You're hired! How Dara ó Briain conquered UK TV
Ed Power hails the new host of the BBC's Apprentice spin-off
Dara ó Briain is the latest cuddly Irishman to capture the heart of middle England. Like Eamonn Andrews and Terry Wogan before him, his mild-mannered persona -- garnished with just a hint 'o Blarney -- has put him in the top bracket of TV ratings winners (and earners) across the water.
And with the Bray native about to take over the host's chair in the BBC version of The Apprentice: You're Fired, his ascent towards the higher reaches of UK light entertainment may have only begun.
Dara (or "Daw-rah" as the Brits insist on calling him) has certainly travelled quite a distance since his days as a struggling stand-up comedian back home. In a recent interview, he recalled slogging the length of the country to perform to tiny audiences in pub back-rooms and draughty community centres. One show in Mayo was so poorly attended he and support act Deirdre O'Kane invited the audience -- all 15 of them -- downstairs for a few pints.
Nowadays, the 38-year-old is, in an Irish and British context at least, a comedy superstar.
In addition to anchoring the knockabout current affairs panel show Mock The Week, he packs theatre-sized venues the length and breadth of Blighty, to say nothing of being able to draw sell-out crowds to the Carnegie Hall of Irish comedy, Vicar Street.
He has also written a best-selling book, Tickling The English, in which he poked good natured fun at his adopted nation and has starred in the twee, but hugely popular BBC series Three Men In A Boat (a recent series of which saw him and his co-hosts lofting Guinness as they chugged down the Grand Canal).
For all his accomplishments, however, anchoring The Apprentice: You're Fired is surely the biggest break of his career. Whilst Mock The Week is a popular show, it goes out late at night, attracting the sort of younger demographic probably already familiar with ó Briain as a comic.
Whereas the Apprentice post-mortem is about as mainstream as UK television comes. Indeed, it helped make a star of its previous host, everyman Brummie Adrian Chiles, until he left in a huff after a falling out with the BBC.
Why was ó Briain chosen as his replacement? Because, almost uniquely amongst the current generation of UK-based comics, he seems at pains not to give offence. A big roly-poly Honey Monster of a man, his comedy feels like an extension of his physique, in that it is utterly lacking in sharp edges. This is a unique selling point.
In Britain there is an ongoing arms race amongst funny men (and women) to see who can push the envelope the furthest. Witness Jimmy Carr's notorious 'gypsy moth' gag or Frankie Boyle's quips about the mentally disabled.
ó Briain, in contrast, is apparently incapable of ruffling our sensibilities. In interviews he has stated that, though he believes comedians should be free to push the envelope as far as they wish, he has ring-fenced certain topics as beyond the pale.
For instance, he refuses to crack gags about missing children or rape victims.
"It's a cheap holiday on someone else's misery," he said last year. "I think if you sense someone's pain, it's probably time to step back from the joke."
A fluent Irish speaker and trained physicist -- he studied maths and physics at UCD -- he prefers to introduce punters to topics they were not previously aware of rather than whip them into outrage. For that reason, when he shoves the boat out on stage it tends to be in a surreal rather than an offensive direction.
"I'd sooner poach the audience away to something that they don't have a particular interest in but get them into it," he said recently.
"Silence is a lot more dangerous than uproar. If you say a thing the audience disagrees with, but quietly disagrees with, that's a lot more difficult. That's a lot more interesting than a shocking joke."
For all that, his career hasn't been completely free of controversy. Female comedians have lashed out at Mock the Week as a boys' only institution. So rough and tumble is the on-set atmosphere, stand-up Jo Brand, for one, has said she will no longer appear on the show. As host, ó Briain must surely take some of the responsibility?
"A lot of stand-up comedy is about owning the room," was his response to this charge in 2008. "It can be a bit of a dogfight. So you could argue that that makes it a testosterone thing."
As for Brand's complaint that she was being shouted down... well, that happens all the time regardless of gender.
'Some guests worry that they're not getting enough jokes on," he said. "Well, everyone complains about that, including me. Each show takes two and a half hours to record and there are six comedians all trying to get their jokes in. That works out as four minutes per comedian. I don't know if I'd even get on to Mock the Week if I wasn't the host."
Speaking on RTé last week, ó Briain was chuffed at landing the Apprentice gig. But conflicted also. Some early episodes of will coincide with the UK's Remembrance Sunday, when people don the poppy in memory of those who have died fighting for Britain. He doesn't object in principle to the poppy, he has been careful to say.
However, as an Irish person, he feels that wearing one would be a bit like crashing somebody else's party.
"It's an interesting dilemma," he said. "Obviously you are between a rock and a hard place in terms of getting grief, lazy grief, off people. Either you'll get 'oh you've gone very British' if you wear it, or 'oh you're insulting our brave boys' if you don't. 'Cos you will stand out."
The Apprentice: You're Fired airs 10pm tonight on BBC2, after The Apprentice