“I did seven years of ‘How Do You Do?’ – with an average of 30 to 40 programmes per series – after six years of ‘Anything Goes’, doing ‘Make and Do’. The [idea] was that people would never have to go to too much expense, that they’d have most of the materials at home. I subsequently heard that kids used to empty the washing-up liquid down the sink in order to use the bottle or throw the Cornflakes out so they’d have the box. Stories like that came back to me years later.
“I’m amazed at the kind of people who come up to me, still. Investment bankers tell you about the mask or the dolls’ house furniture they made. It’s mostly people in their mid-to-late 20s or early 30s. They call me Mary ‘Make and Do’. I did [PR] work for an architect’s about two years ago and he said his creative talent was to some extent sparked by watching ‘Make and Do’. On two occasions I’ve had people send me over a drink to say thank you for the pleasure that I gave them as kids. That was really nice.
“A leading politician, who shall be nameless, accosted me when I was doing an interview on Newstalk. We were in the middle of a serious discussion about the state of the Irish health service and he turned to me and said: ‘By the way, I have a bone to pick with you. I tried to make your Christmas crackers for my family one year and the thing is they didn’t crack.’ I’d shown people how to make them out of [empty] toilet rolls but in those days I didn’t put in any of the [banger strips]. He said: ‘They all laughed at me when I gave them as Christmas presents.’
“‘Anything Goes’, which was the first programme I worked on, was a new concept in television for young people. The reaction, particularly when you went down the country, to the west especially, was huge. You were kind of like a superstar. On the east coast of Ireland they had BBC and access to Noel Edmonds and ‘Swap Shop’ and stuff like that, so they weren’t as knocked out by it but if you went to Galway or Kerry or Cork, you couldn’t move. We were mobbed.
“I got no training in how to be a TV presenter. I was a primary school teacher and at the time I’d been teaching profoundly deaf children in St Mary’s School for the Deaf in Cabra. There was a small dress rehearsal the Saturday before we went on air and then the following week I was on live television. I think it was about three or four months into the programme when I realised that the [camera] with the red light on it was the one you were supposed to look into.
“I was really clueless. The other three [presenters] – Aonghus McAnally, Kathy Parke and David Heffernan – had done other programmes before. People presumed I knew how to present a television programme but I didn’t have a notion. So I learned on the job. I really feel sorry for any kid who was watching for the first two years because looking back at it now, I think I was pretty dreadful.
“Doing a live show for six years was the best training. There was no autocue - you had to remember your introductions to cartoons and film items – and you crafted your own interviews. I interviewed the likes of Roald Dahl and David Attenborough. All the big music stars of the 80s were on the show, like Bono, Adam Ant and Toyah Wilcox. It was a huge learning curve but a very enjoyable one.
“There were times when things went wrong. I remember showing children how to make popcorn once, on a little, two-ringed cooker on top of a bench. I put all the popcorn in, put the lid on, put the heat on and told the kids they’d have popcorn in a few minutes. We lifted the lid up to find it was dead as a doornail and then I saw the man crawling around the floor, trying to plug in the cooker. Another time I’d tried to make home-made ice cream but the temperature in the fridge wasn’t [cold] enough so the ice cream had all melted. There was a mad rush to the canteen to buy HB ice cream.
“To some extent I got typecast into what I was doing. If you get known for one thing it’s hard to move on from that sometimes, even though the mechanics of presenting a television programme are exactly the same no matter what the subject matter is. I’d loved to have done a fashion programme because I’m interested in clothes. I tried for ‘Head to Toe’ at one stage but I was still doing children’s programmes and the producer in question said that I did a great audition but that I’d really need to disappear for two years and come back because I was so associated with kids’ programming. At the time, I’d love to have done it.
“Another part of me would have loved to have done current affairs because I have a huge interest in politics, finance and law. I’m studying at night time to be a barrister now, which is what I wanted to do when I was at school. I wasn’t sure what barristers actually did but I liked the idea of standing up in court and presenting a case on behalf of somebody else. There are quite a lot of people in RTÉ who have gone on and studied the bar. It’s a career that would suit somebody who’s worked in television because quite a lot of it is being articulate and persuasive, and thinking on your feet, which is similar to live television.
“I’d love to do more TV programmes. I think [for] anyone who’s worked in television it’s an ego thing really. If there is a performer in you, it’s like a drug - you get a bit of a high from people telling you that they saw you on TV or that you’re great.”
Mary FitzGerald was in conversation with Jan Battles.
Watch an episode of 'Anything Goes' from 1980, including 'Make and Do' with Mary on the RTÉ Player at TV50 Classics here.
A DVD of a selection of ‘How Do You Do?’ programmes featured on Den TV can be bought here.