Toy Show the Musical may be inevitable but is it a good idea?

Hugh Linehan: The Late Late Toy Show is a ratings winner for RTÉ so this much-hyped brand extension is not a surprise

It is customary in these parts to make sure the clocks have gone back before any mention of Christmas is permitted. However, a dispensation of a few hours has been granted to bring you news hot off the metaphorical presses about the progress of Toy Show the Musical, which arrives in Dublin’s Convention Centre on December 10th.

You may be aware of Toy Show the Musical from its rather vague ad campaign, featuring an image of a smallish, youngish person (or perhaps a hobbit) reaching yearningly for the sky. Until recently, we knew little else about the production, apart from the fact that it was heavily RTÉ-branded, was conceived by two of the Late Late Show team and that casting calls took place during the summer. Would Ryan Tubridy be appearing at the Convention Centre every night with Ed Sheeran and Dustin the Turkey? Would there be surprise cameos from sports stars and gifts for everyone in the audience? Will there be Quality Street?

Alas no. An update landed this week about the progress of the show, which is now fully cast and in pre-production, along with some information on what it’s actually about. Toy Show the Musical will, apparently, rip the Band-Aid off this supposedly amiable family entertainment to reveal the rivalries, back-stabbing and moral compromises which fester just beneath the tinselly surface

Or maybe not. “Toy Show the Musical is a celebration of the magical and joyful tradition unique only to Irish people on that one special evening at the end of November. It’s a celebration of tradition and, more importantly, a heart-warming story of one girl’s journey to preserve it,” says the press release. “This brand-new Irish musical promises to sweep audiences along on one little girl’s adventure as everyone in her town prepares for the Toy Show on the biggest night of the year.”


Under the inexorable logic of 21st-century capitalism, if people like a thing, you keep giving them more and more of that thing until they projectile vomit or expire of self-loathing

We should acknowledge that RTÉ is quite right when it says the Toy Show is unique. It’s always the most most-watched programme of the year on Irish television, with four out of every five viewers of linear TV tuned in on the night. It also pulls in a large diaspora audience for its non-geoblocked stream on the RTÉ Player. It is very, very popular.

The concept may have been around since 1975, but it’s Tubridy who has brought the show to its position as the self-proclaimed pinnacle of Irishness-on-the-telly and official gateway to Christmas in a secular age. Tubridy’s easy manner with his young guests and endearing attachment to all the seasonal trappings has turbocharged an already existing multi-generational affection on to a new level, fuelled by enthusiasm on social media. Apart from St Patrick’s Day, Toy Show night is the only Irish hashtag that trends globally. The Irish Times has even been known to liveblog it. For a broadcaster clinging grimly to the comfort blanket of live-event TV, all of this matters a lot.

These days, the Late Late Toy Show is a show about toys that doesn’t really feature that many toys. Instead it’s become a giddy amalgam of old-school variety, heart-tugging personal stories and gentle fun. The opening sequence, in which Tubridy fronts a supposed “showstopper”, is not as good as those involved seem to think, but otherwise the programme maintains its own gentle equilibrium from year to year (even during the challenges of Covil-19 lockdowns). There will be a parade of tricycles. There will be a triumph over adversity. There will be Billie Barry kids.

At a time when the genre is dying across the world, RTÉ may have stumbled upon the answer to the death of the old-school chat show. The problem is that it only comes around once a year. The broadcaster does its best to pad out the schedule for a week with nostalgic lookbacks, cheap vox-pops and even cheaper repeats of nostalgic lookbacks and vox-pops. But it’s not surprising that it’s looking to extend the brand further. What traditional panto producers in the capital think of RTÉ muscling in on their turf is another matter, especially if the broadcaster uses its many platforms to promote its own commercial show. Keep an eye out for Toy Show the Musical on Toy Show the programme.

Under the inexorable logic of 21st-century capitalism, if people like a thing, you keep giving them more and more of that thing until they projectile vomit or expire of self-loathing. It’s worked with prescription opiates, jumbo meal deals and home improvement shows. So why not The Late Late Toy Show? And if this venture turns out to be a success, can the Sunday Game Opera or Room to Improve on Ice be far behind? Premature season’s greetings to you all.