GOOD grief Monerieff! This exclamation may well be ringing through the corridors of power at Montrose, as the old guard at the…

GOOD grief Monerieff! This exclamation may well be ringing through the corridors of power at Montrose, as the old guard at the national station steels itself for the imminent onslaught of that dreaded enemy: fresh young blood. Not that 34 year old Sean Moncrieff is planning to topple any ivory towers when he takes the chair for a new summer chat show on RTE 1, although he's sure to prod a few sacred cows along the way. And he's certainly not expecting immediate entry to that sacrosanct elite of star presenters whose number can be counted on one hand; however, when Good Grief Moncrieff goes out next month in the slot vacated by Kenny Live, don't be surprised if the erstwhile host of The End sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb.

Sean Moncrieff has no idea why he was chosen to step into Pat Kenny's boots - in fact, he's not even sure who decided that it would be a good idea to let this irreverent upstart loose for 11 whole weeks on prime time national television. All he knows is that he's got a job for the summer, and after many a winter on the graveyard shift, he's more than ready to take his place in the sun.

"I would guess the reason why they are doing it is because TV3 is coming on line and they're getting increasing competition from the satellites and terrestrials across the water, and maybe they feel that they need to start developing new talent."

Television's newest young buck is sitting in a crowded RTE canteen in the middle of lunch hour, coffee cup at his lip, fag in his hand, and copy of Phoenix by his elbow. He seems perfectly calm in this maelstrom of media people, as though comfortable in the knowledge that, right now, he's the man in the eye of the summer storm. According to Moncrieff, the general reaction in Montrose circles to the news of his sudden elevation was "major shock horror". Then, horrified at his choice of words, he quickly shortens it to "shock".


"Basically, in the scheme of things I'm sort of a single cell organism in the evolutionary scale in RTE, and I was bumped up to being a primate. Which doesn't really happen that much,"

For many RTE viewers - well, at least those who stay up late at the weekends - Sean Moncrieff's career started with The End, RTE's post pub serving of satire, interview and frothy entertainment, which ran for two years and became a bit of a midnight cult. Before that, however, Sean spent some time in daytime purgatory as a researcher; later, as a freelance, he contributed items to Soundbyte, The Arts Show and It Says In The Papers, till one day he read an article in the Irish Times about RTE's upcoming new weekend show. One screen test later, and Moncrieff had reached The End.

Sean admits that, in the early stages of The End, his performance didn't exactly pose a threat to Pat Kenny. In fact, "f**ing awful" is how he describes his own attempts to come on like an Irish Clive James.

"We literally and metaphorically made it up as we went along, but that was good because we had room to experiment with it. And the show was very patchy, obviously, and no one could ever make any great claims for it, but one thing I am proud of is that, to varying degree of success, we did satire for two years without anybody calling for me to be publicly flogged. But that could have been because we were on in the middle of the night with no one watching."

THE last fella who tried to do satire on RTE escaped a flogging, but had to go to Britain to ply his dirty little trade with nothing but a BAFTA to comfort him in his exile. Unlike Dermot Morgan, however, or even Barry Murphy, The End's other presenter, Sean Moncrieff is not a professional comedian, even though he admits he is a bit of a smart arse. He studied journalism in Rathmines, and became editor of the Press owned Northside News before its demise in the mid 1980s. Disillusioned with Dublin's continuing decrepitude during the last decade, Sean moved to England with his wife, getting a job on Broadcast, a trade magazine for the television industry. Although he found the work somewhat dull, he was aware of a growing interest in the medium he was writing about.

"Actually, when I realised I was interested in television, it seemed logical, because I watch a lot of television and I like television, which apparently is somewhat unusual for someone who works in the television industry."

Research work seemed to be the most natural way to segue from print to television, and Sean's biggest research job was on a Channel 4 series called Catholics & Sex, the religious equivalent of a David Attenborough nature programme.

"They didn't shoot anywhere below Watford," jokes Sean, "it was all where the natives live with their strange tribal customs. We did one programme entirely over here, which was, you know, Catholics on the pill, ooh, shock horror. And nobody around here seemed really bothered about it, but these Oxbridge types doing the programme thought that was terribly shocking."

Sean was born in London, but he's no "Home Counties" type. His mother, Molly, comes from Mayo and his father, Frank, is a Scotsman. The family moved back to Molly's native land when Sean was 12, settling in Ballinasloe, but as soon as Sean finished secondary school, he was off to Dublin in search of, well, he wasn't quite sure yet. Having moved around so much during his childhood, Sean always felt slightly displaced, and Dublin gave him a chance to, as he put it, create a home town for himself.

He now lives in a stone cottage near the sea in Sutton ("or Baldoyle, depending on what angle you're standing at outside the house") with his wife, Bridget, and their four and a half year old son Sencha, a name which the couple found in a book of Irish folk stories edited by W.B. Yeats, "which he'll probably never forgive us for, since he'll spend the rest of his life spelling it for people. But I suppose it'll give him a sense of identity if nothing else. A bit like the `Boy Named Sue' syndrome."

Now that there's a little boy in the Moncrieff household, displacement is no longer an option. "When you have a child, suddenly a lot of your priorities change, and you, by definition, have to become conservative with a small `c'. You have to think about him and his life and how what you do is going to affect him. And you have to worry more about an income. Whereas we wouldn't be too bothered if the electricity was cut off, you have to try and have more stability and regularity in your life for his sake, even though that may be a bit more boring for us.

"There's the more ordinary suburban elements that you have to start dealing with, whether you like it or not. And it doesn't necessarily mean that you turn into a drongo or an automaton, because you can tackle those things in your own way. It doesn't mean that you're giving up or selling out or any sort of 1960s concept. There's no us and them, we're all really in a kind of mish mash."

Given Sean's enforced lower case conservatism, the offer of his own Saturday night chat show on RTE will certainly alleviate some household headaches. It also bodes well for the future, since Sean is firmly placed in the picture just as things are beginning to change round Montrose way. Not bad for a guy who never wanted to be a television presenter in the first place.

"My intention was to produce, and make, you know, a poncy documentary and things like that. It had never occurred to me for a second that I'd be a presenter. It wasn't really my ambition. I still don't know if it is, to be honest with you," he laughs.

Asked to describe the type of "poncy documentary" he'd like to make, Sean recalls a particular programme which he viewed at a television festival in Edinburgh: "They were showing a Russian documentary about some guy in Georgia, before the wall fell, who basically ran a part of Georgia as a little feudal kingdom, and who actually had a Dracula type castle. He had serfs, and he used to put people in a dungeon. And this documentary crew, they had this guy standing in the dungeon who looked like the guy out of The Stranglers, the fat guy with the beard, and he's there and he's giving the voice over and behind him there's all these people holding the lights, and they're just sweeping the lights all over the walls, and it looked fantastic. It was sort of documentary meets pop video, but it really worked. And then that got my mind ticking over that, actually, this could be an interesting thing to do, you could do different things with it. And television, to a certain extent, is bound by a lot of conventions. Some of those are good conventions.

There are certain things on television that will never go out of popularity, like talk shows, like cop shows. But there's lots of other things that haven't even begun to be explored on television yet. And so I kind of like the notion of that, that it's still a relatively young medium, and it's a very powerful medium, and it can go from being extremely throwaway, bubblegum for the eyes, to something that could conceivably be profound, something you might even be able to call art at some point in the future."

Growing up in Ballinasloe, Sean's televisual diet tasted like bubblegum which had been left on the bedpost since de Valera's time. RTE 1 was the only station and, aside from M*A*S*H, offered nothing that the young Moncrieff considered `cool'. "I can't say with great honesty that I was a young fellow in Ballinasloe going, ooh, I want to make programmes like that. They had zero effect on me, basically."

Despite television's complete lack of influence on Sean's formative years, his belief in the power of television, and his confidence in its possibilities, has grown.

"People get very literal about how television is powerful. Television is powerful, but that doesn't mean that if Gay Byrne says everybody should vote Fianna Fail that that's going to happen. Of course that's not going to happen. But if Gay Byrne talks to somebody in a certain way, those subtle things seep into people's consciousness. And in a way, they tell people it's okay to think a certain way, it's okay to be irreverent towards authority figures in the State, whereas up until now, more or less, with a few very honourable exceptions that have all been axed off the screen, we've tiptoed around all those institutions in the State. Now, obviously, this country's undergoing a huge process of change at the moment, and to my mind, the most conservative elements in our society tend to be those institutions, tend to be people in semi states, people in positions of power who don't want things to change because it's going to affect their position. And I don't necessarily mean the Government, I mean, I sometimes think the Government is two steps ahead of a lot of the institutions around it. And it's quite an important thing that a national broadcaster should be a broad enough church, should be plural enough to let people on who are going to have an irreverent attitude towards them."

So what can audiences expect when Good Grief Moncrieff goes out on June 15th: wall to wall irreverence? Men in dungeons with lights flashing around them? Sean is quick to allay any fears of a Scrap Saturdaystyle Ministerial turkey shoot, but is equally quick to dispel any suspicion of safe and boring banter.

"Because we've only got ft weeks we don't have that much scope. If you had a normal run of 26 weeks you can give yourself 10 weeks to build up the show, and try out a few new ideas. Because it's 11 weeks, we don't have that much time to try any particular new ideas. It'll be a chat show format, and it's a case of keep it simple. Hopefully, it'll be very familiar, and so the traditional Kenny audience mightn't be too frightened by that - at least they'll know what it is. But hopefully, it'll be a bit more irreverent. It'll be a chat show with a bit more of an edge, and we'll be aiming to get far more laughs out of it than Kenny would."

What about the endless parade of authors plugging their books, the film stars plugging their movie, and failed movie stars plugging their exercise videos? Will they get their moment in the limelight, or will they get short shrift?

"In principle, I'm not averse to anybody coming in and flogging their book, but they have to be prepared to play with us, and they have to be prepared to possibly have jokes made at their expense. But, obviously we want to laugh with them, we don't want to bring them in and humiliate them, that's not the intention of the thing. But they have" to be prepared to play ball. Because I think that, on a lot of chat shows, they say, you know, later on in the show we're going to be talking to Richard Gere, and everybody waits for Richard Gere, and it's always ultimately unsatisfying because it's just the same old platitudes that the 20 other celebrities on the programme have come out with. But what can you learn about a person in ten minutes? Nothing, especially if it's on television. So, the alternative, I'll get them to do something funny. At least you might show that they have a sense of humour, and you might entertain somebody for ten minutes.

With all this talk of "playing ball", it sounds as though Sean is talking more about a game show than a chat show, but, in essence, he has been handed the keys to the great big toyshop of Irish life. Is he eager to start kicking the ball around, perhaps even breaking a few window panes in the process?

"Oh yeh, I hope so. I mean, it would be ideal for me if somebody resigns from government when we go on air, or a Minister was caught flashing in the park. And if I come on the first show with a few pointed gags, I'll be very interested to see what the reaction would be. Because a lot of the time, jokes are just things that people never say, rather than things that are actually funny. In a way, you're voicing unconscious things for people, and they might kind of connect with that, because you're saying that on the tell". But I mean that's not my aim. My aim isn't to plug into the collective unconscious of the Irish nation. It's just to get a laugh."

SEAN may not have much experience as a stand up comedian, but he's well practised at writing the kind of funny lines which kept the viewers giggling into their beer cans late on Friday night.

"What I always wanted to be was a writer - I'm rewriting a novel for the nine millionth time, and I'm starting to suspect that there's some sort of irony about this, that God is laughing. I mean, television doesn't exactly feel effortless to me, I do work hard at it, but it seems a damn sight easier than getting this novel published.

And this is like the thing I really wanted, and I kind of tripped into television, and it seems the better I do at this, the worse I'm doing at the other thing."

Now that Sean's summer schedule is full, it's looking less likely that he'll have time to tackle rewrite number nine million and one. Will he be able to wind down enough to work on his writing?

"Well, a lot of television is run on adrenaline, and after about three or four weeks, when my adrenaline levels went back to normal and I could think again, I discovered all these other old dusty rooms in my brain which I hadn't visited for the past year. I hadn't explored those rooms in a long time, and I found lots of other things that had been thrown, in there when I was rushing around doing television programmes. It's almost like you need to calm down, you need a month to get that other thing out of your, systems".

One consolation for lost writing time is the possible fame which Sean might gain from his higher screen profile. Who knows, by the end of the summer, the publishers could be fighting to buy out his book, with no rewrites. If Sean Moncrieff does become, a household name, will this be just according to plan?

"I hope so, but according to plan presupposes that I have a plan. But I don't really. And I've no idea what's going to happen in September. And it could conceivably happen that the show is a disaster, and I'll be working in McDonalds in September. Or it could happen that it will be a huge success, and the bosses will say, well, we have to do something with him.

Kevin Courtney

Kevin Courtney

Kevin Courtney is an Irish Times journalist