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RTÉ One, Saturday, After The Evening News
Saturday Night with Miriam

The RTÉ Guide Interview, June 2010

In the corner of RTÉ's main TV reception area stands a statue of an Irish broadcasting legend. Everybody walking into RTÉ passes him by. Many people don't notice him and some of the younger presenters would be hard-pressed to put a name to the impressive bronze figure. One person who always notices him, however, is Miriam O'Callaghan, because Eamonn Andrews (for it is he), was a hugely important figure in her career.

Miriam

Rewind to the early 1980s. The Dublin-born UCD graduate was a fresh-faced lawyer of 21 when she found herself being interviewed for a BBC programme. It was a Eureka moment during which the television bug took hold. "It was an unusual thing", recalls Miriam, cradling a coffee following her lengthy RTÉ Guide cover shoot.

"There was no television in my family. I did law, my father was a civil servant and my mother was a teacher. When I went to London after that BBC interview, I decided that I really liked this TV thing. I applied for a job through The Guardian and out of the blue I got a job as a researcher on 'This is Your Life'."

Enter Mr Andrews. "He was very important to me and I was incredibly fond of him", says Miriam, "but I didn't get the job through Eamonn, as some people think. He was, however, a superb broadcaster, a wonderful mentor and a decent man. He minded me. He used to bring me to Mass every morning. I thought I was coming to trendy London to work on TV and there I was, every morning sitting in the Catholic Church in Chiswick! I never wanted to be a presenter but he used to say to me, one day you'll go on air, Miriam. I wish he had lived to see it."

By the time Eamonn died in 1987, Miriam was on the books at the BBC, where she gained a reputation as a producer of note on such programmes as 'Kilroy' and 'Prime Time'. Two years later, she fulfilled the great man's prophecy and found herself on air presenting a programme called 'Extra'. That led to a high-profile reporting stint on BBC's Newsnight (Jeremy Paxman, et al.) where she eventually came to the attention of RTÉ's current affairs division, which secured her services to present 'Prime Time' in 1996.

Fast forward 14 years and Miriam is one of the most highly respected and popular broadcasters in the land. The woman sitting in front of me who "didn't want to become a presenter" now top-lines the most important current affairs show in the land ('Prime Time'); a hugely popular radio series (Miriam Meets . . .) and is about to embark on the sixth series of her summer chat show, 'Saturday Night with Miriam'.

Each programme is such a different animal that I wonder if Miriam feels the need to assume a unique identity for each project. "It's a really intelligent question because I obviously do what few people in TV stations around the world do", she answers. "You don't see Jeremy Paxman doing Desert Island Discs, for example, but I've always believed that you should never underestimate the viewers. The audience has got to know me by now. When I started in RTÉ in the early '90s I couldn't have done all three shows; the audience just wouldn't have bought it. But I'm a very slow mover and I refused for ages to do the chat show even though people thought my personality would suit it."

In what way? "Well, I used to get the politicians from Prime Time up in the green room and say, 'OK, tell me about your love life' and they would be like, 'what? but you just asked me about my political views' and I'd be there, 'yes, but I'm interested in the personal stuff, too!' I accept it's unusual to be doing different things but I love doing them. Radio, for example, I loved from the first show and I'm so sorry it took me so long to find it. I can sit with, say, Brian Lenihan talking very emotionally about his late brother and it's a very intimate setting. Also I don't have to go to make-up. I come in to the radio studio with my ponytail and jeans and it's fine."

The ponytail and jeans ensemble won't quite cut it for the Saturday night audience, but even though it's a summer show, for Miriam it's never going to be about the frocks. "For me, the Saturday show caters to the same audience as Prime Time but in a different gear", she says. "Yes, they want some light relief but I'm not really a fluffy person. I think life is too short to spend my time watching someone or interviewing someone in whom I have zero interest. I remember we got a massive rating for a guy in a wheelchair whom I had met him at a charity function. I knew he was a great guy with a powerful story to tell. I'm more interested in that than in celebs plugging books and movies."

Audiences certainly expect more from Saturday night TVs than celebs plugging their latest wares but it's fair to say that many of Miriam's Saturday night audience are as interested in the presenter herself as they are in her guests, not least since they feel they have followed her life and career at every turn. "Some presenters when they are being interviewed say that they never discuss their personal life", says Miriam. "I couldn't do that because I ask people personal questions and ask them to open up, so it would be incredibly precious of me to then turn around and say actually, I'm not going to tell you about my life. So everyone knows everything about my life: it's very, very boring!"

With that in mind, I wonder if the broadcaster be astonished to read a profile of her that didn't mention the fact that she has eight children? "I probably would", laughs Miriam, "because I read these articles and I think, 'does she really have eight children?' and then I realise it's me! Look, I'd say the nation is bored with the eight kids thing now. I accept that it's unusual but when I go down the country, the first thing people seem to talk about is the eight kids. I'm conscious of the fact that it's noteworthy and I always say that I had fertility treatment on two occasions because there are a lot of women out there who haven't been able to have kids so I don't take it for granted. I always spell out that I had fertility treatment but I didn't set out to have eight children and I can't believe I have eight children; I really, really can't. They are healthy and they are very grounded, so I'm very lucky."

Another of the questions most frequently asked of Miriam concerns her appearance. Male presenters aren't scrutinised about their hairstyles and choice of garb but female presenters in general and Miriam O'Callaghan in particular are constantly judged on their appearance. Does she feel any pressure to look good on screen? "Well, I was blessed not to be born looking like the back of a bus", she smiles, "but I've always believed that how I look is irrelevant. I know people do comment on it and on what dresses I'm wearing, etc., but I think that how you look as a female TV presenter shouldn't matter. Now we all know it does but by and large, people are kind. It should be irrelevant because I've done nothing to earn how I look; it's a genetic accident. I am a journalist first and foremost. I wasn't at school saying, I want to be a TV presenter. I like to look good but it doesn't matter. If I was sitting in a black sack and I had Brian Lenihan in front of me and we were having a great interview, I wouldn't give a toss!"

Judging serious female broadcasters on their looks has always been a national past-time but times have changed. Pioneers such as Joan Bakewell regarded her famous 'thinking man's crumpet' tag with horror in the '70s and '80s, but Fiona Bruce is happy to channel her showbiz side on BBC's Children in Need and laugh at Jeremy Paxman's description of her as "agonisingly gorgeous". For Miriam O'Callaghan (who knows both broadcasters) it's all about audience perception. "It goes back to people getting to know you", she explains. "People know me by now and they are either going to accept me or not. I don't mind if people comment on how I look but it's not who I am. I wasn't one of those people anyway who was beautiful at 21; I got better as I got older so it suits me better. I don't give a toss about what people think of my hair or my dress: it's all about the interview."

From where we're sitting in an RTÉ atrium, an impressive glass ceiling looms high above our heads. I wonder if Miriam has battled that other glass ceiling when she decided to make a career as a broadcaster. "I'm fascinated by the subject of the glass ceiling", she concedes, "and I haven't worked it out yet. I regard myself probably as an unreconstructed feminist. My mother always worked out of the home; so I always work out of the home. I think we impose our own glass ceilings a lot. Life and society has made it incredibly difficult to work. When I go to work and see all the women in the office, I don't necessarily think that all their husbands are thinking, s**t, who's picking up the four-year-old? I think it's ended up that we mostly do the childcare and quite a lot of the housework. Things change when you have babies. I went to university, became a lawyer, got quite a good job and one day I had kids and thought, 'oh my God, no one told me I'm going to be drawn towards my home and my baby; how am I going to go back to work?' We are lucky that we have a crèche here in RTÉ, but most places don't. As for glass ceilings? Hand on heart, I've never had any discrimination. From the moment I went into television, I've found that it's been irrelevant that I'm a female, perhaps because I started out as a journalist. You might have to work twice as hard as a man and I could stand up there and scream 'this is unfair!' but there's no point in moaning. Life is too short."

Childcare isn't a huge issue then but is there much pressure on the kids growing up in a high achieving household, headed up by Miriam and husband Steve Carson, RTÉ's Director of TV Programmes? "Pressure on the kids?" she laughs. "They couldn't give a toss! You should see my house; it's so laidback; as for Prime Time? I don't think they have ever seen it! First of all they think everyone works on TV so it's really boring and they are really bored with me anyway because they are not allowed to be grumpy in the house. That's the house rule!"

If Miriam underwent a career epiphany when being interviewed by that BBC television crew in the early '80s, she experienced an epiphany of a different sort 15 years ago when she went on her first date with Steve Carson. "Ah look, I have to be careful what I say about him since he's now in here as my boss!" she responds in mock protest, "but I don't mind saying that that it was the best day of my life. I don't take being happily married for granted, the curse of Hello! and all that, but he's a very good man. I always say to my girls, marry someone who is good to you; nothing else matters. Find someone who is kind to you, who is good to you and who makes you feel good about yourself; and he does that."

So would her life have taken a different direction had she not been in the right place, at the right time, to meet the right man? "I think it would have, Michael", she concedes. "Maybe I'd have met an oil sheik and be living in a castle! But seriously, I don't think I could have met anyone who could have made me any happier. I haven't said this before but I think he was winged to me by my sister, Anne, who died a couple of months before I met Steve."

So what's a typical day in Miriam's household? "A typical day?" she laughs. "This coffee is the first food or drink to pass my lips today! On a typical schoolday, though, Steve would get up early and gone by seven. I have two brilliant women who have been in my life for 12 years and who work different hours but help me with the kids. The kids wake at about half seven, I have my shower and then usually take the kids to school. The little fella goes to Montessori; the others go to national school. Some get dropped, some get themselves to school. I come in here for my Prime Time meeting and then go through all the papers. It's hard to hear Morning Ireland over the din of children looking for lunchboxes! I do a lot of charity work, sometimes two or three events a week, because I find it difficult to choose. I try to pick up the kids from school, but not always, my trusty Lorraine and Bridget often do that. I come back here to RTÉ and get ready for the show. Go home, empty the dishwasher, fill the washing machine, all that stuff, and I'm in bed for a quarter to eleven."

Given Miriam's earlier comment about being open to talk about personal subjects, I feel brave enough to ask her if turning 50 next January will be a milestone, a millstone or just another number? "I think if you are very beautiful or very young, you can worry about losing that bloom of beauty but I looked like a gangly geek when I was young so for me it's got a bit better and I don't have to worry about that", she explains. "Barbara Walters offered very good advice when she said, 'look girls, once you reach 33, it's no use worrying about the 18-year-olds coming up'. You can't keep looking over your shoulder. At the end of the day, you shouldn't be on television if nobody likes you; you should only be on if people want you there. The day they don't want me there is the day I won't be on screen! The people love you for who you are, but stay interesting: your husband loves you for who you are; stay interesting! Surprise your audience and surprise yourself. I have so much going on in my life that I don't have time to think or worry about turning 50. It's good; it's all good."

All good then, and as Miriam gets ready to dash off to yet another charity event, there's time for one final question. Back to our old friend, Eamonn Andrews: were the man himself to surprise Miriam with his famous red book, which people would she most like to appear from behind the curtain at the finale? After some thought, a visibly emotional Miriam rises to the challenge. "My guests", she concludes, "dead or alive, at the closing of my This is Your Life, would be my sister Anne, my father, Jerry, and Steve's mother, Pat, who I never met. I would want them all to come on at the end. Anne to tell her first and foremost that Greg is good and her two tiny little daughters grew up into beautiful girls and then - wait until I tell you everything else that has happened! My dad, to thank him for everything, and Steve's mum to give her a big kiss and thank her for giving me such a wonderful son."

And what do you think they would say to you?

"I think they'd all give me a big hug and I think Steve's mum would probably say, thank you for minding him."

Michael Doherty

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