“I’d heard RTÉ were looking for somebody for this filler up to Christmas for three weeks. Trying to persuade [RTÉ producer] Bill Skinner to have me for ‘Mailbag’ was like trying to get gold bars out of Fort Knox. You’d think I was taking over the ‘Late Late’ or something. After Christmas they decided to fill another three weeks and what started as a 10-minute programme for three weeks turned into a half-hour programme going out on RTÉ One and RTÉ 2 for 14 years. So I must have been doing something right.
“I’d been on television since 1953. Before Telefís Éireann opened I’d had a hit record on Parlophone, produced by George Martin, later of Beatles fame. It was an up-tempo version of ‘Molly Malone’ (released in 1959). I’d had several albums out. ITV’s answer to ‘Top of the Pops’ was a show called ‘Thank Your Lucky Stars’, presented by the late Jimmy Saville. I was on that under the name Mark Dwayne – a name chosen by my record label. That was how I got into television. I ended up on BBC television in a music programme called ‘Music For You’, after I’d walked in off the street and asked for an audition from the producer Eric Robinson. We had all the West End stars on. I sang with Benamino Gigli, the Pavarotti of his day.
“While I was in Canada appearing on the ‘Better Late Show’ (in 1961), I had a chat with a man called Stan Cox who was in charge of children’s programmes at CBC. I told him I was going back to Ireland as they were starting television there. He said two fellas had left CBC and got jobs there; Tom McGrath and Pat Kearney. When I got back I went to see them. I was told to talk to Jack White, who would be in charge of feature programmes. A couple of weeks later I rang him and he said they were training the television crews. ‘As you have a bit of experience you could help us if you were willing to let them shove cameras in and out on you for a bit of practice,’ he said. ‘You won’t get paid or anything but it will let people know you’re around.’
“I went down and the first person I met was Charlie Roberts who was the floor manager on the opening night from the Gresham Hotel. He sat me in a chair and plonked four people in front of me. I don’t remember how I interviewed them but they must have taped what I did because about two weeks later the phone rang and Jack White said: ‘We’d like you to present this programme called ‘Visitors’ Book’.’ It was RTÉ’s first chat show. When I went to see him he knew about the hit record I’d had of Molly Malone. We re-recorded it, with me on the piano and we used it as the sig tune. That was how I got in to Telefís Éireann when it started.
“I left RTÉ and went to England where I worked on Southern Television and Westward Television before moving to Manchester to present BBC’s nightly news magazine 'Look North'. Then in 1974 I was the first man on air with the breakfast show on Radio City in Liverpool. It was the largest commercial radio station outside London. Every week I would commute from Dublin to Liverpool and come home every weekend to see my family. I used to fly over but then when the cartel put up the price of kerosene I found it wasn’t viable financially and I went by boat. When you’ve had about two years of rough seas you get fed up with travelling and I came back. They couldn’t understand in Liverpool why I wanted to leave.
“'Mailbag' was good for RTÉ because it was answering people’s criticism of the station. It gave people outside of Dublin especially a great opportunity to express their opinions. If a person’s letter was read out on the programme, he or she was the talking point in the local community. If they won the £25 prize for best letter they would be the talk of the county.
“We used to get well over a hundred letters a week. One of the things I established right from the beginning with Bill Skinner, was that there wouldn’t be any falsifying or making up letters just to cause controversy. Some weeks it wouldn’t be controversial and one might have been tempted to do something about it. As far as I was concerned there was never anything concocted by anybody connected to the programme.
“I do remember people writing in asking if I had a wig. I was always very dark and it was just the way my hair lay on my forehead and I remember pulling my hair one night on the show to prove it wasn’t a toupee.
“We had a flood of letters having a go at Taoiseach Charlie Haughey after he was interviewed by RTÉ News as he was driving his big Mercedes into government buildings without his seatbelt on. That sort of trivial thing would come in but by and large the letters were about items that had been on the news or current affairs programmes.
“'Emailbag' is a bit lighter than that now. You don’t get that many serious letters. Most emails are about things like lack of continuity on television programmes. Like in one scene in 'Love/Hate' apparently a fella wearing a tie goes to walk across a room and when he gets there he has an open-necked shirt with no tie on. Another one a fella was supposed to be up on a balcony and a Luas went by the window. I think society has changed a lot.”
Arthur Murphy was in conversation with Jan Battles