Of Nail Varnish and Toothpaste: Early Controversies on RTÉ Women’s Programmes

By Morgan Wait

What we remember and what we forget in history is often a gendered issue. This is certainly true in the case of television history. In Ireland, women’s programmes have been more or less omitted in standard histories of television. More attention has been focused on high-profile programmes like The Late Late Show, a long-running talk show hosted by Gay Byrne between 1962 and 1999, or Radharc, a documentary series that ran from 1962 to 1996. This applies, as well, to the incidents that have been picked out by media commentators as flash points in the history of the Irish national broadcaster, RTÉ.

The case of the ‘bishop and the nightie’ television incident, for instance, has been dragged out frequently in the Irish press in the last few years to highlight the purported backwardness of Ireland in the 1960s. This particular incident involved the Bishop of Clonfert taking issue with a segment on The Late Late Show. In this segment Byrne asked a woman what colour nightie she had been wearing on her wedding night, to which she responded that she may not have worn one at all. Offended, the Bishop called the station immediately to complain. However, outside of the Bishop of Clonfert’s anger, little else resulted at the time from the incident except a half-hearted apology from Byrne. It has, though, elicited more media attention since than perhaps any other incident in the station’s history.

In contrast, one of the station’s most serious early rows was waged over a programme that few have ever heard of called Home Truths. This row centred around something much less scandalous than the suggestion of female nudity on The Late Late. This scandal — which became part of a battle over the very character and soul of the Irish station — took place over something much more innocuous: nail varnish remover.

The controversy began on a little-known and long-forgotten aforementioned women’s programme, Home Truths. How forgotten is Home Truths exactly? Well, in a recent survey I conducted, not a single person indicated that they remembered the programme, despite its prominent role in the station’s history. Further, it is only ever briefly mentioned in the few histories of 1960s Irish television and had garnered zero retrospective media attention.

Home Truths (credit: RTÉ Archives)

Home Truths was, at its core, a magazine programme for women. It premiered in 1966 with a specific mandate to cater to working-class housewives and an emphasis on saving money in its consumer segment. Jack Dowling, the programme’s producer, was particularly keen on making sure that his audience was informed about how to save money and avoid being scammed by marketing tricks.

Enter the nail varnish remover, which would have huge ramifications for Irish television. About a year into its run the programme makers produced a script in which Mary Murphy, its consumer segment host, was to inform the audience that buying pure acetone from a chemist and diluting it with 15% water would serve exactly the same purpose as name brand nail varnish removers. The marketing department at RTÉ objected to the script out of fear that it would hurt advertising sales. And they similarly objected to a segment which would inform viewers that so-called buy-one-get-one “deals” were often misleading. This segment used the example of a deal for toothpaste to get its point across. Neither of these segments was ever made due to the objections of the marketing department. And in response to what he viewed as censorship, Jack Dowling resigned from the programme.

The incident did not end there and became quite central to debates over RTÉ’s role as a public broadcaster. In the press, one commentator warned that the interference at Home Truths suggested that ‘we are in danger of losing our soul in Ireland.’[1] The incident was also raised numerous times in the Dáil, the lower house of the Irish parliament, as an example of the station departing from its responsibility to public service – particularly, by prioritising RTÉ’s need to balance its budget over its responsibility for the ‘promotion of the national culture’ as outlined under the Broadcasting Authority Act.[2]

Indeed, this was the first amongst a number of incidents that led to the Sit Down and be Counted controversy. This incident, so named because of the book published about it, involved public resignations of producers Jack Dowling, Bob Quinn, and Lelia Doolan. The three resigned largely in protest at what they saw as undue interference in programme making among executives at the station. The incident itself elicited widespread media coverage, including a spot on the Late Late after the publication of the aforementioned book.

Lelia Doolan, Bob Quinn, and Jack Dowling (in that order) on the Late Late Show discussing Sit Down and be Counted (credit: RTÉ Archives)

Within the current historiography on the incident the resignations are often narrowly attributed to an ill-fated trip to Vietnam which the station cancelled, claiming budget concerns, but this was merely the final catalyst in a conflict that began with the censorship of Home Truths, as is clearly outlined in the book. Yet, Home Truths itself is little remembered as a factor in the resignations and is routinely overshadowed by other arguably less important, and sometimes overblown, scandals.

Perhaps nail varnish remover is simply not sexy enough to capture the Irish imagination but it seems likely that Home Truths’s status as a programme for women, a genre derided in Ireland and abroad, has much to do with its obscurity. It is possible that as a woman’s programme Home Truths would not be seen to have had enough value to merit such a central role in the history of RTÉ; or that an incident around nail varnish remover could not as such be important. Either way it raises a central question: what do we deem worthy of remembering in the story of Irish television?

[1] Nenagh Guardian, 4 Feb. 1967.

[2] Broadcasting Authority Act, 1960.

Morgan Wait is a final year PhD student in the school of Histories and Humanities in Trinity College, Dublin. She is working on a thesis entitled ‘“Where is she?”: Women and Irish Television 1958-73’. Morgan Wait holds a Cluff Memorial Studentship from Trinity College, Dublin and is a current Early Career Research Fellow of the Long Room Hub. She recently published an article in Alphaville Journal entitled ‘Writing the History of Women’s Programming at Telifís Éireann: A Case Study of Home for Tea’.  She holds an M.Phil in Modern Irish History from Trinity and a BA in History from Salisbury University.