Sunday Independent (Ireland)
RTE turns to a chameleon outsider
Steve Carson’s Northern roots may help him in the task of revamping the station’s dull offerings, writes Jody Corcoran
WHEN RTE announced the appointment of Steve Carson as director of programmes, TV, it said his record as a “ team leader” spoke for itself. Carson would be the first to admit that he has no such record.
Rather it is his record as one of Ireland’s foremost documentary makers which speaks for itself, the awarding-winning Bertie notwithstanding. By his own admission Carson is “not a natural boss”, and is, actually, “one of Mother Nature’s employees”.
While such an admission is admirably frank, it is also, at face value, another example of the many complexities which seems to be part and parcel of the life of Miriam O’Callaghan’s husband.
In a way, the image he presents of himself is true: a little boy lost, a man apart, an outsider looking in, all qualities which help make a fine journalist and film-maker.
Add, also, that he is handsome but self-effacing, manly but sensitive, and it is little wonder most people, particularly women, but also men, seem to warm to him.
In another way, though, his account is not the whole story. He is an outsider certainly, a Northern Protestant. But he has worked his way into the establishment here and, with apparent ease, has within a few years climbed the treacherous corporate ladder of RTE.
You have to be impressed by that; but you cannot help but be slightly suspicious of it too.
Carson is something of chameleon, a modus operandi which has served him well for almost all of his 41 years, to the point that he is now one of the national broadcaster’s top dogs, and one half of an ultimate power couple.
It looks almost as if he has done it by accident, not design. Yet, to my mind, there is nothing accidental or effortless about him. He is charming, certainly, and extremely hard working. But he is also an operator.
Now that he has got to where he is — the top — it would be refreshing to see Steve Carson shed his skin again, to finally reveal the real Steve Carson, which is a middle-class Protestant from east Belfast, a background he seems to have spent his life running from.
If he were to embrace that background, his appointment, alongside Northern nationalist, RTE Director General, Cathal Goan, could be inspired. If he were not to, however — if he were to tread a different path — then the true potential of his audacious appointment might be wasted.
That path, well worn by other Northern Protestants, who have become establishment figures in Dublin, usually involves becoming more republican than the republicans themselves.
Carson, as his name suggests, is not a republican, although he has married into an old-fashioned Fianna Fail family; nor is he unionist.
His background is Alliance, which describes itself thus: “As Northern Ireland’s crosscommunity and anti-sectarian party, to work on behalf of all sections of the community, to build a fair, peaceful and prosperous society that cherishes diversity, and is committed to human rights, equality of citizenship and social justice.”
His mother Pat was a founding member of the Alliance Party. She died of cancer aged 48 when her only son was five.
Her death was the single biggest influence on his life, until he met Miriam O’Callaghan, the smart, attractive and emotionally intelligent daughter of a traditional Irish family, whom he credited with “saving” him when he recently picked up an IFTA for Bertie, a flawed documentary on the former Taoiseach.
Carson has spent his life surrounded by strong, attractive women; his mother and then his two sisters, seven and eight years older. It was not surprising that he married a woman such as Miriam O’Callaghan, a few years his senior, who, at the time, had four children of her own with her former husband, the broadcaster, Tom McGurk. Carson and O’Callaghan have since had four children.
They met while both were working for the BBC in London, Carson as a producer. His talents were recognised at the BBC and he moved through the ranks there too, although, typically, he says, he “never felt comfortable” at that institution either.
How he got to England is in itself instructive. Having grown up in Belfast with, it is said, a strong sense that he was out of step, Carson, like many of his generation in the North, could not wait to leave.
“ Totally schizo” teenage years, where he felt he “never really fitted in”, preceded a dash to Manchester after his A-levels. He believed that he would stay in England forever. “What I didn’t realise was that I’d feel a tribe apart in England too,” he has said.
This sense of not quite belonging has been a dominant feature in his life, as it is, perhaps, in the lives of many Northern Protestants of his generation.
Although Miriam may have “saved” him, from precisely what we do not know — perhaps from himself — it is difficult to imagine that he feels entirely at home in Dublin either.
A sense of detachment in his new job is probably a good thing, however. To my mind, it is a strength, not a weakness, that he does not fit into the cosy consensus that permeates the media here. Worryingly, however, the Bertie documentary showed Carson more than willing to be part of that consensus when he felt he needed to be.
In the past, he has spoken critically of the “alpha male” journalism prevalent in Dublin. But he embraced that jaded syndrome in the making of his film on the former Taoiseach, stringing together, albeit slickly, a piece of journalism so lopsided that it walks with a permanent limp.
As somebody who knows him well told me last week, “everyone is allowed an off day”. Carson, however, would defend Bertie, as you might expect, and would do so with a certain icy charm.
I should admit, though, that I may have confused that iciness with genuine upset that the integrity of his work was being challenged.
Most of his other work would not require defence, projects such as Haughey (2005), Fine Gael: A Family At War (2002/03); and my own favourite, Aiken (2006), not that Mint Productions, the company he set up with his wife, is responsible solely for biopics of political figures. It has a well-rounded, critically acclaimed body of work to its credit.
His arrival in a big office in RTE, regrettably, has removed him from a film studio, where he is probably happiest. It has also signalled a few welcome changes, the end of Questions & Answers, for example, a programme past its sell-by date, and more significantly, the move of Pat Kenny from the Late Late Show to a new programme more suited to his talents.
The topic of discussion now is who should take on the Late Late. Cheeky chappie Ryan Tubridy has thrown his hat in the ring, and, of course, Miriam O’Callaghan is also being mentioned. She is known to be interested. I believe Tubridy should be left where he is; that Miriam’s innate decency would be more suited to a mid-week, early evening chat show, and that enfant terrible Gerry Ryan should be given his chance to go head-to-head with Jonathan Ross on BBC 1.
Carson, meanwhile, is no doubt making himself busy effecting other changes, applying his natural flair to instill a bit of life into the station’s moribund programming.
He has overall responsibility for the origination, management and delivery of RTE’s home-produced programmes, both in-house and commissioned, across RTE One and RTE Two.
It is a huge task, one, no doubt, which both daunts and challenges him.
His outsider persona makes him well suited to the role, but, I imagine, he would be even more suited were he to shed “this terrible guilt” he has said he feels at having fled the North all those years ago.