The A to Z of 'The Late Late Toy Show'

A cultural institution on Irish television since the 1970s, it defies explanation

The A to Z of 'The Late Late Toy Show'

Ryan Tubridy took the wheel as presenter in 2009 [Sasko Lazarov/RollingNews.ie]

It returns. Like The Rose of Tralee’s peculiar ability to cast a spell over the Irish viewing public, The Late Late Toy Show arrives with advent every year, a candy-coloured novelty act spread across two and half hours of live television. How can you explain it to the uninitiated? It’s as if the toy section of the Argos catalogue somehow assimilated Skynet from the Terminator movies, with Ryan Tubridy arriving to shepherd viewers through the toy town apocalypse, staring with a forced cheeky grin into your soul and uttering the line, “Come with me if you want to give.”

Now 41 years old, what began as a mere segment back in the days of Uncle Gaybo has become one of the most important nights in the annual broadcast package of RTÉ. The popstars who appear on the show to the delight of young children may come and go, fade in and out of the unforgiving obscurity of fame, but the Toy Show’s not just for Christmas. Pulling in record-setting numbers of viewers, dominating social media chatter, and creating moments that take a fondly remembered position in the pantheon of Irish pop culture.

But should you find yourself still a bit confused, here’s Newstalk’s A to Z of The Late Late Toy Show to help spell it out...

[RTÉ]

A is for Audience

Earning a seat in the Montrose studio where The Toy Show is filmed is an enviable achievement for any Irish person, for whom the chance to pull on a Santa hat and novelty sunglasses is the kind of tantalising prospect worth of a place on a bucket list. The tickets, we are told, are impossible to get, lending the assembled spectators an air of smug superiority, all while they impatiently anticipate repeated dousings by Tubbers wielding a pair of boxfresh Super Soakers.

B is for Billie Barry Kids

As the foundress of Ireland’s premiere stage school, Billie Barry has left an indelible mark on the cultural consumption of the country’s youth. For decades, she commanded a coterie of all-singing, all-dancing, never-not-smiling moppets on The Toy Show, high-kicking their way through showtunes like a military parade weaving through the pristine streets of Pyongyang. Like members of a by-invitation-only Tinseljugend, belting their hearts out with matching costumes and matching movements, the kids’ uniformity cast a spell over viewers, unable to look away.

C is for Cavalcade of two, three, and four-wheeled vehicles

Across the night, children from all walks of life and every corner of the country come and display toys they’ve had the honour of playing with, with the viewers at home always having the sneaking suspicion they don’t get to keep them. But how much kid-friendly banter can be wrung out of a bicycle? Not much. “So we make it five bicycles, two tricycles, and an electric kid’s sized Land Rover,” a plucky RTÉ researcher once said. And so, in the space of moments, a dozen children zoom from one side of the studio to the other, Ryan Tubridy attempting to call out the relevant details like the witness to a hit-and-run.

D is for Dustin the Turkey

The deposed king of kids’ TV, Dustin once ruled the roost at RTÉ, spreading his wings across a media empire that saw him flogging albums and merchandising. For successive years he’d arrive in studio during the live broadcast, to the delight of Den­-watching children, to deliver brutal takedowns on whichever presenter it happened to be, to the delight of the children’s parents. All in all, it was one of the few times in the year that his particular style of Darndale dialect made it all the way to RTÉ. But after years of neglect (he’s not been on the show since 2007) and a high-profile defection (see T is for...), it looks as if this turkey’s goose is cooked.

E is for Equality

Despite its place as a relic of TV broadcasting, The Toy Show and its production team deserve some credit for understanding that in the 21st century, the gendered lines that traditionally divided the aisles in toy stores are no longer as sharply defined. Sure, Friday’s show will undoubtedly have its fair share of little girls playing with dolls, but in the recent past, The Toy Show has looked beyond the norm and embraced everyone.

F is for Fails

In the sense of things not working out. Never work with children or animals, the adage goes, and that can be applied to kids displaying battery-powered fauna. Things inevitably go wrong, toys fail to work, the sound operator fails to turn up the ET’s finger microphone when the Furby’s gobbledigooking. This is part of the charm, with the audience revelling in the mishaps and mischief.

G is for Guests

The Late Late Toy Show is, as its producers and presenters will always tell you, all about the kids, and if there’s one thing that kids really like, it’s pop music. Which is why the show parachutes in surprise guests to surprise the children, hoodwinking them into singing Ed Sheeran karaoke before the man himself taps them on the shoulder. That’s why it should come as no mistake that during the show’s tenure, the likes of Boyzone, Westlife, Jedward, McFly, Olly Murs, and S Club 7 all appeared. But much like the guest bookers on the regular Late Late Show, sometimes the Toy Show team loses the run of themselves and we end up with other kids favourites like the former Duchess of York Sarah Ferguson in 2008, appearing alongside Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May. Last year, British comedian David Walliams rubbed shoulders with Evelyn Cusack, while the less said about Jerry Seinfeld the better. That one was in a field of its own...

H is for Horology

Noun: 1) The study and measurement of time, 2) the art of making clocks and watches, 3) JohnJoe Brennan’s favourite hobby.

I is for Irish

As in language, a cursory smattering of which will surface at some point, most likely when they assemble the bookish kids to talk about how much of a grá they have for reading.

J is for Jumpers

For his 37 years as the host of The Late Late Show, the only night of the year that saw Gay Byrne do casual Friday was The Toy Show. Bedecked in thick woollen jumpers throughout the 80s and 90s, Uncle Gaybo out-hygged the lot of us. Kenny dressed like an absentee father who halfway through a round of 18 just remembered it was his child’s Confirmation. But it’s Tubridy who has most embraced the novelty factor, layering his wiry frame in snowflakes and reindeer and elfin finery.

K is for Kids

The Late Late Show is all about the kids, a sentiment that will be uttered repeatedly throughout the night and is written on a white board, pointed to by series producers with the kind of fervour usually seen by the ABCs of David Mamet. Kids of all ages, races, abilities will feature across the show, from performers to displayers. They’re just not allowed to sit in the studio audience, for some reason.

L is for Lavish production values

Having not hosted the Eurovision Song Contest in two decades, the costume department and set builders out in RTÉ are jonesing for a job to tide them over and keep the penny-pinching accountants off their back. Which is why they go all out on The Toy Show, creating the kind of mise en scene normally seen in pantos, recreating Disney classics, tailoring bespoke costumes for hundreds of children, before dumping it all and resetting things to normal the following week.

[Julien Behal PA Archive/PA Images]

M is for Money

Forget the Oprah Effect, The Toy Show had been turning obscure playthings into the must-have Christmas present for years before Winfrey took to recommending things. But beyond the sales boost to toymakers, the programme also acts as a big money spinner for the national broadcaster, who can charge as much as €17,000 for a 30-second spot, almost double what can be reaped for the same advert during the UEFA Champions League Final – and those are the mid-recession 2009 figures.

N is for Nepotism

Look, we’ll get to vetting process later on, but over the years plenty of children of RTÉ’s talent have gotten to feature in the show in some capacity, from Brendan O’Carroll’s sons to Joe Duffy’s triplets. Some things are thicker than water when it comes to the blood sport of beating your way onto set.

O is for One for everybody in the audience!

What once was The Late Late Show’s trademark giveaway slogan, with Gay Byrne bestowing bounteous quantities of hand creams and hotel vouchers to a besotted audience, is now a rarity. We all partied, but post recession, the only guaranteed night of one-for-all giveaway in on Toy Show night.

P is for Presenters

Each of the three has brought something different to the table; Gay is like your granduncle, a comforting presence who warmly let the children have their moment in the spotlight. Pat was like your mother’s new boyfriend, doing his best, but the kind of person you know puts money in your Christmas card. Ryan is like the babysitter your parents leave you with who, at first, seems like a lot of fun, but then whose manic insistence on manufacturing mayhem becomes increasingly annoying. He’s the kind of guy who will make you listen to Michael Bublé.

Q is for Questionable toys

Dear producers of The Late Late Toy Show 1990, a stool is not an acceptable toy.

R is for Ripgate

When 100,000 people apply for tickets and they give them to you for free, along with €10,000 and a weekend in Dublin, maybe just say thanks?

S is for Singing

RTÉ makes a point every year of making a song and dance about finding the most talented children they can to appear on the show, but beyond a few gifted pianists and sean-nós dancers, this usually means that there’s going to be singing – a lot of singing – throughout the night. More and more of it every year. They’ve even roped Ryan into it, with his singing marginally better than his lip-synced crooning.

T is for TV3

The would-be usurpers of the The Toy Show crown, since 2013 the rival network has had the balls to not only rip off the entire format, stripping it of any razzle-dazzle, but the even go so far as to broadcast it on the same night as the real one – just at an earlier time. For 2016, Dustin the Turkey takes over presenting duties, with the channel’s Davina McCall, Lucy Kennedy, ably by his side. In what has been a bumper year for the commercial station, what TV3 has failed to grasp if that if you’re going to copy, you had better do a better job in the process. Still, 1.1m people tuned in to watch their toy show last year, even when fronted by an actual presenting turkey, Brian McFadden.

U is for Unwrapped

That would be the three-part making of docu-series that reveals some of the behind the scenes footage taking place in the lead-up to the big night. This is all part of the show’s attempts to generate hype, despite the fact that watching it is a foregone conclusion for most viewers.

V is for Vetting process

Children wishing to make it onto the show, either as performers or displaying the toys, go through a rigorous audition process that starts with a letter. On the very first Late Late Show of the season, months before The Toy Show works its way into the media cycle, Tubridy calls out for the next generation of JohnJoes, with the production team landed with the unenviable job of sorting the wheat from the chafe. It’s a process that takes months, with every kid needing to strike the balance between notions and charm – something most adult presenters still struggle with.

W is Worldwide

That’s the reach of the show, which whistles its song of nostalgia and whimsy to ex-Pats and ex-Paddies all over the world. With the Irish diaspora always keen to relive the days of their youth, RTÉ makes The Late Late Toy Show available to anyone around the world with an Internet connection.

X is for XXX

In what can only be one of the most bizarre news stories to come out of 2016, Pornhub revealed that its single biggest media event to interrupt traffic to the site was The Late Late Toy Show, which admittedly sounds like the kind of video one would watch on Pornhub. A whopping 16% fall in traffic was observed, proportionally higher than movie awards shows and season premieres of ratings juggernauts like The Walking Dead and The Big Bang Theory.

Y is for Year winner

The annual broadcast is such a massive ratings winner for RTÉ that it almost always finishes in the top 10 most viewed programmes of the year.

Z is for Zig & Zag

With Dustin have flown the coop, I wouldn’t rule them out. After all, children during their tenure on Network 2 are now parents...

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