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Getting lost in The Den, an ingenious, hilarious Irish puppet extravaganza

By Clare Martin

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Emily VanDerWerff

Feb 03 2021

8 min read

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(Welcome to the Wednesday newsletter! Each week, I’m publishing a new pop culture essay from a freelancer. For the month of February, these are going out to all subscribers, but I’m putting them behind the paywall starting in March. If you subscribe, it helps me pay these freelancers for their efforts! This week: Clare Martin on the 2020 return of the beloved Irish program The Den.)

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You could get rid of the clocks at my in-laws’ house in the Dublin suburbs and keep time with the television. 

At 10 am, my husband’s parents flick on a broadcast of mass at the local church. My sister-in-law joins them at 1 pm for back-to-back episodes of Blue Bloods (I have informed them it’s copaganda; they seem apathetic). Then it’s on to her programming of choice: home improvement shows, from Escape to the Chateau DIY to the less exotic Property Brothers. Then at 6 pm, the Angelus, a call to prayer that is one of the vestigial organs left over from the Catholic Church’s grip on Ireland, rings in the evening news on national broadcaster RTÉ. Lather, rinse, repeat.

I only truly started to feel like part of my husband’s family once I had my own slot in the television schedule: new episodes of the beloved children’s show The Den, playing on RTÉ at 6:30 p.m. on Sundays for seven glorious weeks in the latter part of 2020. The Den featured a rotating cast during its original run from 1986 to 2010, but at its core the formula was simple: a human host and several wacky puppets answered fan mail, shouted out kids’ birthdays, interviewed celebrity guests, and had a good old time. My sister-in-law even won a joke competition on The Den back when she was a kid. (Question: Why did the auditor cross the road? Answer: Because he did it last year. Unsurprisingly, my civil servant father-in-law was the mastermind behind that one.)

Caption
Ray D’Arcy and the gang from The Den celebrate seven new episodes for 2020. (Credit: RTE)

The longest-running host, Ray D’Arcy (his stint lasted from 1990 to 1998), returned to his spot behind the desk on November 8 last year, accompanied by the aliens Zig and Zag from planet Zog and tough-talking Dustin the Turkey. D’Arcy plays the straight man, always responding to the hijinks of his puppet co-hosts with good-natured ease, while Zig and Zag are clearly stand-ins for the kids in the audience, bouncing off the walls with boundless energy and bobbling their zogabongs (pom-pom antennae, for the uninitiated). 

Dustin the Turkey may actually be a familiar, if infamous, name to some. In 2008, he represented Ireland in the Eurovision Song Contest, singing in his thick Dublin accent while women bedecked in tricolored turkey tails danced around him. The song was subtly named “Irelande Douze Pointe,” French for “Ireland Twelve Points” — the maximum score that a country can award another in the contest. He didn’t get far. 

Besides his musical career, the bellicose bird has always courted controversy, and last summer he boldly crossed Niall Horan fans. During a televised COVID benefit that Horan played, Dustin remarked that they’d have rather had Harry Styles on and that “I didn’t realize people from Mullingar had teeth.” Horan’s rabid fanbase tried to cancel a notoriously foul-mouthed puppet over this. 

All that was water under the bridge by the time Horan made a brief cameo on The Den revival. Horan was no special exception, either. The guest stars during the show’s recent run were fairly impressive — from Stephen Fry to Mark Hamill to Whoopi Goldberg, most of them on video call for obvious reasons. My favorite appearances, though, were those by rising Irish musical acts. These performers in their 20s and 30s had grown up watching The Den, and their excitement was palpable, not just because they were playing to a national audience, but because they were featuring on a show that they’d cherished from a young age. 

Kooky country singer CMAT was the first to grace The Den’s phonebox (a charming and ingenious COVID-friendly solution), professing her love for Dustin the Turkey. His reply: “Get in the queue, love!” Traditional Irish folk band The Mary Wallopers got all decked out in Aran wool sweaters that would put Chris Evans’ cable knit to shame, while Dustin sang alongside them dressed as music legend Luke Kelly of The Dubliners, resplendent with mane of ginger hair. (Funnily enough, two members of the Mary Wallopers are also in a rap group called TPM, who have a track called “Fuck RTÉ” — the national broadcaster and The Den’s home channel.)

Unlike these artists, I didn’t spend my childhood in Ireland. I’m from Seattle, but I went to college in Dublin and eventually married an Irish guy. Despite growing up Catholic and attending all-girls high school, just like many of my Irish counterparts, there was still a noticeable gap between my experiences growing up and theirs. I remembered my Irish friends mentioning The Den now and then, and I definitely knew of Dustin the Turkey, but I wasn’t quite sure what to expect that first Sunday we settled down to watch it. I was strictly a PBS kid growing up; to me, Arthur was the pinnacle of children’s entertainment. (In fact, the one time we visited Ireland when I was four, we watched Arthur “as Gaeilge” — in Irish. Didn’t understand a lick of it.) The bookish, bespectacled anteater may as well have been Ken Burns next to the zany cast of The Den, though.

By now you may be thinking, Sure, it just sounds like a kids’ TV show with good guests. What’s the big deal? Answering that question isn’t as simple as I’d like it to be. Part of the appeal is the improvisational tone. The Den has always been a comfortable place, where polished presentation was never the goal. In older clips from the show’s original run, mics get pinned on part way through guests’ appearances, while passersby are good-humoredly asked to get out of a shot. Everything feels a bit unpredictable on the brightly colored set, and during a time where every day seems to pass in either monotony or numb horror, visiting that colorful space was a pleasant departure from reality. Even the puppets talking over each other made me smile, reminding me of evenings spent huddled around a small table at a pub as my friends all chatted at once. I’d catch little snippets of the chaos — a snide dig from Dustin, a naive observation from Zag — and couldn’t help but laugh.

The Den, both past and present, thrived because the performers were allowed the freedom for their imaginations to run wild. Dustin detailed the show’s idiosyncratic set up to TheJournal.ie shortly before their charity spot this summer, saying, “The reason it actually worked is because RTÉ had feck all involvement...The Den was unique because none of us were geniuses. None of us were television presenters. Ray D’Arcy still isn’t. In fairness to him he’s been consistent.”

Mostly, though, The Den is endearingly goofy. I became a kid again watching their antics. There may have been a glass of wine in my hand, but I felt like I was seven, sneaking in a clandestine episode of SpongeBob Squarepants at my friend’s house. I caught a glimpse of what my childhood would have been like had I been raised on Irish staples like crisp sandwiches (chips, butter, and bread — simple, but delicious) and hurling matches.

I rarely laugh out loud at a TV show, but I regularly found myself doing so on Sunday nights. During one installment, the Den gang declared it to be International Francis Brennan Day, honoring an Irish hotelier adored by mothers up and down the countryside. (He has a line of “luxury” homeware goods at Irish supermarket Dunnes, which my mother-in-law loves, of course.) The crew donned floppy gray wigs and suits to mimic Brennan’s signature look and later chatted with him via video chat. Their jokes managed to walk that tightrope of being in good fun — the subject was on their side with a cheeky wink and a nudge — but also without sycophancy.

The Den may be a show for children, but if my Twitter feed is any indication, plenty of nostalgic millennials tuned in every Sunday, whether or not they had kids of their own. For an hour every week, I and many others who had moved back in with parents or in-laws found a much-needed escape in the wacky, wonderful world of The Den

It’s disconcerting trying to picture a childhood you’ve never had. I arguably had a pretty great one in Seattle — loving family, good friends, little upset — but I still dream sometimes of how my girlhood would have differed if I’d grown up in my chosen home. The Den gave me a small peek into what that version of myself would have experienced, and for that I’m continually grateful.

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Episodes is published three times per week. Mondays feature my thoughts on assorted topics. Wednesdays offer pop culture thoughts from freelance writers. Fridays are TV recaps written by myself. The Wednesday and Friday editions are only available to subscribers. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox.

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