meet in the canteen and Gay would beckon me over. 'What have you got?' he'd say. And I'd say, 'What have you got?' So we'd talk about the guests that we had, and it was that kind of friendship that grew."
Pat reveals that Gay also had a particular routine for his main meal on the day he was presenting the Late Late. "I would join Gay often on a Friday in the RTE canteen where he would be having his egg and chips, and that was a tip that Gay gave me," Pat says.
"He said, 'On the day of the show just have egg and chips because you can't get food poisoning from egg and chips. I'm not saying that the RTE canteen would ever poison you, but it's a very safe meal to have on a Friday when you've got a big show and you don't want your tummy upset in any shape or form. If you have egg and chips and a cup of tea you're fine'."
Kenny says that in those days he would occasionally watch the Late Late because "you could always learn from the great man, the ultimate showman".
He says: "Gay had a nose for a good story and he was a great listener. He understood the skill sets you have to have to do the job, and one is to know when to shut up. The best interviews you'll ever do are the ones where your word count is tiny, because if your word count is tiny it means the guest is very giving."
Pat recalls getting an occasional compliment from Gay about a Kenny Live show or item. "It would be a kind of nod and expressing 'that was a good one'."
When Gay Byrne retired from The Late Late Show in 1999, Kenny was the frontrunner to replace the legend.
"It was a tough one," Pat says of his decision to take over the vacant seat.
"I had my own show with my own name and I had done it for 11 years. It was very well-established, it was established in the UK with all the agents.
"When it became apparent that The Late Late Show was going to go ahead one way or the other, I decided that, 'well, no-one else can do Kenny Live, so that show can die unless there's someone else called Kenny. But if someone else is doing the Late Late I'll have the same headache, I'll still be working every Saturday night.
"The idea of moving to Friday was very appealing, so I took over and it was the height of a compliment to step into Gay's shoes."
Apart from the egg and chips, did Gay have any other pearls of wisdom to pass on? "What he did tell me was that the 'one for everyone in the audience' had become a tyranny. He said, 'We have people coming here every week, they don't want to know who I have on or what items I'm doing. All they want to know is what they're going to get in their goody bag at the end. And then they complain that 'last week everyone got a Sony Walkman, this week I only got a book.' It's become a tyranny, it's horrible'.
"So we dropped that as a regular thing and only did it for the toy show at Christmas. We also dropped the antiques segment because we felt that was Gay's item."
What kind of a man was Gay? "A very private man," Pat says. "Kay (Kathleen Watkins) and Gay and ourselves (Pat and his wife Kathy), we used to meet at the theatre, generally. Kay loves the theatre.
"Gay loved the theatre too, but was always preoccupied with getting up early. He would be in reading his mail in The Late Late Show office at the crack of dawn, because even back in those days the traffic from Howth was horrible, so he came in early.
"His day was a fairly gruelling one. He'd be in early morning and he'd open the Late Late mail, then he'd go over to the radio centre and rehearse, rehearse for his show.
"He'd be on live at nine until 11. Then he'd go up to the canteen and famously bum a cigarette from somebody because he didn't smoke anymore. But generosity itself, he would then at some point slip three 20 packs to the people he'd been borrowing from. He didn't bum cigarettes out of meanness, he just didn't want to have the pack of fags in his pocket because he knew that he'd smoke them.
"After his coffee and cigarette he'd go over to the Late Late office. Generally, he'd go up to the Montrose Hotel then for lunch before returning to the Late Late office. He'd leave RTE in mid-afternoon and then head home to read books and listen to the music that he was going to have on the show, and all the rest of it, so he had a very long working day.
"Whenever we would meet Gay and Kay it would be in The Gaiety, or more likely The Gate or The Abbey. I always remember him at The Gate, in particular. Gay and Kay would tend to have seats near the door, so at the final curtain they'd be gone. They wouldn't hang around for a drink afterwards because they'd have to get home to Howth as Gay would be up at the crack of dawn.
"In later years we'd meet them in the Bord Gais Theatre for various first nights, and they were much more relaxed."
Pat told how Gay enjoyed his whiskey, particularly in the green room after the Late Late Show. There would be more than a tumbler or two of whiskey. He loved whiskey, he savoured whiskey. He'd loosen up and he could be very indiscreet. He loved gossip, like anybody in showbiz. And he loved having a go at the powers-that-be in RTE both publicly and privately. He used to say that if you're not getting in trouble with the powers-that-be then you're not doing your job properly."
Asked if he was aware of any regrets that Gay had about his life or career, Pat recalls: "The one very specific thing I remember talking to him about was the money he lost through Russell Murphy."
Murphy, who died in 1986, was Gay's accountant and friend, but embezzled €250,000 of the RTE star's money and spent it on a lavish lifestyle.
"Gay loved cars, but he never spent money on really flash cars," Pat says. "I know he coveted the idea of owning a Saab Turbo, but he was kind of too cautious about it because they cost a lot of money. And he said to me, 'When I think back to all the money that I lost, I could have bought a new Saab Turbo every year and driven it into Howth Harbour at the end of the year and bought another one, and I'd still be better off than I am today for what happened to me.
"Having grown up in relatively frugal circumstances and knowing the value of money and how hard it was for his mother after his father died (when Gay, the youngest of five, was doing his Leaving Cert) to get them all done and dusted and set up for a job and all the rest of it, I think he carried that with him. He wasn't an extravagant man, it doesn't mean he was a mean man, not at all.
"I remember we were in the Bord Gais Theatre for a pantomime when the girls were very young, and after we came out of the theatre the girls [Pat's daughters], Christina and Nicole, opened their hands and each had a fiver in their hand. And they didn't understand 'why would someone like Gay and Kathleen give us money?'
"I was so touched by it, that he would do such an old Dublin gesture. I remember as a child, when we had an uncle coming, he might put a coin in our hands and we'd never forget that and the excitement of it."
Recalling his final social get-together with Gay last year, Pat reveals: "I had the privilege of having lunch with him and Harry Crosbie a few weeks before he died, down in Harry's house. Although he was ailing, we had pizza, lasagne, red wine, coffee, dessert.
"And the chat was great, the auld yarns and the giving out and all the rest of it, it was a great session. That was the last time I saw him in full health.
"Then I went out to the house just before he died. He wasn't unhappy, he wasn't particularly conscious, he said a few words, but he was out in his beloved Howth looking out at the bay.
"It was a very, very peaceful situation with Suzy (daughter) and Ronan (son-in-law) and Kay and the grandchildren moving in and out of his room. There was no great sense of doom-laden grief. It was a sense of 'the time has come and we'll just let him go'… and I was privileged to be there."