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For once, Ray D’Arcy’s casually light-hearted formula gels

Kicking off the first show of an already traumatic new year, Ray D’Arcy strikes a disconcertingly sanguine note. As he admits on Monday’s programme (The Ray D’Arcy Show, RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays), things are “confusing”, what with the grim news of skyrocketing infections and fresh restrictions tempered by the promise of a vaccine. (And this before American democracy implodes on Wednesday.) But the presenter has the answer to our current woes.

“Soup will solve all your problems,” he says confidently. “I think soup is what’s going to define lockdown number three.” 

Beyond the fact that we’re all in the soup again, it seems like a flippant assertion. But D’Arcy is clearly sincere in his devotion to the dish’s comforting qualities, if not necessarily its ability to end the pandemic. He lists off his production staff’s favourite broths with audible relish, from laksa (“Sounds like something that would do damage on the downside”) to leek and potato, before it all becomes too much for him. “I want to be home now with a bowl of soup in front of me,” he says rhapsodically. 

By this stage, some may find themselves agreeing with the host’s wish: even allowing for the slim pickings that traditionally pass as radio fare in January, this seems like thin gruel indeed. But somehow, D’Arcy’s idea gains traction. Not only do many listeners text in their own favourites, but celebrity chef Rachel Allen phones in after D’Arcy issues an on-air request for an elusive recipe for Mediterranean soup. 

So pleased is the presenter with the reaction that he announces a “soup of the day” slot, which culinary luminaries such as Kevin Dundon and Lily Higgins duly fill as the week progresses. D’Arcy himself promises to cook a different variety and bring it into the studio each day, with producer Niamh Hassell passing judgment on the results. In keeping with the spirit of the enterprise, the verdicts are benign, with the host’s minestrone deemed “a hug in a flask”. 

This is mightily flimsy stuff, more suited to local radio or a podcast rather than a high-profile show on the national broadcaster. But, against the odds, it works, at least on its own whimsical terms.

As well as providing daft distraction and unlikely comfort, it also allows D’Arcy the opportunity to recall moments from his “poor” upbringing, from eating tinned corned beef to piling great coats on his bed for warmth on cold nights. Such memories are relayed in a spirit of self-deprecating amusement rather than Proust-lite pretension, but are revealing in their own way. 

Even when the reality of the reimposed lockdown intrudes, it arrives in the agreeable form of Prof Luke O’Neill, who is amiable and accessible as D’Arcy quizzes him with straightforward but pertinent questions. The interview pulls off the trick of being factual and clear-eyed about the situation, yet somehow exuding an optimistic air. 

None of this represents a change of direction for D’Arcy’s show. It still seems like something of a grab-bag of items, some personal, some vaguely topical, many simply frivolous, but all delivered in casually light-hearted spirit, in theory anyway. But on this occasion, D’Arcy’s formula gels; if not chicken soup for the soul, then at least cup-a-soup for the tired mind.

School closures

There’s much to feel weary about, not least how the matter of school closures is handled by Government figures. On Monday, with Covid numbers rising ominously, Minister of State for Special Education Josepha Madigan affects an air of unreal calm – as in “detached from reality” – when interviewed by Philip Boucher-Hayes, the guest host on Today with Claire Byrne (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays). 

Madigan starts by making the “important” distinction that the schools haven’t been closed, but rather the holidays have been extended. “Isn’t that splitting hairs?” the host asks, noting the salient fact is that children aren’t in school. 

This exchange sets the tone of what follows. The Minister repeatedly asserts that schools will reopen on the basis of the information she has, while her host constantly asks whether they should stay closed on the basis of the information possessed by the dogs in the street. (For the record, Boucher-Hayes actually says that Madigan’s stance is “based on test and trace evidence that you can no longer stand over”, but the effect is much the same.) 

“Why not acknowledge the possibility that there is an increasing likelihood the schools will not reopen?” the presenter finally asks in exasperation. “I cannot say that’s there’s an increasing likelihood, when that’s not the information I have,” comes the Dalek-like reply.

It’s a telling interview. One appreciates that Ministers can’t make up policy on the fly, but slavishly adhering to a rigid line doesn’t inspire confidence that a supple response to the crisis is forthcoming.

Even when the Government bows to the inevitable and the schools remain largely closed, a similarly recalcitrant theme marks Minister for Education Norma Foley’s appearance on The Hard Shoulder (Newstalk, weekdays). Asked by host Kieran Cuddihy to outline the logistics of keeping classrooms open for Leaving Cert students, the Minister responds that how schools implement the measure is “entirely up to themselves”. But her less-than-assured tone makes this sound less like the professed “degree of autonomy” than an exercise in buck-passing.

The back-of-an-envelope impression isn’t helped by Foley’s chronic evasiveness as Cuddihy inquires if the Minister asked chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan about the Leaving Cert measure. She replies that there was a “full discussion” about reducing mobility and classroom safety, but doesn’t answer the question.

After much ministerial sophistry, Cuddihy jumps to the logical conclusion: “It’s quite obvious you didn’t ask Tony Holohan.” In response, Foley upbraids her host: “You’re misunderstanding what I’m communicating to you.” 

Once again the effect is dispiriting. Instead of saying the Government has taken a calculated political risk on a crucial matter, the Minister seems more intent on backside-covering than forward thinking. Unlike D’Arcy’s soupy efforts, it doesn’t sound like a recipe for success.

Radio Moment of the Week: Killing joke

On Wednesday morning, Mario Rosenstock’s gently satirical Gift Grub slot (on the Ian Dempsey Show, Today FM) carries a sketch about celebrity keep fit apps. It’s aimed at mocking those futile new year resolutions, but turns out to be timely too.

Rosenstock does an impression of Donald Trump hawking a fitness app, which has unique features when it comes to calculating your daily steps: “If you don’t like the number or the number is fake, simply change the number,” Rosenstock’s Trump says. “I need to find 11,800 more steps, recalculate.” Likewise, the imaginary app can adjust body weight. “If you do not like the number, simply shout ‘stop the count’. It will be clear that the inner workings of the machine have been hijacked and tampered with.”

It’s mildly amusing, though the sketch’s final line – “Recommended only for delusional despots” – is grimly prescient. When the US capitol is stormed by Trump supporters later in the day, it’s not funny any more, merely accurate.

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