Little of what we read, view, or listen to in 2017 is not studiously concocted and refined. These are banner days for copy approval and the provision of questions ahead of time. Publicists and PR handlers are multiplying in number. “Content creation” is a dispiritingly profitable business. TV sets are futuristic and clinical. Politicians and others in public life are coached like Olympic gymnasts before release into these arenas.
How truly refreshing, then, to be able to turn to a show in which a green screen glitch might shave off a piece of a jaw or the tip of a nose. How satisfying to know there exists a programme that can’t really be trained for, so rough and disorderly it can be, so engulfed by crosstalk.
At 11pm, Tonight with Vincent Browne on TV3 will air for the final time. Over a period of 10 years, the show made enemies, isolated guests, and left many viewers cold. Most of the characteristics for which it has been criticised, though, are required for effective interviewing. Impatience and interruption sour only once exaggerated unreasonably. If you push a boundary, on occasion you end up crossing it.
The show provided a scrappy and uncomfortable alternative to RTÉ counterparts. It had it all: variety, error, anguish. It could be very funny: a forum for flamboyant gaffes, abysmal jokes, energetic lampooning and, once, a walk off set. The contrast was stark and useful. Often, Tonight with Vincent Browne seemed like the last real thing on TV.
Vincent Browne wasn't necessarily meant for television, but Ireland wound up with a host whose stamina made possible live evaluation of current affairs on four out of five weekday evenings, a host who happened to care about political accountability, women, minorities, the marginalised, and the poor, and not at all about maintaining a veneer of neutrality in questioning.
Despite being deemed unwatchable by many, Browne’s show was watched. This wasn't lost on executives at TV3 who, for years, enlarged images of his face to preside over the channel’s season launches, breaking the pattern of its other presenters, uniformly beaming, in their 40s, and in cocktail attire. Where viewers did not appreciate Browne’s positions, or his style, they knew how he felt, and it was hard not to appreciate that.
The programme offered the station an important scaffold. (In announcing his retirement, Browne acknowledged that the reverse, financially, was also true.) To me, it was the soul and wit of the channel.
TV3 remains the only independent commercial broadcaster in the country. It makes its money in increasingly creative ways, approximately none of which can be applied to news, news analysis, or Tonight with Vincent Browne.
TV3’s position has been precarious. The chip on its shoulder attributable to a competitive environment in which its primary competitor receives TV licence proceeds and it does not can generally be seen from space. Talent gets poached and schedules get petulantly overhauled. In this context, the show’s resilience has been remarkable.
A unique set of variables enabled it to succeed. For a few months in 2012, I had the dubious honor of "curating" #vinb tweets and reading and publishing nightly blog posts by Browne to politico.ie. The posts, written in response to tweets, opened with sentences like "The Tweet machine is dominated tonight by three issues (I am told!)." One, on a Thursday, concluded: "A happy weekend to everyone, especially to those who want to be happy at the Fine Gael Ard Fheis."
I cycled from town to the studio in Ballymount, just north of Tallaght. In this way I gained a special appreciation for the geographical lengths required of between three and six guests a night. Occupying that inauspicious, interstitial slot – 11pm to 12am – I also came to understand and value some of the looseness and impatience in the show’s presentation. We are fast running out of settings that are slightly bizarre, settings in which people can be offended, humiliated, or enraged.
I watched the patience with which Browne lingered around after midnight with those guests who wanted to confide in him, or make him laugh, or have him agree with or concede a point. I tried in vain to get him to even sit before "the tweet machine", the familiarisation with which he seemed to deem irrelevant, or one concession too far. (I get it.)
In 2015 and 2016, in a chore of an endeavor that might have more closely behoved a taxpayer-funded station, TV3 broadcast The People’s Debate with Vincent Browne, a series that toured all 40 Dáil constituencies, hosting debates attended by as many as 1,000 members of the public at a time. It is unlikely a successor will approach the role with the same unselfishness.
Past glories in the form of YouTube links have been giddily traded since the announcement of the grand finale. In two clicks of a mouse you can watch a guest laughing helplessly at the end of the desk during a protracted shouting match between Browne and another and, some years later, the same guest's own zero-laughs shouting match.
You can rejoice in watching Mario Rosenstock as Browne opening a sketch in perfect, weary Browneian deadpan: “Tonight we’re asking whether the global economic implosion could lead to a breakdown in civil order in this country.”
Elegiac listicles and pieces of revisionist praise, featuring these clips and numerous others, have risen like cream to the top of search results. The descriptors attached to Browne's most popular work are instructive, hilarious: “grills”, “lambasts”, “destroys”, “eats alive”, “tears into”.
This outpouring of admiration of Browne – mostly beloved online for “facepalming” or daring to use terms like “cock-up” – is, I suggest, lacking in solemnity. In terms of media plurality and diversity in Ireland, in terms of journalism, his departure from the show is unequivocally impoverishing, a dire setback. To mourn the craic is to miss the point.