David Hennessy spoke to London-Irish musician Ronan MacManus, former Sky Sports presenter Rob McCaffrey and comedian/actor Joe Rooney about their new online video channel, Switchbox TV.
While it very much started as a way of supporting the NHS during the early days of the pandemic, YouTube channel Switchbox TV has grown to cover topics as diverse as sport, music and comedy while looking to support the art forms that are struggling in the ongoing crisis.
Ronan MacManus, former lead singer of The BibleCode Sundays who now performs solo and as part of Brand New Zeros, told The Irish World how Switchbox TV started: “With my wife being a nurse and me being a musician, she got busier and I got a lot less busy, as in no work whatsoever.
“Basically, I started a charitable drive called Artists 4 NHS. The idea was trying to raise money for the NHS somehow.
“They said, ‘If you put Artists 4 NHS through Switchbox, we’ll give you a team of people to work on it and basically it was allowed to be a lot bigger than it could have been being just me on my own.
“Then we decided to start doing some other content.
“Part of what we’re doing is trying to create a platform for artists. We’re giving people a platform to tell their story and for people to get to know a musician they may not have heard of before or if they have heard of them see a different side to them. The idea is if there aren’t gigs, we can at least have conversations and tell our stories. It’s all about supporting the arts really. We want to give people that platform to get their name out there.
“The biggest challenge for bands is finding their audience.”
A good friend of Ronan’s is Rob McCaffrey who used to present programmes like You’re on Sky Sports and who had just returned to the UK after ten years in the Middle East anchoring football coverage in the region.
Rob started doing video interviews with big names in football such as former Republic of Ireland internationals Ronnie Whelan, Denis Irwin and Jason McAteer.
“I had been contacted by my friend Rob McCaffrey around the time, who used to be Sky Sports TV presenter. I’ve known him for 12 years.
“He knows a lot of footballers personally from his work. Rob started to do some interviews with footballers. ”
Rob explains: “When lockdown happened, it seemed like a good way to still speak to people more than anything else. It’s the only good thing that’s happened in this dreadful pandemic
“One, it was a good way to keep working and two, it was great to keep in touch with people.
“So I spoke to Ronnie Whelan who I think was the first interview, Jason McAteer who is a good pal of mine. I just thought, ‘I’ll ring all my mates’.
“I do a regular one on a Friday, a football preview show with John Richardson from the Sunday Mirror and Charlie McCann who’s Talksport’s betting guy. It’s been great. It’s been great to keep in touch with people during lockdown.
“Some of the stuff I’ve done on that is as good as any stuff I’ve ever done. It’s fascinating for me to be chatting to different types of people.”
With Rob taking care of the sports content, Ronan focused on his area of music.
“We had the sports content with Rob doing his interviews. I started to interview musicians. That’s what has become the Need2Know Music Show. That went really well, just me doing interviews on Zoom as Rob has with the footballers. Everything was on Zoom.”
Ronan has interviewed names like Del Amitri, Janet Devlin, Jake Burns of Stiff Little Fingers and his brother Elvis Costello. When they started to think about interviewing comedians, Ronan brought in his friend Joe Rooney, known for playing Father Damo in Father Ted and from the Pat Shortt sitcom Killinascully.
“Then we decided to branch out into the Need2Know Comedy Show. I did the very first interview with that and we realised we had to get a comedian involved really so I asked my friend Joe Rooney.”
Joe Rooney has interviewed big comedians like Ed Byrne and tells us he has identified a positive shift in the comedy circuit and why people are getting involved in it.
“It’s really interesting actually because I’m getting to talk to a lot of young UK comedians and it sounds like there’s a good, vibrant scene going on.
“To me, it’s a bit more like what was happening in the 80s because I think in the 2000s the comedy scene was a little bit more corporate or something. It looked like a lot of people got into stand up in order to just have a career in TV. Comedy wasn’t particularly their love. I think that has switched to more adventurous comedy now. It’s interesting talking to young comedians now.
“I had a lovely chat with Jimeoin. He’s such a funny guy. What surprised me was he was a massive star in Australia 20 years ago or more and people didn’t know him here in Europe.
“He was booked to do a tour of the UK and he was getting audiences of literally eight or nine people and he went and did the tour anyway and built that audience up.
“That was amazing to see someone that big talking about having to start again in the UK from the ground up again. That kind of stuff is interesting.
“He was talking about when he did some chat show in America where you have to do 5-7 minutes but you’ve got to get a really tight set so you go around the clubs of New York doing that 5-7 minutes over and over. He ended up meeting Chris Rock who was doing exactly the same thing and they went around together. He went around New York trying out new stuff with Chris Rock. It’s a nice thing to do. He’s a legend, Chris Rock.
“I wanted to interview a lot of females because there was a lot of articles that said there was a lot of misogyny in the comedy scene. I felt that it was more important to talk to female comedians about comedy. I just felt every time a female comic was being interviewed in the paper, it was only because they wanted to ask them about the negative aspect of being a female comic.
“I’ve worked in comedy for a long time and all my agents have always been females. There’s a lot of women working in comedy. They were under represented on stage but mostly agents and people booking you were actually women. I think it was kind of over blown that it’s a male-dominated industry. It certainly was onstage and I would like to see that change.”
Ronan continues: “Then we decided to do the Need2Know Actors Show which Rob started.”
This was new ground for Rob who was used to talking to sports people: “I’ve been fortunate enough to speak to some amazing people, the likes of Chris Kamara, good pal of mine, Jeff Stelling but they’ve asked me to interview actors and film directors which has been brilliant, really interesting.
“Paul Feig, who directed Bridesmaids, massive Hollywood-like director chatting from his kitchen and I’m sitting in my living room. It’s been really good fun to be honest with you.
“I spoke to Dominic Sherwood, a young British actor, David Jonsson who is in Industry and Lennie James. He’s massive. He’s a huge Hollywood star, massive Spurs fan and he wrote and starred in Save Me. He’s a fascinating guy.
I’ve not really interviewed actors before so it’s been great.”
Ronan continues: “With all of those things we’ve now got essentially a channel.
“On the music side we’ve had some really good names on there: Steve Harley. Shayne Ward, really nice lad.
“The channel has been snowballing. We’ve had no budget. It’s all been contacts and hard work and a handful of people doing ten jobs each. It’s been a really interesting journey. I had no experience doing interviews at all but I’ve just come at it from the point of view of a musician talking to musicians and the people have actually responded really well. I think it’s because I’m not a journalist that they respond in a different way. They get to chat music with somebody who loves music.”
Mullingar-based musician Ethan Scally, who was featured in The Irish World not so long ago, also creates music content for the channel including his documentary that saw him talking to Bressie, Cronin and Josh McClorey about the effects of the pandemic on musicians.
Switchbox and Ronan recently moved into live streaming with a chat when his chat with Jake Burns from Stiff Little Fingers.
The aim is now to make the channel sustainable.
“We’ve gone from it being very home made looking to having a partnership with a video production company that makes some better looking intros and things like that. The production level has gone up but it’s early days for us really. We’re just trying to make sure we do everything in a sustainable way. We’re not trying to grow things too big. We’re mindful we haven’t got any money to pay anybody. Everybody’s volunteering to get experience or be part of something with a view to being taken on when it all kicks off.
“We could grow into creating content for other companies as well but right now we’re just focusing on keeping the content level high and just building the channel.”
Joe Rooney remains remembered for playing Father Damo, the whistle-stealing rebel priest who became a bad influence on Dougal when he guested in an episode of Father Ted.
“I only did one episode of Father Ted but people love that Father Damo character and hardly a day goes by when someone doesn’t say something to me.
“They always ask me, Who do I prefer, Oasis or Blur? ‘Do you mind if I ask you a question?’ I know what’s coming. I am lucky because people shout at Patrick McDonnell, who played Eoin McLove, ‘You’ve no willy’ or ‘I have no willy’. I’m very lucky that it’s Blur or Oasis.
“It’s always there, Father Ted.”
How has Joe coped with no live gigs? “I kind of didn’t mind it too much for a while because with all the travelling and driving around, you’re missing out on home life.
“But then I did do a few live gigs in the summer. Once you’re back onstage again, you go, ‘Ah man, I really miss this’.
“I also found when I did do a few live gigs the audience were so into it because they had been starved of not just live comedy but just live performance.
“I think when it does come back, it’s going to be great. It could be great for comedians because I imagine comedians could be very much the first people to come back because there’s one person onstage. It’s not like a play or a band where there needs to be lots of people in close proximity onstage. It could be a good time for comedy.”
It was while Rob was based in the Middle East that he met the football legend Diego Maradona. The Argentinian world cup winner, who passed away last year, was managing Dubai club Al-Wasl at the time.
“Dubai is the most amazing place in the sense that you would just bump into people ridiculously. Maradona was the head coach of Al-Wasl, a local club, and my son played against Al-Wasl Juniors, their academy team.
“We were wandering around, Al-Wasl were training and there he was. Maradona was there. The guys were all training and the balls were flying everywhere so my little lad Joe was running and kicking the balls back and kicking them to Maradona so in the end Maradona came over.
“He was there for about 20 minutes chatting about everything, got a lovely photo with Joe. He was brilliant with the kids, all the other lads from the team were there. My daughter was actually down. He was hugging her. He was absolutely amazing.
“People have got their own memories of Maradona, haven’t they? For me, it’s just weird. There’s one of the greatest players to ever play the game and you know what it’s like if you’re watching a Sunday league game, kicking a ball about, having a chat? That’s what it was like.
“He was absolutely fantastic. He was great with my lad, throwing him in the air and kicking a ball to him and all that kind of thing; Just a really, really down to earth fella. Because you don’t expect to see these people, you’re not star struck or anything like that. It was just a normal chat with a normal, nice guy.
“And then bizarrely, I was asked to host ‘An hour with Pele’. It was me and him in front of an invited audience. Everybody who was anybody in the Middle East was there. It was me and Pele for an hour chatting about his life as well. I was just fortunate to meet these people in a far flung place really.”
Rob also got to meet Nelson Mandela when he travelled to South Africa in 1994 with John Barnes and Liverpool FC just when Nelson was assuming office as President.
“They had just had the first elections and myself and John Barnes were doing a documentary. I was trying to track down the great man and then I got a call, ‘The President would like to see you’.
“Me and Barnesy went to his house- He was in a temporary house, a villa, before moving into his Presidential Palace- and sat with him for about four hours just chatting about everything.
“It was incredible. I was sitting next to him. Barnesy had said to me, ‘I never get stat struck’. And I was looking at him going, ‘Please say something’. He had completely gone.
“We sat and talked about everything. It was the most incredible experience to chat to him all about Robben Island and everything. What a guy.
“The most amazing thing was at the end of the interview Nelson Mandela picked up the camera equipment, the tripod. ‘What are you doing?’ ‘I’ll help you out with the gear’. This is the President of South Africa: ‘I don’t think George Bush would do that, Mr President’.
“He said, ‘No, no, let me help’. He insisted on carrying out the gear to the car. It kind of sums up what an amazing guy he was. He was a massive footy fan and he was asking us stuff. If anything, he was more struck with Barnesy than Barnesy was with him. Incredible.
“When everybody is doing their Chopper Harris impression, ‘I climbed Everest’, ‘I climbed Everest with an elephant on my back’ and all that, I always stick in my Nelson Mandela story because that one can’t be beat.”
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