Rita wanted to stay on the line — so Byrne let her speak.
Rita wanted to stay on the line — so Byrne let her speak. Supplied

Talk show host’s phone call takes heartbreaking turn

ANYTHING can happen on live TV - and that's certainly true of one chat show segment that took such an incredible turn it's still referenced as a landmark television moment to this day.

The year was 1997, and veteran Irish chat show host Gay Byrne was at the helm of popular light entertainment program The Late Late Show.

The program had a regular phone-in segment with viewers, and in this episode, Byrne was calling a woman live on air to inform her she'd just been chosen as the lucky winner of a new car.

The woman answering the phone was hushed, meek - even when told of the prize.

"Are you happy, Rita?"

"Yes," came the muted reply.

"Are you watching the show tonight?"

"I wasn't. My daughter died last night."

Cue gasps from the studio audience. Byrne's face fell and his tone changed completely.

Gay Byrne handled the situation beautifully.
Gay Byrne handled the situation beautifully. Supplied

"Oh no. Oh dear Rita, I'm very sorry."

Byrne asked the woman what her 43-year-old daughter's cause of death had been, but his inelegant phrasing - "And why did she die?" - was met with a steely response.

"Are you being funny?" she shot back.

"She got knocked down. She was in a car crash last night."

It had been Rita's daughter who'd sent in the postcard to the show in hopes of winning a car - and it was a car that would end her life, one day before the win.

Byrne gave the woman the option to end the call.

"Good heavens. Well Rita, I don't think we can continue with this in the circumstances. Do you want to?"

"I do."

The audience applauded, and so Byrne continued. Incredibly, two guests he had seated opposite him in the studio couldn't have been more appropriate for the unfolding situation: The first was a nun, who offered Rita words of comfort and told her it had surely been no accident that her daughter's postcard was picked tonight.

The other was poet Brendan Kennelly, and Byrne called upon him to provide some words that would console Rita. He recited his poem Begin from memory - its final stanza reading:

"Though we live in a world that dreams of ending

that always seems about to give in

something that will not acknowledge conclusion

insists that we forever begin."

By the time he'd finished, Rita was softly weeping. Byrne told her she had the support and prayers of the country, and she in turn told the host she felt she was doing something important for her daughter by staying on the line and accepting the prize "for her".

In all, what had started as a simple prize announcement had turned into a profoundly moving piece of television. Reflecting on the segment years later, Byrne said he felt like fate may have had a hand in what happened.

"I was holding in my hand the postcard that the girl had posted. We had this big plastic thing with hundreds, if not thousands of postcards in it. Out of all of those, this postcard came out," he said.

Chat show host Graham Norton, who cites Byrne as a major influence, praised his handling of the incident during a podcast interview last year.

"He was so at home in front of the camera. As a broadcaster, your instinct would be to go 'Sorry, bye'. He talked to this woman. This is a light entertainment chat show, but he was able to steer it. He was so confident in his show: This is my show, and anything can happen in this world, and it'll be fine because I'm here," he said.

News Corp Australia

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