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Dublin: 13 °C Monday 14 October, 2019

'It was absolutely live' - Ian Dempsey reminisces on Christmas morning in the Den

“We’d be the nation’s babysitter in the corner of the room”.

Image: RTÉ

First published Christmas Day 2014

CHRISTMAS MORNINGS IN Ireland in the late eighties and through the nineties were exciting for not one, but two reasons.

Not only had Santa visited overnight and left wonderful presents and magic, but there was the added joy of spending the morning with Ian Dempsey (and later Ray D’Arcy), Zig and Zag.

Christmas morning in Dempsey’s Den was a festive tradition for so many Irish children, so caught up with Ian to reminisce about…

Being in the Den live on Christmas morning

It was always absolutely ‘live’ – what we did usually wasrecord the opening link the day before which would go out on air at about 7.30am and end that with the introduction to a Christmas themed film – then at about 9am we would all be in the studio live until about 1 in the afternoon.

It was a lovely time to be on. The children were on the phone chatting away and we’d generally be the nation’s babysitter in the corner of the sitting room while the grown ups sorted out the less important elements of Christmas – like dinner!
I used to leave the studio every year on a complete high because we really felt like we had connected with the kids on a very special day for them. I would usually debut a new festive woolly jumper on the day and Zig would normally do a double rinse on his BEIGE, sorry, FAWN hair the night before. Zag would bring in his delicious cucumber sandwiches with cranberry sauce to add a little festive touch.

den50-2-630x351 Source: RTÉ/TV50

The excited kids on the phone

My days in The Den were all pre-text message, pre-internet, pre-Twitter ….. pre-historic really! So, the children that came on the phone to us on Christmas Day were incredibly excited to be able to let it all out.
It was mainly a series of calls where the little girl tried to describe her present from Santa Claus but lost her train of thought in the excitement of it all, or the boy whose Mammy said he was ‘a great little talker altogether’ only to have him say practically nothing when he went live to the nation! You could still hear the absolute magic in all of their voices. Wouldn’t it be great if we could somehow hold on to that?

On the Christmas specials

We did Lapland in a day over and back. I’ve never been so tired in all my life. Myself and Zig & Zag went to meet Santa Claus with some Irish prizewinners from the show. The traditional Saint Nicholas greeted us and I remember being devastated by the fact that he was wearing blue and not red. “But this is the true tradition” said the local guide. “Get your act together, Buster” was Zag’s friendly but assertive reply.

Source: doublezwynne/YouTube

We had Santa in red in a log cabin by the afternoon. The one strange abiding memory for me was that the best before date on the biscuits we were served in The Grotto Cafe was about two years back but I didn’t mention it at the time to the aliens! The Z Brothers also put on an impromptu show on the flight back home again pretending to be piloting the plane. The actual pilot played along and did a few neat moves on demand.

On improvising in the Den

Dempsey’s Den began with just me in a studio and then a little mayhem was added after the first season. When the lads arrived we just sort of looked at each other and tried to work out what we were supposed to be doing.

Source: Shane OB/YouTube

Somehow it all worked out but it was completely improvised in that we knew how each bit would start and end but the words and actions in between were up for grabs every time. This can sometimes end in disaster for a TV show but thankfully we made it seem like we actually had it all scripted. This was either telepathy or good luck.

On his favourite memories of Dempsey’s Den

So many great moments like Zig mistaking the sound of a big ship’s horn in Los Angeles as one of his ‘rudies’ or Zag doing the half time analysis at an Irish soccer game by talking about the players’ hair styles and what they were wearing rather than the game itself. I loved when they dressed me as Elvis for a laugh and when we April Fooled everyone into thinking that the Z’s were leaving The Den.

Source: doublezwynne/YouTube

My favourite Christmas Den memory was a half hour ‘live’ show we did at about 6.30 in the evening one Christmas Eve. It was the quietest show we ever did and it was all about getting our young viewers to go to bed. So, Zig and Zag were going to bed too. They were excited about Santa Claus coming and we tried to mirror what was going on in thousands of houses all over Ireland. Leaving milk and biscuits for Santa, a carrot for Rudolph, one little light on to lead the way.
Then I finally got them to go to bed – all is quiet for about 30 seconds – and then the inevitable fart breaks the silence. TV Gold!
Credits roll. Happy days.

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What are your Christmas morning telly memories? Share them with us in the comment section. And Happy Christmas from all at

Read: Happy Birthday Ian Dempsey… This is your (Dempsey’s Den) life>

6 amazing and emotional Zig and Zag memories

The Den Christmas Crisis: Ray, Zig and Zag save the day> 

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About the author:

Emer McLysaght

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