Vincent Browne’s last show: A classic display of Browneian Motion

TV Review: Better then Seinfeld’s finale, but Jedward should have given him a Humvee

Vincent Browne at the TV3 studio on Thursday night for his final show. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Vincent Browne at the TV3 studio on Thursday night for his final show. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

The much-anticipated finales of television shows often end up being terrible disappointments. The last episode of Seinfeld was so poor it sucked whole galaxies of good will into its humourless black hole. Didn’t somebody die at the end of M*A*S*H? How much fun was that?

The last episode of Tonight With Vincent Browne risked a different kind of disappointment. One thinks of that hugely uncomfortable moment when, on his last Late Late Show, Gay Byrne failed to understand that U2 were giving him a motorbike. There are reasons why that episode is not etched into the nation’s collective memory.

Famously uncomfortable with compliments, Vincent Browne would surely have curled into a ball of semi-verbal exhalations if his old mates Jedward turned up to give him a Humvee. (That sounds like the 2017 equivalent.) “What? What? What?”

He would have deserved such a tribute. Browne has been an eccentric ornament to the nation for close to half a century. Let us be clear. He has never been the sort of bland ornament that gets ignored among the postcards from Tenerife and chipped Infants of Prague. Visiting relatives would be sure to squint at the mantelpiece, pick out the electrically haired oddity and ask: “Where the hell did you get that from?”

Contemporaries who worked with him on this newspaper or Magill magazine or the Press or the Tribune or. . . hang on. This could go on forever. Contemporaries who worked with him tell contrasting, often potentially libellous tales of his working habits. But none shrugs noncommittally. Nobody has ever said: “I can’t see what the fuss is about.” His rigorous pursuit of the truth has been key to his success as a journalist. The oddness of his delivery - a gift to impressionists - has guaranteed him a level of celebrity that few contemporaries can match. “What? What? What?”

Spluttered exasperation

The most recent (we shan’t say “last”) act in his personal drama offers happy confirmation that, in life as in oenology, the elder vintages can often be the most interesting. Tonight With Vincent Browne, on TV3 since 2007, was the closest Ireland had to late-night “appointment television”. It managed that by being nothing like the festivals of emollient ooze hosted by US hosts such as Jay Leno or Jimmy Fallon. We were instead offered a decade-long lesson in the power of spluttered exasperation. In recent years, the Twitter hashtag #vinb has bossed the social medium in the wee hours. The consensus on the tweets has, for that unforgiving corner of the internet, been impressively generous towards Vincent.

The later vintage is the most complex yet. There is occasionally the sense of an actor playing both The Fool (speaking fearless truth to the powerful) and King Lear (damply and wearily bewildered) in an avant garde production of that Shakespeare play. For the most part, however, he dissects the news like a cautious surgeon removing a dangerously positioned polyp.

Few comparisons with overseas rivals work. He is not a bruiser in the style of Andrew Neil. He is not a bored prefect in the style of Jeremy Paxman. He is unshakably Browneian. He exhibits Browneian motion (that’s a science joke).

For the final show, the producers - fearful of ending on a dreaded manel - had wisely surrounded Browne with women. Mary Lou McDonald TD continued her role as the unthreatening face of Sinn Féin. The calm Catherine Connolly TD represented the good people of Galway West. Dearbhail McDonald, business boffin, kept the tone at an elevated level. Sinead O’Carroll of the Journal, who has admitted that Vincent told her she was “shite” when she first appeared on the show, was back to prove that assessment flawed (or, at least, premature). The ambitious brief was to ponder all that had gone on in the preceding decade.

Vincent began by staring down the barrel of the camera and reading a valedictory message in the grim style of Eamon Morrissey’s Minister for Hardship from Hall’s Pictorial Weekly. There were jokes in there, but there was also a sense that he might soon break the news that “no such assurance” had been reached from Herr Hitler. He acknowledged that the gig on TV3 had helped him out of a massive financial hole. Keeping his face straighter than Buster Keaton, after thanking the makeup people, he told us that a woman in Dun Laoghaire had recently told him he looked worse in real life than on television.

Happily, after the break, the mood lifted with a replay of his greatest hit: that broadcast from the George Bar on the day of the Marriage Equality referendum vote. “For me that was your triumph in terms of that show,” Mary Lou assured a now merry Vincent.

Browneian Motion

Later, they had a good-natured falling out. “One has to wonder about Sinn Féin . . . ” he began.

“Does ‘one’?” she laughed, making it clear that the ‘one’ mentioned could answer only to the name Vincent. No end-of-term giddiness could inhibit Browne from chewing away at what he saw as a change in Sinn Féin policy on their conditions for entering government. Both said they’d miss the other. They seemed to mean it.

Nothing defined Browneian Motion better than the sequence during which he endured - and that is the word - his pal Glenda Gilson reading out tweets expressing kind thoughts about him. Vincent adopted the uncomfortable look of a teenager forced to endure a sex scene on the telly while his parents were in the room. “What are they saying about Sinn Féin?” he barked. “What are they saying about Sinn Féin?” If you really want to unnerve Vincent Browne tell him how much you like him.

One of the things we like him for is his ability to make stories of the news. As the panel moved on to a consideration of the changing media, he told us of a friend who had just emerged from prison to be taken aback by people walking the streets with their heads bowed over phones. Some of them are exchanging thoughts about Vincent Browne.

Discussion of the newspapers allowed Vincent an opportunity to confirm that genuine passion is never too far from the service as he shook his head in despair about the scandal of direct provision. He told us how immigrants spoke warmly of the fact that this was a country at peace. There was a sense of him relaxing into a groove that he’d travelled since before The Beatles split up.

Then those conniving rogues started being nice to him again. Glenda dragged out a cutting from 1970 declaring Vincent one of the nation’s most eligible bachelors. It got worse. A male voice choir arrived to sing Bread of Heaven as the credits rolled beneath the scarlet set. “Guide me, O thou great Redeemer,” they bellowed. “I am weak, but thou art mighty.” This was more embarrassing than that image of the Irish Sun’s front page featuring a tribute to the show we were watching.

He left us with a squirm so extreme you half-worried he’d given himself a hernia. “Ah, Jaysus,” he mouthed. It was a fitting end to a delightfully peculiar national institution. The closing Tonight With Vincent Browne was a better last episode than the concluding chapter of Seinfeld. But I still feel Jedward should have given him some sort of vehicle.