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Fintan O’Toole: RTÉ bureaucrats fantasised they could turn themselves into Broadway impresarios

RTÉ piddled away €2.2m on the Toy Show vanity project while showing an increasingly obvious disdain for its cultural remit

Toy Show The Musical. Photograph: Ste Murray

There has been much talk of RTÉ's management culture. But what of actual culture – the national broadcaster’s relationship to the nation’s creative communities?

The disconnection between them is summed up in one staggering statistic. RTÉ lost more public money on one theatre show than a dozen of Ireland’s leading theatre companies – ANU, Brokentalkers, THISISPOPBABY, Dead Centre, Decadent, Four Rivers, Gare St Lazare, Hatch, Landmark, Livin’ Dred, Verdant and the Performance Corporation – got from the Arts Council for all their productions, combined, for the whole of 2022.

This is the cultural ecosystem into which RTÉ tried to drive its 50-tonne tank.

What RTÉ piddled away on Toy Show the Musical is close to 10 times the annual Arts Council funding for a breathtakingly good theatre company such as ANU. It’s 20 times what consistently brilliant Irish publishers such as Lilliput or Tramp Press get. It’s €1 million more public money than was invested in the wonderful Oscar-nominated film An Cailín Ciúin.


Druid in Galway, one of the best theatre companies in the English-speaking world, got – for a full year’s worth of work – less than half what RTÉ spent on a single show that lasted a mere 27 performances.

Last year, Druid produced a revival of Billy Roche’s musical play The Cavalcaders; the acclaimed world premiere of Sonya Kelly’s The Last Return; a series of staged readings of plays about Irish America; and screenings in Dublin, Cork, New York and Berlin of its Coole Park series of poetry films.

It ran residencies for young theatre artists and school and community programmes that engaged 120,000 people. In all, during 2022, Druid staged 107 performances in 12 venues and employed 105 freelance theatre professionals. To all this, the State contributed €1.23 million.

It is also worth noting that Druid has one member of staff who was paid between €100,000 and €110,000 – presumably its internationally celebrated artistic director Garry Hynes. It also has one member of staff who was paid between €60,000 and €70,000.

Everybody else – which is to say 25 production and administrative staff – was on less than €60,000. These people run a world-class organisation that consistently attains the highest standards of excellence.

Which brings us to Toy Show the Musical. Last week, after months of stonewalling, we finally learned that RTÉ invested €2.7 million in it. If we think about this on a cost-per-performance metric, it’s mind-blowing. The public investment in the Toy Show musical was €100,000 per performance; in Druid it was €11,492 per performance.

I’m reasonably sure that this makes RTÉ's vanity project the most expensive indigenous theatre show ever produced on the island of Ireland with one exception: Riverdance.

RTÉ invested the equivalent in today’s terms of around €1.8 million in that spectacular show. But, while nothing is risk-free in the theatre, Riverdance was already, after its debut on the Eurovision Song Contest, an international sensation.

It was a good commercial bet, which is why astute private investors also put their money into it. Yet RTÉ spent €1 million more on Toy Show the Musical than it did on Riverdance – without seeking private partners.

Worse: having lost €2.2 million of its €2.7 million, RTÉ – until it imploded – fully intended to keep shovelling cash into this black hole. Its then-director general Dee Forbes told the Public Accounts Committee in March that “fundamentally we believe we have much to build on for subsequent years”. Good money after bad.

But to this injury to the public purse, there is also an insult to Ireland’s artistic community. There’s more at stake here than very bad commercial judgment – there’s a skewing of cultural values.

How Toy Show: The Musical went wrong for RTÉ

Listen | 30:53

The fantasy that RTÉ bureaucrats could turn themselves into Broadway impresarios (in the event, more Max Bialystock than Cameron Mackintosh) coincided with the national broadcaster’s increasingly obvious disdain for its actual cultural remit: ditching its string quartet, running down the National Symphony Orchestra before getting rid of it, thinking seriously about closing Lyric FM. It decided, in one of the liveliest book cultures anywhere, not to bother with a regular book show on TV.

I was talking recently to one internationally successful theatre artist who, during this period, suggested to RTÉ and the BBC a low-cost TV version of a solo piece that was already successful on stage. The BBC took it up quickly and screened it to acclaim. RTÉ's response was “we don’t do that sort of thing”.

And that’s the real problem. Most of Ireland’s innovative artists have no relationship with the national broadcaster. They already know its response to almost anything they would want to do: don’t call us, we’ll call you.

If RTÉ's would-be showbiz producers had called, if they had a healthy organic relationship with the artistic community, they would have learned how tough and rigorous the work of staging anything worthwhile really is. It might even have dawned on them that, if they really wanted to stage a children’s theatre show, a good place to start would have been with Ireland’s actual cultural centre for children, the Ark.

In the refounding of the national broadcaster that must follow this whole debacle, this broken connection must be reforged. RTÉ must remember that culture is not a term to be toyed with.