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RTÉ’s real failing is risk aversion, not risk-taking

Hugh Linehan: The still largely untold saga of Toy Show the Musical has the makings of that rarest of RTÉ beasts: an actually funny comedy

Toy Show The Musical. Photograph: Ste Murray

“These proceedings are now closed,” declared General Douglas MacArthur on the deck of the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay, announcing the official end of the second World War. RTÉ director general Kevin Bakhurst was no less definitive about Toy Show the Musical on Wednesday afternoon in Committee Room 3 of Leinster House. Batting off a suggestion from one politician that the script, set and costumes from the doomed production might be made available free of charge to any school or amateur drama group that cared to put it on, Bakhurst explained patiently that not only had the set been ceremonially burnt, the script had been recycled into toilet paper and any executives associated with it had been escorted off the Montrose campus by armed guards.

Well, not quite but he might as well have. In addition to wasting more than €2 million of public money, the TSTM saga has supplanted earlier scandals to become the symbol of everything that was dysfunctional at RTÉ in the latter years of the Dee Forbes regime. Flops will do that. Forget about the flip-flops, it’s all about the flop.

Flops are not the same as failures. Any well-run creative enterprise – a public service broadcaster, for example – will price the possibility of failure into its year-to-year plans. It will allow people to run with ideas that might or might not work, and it will stand by those people if those risks don’t come off. One of the painful absurdities of the whole TSTM farrago is that for RTÉ, risk aversion, not risk-taking, has been its real failing. You got some sense of this from earlier contributions to Oireachtas hearings from former RTÉ chairwoman Moya Doherty and former head of strategy Rory Coveney (neither of whom showed up this week) when they talked about how TSTM offered an opportunity for talented TV producers to show their wares albeit in a medium in which they had no experience.

That will lend an additional bitter tang to the whole affair for the many independent creatives for whom RTÉ has been a cold house over the years. And, as Bakhurst acknowledged this week, it must cause some understandable Schadenfreude among workers in the Christmas panto business that RTÉ tried to muscle in on so unsuccessfully.


A true flop mustn’t just fail. The failure must be spectacular. It must have some sense of being well deserved, of hubris meeting nemesis. Two of the best books about the entertainment business are about flops. Steven Bach’s Final Cut charts how ill-fated western epic Heaven’s Gate led to the collapse of the venerable United Artists studios and, some believe, the end of the creative renaissance of 1970s Hollywood. In Song of Spider-Man, Glenn Berger recounts how the 2011 musical Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark became one of the most expensive fiascos in Broadway history. In both cases the narrators are protagonists in their own stories – Bach a senior United Artists executive, Berger a cowriter on the show – and both tales revolve around a central, apparently megalomaniacal character – superbrat auteur Michael Cimino in Final Cut, stellar Broadway director Julie Taymor in Song of Spider-Man. By the end of each book, amid all the carnage and despair, the reader is left with grudging respect for these two brilliant monsters.

Writer Lisa Tierney-Keogh describes RTÉ's management style as “a heady mish-mash of ‘computer says no’ and Caesar’s thumb turning downwards in a Roman arena”

Scanning the dramatis personae of TSTM, there’s not much sign of a Cimino or a Taymor. And the nearest we’re likely to get to a book is a short article this week in the Irish Independent from Lisa Tierney-Keogh, who was contracted to supply four drafts of a script in a very tight six months prior to the start of production. It’s on a much less grand scale, but her account shares some of the same narrative beats as Bach’s and Berger’s. There is a sense of nobody knowing quite what’s going on, of a doomsday clock ticking inexorably down to disaster, of no one being prepared to shout “Stop”.

“It was like jumping on to a moving train, travelling at the speed of light, with no clue as to who was driving,” writes Tierney-Keogh, who describes RTÉ's management style as “a heady mishmash of ‘computer says no’ and Caesar’s thumb turning downwards in a Roman arena”.

She also describes writing a script for people who didn’t know how the scriptwriting process worked, of executives changing their minds completely about what they wanted with just a couple of months to go, of being told she was being replaced by a more experienced writer (no further writer was credited on the final production). In all of this, writes Tierney-Keogh, “the sense of panic and pressure emanating from RTÉ was palpable”. This was at a time, remember, when the RTÉ board and executives were being told that everything was going swimmingly.

If RTÉ hadn’t got rid of that set, it would have had all the elements it needed for the best TV comedy of the year.