‘Fáilte Towers’ 10 years on: RTÉ’s final Celtic Tiger fever dream
As a licence fee payer I feel entitled to say that RTÉ’s television division are infuriatingly risk averse, recycling imported formats year after year to middling audience enthusiasm and even poorer quality output. Yet, in the past decade — dominated by the sameness of The Voice of Ireland and the short-lived The Hit — there have been two original unscripted series that have stuck in my memory; one was the cooking contest Take On The Takeaway, the other — and by far the best reality series RTÉ have aired in my lifetime — was called Fáilte Towers.
Not a month has gone by since August 2008 when I haven’t thought about Fáilte Towers, to such an extent that I set a reminder on my phone two years ago for Aug. 1, 2018, telling me to write a blog post celebrating the show’s 10-year anniversary. So here we are.
The show was broadcast for 10 episodes through August ’08 as a replacement for Charity You’re A Star, a passable spin-off that had amused at least myself the past few summers. The concept was effectively “Celebrity Big Brother in a Hotel”: a gang of D-listers were employed to operate Bellingham Castle, Co. Louth for two weeks, with real guests staying (and soiling their beds). Some of the “celebs” involved? Donna and Joseph McCaul (the latter who recorded a message of support for my 2015 Student Council campaign, and I hence consider a friend), Michelle Heaton, Page 3 model Clare Tully and Evelyn Cusack from the weather. The show was hosted by the bizarre duo of Baz Ashmawy (widely disliked at the time, but has had something of a reappraisal since) and Aidan Power, who goes to the same orthodontist as me. Towers aired Saturday, Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday nights, providing a sense of urgency to the evening broadcasts.
One month before I started a Twitter account, it somehow felt like there was a conversation surrounding this show that I hadn’t experienced before — likely rooted in print and radio discussion of the exploits. One celebrity was eliminated every night after a public vote. The final four who competed in what I recall as a thrilling grand finale (“thrilling”, two weeks after The Dark Knight was released, really meant something) were a fascinating bunch with a notable generational split: we had young up-and-coming public nuisances Jennifer Maguire and Brian Dowling (though given a choice I’d opt for Dowling any day) and cultural vets Don Baker and John Creedon.
This was my first introduction to Creedon, whose radio show was still late at night and, hence, I had never heard. But the nation fell in love with Creedon watching Fáilte Towers. He was declared the biggest teddy bear in Ireland, and the man went and won the damn thing. Not long after his radio show was bopped back to the daytime schedule, and in the intervening decade he’s been given a judging role on The All Ireland Talent Show, followed by a whole array of TV projects. One of which, National Treasures, I got to work with him on last Autumn. So if nothing else, we should thank Fáilte Towers for gifting us the Creedon renaissance.
In an almost unheard-of figure for RTÉ, the finale garnered almost 1 million viewers, an achievement typically only matched by Mrs Brown’s Boys, The Rose of Tralee and the Toy Show. So why on earth wasn’t it renewed for a second season? Perhaps it was considered just slightly too edgy to continue with. Perhaps it seemed odd, or even despicable, to broadcast an indulgent hotel series in the wake of the Recession that followed later in 2008. Or maybe, like is so often the case in this country, they simply ran out of celebrities willing to participate.