The mother of all comebacks... for Baz Ashmawy
In 2011, a drink-driving arrest put a halt to Baz Ashmawy's ascension as a broadcasting star. But armed with a unique idea and his mother Nancy by his side, the presenter bounced back on our screens with the hugely successful 50 Ways to Kill Your Mammy. Now, as the second series begins, we meet television's hottest pairing…
It all started with a sky-diving nun. Nancy Ashmawy had heard of such an individual leaping out of an airplane and thought, "I'd love to do that".
The retired nurse mentioned it to her son, Baz, who had made a name for himself on RTÉ as a dare-devil presenter. He initially dismissed the idea: "I'd assumed older people couldn't do it because of the heart, but when I looked into it, I found out there were much older people than Mum who had done it and I thought, 'Why shouldn't Ma do it?'"
With his own once promising career in free-fall - excuse the pun - the germ of the idea took hold. "I sat in bed with the missus [his partner Tanya] and said, 'This would make a great TV programme'. And then the title came to me."
50 Ways to Kill Your Mammy aired on Sky 1 last year and attracted a healthy audience and some glowing reviews. The Guardian especially loved the escapades of a traditional Irish "mammy" - a word that's not really part of the vernacular in the UK - and her half-Irish, half-Egyptian son. "[It's] nothing like as MTV crass as its lurid title promise," its TV critic wrote. "[Baz] is about to become an Irish export to rank alongside Magners cider, Paddy Power and Brendan O'Carroll."
"I always knew it would work," Baz says. "It's two things: a mother and son relationship; and it's taking this person that's 70 ["I'll be 73 in November, please God," Nancy says] and showing them that there's a whole world out there and you can do lots of things, but society makes you feel that you can get to a certain age and you're done and it's bull. It's not true."
Nancy concurs. "That's right. You reach a certain age where they say, 'That's it, you should retire.'"
I meet Baz and Nancy in the Dublin photography studio where they've spent the morning doing our photoshoot. Baz is the first to emerge. A bear of a man, he's bulked up since I last met him in 2008, when he starred in the likeable RTÉ travelogue How Low Can You Go? "I got a bit fat recently," he says, slightly embarrassed, "so I've been doing weights over the past few months." Now 40, he is the father of two young daughters but he also lives with partner Tanya's other four children. Life is never boring in a house of six kids aged between two and 18, he tells me. "But I absolutely love being a father," he says. "It makes you grow up."
Nancy is every bit as sweet and unassuming as she appears on TV. The beauty of the series is her ordinariness in the face of extraordinary situations - whether it's getting up close and personal with a rattlesnake in Morocco or doing stomach-heaving loop-the-loops in a tiny plane. And despite having cameras in her face for hours at a time when making the series, she remains charmingly ill-at-ease with the business of media promotion.
"Nancy is a very special woman," Baz says, as she joins him on the couch. "I've always known that."
His mother seems horrified by the praise. "I'm normal," she insists. "I'm just a mammy and there are loads of mammies out there with the same ideas."
"But I can put the camera on you," Baz says to her, earnestly, "and know that you're not going to say anything bad or make yourself look bad. But if you left the camera on me, God knows what I'd do. My mum is someone who has no interest on being on TV and that makes it so much better."
Baz believes one of the reasons the series has resonated with viewers is because neither he or Nancy are pretending to be someone they're not. "People see through bull and I don't want to make TV like that. Some people might think our relationship is weird, or I don't respect her or she's mad for doing it or whatever but I know that what we're making is real.
"I'm very emotionally open as a presenter. It's just the way I am. My mum is quite private. We've travelled four continents. I said to her, 'Mum are you taking all this in?'"
He suggests that his generation is far more demonstrative about their feelings than his mother's, although, he says, that's not always a good thing.
"You never forget," he says, "that you're on the road with your mother. That relationship doesn't change. I mean, I'd be giving out to a cameraman or something and I'd see mum coming in my periphery and she'd go, 'I don't like the way you're talking to Tim'. And I'd go, 'Okay', and she'd go, 'You shouldn't curse at people', and I'd go and apologise."
Nancy met Baz's Egyptian father, Yusri, when she worked as a nurse in Libya. "I went over there in 1963," she says. "It was a very different Ireland then, very closed. I worked in England, but other countries were offering more money and Libya offered the most. It was a wonderful country then, lots of English and Americans and, of course Italians, too because it used to be their colony."
Baz was born in Libya in 1975, but after stints there and in Egypt, moved to south Dublin with his mother when he was eight. "I've no bad feelings [about the end of the relationship]," Nancy says. "Let's put it like that."
"Mum doesn't really like to delve into all that," Baz says.
"These things happen," Nancy says, gently batting his concern away. "No regrets. I've a very good relationship with my sisters-in-law in Cairo and I hope to be going soon. I was there about three years ago."
Yusri Ashmawy died when Baz was 20. "I had a good relationship with him," he says. "I went to live with him for a while when I was 15 or 16. I was back and forth. I suppose it was disjointed. It wasn't your textbook father and son relationship, but that's life.
"I have a step-sister whom I'm very tight with. We have different mothers, obviously, but I would talk to her most days. We're very close and she lives in Cairo. We communicate in English. Her English is much better than my Arabic."
The Ireland of the early 1980s wasn't the easiest place to be a single mother, especially one with a child who stood out in the largely monocultural Dublin of the time. Nancy insists that people were kind, but Baz found aspects of growing up to be tough.
"I used to get called 'nigger' and 'spic' in my teenage years," he says. "Looking back, I don't think it was racism; it was ignorance. It made me stronger and it made me learn how to banter back very quickly."
Today's Ireland is a far better place to the one he was schooled in, he believes. "At the weekend, I was at a mosque in Kilkenny and I was talking to a young Somalian boy with a thick Irish accent and I can't tell you what a great feeling it was.
"I can't wait until there's a coloured guy playing for Dublin," he adds, unwittingly using a term that's politically incorrect, "or a Polish guy lifting the Sam Maguire Cup. But it'll come. You need role models and you breed it out and you educate people."
"So much of it starts in the home," Nancy says, and Baz agrees, suddenly fired up by an uncomfortable memory. "I remember being in a McDonald's when I was 18 or 19 and this kid behind me was messing, being really annoying. I politely asked him to calm down and he said, 'F off, Chocco' and his parents laughed. And I said to the parents, 'You think that's funny?'. They didn't care. I said, 'He didn't lick it off a stone'. It highlighted to me that this little kid is an empty vessel and he was being filled with awful s*** from this pair. It was horrible."
Nancy says she once felt a touch of racism too. "I was in Austria learning to ski and I overheard this Englishman say, 'Oh, Paddy is doing great'. It didn't hit me for a while who he was talking about."
She didn't encounter much racism during her time in the UK, before embarking on her Libyan adventure, and she would manage to avoid the corrosive anti-Irish sentiment of the 1970s, much of it fuelled by the IRA's campaign of terror. "And yet now when you're in London," Baz points out, "they have so much time for us."
Baz wanted to get into TV from an early age and, for a while, it looked as though he was the brightest young star in RTÉ. Besides several seasons of How Low Can You Go?, he made Baz's Extreme Worlds and starred in Celebrity Bainisteoir and seemed to be the go-to guy for every new project going.
Then, in February 2011, he was caught drink-driving and everything changed. The broadcaster suspended him from his 2fm weekend breakfast show, and he was banned from driving for two years. Baz says some of those in the entertainment industry who used to deal with him didn't want to talk to him anymore.
"It was such a freak incident in my life," he says. "I live in Rathmines and I walk everywhere, walk into town. And I was in Rathmines that night. I'd gone home and I'd left my phone [in the place where he'd been out] and I'd five minutes to get there before they shut. I'd had a few drinks…" His face is pained at the memory.
He says he has never looked for sympathy. "It was a very random, stupid thing to do," he says, "but I did it. I had to take it on the chin. Nobody could call me a liar and say I had got off on a technicality or say, 'F*** you'. I felt stronger after it."
It was a tough time for Nancy, too. "I couldn't believe it because I knew he would never drink and drive," she says. "I said, 'It couldn't be' - wasn't that right, Baz?" But we've always had a relationship where he comes up to me and tells me the truth and he told me."
Baz smiles. "I've always been able to tell my mother anything. It kind of flies in the face of things, especially when you're a teen. And yet, the hardest thing about [being caught drink-driving] was embarrassing Mum. It was all so public. But then imagine if something had happened, if someone had been hurt or killed because of it? You would never forgive yourself."
He insists that he holds no grudge against RTÉ for the suspension, but it made him realise that his talents lie in a precarious world. "You're only as good as your last job," he says, "so you have to make sure that last job is good."
In the past, he says he made some poor choices. He's reluctant to name them but after a push, says Do the Right Thing, a show about charitable volunteering which he presented with Lucy Kennedy. "It was very worthy and there was a sense of 'Why, of all people, am I doing this?' Because that's not me. You got to hold on to your integrity. I like the executive role I have now, that sense of control. You don't have that confidence when you're starting off."
Ashmawy is experienced enough in TV to maximise the potential of 50 Ways to Kill Your Mammy, and the first series has been screened in such territories as Poland and the US.
Intriguingly, his production company have sold the rights to the format to a Scandinavian country - he refuses to say which one - and that mother-son relationship is very different. "She's the bossy one," he laughs with that distinctively gap-toothed grin.
He says he will only do a third series if he's certain he can improve on what's gone before, and like many of those who make their money in front of camera, he's thinking of the next thing.
But Nancy, who was initially reluctant to be filmed in such a programme, doesn't need time to think. "Well," she says, turning to her son, "I have my passport ready so you just say the word."
The new series of '50 Ways to Kill Your Mammy' begins on Sky 1 on Tuesday at 9pm
"I was a nurse in my past life so I was never interested in being on television. Baz was in the business and when he said the new show would be about travelling to these great countries, that was enough. I've always loved to travel so I thought, this is perfect: I can travel with him, keep an eye on him and give him the odd slap."
"I always wanted Baz to feel he could talk to me, no matter what trouble he got into. When they're teenagers, it's always better to talk to the parents. If you mitch or have a problem in school, it's better to come home and say it happened."
"The thing I loved most [about 50 Ways to Kill Your Mammy] was the skydive, because Baz did it with me. And the funny thing was, he was much more worried about it than I was."
Photographs by Mark Nixon