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'The reason it worked is because RTÉ had feck all involvement': Dustin on The Den's reunion and the show's popularity

We take a look at the good, bad and the bizarre of Ireland’s TV past every Wednesday in The Tube.

The Den's full crew in 1996.
The Den's full crew in 1996.

IN THIS WEEK’S trawl through Ireland’s TV past, we speak to the feathered member of The Den about what made the iconic show work and what we can expect from its reunion this week.

The Den, which ran for almost 24 years from 1986-2010, is not actually coming back but its central cast will be part of RTÉ Does Comic Relief which takes place this Friday. 

The charity broadcast is to raise funds for Community Foundation For Ireland and will see Dustin, Ray D’Arcy and Zig & Zag join other comedians on the night. 

The Den started with Ian Dempsey at the helm for the first four years before D’Arcy took over for most of the 1990s.

This period is perhaps the show’s heyday, seeing several characters added and becoming so popular with children that even President Mary Robinson dropped by at one point. 

At its core, the programme had a chaotic energy that captured the nation’s attention and has been held up as perhaps RTÉ’s best ever product for children.

Different segments of the show were added throughout the years, like birthday shoutouts and quizzes, meaning it was not unlike many radio programmes you still hear today.

It always felt a bit different though, and the fact that making children laugh was at its heart meant it endured for so long. People were constantly being made fun of, but it was usually D’Arcy on the receiving end.

In typical style though, Dustin told TheJournal.ie that little credit can go to the bosses at “Montrose hospital”.

“The Den was made because we didn’t have producers or directors or scriptwriters, we’d one locked off camera, so that’s why we were allowed to do what we did.

The reason it actually worked is because RTÉ had feck all involvement. That’s why it worked, if they tried it they’d end up with Echo Island meets The Nuacht. Echo Island, if you remember that muck, was basically a programme where children could go out and play for 25 minutes and get some air, and then come back in.

“The Den was unique because none of us were geniuses, none of us were television presenters, Ray D’Arcy still isn’t, in fairness to him he’s been consistent.”

Source: RTÉ - IRELAND’S NATIONAL PUBLIC SERVICE MEDIA/YouTube

The show was originally called Dempsey’s Den and the original host spent about a year by himself in studio before the arrival of Zig & Zag in 1987. 

The two aliens from the planet Zog ended up getting too big for Ireland and moving to Channel 4 in the UK, a treachery Dustin says makes them “worse than Cromwell, The Famine and Thierry Henry”. 

Zig & Zag were a staple of the show for the remainder of Dempsey’s time on the show before Dustin came along and then D’Arcy took over. The four formed the core of the show but when Zig & Zig upped sticks Socky then became part of the crew.

Other characters were added later, like Snotser and the infamous Podge & Rodge, but Dustin has been perhaps the most consistent member throughout The Den’s history. 

He says he mainly keeps in contact with his old colleagues “through solicitors letters” but will be happy to see them when the band gets back together on Friday. 

We haven’t got the full band because we sold Socky to Joe Exotic, well he’s with Carole Baskin now but anything is better than Bibi Baskin I suppose. We have the two British lads, the lads who sold out on Ireland, Zig and Zag. I’d say they’re out of money so they’re back brown nosing again.I sort of get on with Zig, I don’t really get on with Zag, he actually looks like the coronavirus. I’ll have to talk to Ray D’Arcy again, his show is actually sponsored by Diageo, because every Saturday night it comes on everyone goes out to the pub, they just can’t take it. 

“Hooking up with them again it’ll be a bit of craic, some reminiscing.”

PastedImage-54008 Source: RTÉ

The Den’s time with D’Arcy also saw the programme go on tour for special episodes across Europe, Australia and the US

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Christmas was always a special time for The Den, with the show heading to Lapland on a number of occasions. It meant that Christmas morning was made even more special for Irish children by The Den.

After D’Arcy left the show, The Den continued for 12 more years with a number of presenters like Damien McCaul and Francis Boylan

The format changed a number of times and it became less of a standalone show and more a vehicle to introduce other shows. Its stamp can still be seen on how RTÉ makes children’s TV however, something that has grown in importance during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

It’s now fitting perhaps that Ray, Dustin and Zig & Zag will therefore get a chance to get contribute to that effort themselves in this week’s Comic Relief.  

Source: KillianM2/YouTube

A veteran of  “about seven or eight” RTÉ People in Need Telethons, Dustin says he has fond memories of working with “the late, great Gay Byrne”.

He complains that such fundraisers are different these days, describing the latest one as “a who’s not of Irish showbiz”:  

The problem with them is you can’t syphon the money, it’s not like Fianna Fáil where you can stick a few quid in your pocket when you’re counting, it’s all accounted for. It’s gone a bit Fine Gael, a bit squeaky clean.

So aside from this Friday’s fundraising, how has Dustin been coping during the pandemic? 

“The plumage is all over the gaff, I look like yer man Twink. I need a barber quickly, I need to get one of those black market hairdos. I’m gonna look good on Friday though, I’m gonna get my beak painted. I survived the bird flu, I’ve survived god knows how many Christmases now but you know it’s something I’ll look forward to and I’m hoping we’ll do it justice. Because sometimes things shouldn’t come back, a bit like Pat Kenny.”

RTÉ does Comic Relief’ airs on Friday at 8pm and will be hosted by will be hosted by Deirdre O’Kane, Nicky Byrne, Jennifer Zamperelli, Baz Ashmawy and Eoghan McDermott. 

About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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