First published on Where's Grandad, April 2012
It was 1994, and our country’s hopes were as high as our waistbands.
We were pre gap year culture, pre Britney, pre duck-face profile photos. Miley Byrne was rearing a nation, Dustin the Turkey was landing number one hits, and Pat Kenny was but a vague noise sporadically emanating from the metropolis one’s aunts used solely for Christmas shopping. It was as good an era as any to be thirteen. It might yet prove to have been the best.
Thirteen’s a funny age. Your mind is still officiating games of House and Tip The Can, but your body is Judas, dragging you towards conscience and clumsiness and wanting to do funny things with the gawky dreamboat you found disgusting only five minutes before. On one hand, you still want to play with toys, and watch irony-free cartoons, and pretend to be Marty McFly. On the other hand . . . well, you don’t want to know what the other hand is doing.
Which is why thirteen-year-old ears are perfect for pop music. Pop music combines primary colours and primary urges better than any other mood-delivery system, and our mid-nineties RTE execs didn’t miss a trick. Saturday mornings meant eating Frosties in front of the television, from which blared an energetic ginger called Andy Ruane whose sole reason for being was to tell you which pop star was hottest in which provincial pockmark. His domain was The Fanta Roadshow, a travelling disco which uncovered the real issues of the day through the medium known as ‘rave dancing’.
Ruane was the thirteen-year-old’s ideal civil servant. As the Roadshow’s master of ceremonies, he whipped local music tastes into Top 12 charts, coaxed schoolyard anecdotes out of floppy-haired wallflowers, and pitted uncoordinated hopefuls against each other in rave-dancing showdowns that must have reminded adults of marionettes in a washing machine. Meanwhile, sidekick Mary Kingston prowled the host town for gregarious kids with exhaustive local knowledge. It was like . . . bullets of wisdom and pertinence coming at you in seizure-tempting waves of ‘90s graphics. Like graffiti that sternly reminded you to Just Say No. Like Mr. T advising you to respect your mother.
This actually happened.
The best bit of the show was the Soap Box. A platform for kids to tell the truth about their towns without fear of reproach from parents, teachers, or the parish priest, it was raw and honest and gave me and my burgeoning social conscience hope for the future. A handful of young ‘uns, from 6th class whippersnappers to lofty second years, would tell the camera the best things about their community: ‘There’s lots to do!’ ‘We have a great GAA club!’ And then, defiantly, the worst things: ‘There’s nawthin’ to do!’ ‘There’s far too much alcohol!’. Yes, rural thirteen year olds in the year 1994 were inordinately disapproving of alcohol. Dismayed by it. Hurt by its very existence.
Anyway, Saturday mornings meant waking up to Andy Ruane and his deftly-controlled mayhem and haphazardly-tucked t-shirts. He was part of our lives, an adult who wasn’t really an adult, a rapscallion who’d definitely let you onto the lifeboat before him. Then one day, in my little south County Galway town, the news broke that the Fanta Roadshow was coming to us. It was coming to the local hotel ‘niteclub’. We were going to get our very own fifteen minutes, presided over by our very own Andy Ruane. Mary Kingston would stalk our highways and byways, and find prudent youngsters who’d tell her about our folklore and geological features. Our own ambassadors would tell the country exactly what the real issues were in south County Galway. That the GAA was great and there was too much alcohol.
We were in heaven.
Every tween and teenager turned up to the Fanta Roadshow when it set up shop. The ‘niteclub’, a massive function room that usually couldn’t reach capacity (and probably hasn’t since), was jammed. Girls swayed timidly in oversized synthetic shirts, whilst bucks threw fits of the most desperate flamboyance at one another, attempting to rave-dance their way to social prominence . My friends and I secured a spot near the stage, so we might be broadcast screaming our approval when the camera did one of its many, many sweeps.
It was especially exciting for me, as my cousin, to whom I was very close, had been chosen as one of the town’s ambassadors for the Soap Box. He had recorded his spot earlier in the day, and I guess I could have joined him to pry into the experience, but I didn’t want to lose my premium dancing location. The noise was immense. The tension, if harnessed, could have given Ardnacrusha a week off. Andy Ruane was preparing to take the stage.
And . . .
And . . .
And he wasn’t nice at all. Not even a little bit. He was shouty and bossy and stressed and not at all one of the gang. Years later, I understood. They tell you never to work with children or animals, and with an audience of teenagers, Andy Ruane had to work with both. But in 1994, it was a shock to discover he didn’t really care about our anecdotes, or our issues, or even our rave dancing. All he cared about was, unforgivably, doing his job.
‘Move over there! You, stop that! Get down out of that, you little . . . Shut up! SHUT UP! Only scream when I tell you!’
We were stunned.
The illusion of the excitable, sensitive, trustworthy Andy Ruane had shattered, and we couldn’t rave dance the magic back. Sure, we screamed on cue for the camera. Sure, three intrepid show-offs took part in the rave dance competition. Sure, we helped count down the charts from twelve to one. But the whisper took off around the hall and nothing could stop it. From every downturned mouth, from every dismayed head, there came the hushed mantra . . .
My cousin had reason to be the loudest of them all. His Soap Box contribution was a deadened reading from a prepared script. He said that the GAA facilities were top notch and that there was far too much alcohol in the town. The Fanta Roadshow didn’t particularly care whether he thought either was true. When the show was broadcast, we were all a little mortified for him. His acting was atrocious, because, well, he wasn’t an actor. Perhaps he needed a drink.
The Fanta Roadshow was never quite the same after that. I still watched, but I declined to attend the next time it swung into town, and I never trusted a TV personality again. When a friend told me, years later, that she met Ray D’Arcy and that he wasn’t dazzlingly pleasant, it ruffled nary a feather on my poor, plucked head. Well of course he wasn’t dazzlingly pleasant. Why would he be dazzlingly pleasant in a world where Andy Ruane could turn out to be a short-tempered, supercilious git?
Thing is, when I looked back at old Fanta Roadshow clips with my jaded adult eyes, it was immediately obvious that Andy Ruane was dead right to have little interest in the teenagers’ anecdotes, because they were mind-numbingly shit. It’s a sad truth that teenagers very belatedly realise how boring they are. Thirteen years of self-centred helplessness, widened by hormones into a microcosm of hapless fools, is not fecund ground for growing great stories or shrewd ethics . No wonder Andy Ruane was so bad-tempered. Having to broadcast some braying kid’s tale of that time their cake fell over in Home Economics class would make anyone depressed.