'My new show isn't anti-Irish, you could argue it's just inappropriate in all sorts of ways' - Ardal O'Hanlon
Ardal O'Hanlon may forever be known for playing Father Dougal McGuire but his first love remains stand-up
Published 05/10/2013 | 05:00
Ardal O'Hanlon is not Dougal McGuire. Fifteen years after Father Ted you might think this no longer needs pointing out.
But O'Hanlon's bumbling cleric is so thoroughly ingrained in the culture that, upon meeting him, there's a weird, Invasion of the Body Snatchers feeling: who is this smart, deprecating guy inhabiting the likeness of everybody's favourite holy dimwit?
O'Hanlon (47) is used to it. A very, very long time ago, he made peace with the fact that, so far as a huge chunk of the population is concerned, his face and voice will forever serve as shorthand for zero IQ innocence. He shrugs. What can you do?
"From time to time you might get annoyed. In one way I was lucky in that, after Father Ted, I was offered scripts. On the other hand, they were mostly in the vein of (Dougal). It was a little bit irritating."
He is well aware that none of his subsequent projects have come close to the impact of Father Ted. O'Hanlon doesn't much care, frankly. He has a thriving stand-up career – live comedy is his first love and the day job he knows he can always to back to.
He's also had sorties into serious drama, starring in a controversial adaptation of God Of Carnage at the Gaiety in 2011 (more of which later) and, this summer, in Conor McPherson's The Weir in London.
However, it is his latest undertaking, the Channel 4 sitcom London Irish, which is on his mind this morning.
Potty-mouthed and scabrous, it may be his most controversial since Father Ted (which, lest we forget was not immediately beloved: initially many perceived its central triumvirate of dunce, alcoholic and shifty embezzler as an unholy trinity of Irish caricatures).
Attracting some of the most damning reviews this side of Mrs Browns' Boys, London Irish has been variously pilloried as crass, pandering and, that hoary chestnut again, virulently anti-Irish.
At face value, you can understand why such critiques have been levelled. Written by Derry native Lisa McGee, it chronicles the boozy 'adventures' of four Northern Ireland twentysomethings in London's 'big smoke'.
Predictably, the characters drink, fight, swear and wet themselves (often at the same time). What's unexpected is that the accusations of anti-Irishness have, in the main, been levelled in the UK media, which usually has a tin ear when it comes to such sensitivities.
O'Hanlon – the befuddled dad of one of the lead characters – is by nature cautious and clearly choosing his words. Nonetheless, his feelings about the London Irish 'controversy' are quite plain.
Offensive? Maybe. Hibernophobic? Oh, come off it.
"It was a show written by Irish people and the vast majority of the cast are Irish," he says.
"I think it has a provocative title, which is bound to rub people up the wrong way. It is about a bunch of young people in London living it large and is very firmly aimed at students and a younger audience. It is a typically brash Channel 4 show.
"I don't really see where the anti-Irish thing comes in. In my opinion, they (the cast) could just as easily be Welsh, Scottish, Cornish, from the northwest of England. That sort of thing is a red herring.
"You could argue it is inappropriate in all sorts of ways. I don't think the anti-Irish thing sticks. We had it before with Father Ted. At first there was a knee-jerk reaction. Any representation of Irish people on British television is going to be a problem for some.
"People thought it was outrageous: my character was very stupid, Father Jack was Father Jack. It took a few years for them to come around and see that it was funny and appreciate where we were approaching it from."
O'Hanlon may not have Dougal's basement intellect but he shares his character's temperament. Good-humoured and implacable, it is hard to imagine him being riled.
So there was surprise when, two years ago, he took umbrage at a harsh review of God of Carnage at the Gate. He actually dashed off a letter, in which he accused the critic of lacking a sense of humour.
"I'm not bothered about it now and, to be honest, I wasn't particularly bothered at the time. When you are involved in a spat it probably looks like it was more important to you than is the case.
"In fact it (the letter) was done out of boredom. When you are working in theatre you have a lot of spare time on your hands during the day. You have to fill it somehow.
"In the case of God of Carnage, we had a reasonable production. We did it very well. The audience loved it. Clearly Fintan O'Toole (the reviewer) didn't like it. Which is absolutely fine. He's a polemicist by nature. Very much in a tongue-in-cheek way I wrote a letter. I had never done it before and I might never do it again. It was for the craic really."
It is generally assumed that Father Ted was the making of O'Hanlon. In fact, when the show came knocking, he was already a rising star.
He won't say it out loud but you get the sense that, even without Dougal McGuire, he believes he would be doing well today.
"I had emigrated to London in 1994 and was flying in stand-up at the time. I won a couple of awards very quickly. My career was going exactly as I had hoped. I was surprised to be asked to do something like Father Ted. I hadn't thought about TV or an acting career."
He remembers the morning of his audition vividly.
"I'd been offered a gig as a roving reporter on the Big Breakfast, which was huge at the time. I got up early and did (an audition) for it. Then I went back to bed and suddenly got a call from Arthur (Mathews, Father Ted co-creator), saying, 'you haven't come in for the audition'. I said, 'I didn't know they were even on'. And he was like, 'well, we are closing at five o'clock'.
"I hopped on the Tube and went into the audition. I had never seen any of the scripts before. They gave me a piece of paper. Arthur was giggling. Graham (Linehan, the other co-creator) may have smiled. The others were looking bemused. I thought, there's no way they are going to go for me. I honestly didn't expect it."