It was a Liveline (wash yer hands) for the ages, and just the tonic Lockdown Ireland needed, as the voluntarily offended made a holy show of themselves over Normal People.
Thursday afternoon really got going last week when Mary, who had called Liveline to complain about the critically acclaimed television adaptation of Sally Rooney’s novel Normal People, likened the drama to “something you would expect to see in a porno movie”.
Deploying his trademark slightly flustered, slightly concerned sigh, Joe Duffy asked gently: “What would you see in a porno movie, Mary?” Mary said she didn’t know, but could just imagine.
Tommy then called in, saying “that young actress (Daisy Edgar-Jones) is being exploited and used just to get the ratings … It’s no wonder there are so many crisis pregnancies.” Tommy moved immediately to abortion, before Joe directed him back to Normal People, asking if the nudity on the programme was what had prompted his call.
Tommy agreed, saying he felt the drama was sending “the wrong message” to young people, worrying that the national broadcaster was “promoting fornication”, before quickly returning to crisis pregnancies. He had watched it because “two or three young married women in the parish here” were “horrified” at what they saw, he said. Mentioning single mothers, Tommy worried that “promiscuity is the new normal”.
He hopped back to abortion again, and when Joe pointed out abortion is now legal in Ireland, Tommy said that the sad thing is that young people now think “immorality is the norm” and “it’s no wonder we have a pandemic”.
(Around this point, I tweeted Lenny Abrahamson, the Oscar-nominated director of the first six episodes of Normal People, saying “Please tell me you’re listening to Liveline.” Lenny replied “My mother rang me and I switched it on. It’s a glorious moment in my life.” He then tweeted a photograph of Joe Duffy holding his head in his hand, with the caption “Poor Joe”.)
When David rang in to say that he cringed to think of teenagers “jumping into this sexual thing”, Joe pointed out that “the consent scene” at the beginning of the second episode “could be used as a masterclass in obtaining, and giving, consent, from both parties”.
David replied that the programme was all about “sexualising young people”, before using the inevitable phrase “shoving it down our throats”. All I could think of at this point was that scene in The West Wing where a televangelist pontificates “Show the average American teenage male a condom and his mind will turn to thoughts of lust,” and Toby Ziegler replies “Show the average American teenage male a lug wrench and his mind will turn-”
It went on, with “married women” ringing in, and one pointing out to Tommy that “there’s more to marriage than sex”, and young women calling to say that that – the horror! – they enjoy sex.
Joe got irate with Tommy over his over-ready use of the word “slut” before immediately asking Tommy to “stay on the line please”, something Tommy obliged Joe by doing for the rest of the show.
I’ve been on Liveline, so trust me on this. If you’re ever on 1850 715815 (wash yer hands) and Joe asks you to stay on the line, Danger, Will Robinson, Danger! If he asks you to stay on the line through successive breaks, it’s already too late. You’re on national radio, and like a frog in slowly-boiling water, you won’t know you’re done till it’s too late. Joe is a lovely man, a consummate pro, and scrupulously fair, and he does a job you and I wouldn’t be able for, part counsellor, part ringmaster, part interrogator and part social worker, and when he’s on form, there is nobody better, and that’s why Joe is on the big money and you’re about to trend on Twitter. So when you hear the first “Stay on the line, please”, for your own sake feign ricketts, or fling your phone in the canal, or, hell, throw yourself under a passing drayhorse if you have to, but in God’s holy name, get off the line (51551 wash yer hands).
Within hours, RTÉ Radio 1 was playing excerpts to advertise the show, and by the next morning Sean O’Rourke (who will be sorely missed when he retires this week) was conceding that there was little point in his talking about Normal People, the programme being Liveline’s intellectual property now. On The News at One, Áine Lawlor congratulated Joe on lightening the mood of the nation.
It really was that good, and well worth a listen.
When Mary first called in, Joe predicted that she was effectively guaranteeing the programme’s ratings would go even higher. That turned out to be an understatement. According to figures published by the Sunday Times, the first two episodes of Normal People enjoyed a live audience of 268,000 when they aired on RTÉ One on Tuesday night, with a further 13,000 watching on RTÉ+1. Many people would have already watched the first two episodes of Normal People when they aired on BBC One the night before.
According to RTÉ, the episodes were streamed 55,000 times on Wednesday on the RTÉ Player, and the station would have expected to see a sharp drop in viewing figures the following day. Instead, in the wake of Liveline, the episodes were streamed on Thursday a further 54,000 times, something described by the broadcaster as “highly unusual”. Nice going there, Mary and Tommy et al.
Perhaps the uncomfortable truth for people like Mary and Tommy is that this is no longer their Ireland, and it hasn’t been for several referendums now. Perhaps normal people no longer let the morality police tell them what to do.
I’ve so far only seen the first two episodes of Normal People, but they are superb. The two leads, Daisy Edgar-Jones (Marianne) and Paul Mescal (Connell), are wonderful, and Lenny Abrahamson’s direction is calmly, gently beautiful, with Sligo’s glorious light shining even in the rain. Notices have been almost universally positive, but perhaps the most generous review of Normal People came from former Minister for Education Mary O’Rourke. Speaking to RTÉ’s Brendan O’Connor, she described the programme as “gorgeous, absolutely gorgeous”.
The former Fianna Fáil TD and leader of the Seanad, who turns 83 at the end of the month, said she was “not one bit” shocked by the sex scenes.
“I know I’m a long, long, long way from young love, but within my immediate family I have a granddaughter in Dublin aged 17, and a grandson in Athlone coming up to 17, and I can actually imagine them in the young people. I think it’s gorgeous, I think the cinema work is terrific, I think the angst they portray is absolutely authentic, and it is young love, and it all is very realistic, and it’s gorgeous. It’s very good, and I don’t care who says it isn’t, and I strongly believe it’s worth viewing.”
Liveline is on RTÉ Radio 1, 1.45pm, Monday to Friday.