Saturday 26 May 2018

John Bishop: Ireland gave me my career

Late bloomer John Bishop's transformation from sales rep to A-list comedian was, he says, down to getting his break on RTÉ's The Panel. Here, he tells our reporer how it not only sparked a new career but helped to reignite his marriage

Comedian John Bishop. Photograph: ©Fran Veale
Comedian John Bishop. Photograph: ©Fran Veale
Support: Tommy Tiernan and John Bishop at the All-Ireland hurling final earlier this month. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
Ed Power

Ed Power

John Bishop has a thousand-watt smile and sinew-popping handshake. But the superstar stand-up is also surprisingly soulful and reflective this afternoon. Maybe it's because he's spent the day in Dublin, where his remarkable rise to the top tier of comedy began. The memories, he says, have come flooding back.

"Ireland gave me my career - and that's no exaggeration," Bishop explains. "I got on telly in Ireland before I had even left my job. The encouragement was a huge help."

Bishop (50) is today a king of comedy. He belongs to that tiny club of stand-ups capable of filling arenas. He will have a three-night residency at 3Arena next week, preceded by a short nationwide tour of smaller venues - which included pit-stops at the All-Ireland hurling final, the Lisdoonvarna Matchmaking Festival and a lecture about fairies at UCC, with camera crew in tow.

There have also been acclaimed acting parts - most recently opposite Michael Gambon and Helen McCrory in ITV crime procedural Fearless - and regular appearances on charity fundraisers such as Children in Need and Sports Relief, where, in 2015, he starred in a hilarious skit with Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho. But Bishop was a long away from arenas and celebrity chinwags when, early in 2004, he made his debut on RTÉ's The Panel. He was at the time still employed as a pharmaceuticals sales rep in his native Liverpool. Desperate to escape the 9-5 grind, he'd already enjoyed modest success playing rough and ready working men's clubs across the north of England.

Support: Tommy Tiernan and John Bishop at the All-Ireland hurling final earlier this month. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
Support: Tommy Tiernan and John Bishop at the All-Ireland hurling final earlier this month. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins

The Panel represented an enormous step up. The knockabout topical quiz show, hosted by Dara Ó Briain, had a cult audience and its chaotic format proved the perfect shop-window for the eager Bishop.

"Someone had dropped out so [Northern Ireland comic] Colin Murphy phoned me up. They needed a replacement and I jumped at the opportunity. The Panel gave me exposure that I just wasn't getting in the UK. After that, I did the Kilkenny Comedy Festival which was huge for me too. Audiences in Ireland got what I did. My stuff isn't one gag after another. I have a storytelling style. It went down well here."

The Wikipedia version of Bishop's early years as a comedian tells us that he went into stand-up to wriggle free of the drudgery of everyday life. That's true enough, he says. But it isn't the entire story.

"I didn't hate my job," he says. "I hated being told what to do - hated not being master of my own destiny. It came to a head in 2005 when Liverpool reached the Champions League Final. I had to attend a conference and in the end I gave my ticket to a mate who wasn't even a Liverpool fan. I remember thinking 'I'm nearly 40 - and someone is telling me where I have to be.' I made a promise that I would never put myself in that situation again."

A soccer match was soon the least of his problems. Bishop's marriage had unravelled and he'd moved out of the family home, leaving behind wife, Melanie, and three sons. But while obviously heartbroken, he did suddenly have a lot of free time.

So, encouraged by the response he was already receiving in Ireland, he threw himself headlong into performance. As he was a good decade older than other stand-ups working Liverpool and Manchester, friends assumed he was having a midlife crisis.

The biggest surprise wasn't that he loved comedy - it was that audiences loved him back. Soon he was selling out venues across northern England. In a twist worthy of the sappiest rom-com, one of those smitten by his laid-back, chatty style was his ex-wife. "Being successful didn't save my marriage," he says, "Being a comedian did. We had split up and my wife happened to see me performing in a club. My name wasn't listed. She had no idea I would be there. However, she saw me in a different light and I started to see myself in a different light, too. It was because of that we ended up doing the marriage guidance and getting back together.

"When we did get back together, we had an honest conversation. I told her I had to do stand-up. It meant something to me - something which I didn't fully understand but which I knew was important. From the point of view of our 'second marriage' - which is how I look at it after we got back - it definitely gelled us together."

In the decade or so since, he has enjoyed an extraordinary ascent. In 2015, Forbes magazine named him ninth wealthiest comedian in the world, with an estimated worth of €14 million. "It's funny but I was never a person who craved attention," he says. "I'm not going to say that I don't want 10,000 people to come and look at me. That would be stupid. But when I'm with the mates, I'm not the loudest, I'm not the one doing the daftest thing, seeking attention. None of my friends can believe I do this for my job."

Bishop's family has been stunned too. "It was hard for everyone to get around initially - the speed and the extent to which it happened. The kids have come around to it - what it means for them is that I can get them tickets for things."

He is genuinely amiable and I wonder if people ever try to take advantage of his good nature. Or might there be a ruthless streak he keeps out of public view? "You have to say 'no' to things sometimes. But it's important to be straight. I don't understand nastiness - I genuinely don't see the point of it. There is an assumption sometimes with show business and celebrity that, if you're doing well, you have the capacity to be nasty. In my experience, the more famous people are, the nicer they behave. Their ego is satisfied by their status and they don't feel the need to step on everyone."

As fans will know, Bishop is naturally funny, with an avuncular style and easy charm. But there have been obstacles to overcome. Starting out, the fact he was in his late 30s was regarded as an impediment - as was his Liverpool accent. In class-obsessed Britain, where comics tend to be deadpan in that south of England way, he was an outsider.

"My agent happened upon me at a theatre gig in Manchester that I'd sold out by myself. There were 500 people there and she couldn't believe it. Afterwards she came backstage and asked 'how come I've never heard of you? It's my job to hear about people like you'."

"She rang around all the bookers that do television shows. The feedback was that I was too old to be a new act, I didn't look like a comedian, whatever that means, and my accent made it sound as if I was thick. But I became more and more popular and suddenly all those problems melted away."

John Bishop's 'Winging It' tour visits 3Arena, Dublin from October 6-8, see ticketmaster.ie

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