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Column: Remembering LAMBO and the celebrity of Gerry Ryan

It started out as an innocent book review but ended up as the subject of a police investigation. Hugh Travers writes about the late great Gerry Ryan and the claim that made him famous.

Hugh Travers

I NEVER KNEW Gerry Ryan. I never met him once. I never even laid eyes on him in person and yet, like most celebrities, I feel like I knew what sort of person he was. I assume in my ignorance, as people tend to do, that the person I saw represented  in public was the same person as he was in private. If some curious tourist wondered about this particularly Irish celebrity, I’d be able to rattle off a description of the kind of guy he was and yet to repeat; I never knew Gerry Ryan.

This is despite the fact that before my time, he attended the same school as me. When I was a kid, my family moved to Clontarf and I was told he lived nearby. I knew he was ‘kind of a big deal’ but  it all meant very little to me. That is, until I heard the story of LAMBO.

It all started with one bright idea

It all started out as a book review and it ended up as the subject of a police investigation and questions in the Dail. In 1987, the Gay Byrne radio show were reviewing the SAS Survival Handbook when they decided it might be an interesting idea to test it out. They had the bright idea of gathering a collection of volunteers and sending them out to survive for a week in the wilds of Connemara with just the handbook for company.

One of these volunteers was Gerry Ryan. At the time he was a late night radio DJ, a minor celebrity at best, hardly what you could call a household name. He came from show business stock however – his mother Maureen had a background in theatre – and he wanted to entertain. When Gerry Ryan and his cohorts reported to Gay Byrne that they had clubbed a lamb to death with a rock in a sock,  then butchered it and eaten it, the story was certainly morbidly entertaining, but little did they know they had set the wheels of a very modern scandal in motion.

The issue was raised in The Dail

The resultant uproar from the report lead to the issue being raised in The Dail and the police investigating the veracity of the claims.

Ryan and his fellow volunteers decided to change their story. They now claimed they made it all up. It was an elaborate hoax. Of course this did not go down well and a second wave of scandal broke. Many people were disgusted that the public service national broadcaster had been lying to the public.

It would be years before the full truth of the incident would emerge but it would only take a few months and a media feeding frenzy during silly season to earn Gerry the nickname LAMBO. The incident helped turn him into a genuine celebrity who would go on to present primetime radio and become the icon that he still remains to this day, even after his untimely death.

The template for reality TV

When I first came across the LAMBO incident, I was fascinated by it. My fascination had very little to do with Gerry Ryan himself. Rather, it was what the story said about celebrity and show business in general, not to mention the inherent ridiculousness of it all (a police investigation into the murder of a lamb in which the suspected murder weapon was a rock stuffed in a stock…)

Here was a survival programme that would form the template for reality TV programmes like Survivor and I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here, a piece of Reality Radio if you like, that was way ahead of its time. It is now common knowledge how these ‘reality’ programmes use selective editing to shape reality and portray the personalities involved in a certain light, all in the name of entertainment. Yet there was an endearing charm about the naivety of the whole enterprise in a time before we all became hardened to the construction that is reality TV.

Do we want the truth or do we want the glorious lie?

Then, there was a guy at the heart of it all who simply told a story, a little white lie to entertain the public and that story blew up in his face. People weren’t sure what they were most offended by.

Was it the brutality of the reported incident or the realisation that they had been lied to in the name of entertainment? Would everyone have been happier believing the lie? Do we want public service broadcasting or do we want entertainment? Do we want the truth or do we want the glorious lie? Do we want the real person behind the celebrity with warts and all or do we want the PR stage-managed public persona, the edited version, the facade, the icon.

In a world dominated by the mediated representation of reality in everything from a Facebook status update to a 24 hour news cycle that thrives on the narrative of scandal, do we have any interest in the truth or the reality or the real person behind the story?

Playing the role of a celebrity playing a role

I knew this story had so much to say for itself. All I had to do was tell it. But how to tell it? The more I thought about it, the more I knew it had to be from Gerry’s perspective. But we’ll never know Gerry’s true perspective. It could only ever be an actor playing the role of a celebrity who was himself playing the role of a celebrity. An actor telling a story and trying not to lose control of it, the little white lie that is show business.

The play is written, it’s cast, it has got an incredibly talented production team behind it and hopefully it will entertain whoever comes to see it.

And yet, when it’s all done and dusted, despite all the research and all the playacting, I still won’t  know the real Gerry Ryan.

Underscore Production’s new show LAMBO runs at The New Theatre as part of Dublin Fringe 2013 from Sep 16 – 21 – for further details and bookings log onto www.fringefest.com or call 1850 374 643

About the author:

Hugh Travers

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