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Kenny takes risks in Frontline battle

By the time Questions and Answers reached the finish line earlier this year it was a wheezing, arthritic dinosaur.

True, there were occasional flashes of interest and controversy here and there -- most recently the scorching edition during the final series when former Fianna Fail mayor of Clonmel Michael O'Brien confronted Transport Minister Noel Dempsey about the horrific sexual abuse he'd suffered at institutional hands.

By and large, though, the programme had lost its spark and even its original point, which was to be a mirror image of the BBC's venerable (and far livelier) Question Time, which, though it may irritate purists, has at least tried to widen its brief by including people outside the political spectrum -- Jarvis Cocker and Will Young being two recent examples -- on its panel.

Q and A, on the other hand, was methadone for political junkies: a dreary talking shop where the studio audience was frequently stuffed with thinly veiled party activists of all persuasions and lobbyists of various hues.

Actually making a mental and physical effort to watch the programme at the end of a long Monday was beyond many viewers, and even beyond some of us who watch and write about television for a living.


So it seemed a little curious when Pat Kenny announced that his new, post-Late Late current affairs show would be filling the same 10.35pm slot on the same night. This was a considerable move away from the dizzy, Friday-night, primetime heights of the Late Late and a risky proposition.

Even with Kenny's cachet as the biggest star in RTE, would viewers follow him? After the opening episode of The Frontline, I think the tentative answer is they probably will -- and perhaps in larger numbers than the cynics might have suggested.

The very title The Frontline carries considerable weight. It's a way of setting out the programme's stall; a way of telling viewers that here, and nowhere else, is where you get your weekly current affairs fix. Kenny frequently struggled with entertainment souffle elements of the Late Late, but he certainly knows his current affairs onions -- and, more importantly, how to use them. If you want to put it in straightforward terms, The Frontline takes the best elements of fiery, old-fashioned Late Late debates -- the guests, the panel, the invited audience members -- and boils them down to a brisk, entertaining, accessible hour.

Those in the stocks last night were Pat Farrell, chief executive of the Irish Banking Federation; Tom Parlon, former PD minister-turned-DG of the Confederation of Irish Industry, and Finance Minister Brian Lenihan.

The panel included Eamon Dunphy and Fintan O'Toole, and the audience was packed with ordinary small business people and mortgage holders struggling to keep their heads above water.

It was a firecracker of a start and Kenny, as energetic as any morning show host, zipped around the studio, microphone in hand.

In time, The Frontline may take the weight of weighty discussion off The Late Late Show, thus freeing the latter up to be a straightforward entertainment chat show. That would be a good deal for both parties.


The Frontline ***