Saturday 16 December 2017

Joe Mahon's lesser spotted journey south

Joe Mahon's mellifluous Derry brogue is like aural Valium; an instantly soothing sound that has becalmed Ulster audiences for the best part of two decades and made him an institution north of the border. Now the former English teacher and head of Radio Foyle is bringing the essence of his long-running Lesser Spotted Ulster series south.

The programme centres around uncovering untouched gems of rural life and for Joe the hedgerows and pastures of the Republic represent virginal territory.

One would imagine in a country the size of Ireland there aren't too many nooks and crannies that are unknown and interesting enough to sustain an entire travelogue series of original television. But like the novelist Will Self Joe finds sanctuary in bipedalism.

"Whenever people would say it's such a small place I would say stop the car and get out and walk", he explains. "I think when we're formulating our notions of scale or size we look at maps too often. My sense of size comes from walking around a place - you could walk for hours and still be only a small corner of the country.

"There's also something like 60,000 townlands in Ireland. Every single townland has its own name and the origin of that name is a history in itself. My motto on the programme is 'stay small and dig deep.'"

The production company behind the series will be very much a family affair, with Joe's daughter Sarah and son Patrick both involved and another daughter, Emma dealing with the business side of things. In the early 2000s while Emma was at university in Manchester she fell ill with Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma and Joe says that the recovery she underwent was the starting point for him working with family.

"Emma is great now she has come through all of that, thank God. When she was really unwell, in the early stages of her recovery, she really wouldn't have been able to do any other kind of work or hold down a job and I said come in with me and that sort of began the kind of setup we have."

Joe says there is no difficulty in working with family and he relies on their advice and input: "They're all very tolerant of me. When we're at work we're very professional with each other but then at home we're relaxed. Patrick has what I call cheese antennae, a bullshit detector, he can always tell immediately if something is a little sentimental or whatever and he'll say to me 'daddy, don't do that, it's cheesy'. We try to keep a type of authenticity about the programme."

Part of that authenticity comes from the similarities Joe sees between rural life north and south of the border. "In my experience the rural character is very much the same north and south. Up until partition the question (of differences) would never have arisen I suppose.

"The main difference for us, making the programme, is the travel. Even before I go to the place our researchers have spent a considerable amount of time there."

In the north Joe's Lesser Spotted series has been a consistent ratings winner at times fending off competition as stiff as EastEnders. Given the sometimes unflattering focus on UTV Ireland's ratings this year I wonder if bringing the franchise south brings its own pressures in that regard.

"There is always pressure, we have a very loyal audience, whether or not they travel with us to the south remains to be seen. There is the same formula and it's essentially the same programme that we're doing. For me it's really about enjoying the process. Even if I were independently wealthy this is still what I'd love to do."

Lesser Spotted Journeys, sponsored by Glens of Antrim Potatoes, begins on Tuesday, September 15, at 8pm on UTV Ireland. Viewers can join the conversation online by using the hashtag #LesserSpotted

Sunday Independent

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