The Dara Effect

18 Jun

dara brief history

This brief (electronic) brush with one of my heroes caused me to reflect last night on the subject of inspiration and of meeting your heroes.

It was a theme that ran through Dara Ó Briain Meets Stephen Hawking, which aired on BBC1 the other night. Dara was honest about his doubts about meeting his hero – could Stephen Hawking possibly live up the the legend? – and I almost didn’t watch the programme for the same reason. But I did, and I’m very glad I did.

It could so easily have fallen flat. Watch any of Dara Ó Briain’s work, and you’ll see that it hinges on interaction. His stage shows are rooted in a dialogue with his audience. Other comedians will interact, but often in a one-sided, confrontational way. Frankie Boyle and Jimmy Carr may be sharp and clever but their interaction stems from insults. What sets Dara Ó Briain apart is that his interaction with the audience is inclusive and supportive, and it becomes an integral part of the show, to the extent that – famously – no two nights are ever the same. Dara’s strength here is in being able to ride the crest of an unpredictable show, quickly find the threads of a discussion and weave humour through it. If you like, Dara is a diamond that magnifies and reflects the best facets of his audience back to them.

So he must have been terrified at meeting Stephen Hawking. Not just because of his professed fear of meeting an inspirational hero, but because the meeting would have put him entirely outside his comfort zone. How can you engage in a lively discussion when answers take minutes to arrive? How can you enjoy seeing the tangent the conversation flies off on, if your questions have to be scripted and submitted in advance? The problem was immediately apparent at their first meeting, when Dara’s bright and brittle greeting came to a clanging halt against Professor Hawking’s inability to frame an instantaneous reply, leaving the discussion figuratively and literally on its knees.

But Ó Briain persevered, and so did Hawking. That journey to finding a way to communicate became the heart of the programme, both for Ó Briain’s interview and as an illustration of Hawking’s wider ongoing challenges in maintaining a way to communicate his thoughts and his work.

Dara clearly succeeded in finding a rapport with Stephen Hawking. There’s a lovely moment where we see the two sitting companionably alongside each other like old friends. His journey to finding a way of understanding Professor Hawking then becomes in the programme a bridge by which the audience can also be brought along too.

What resulted was a spell-binding documentary. My only gripe is a suspicion that it perhaps took the release of the film The Theory of Everything to give the subject enough clout for a programme to be made about Stephen Hawking. Which would be a shame, as his story stands in its own right.

As for Dara Ó Briain, with this, with Dara and Ed’s Big Adventure, with Science Club and Stargazing Live, he is showing a real talent for showing us the universe around us, and it’s a universe that is fascinating seen through his eyes.

A diamond indeed.

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