A Festival of Cruelty curated by as pure a curmudgeon as ever sprang from Eire’s grassy hills. Culturalfatwa looks beyond the haranguing to the true message of Tonight with Vincent Browne.
By any measure Tonight with Vincent Browne at the unearthly hour of 11pm on TV3 is a weird yet wonderful phenomenon. In fact, in a political landscape almost completely devoid of genuine debate, it might just be said to be unique.
Stranger still the fishies that swarm and nibble about in the associated twitter hashtag, #vinb. Here extreme lefty meets dedicated republican, hard core begrudger and random Twitter smartarse, and all on a roughly even footing. Within this tag swim small schools of wrigglers of the anti-bailout right (the Karl Wheelan/Paul Somerville shoal for want of a better term), and occasionally, even in these shallows, drifting thoughtlessly under a bridge you hear a faint shout, “TROLL!” Too late! A doughty rock lobster of the Fianna Fáil, Labour or (horror) Fine Gael variety has you held in its vice-like claws.
The #vinb tag, rightly described recently on Twitter by @soundmigration as a genuine social/sociological phenomenon, would repay study – maybe someone is already on it?
Moving out of ‘virtual pools’ for a moment what we have is simply a TV panel show presided over by the mighty Vincenzo. It’s extraordinarily hard to describe to the uninitiated this man of (apparently) lefty-liberal leanings. Of course his arsenal of ticks, shudders and eye-browy moves and gestures have been well mimicked, if not quite equalled, by the short-lived Mario Rosenstock sketches on the show. But beyond the baleful sighs and the eyes up to a heaven he doesn’t believe in, to a god that’s not taking calls, Vincenzo is as pure a curmudgeon as ever sprang from Eire’s grassy hills.
Besides a photographic memory stretching back eons there is his most dreadful weapon, the phrase “Just answer the question”. So strong is this stinger that it seems to have been the main reason that the Troika refused to meet either opposition or press on their last tour of inspection. It is deployed with limpet-like tenacity, the hapless victim (be they left, right or centre) is allowed to blather on at will for a brief period. Then “the question”.
“The question” is always of a “have you stopped beating your wife?” nature. It might be nice to think that a simple yes/no could be returned as an answer, but that would be far too easy! Rarely has the harried victim even the microseconds to draw breath, yet alone stretch to audible sound. “The question” is always completely ‘loaded’, entirely and intricately of arch Vincenzo design and almost never, ever, drawn from whatever has been the media pre-approved ‘argument’ or ‘side’ in any particular debate.
Some choice examples of this include asking Leo Varadkar, “Why did you put the ‘gun to head clause’ in the preamble to the Fiscal Compact Treaty?” (he also deployed this particular bludgeon during the first Compact Treaty debate with Micheál Martin and Simon Covney), asking Troika member Klaus Masuch, “did your taxi driver tell you how the Irish people are bewildered that we are required to pay unguaranteed bondholders billions of Euros for debts that the Irish people have no relation to or no bearing with, primarily to bail out or to ensure the solvency of European banks? And if the taxi driver had asked you that question, what would have been your response? That’s my first question”, or September’s evisceration of the hapless Kieran O’Donnell, “are you proud of what your party colleague, Phil Hogan, did in this instance – reassuring or assuring neighbours in this area that a Traveller family wouldn’t be housed in that area?”.
There are many other things that you are liable to see on Tonight with Vincent Browne that you will never see anywhere else on the Irish airways or, possibly, anywhere in the world.
There are the Festivals of Cruelty or bloodings, horrible rituals in which one of the major political parties supplies a young innocent for the specific purpose of a verbal savaging by Vincenzo. This seems to be based on the misguided notion that the victim will be steeled/tempered or toughened in some way. The repeat throwing of FG TD Paschal Donohoe into the metal box shows that particular theory up as a complete non-starter. The casual savaging of doe-eyed Paschal only seems to draw him back for more and at times even this seasoned anarchist antichrist feels like throwing a towel into the ring on his behalf. Seasoned ministers and party leaders generally will not be found even accidentally within a 50 mile radius of Vincenzo under any circumstances. In our lovely wee democracy in the year 2012 they are basically terrified of a ‘mere’ TV presenter. This is, obviously, hella cool.
There are times when an ‘ordinary head’, be they homemaker or community activist, is allowed to spout forth at and, occasionally, annihilate some stuffed shirt or other. There are times when an academic or expert is called out, though mind you one or two (Diarmuid Ferriter springs to mind) take to it like ducks to water. There are live embedded outside broadcasts from within protests ignored elsewhere on the airwaves. They have a presenter who reads viewers’ tweets, texts and comments out live, later reproducing them fully credited on a blog (politico.ie), responding in detail and often using that to generate debate in future shows.
This show never so much ends as fizzles out – usually in a bad-tempered, inconclusive and incoherent morass. Each ending is a tiny, beautiful example of another glib and easy closure (the sine non qua of most political broadcasts), deliberately and successfully elided. As a resigned Vicenzo stares directly into the void and mumbles something about the weather forecast the message is clear: if there is to be resolution or closure, indeed change of any stamp, it’s gonna have to come from out there beyond the TV screen, from you (yes, you!), the humble viewer.