Sunday 18 August 2019

Alison Spittle: The bright lights of country life

Comedian Alison Spittle tells our reporter of the long journey from mitching from school to phone RTÉ radio to her new sitcom, which pays tribute to the eccentricities of the Irish family

Alison Spittle
Alison Spittle

Meadhbh McGrath

Alison Spittle is in high demand. The comedian is in the midst of an uncommonly busy period: she's touring the country with her stand-up, recording her successful podcast, The Alison Spittle Show, working on a documentary on what makes a 'culchie' and preparing for the launch of her RTÉ2 sitcom, Nowhere Fast. After close to a decade of begging for gigs, the 28-year-old is having a moment.

"I wasn't a 'full-time comedian' a year ago, but I am now. It takes up every inch of my time; I don't have weekends any more. I love it, but sometimes it can be exhausting. I get styes in my eyes now, my body is breaking down!" she hoots with a peal of laughter.

Alison is quick to laugh, and her mischievous chuckle is infectious. She's easy company, bright and breezily chatty, and often gets carried off on a rambling tangent or pauses mid-sentence to quip about nosy passers-by outside the window.

She's also effusively apologetic: she's sorry she hasn't had a chance to use the bathroom all day (it's 3pm), she's sorry she's eating a cookie while we talk, and she's sorry she asked to meet near her home in Smithfield, Co Dublin.

"It's just been fierce busy, it's mad," she explains. "The other day I did an interview on the phone while cycling a bike, and she couldn't hear me, so I had to wait until every time I was at a traffic light to go on about this and that, and then I'd be off cycling again."

Thankfully, today we are both seated in a café, to discuss Nowhere Fast, which she stars in and has co-written with her partner Simon Mulholland, who runs the Firehouse Film Contest.

RTÉ has had a patchy track record with comedy in recent years, but based on the first of six episodes, we are in for a real treat. Nowhere Fast follows Angela (Spittle) as she moves home to Westmeath after a spectacular gaffe on-air sees her lose her dream job in radio. Back in her childhood bedroom (now the office where her stepfather makes motivational posters), Angela navigates how to maintain her longest-running friendships and living with her mum (Cathy Belton), step-dad (Mark Doherty) and teenage sister (Clarabelle Murphy, daughter of Fair City actress Clelia).

The very, very funny series eschews the bright lights of the city to explore the comic potential of the midlands, more often the setting for dreary literary fiction, and Alison endearingly captures the minutiae of village life and the eccentricities of the Irish family with a light comic touch.

Like Angela, Alison grew up in Westmeath, but she was born in London and spent time in Dresden, Germany, before her family moved to Ballymore when she was eight.

"I always felt like this outsider when I was at school," she says. "I had a big English accent, and people would tell me that I'm not Irish, and others would tell me that I am Irish and why am I pretending to be English?

"I was always a bit odd as a teenager, but that didn't matter, because the great thing about living in a village is you can't travel anywhere.

"You're stuck with the friends you have, so it doesn't matter if you're a goth, you're into rap or whatever, you still hang around doing nothing together."

At 15, she managed to land a weekly segment on RTÉ 2fm after a chance text into her favourite programme, The Rick O'Shea Show. She quickly got a phone call from a producer, which turned into an invitation to review films on air. When the show moved from evenings to afternoons, Alison describes mitching double German on Wednesdays to phone in her film reviews.

"I'd be in the girls' toilets just waiting for RTÉ to ring, then I'd be like 'So I didn't like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film…'" she says with mock-seriousness. It instilled a deep love of radio, and Alison headed to Ballyfermot College to study media. On graduating, she ended up moving back in with her mam and taking an internship at iRadio in Athlone.

"That was a weird time. I was 21, and I'd convinced myself I was going to live in Dublin and have a great cosmopolitan life. But I just couldn't afford the rent," she recalls.

"I felt so bad back then for moving home, because people that were older than me and had graduated before the recession had a mortgage, they were engaged, they had a life. I thought, what have I done? But I just decided not to care about what anyone thought, and once I did that I felt so much better. Even if you're 28 and living with your mum, don't beat yourself up about it - beating yourself up about it won't get you out of that house."

When her mentor at the radio station, comedian Bernard O'Shea, urged her to take a stand-up slot ahead of a PJ Gallagher gig, she was hooked.

"I'd never seen stand-up comedy live before, so I just did 10 minutes of talking about my granny drinking hot tub water. I got a good reaction and it just felt like the best feeling I'd ever had. I still haven't felt that way, except maybe falling in love. It's this hot, passionate thing that I wanted to do for the rest of my life," she says earnestly, then bursts into laughter. "Maybe describing it as hot and passionate is a bit weird… it's as close to hot and passionate as you can get being a Catholic Irish person!"

She describes Nowhere Fast as "a little bit" autobiographical, and looking back on her adolescence in Westmeath, she says, "I loved it," before correcting herself: "I hated it, but I loved it. It's weird, because I remember it mostly as a negative experience, but I've talked to people in Ballymore and realised that half the things I thought were just me projecting my insecurities on to other people. Maybe I pushed myself to be a bit of an outsider more than them rejecting me.

"I've always been fascinated by village life and the fear that you have a reputation. You move to Dublin and then you realise it doesn't matter. But no matter how far you move, when you go home you're still that 18-year-old you were when you left that place."

Four years ago, a producer from Deadpan Pictures saw Alison perform at the Dublin Fringe Festival, and asked if she'd consider writing a sitcom. She agreed to write a page, and from there, "it was three years of just constantly writing". She cites Sharon Horgan's Pulling and RTÉ2's Pure Mule as her biggest inspirations for the show, but says she couldn't watch scripted series while she was writing: "I'd study it too much or get sad or jealous."

Last June, the team were granted funding, and Alison and Simon were handed a short writing deadline. "I rely on Simon so much," she smiles. "We've been going out five years, and he's just so clever and talented, and I think we complement each other's strengths. We have a similar dream of what we want to make."

The pair initially wanted the show to be darker, but Alison says she's learned to pick her battles.

"There was a lot of input from RTÉ," she admits. "Eddie Doyle [RTÉ Head of Comedy] has been a great support… he really did champion me. But they do have an involvement in it, and so do the international distributors like BBC Worldwide - they have to make sure it's not too colloquial.

"The whole process is all about compromise," she explains. "When I did radio, I was like a little worker bee. I loved doing it, but you'd do every little job possible. You'd go down and get the boss Lucozade, and you'd think one day you'd be rewarded with a proper job. But then when you do stand-up, you're no one's worker bee. You're your own person, and it was very hard to let go of that, very hard."

She adds that it's also been difficult having to step back and wait for the show to be released. "When I do stand-up and it's going badly, I have the control to make that gig not bad by changing my routine, talking to the audience, doing all these little tricks. With the TV show, my job is done, and I just have to let it out there," she says nervously.

Since the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke, stories of sexual harassment have been pouring out about every facet of the entertainment industry. The Irish scene is no less toxic, Alison says.

"You can get some bad eggs in comedy. But a lot of bad eggs aren't good comedians, and they don't stay doing comedy long," she notes.

"I remember I was going to my first show away from Dublin, and when I got in the car this other guy was like 'you're very fat'. I thought, 'oh, OK, hello'. He fancied himself as an edgy comedian," she says, rolling her eyes. "I thought I just wouldn't talk to him and talk to the other people. He was in his 50s and I was 19 or 20. Then later that night, he wouldn't leave my hotel room. He just slept in another bed and was trying to wake me up - I just said 'I'm going to sleep now'. He was a very pushy guy, but he doesn't do comedy anymore.

"I felt so weird and so bad. In the morning, the guy who was driving asked me to breakfast, and this man walked out without his trousers on and went 'oh, I forgot my jeans', and he laughed. I stopped him and said 'are you trying to tell that guy that we f***ed? Did we f***?' and he stammered 'no'. He thought I wouldn't say anything."

She continues: "It's hard to talk about, because Ireland is so small. Some men won't believe any victim because they think a man's reputation is so important and you're taking away from [that]. I'm only talking about that guy because he doesn't do comedy any more."

Alison describes how women in Irish comedy have banded together, with many comics renting offices together or organising all-female stand-up gigs. But she admits she wasn't always so supportive of other women in the industry - she has spoken on her podcast about feeling jealous of Joanne McNally's success, saying: "If Joanne McNally was a lad, would I have given a s*** about her rise to fame? I'll tell you the truth, no."

"It's so poisonous," she says today. "But you can choose to block out those feelings. If I hadn't stopped being jealous of other people, I wouldn't have got the TV show. It's not nice, and it's not fair."

In January, Alison will headline her own show at Vicar Street, with support from her friends Sofie Hagen and Ruth Hunter. She has long described it as her dream venue, and now that she has landed top billing, she says she's still grappling with that peculiarly millennial feeling of 'not good enough'.

"People are constantly saying 'you must be so happy, you're so successful'. Inside, I'm going, why am I not happy? This is when I thought I'd be happy. I'm working since I'm 19 chasing some sort of dream, and I always had this almost religious belief that if you work hard, you will be rewarded in the future. After putting up with s***heads for seven years of my life, my reward in my head was the TV show and the tour, and, I'm like, are you ever actually going to be happy? What is wrong with you!" she says with an exasperated sigh. "But I think I'm just protecting myself.

"When Vicar Street is done, then I'll have a big think about what I want to do next, because you've got to savour the stuff you like. When I was approached to do Vicar Street, it was a big surprise to me. Part of me says 'you're not able', but you just have to ignore that and keep going. Everything I've thought I wasn't able to do, I've done."

Nowhere Fast premieres on RTÉ2 on Monday at 10pm

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