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

- Ireland · Bertrand Russell · Miriam Hopkins · Belfast · Dublin · Fianna Fail · Northern Ireland · London · England · England national football team · Manchester · Pat Kenny · The Late Late Show · Late Show with David Letterman · Gerry Ryan · Jonathan Ross · BBC One · Alliance Party · Fine Gael

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.

 ??  ?? POWER COU­PLE: Miriam O’Cal­laghan con­grat­u­lates Steve Car­son af­ter his win for ‘Ber­tie’ at the Sixth Ir­ish Film and Tele­vi­sion awards in Fe­bru­ary
POWER COU­PLE: Miriam O’Cal­laghan con­grat­u­lates Steve Car­son af­ter his win for ‘Ber­tie’ at the Sixth Ir­ish Film and Tele­vi­sion awards in Fe­bru­ary
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 ??  ?? CALL­ING THE SHOTS: Steve Car­son has swapped his film-mak­ing role for an of­fice in RTE. Photo: Tony Gavin
CALL­ING THE SHOTS: Steve Car­son has swapped his film-mak­ing role for an of­fice in RTE. Photo: Tony Gavin

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