'Dermot Morgan's death was my wake-up call' - Ardal O'Hanlon talks angst and fatherhood as he looks forward to his latest stand-up tour
With his new stand-up tour about to begin, Ardal O'Hanlon spoke to Donal Lynch about fatherhood, angst and Graham Linehan
There is a reason Ardal O'Hanlon called his new tour The Showing Off Must Go On. Because in rural Ireland, whence he came, that was the very worst thing anyone could do. "I remember one time my mother made spaghetti bolognese and she told us not to tell anyone in case the neighbours thought we had notions, like 'the O'Hanlons have gone all Italian, next they'll be opening chippers!' It was a very head-down background. I suppose everything I've done since then has sort of flown in the face of that."
It's difficult to imagine him really showing off. In person, he is modest - "the career stumbles along" is how he puts it - but in fact it has encompassed enduring stand-up brilliance, some surprisingly affecting acting moments (his back catalogue also includes Neil Jordan's The Butcher Boy) and, of course, the comedy behemoth in whose shadow he contentedly lives his life - Father Ted.
It has endured like few other sitcoms, and, two decades after it went off the air, it's cultural reach has been seen everywhere from the Pope's visit to the Repeal marchers who held aloft ironic signs saying: "Down with this sort of thing."
O'Hanlon used to feel pressure to "pander" to the "Ted Heads" and those who "saw me in terms of Dougal" but now he just enjoys the sitcom's never-ending legacy.
"I remember the day I went to do the first reading for the show. Arthur [Mathews] and Graham [Linehan] and the director general of Channel 4 were there - and as I read some of them were laughing, and some of them were very stony-faced. Sometimes I think that my whole career hung on those 20 minutes."
The seeds of his instincts for comedy were sown in adolescence, however. There were few enough comedy influences - Laurel and Hardy is the only thing he remembers on RTE of the era, but the arrival of Xtra Vision into Carrickmacross meant sudden access to the material of American comics like Robin Williams, Steve Martin and Eddie Murphy.
Being funny - "showing off" - was a type of rebellion against his father, Rory, a doctor who became a Fianna Fail minister in various governments. Like David McSavage, whose father was also a politician, Ardal pushed back against this.
"I felt very stifled by that background and my father's high profile in politics," Ardal explains. "My father was a typical Irish father. He was a nice, hard working, driven guy. His politics were very conservative and I was just a very different kind of kid to that. I was very shy and bookish."
He was educated at Blackrock College, but it was after school in Dublin's very nascent early 1980s comedy scene that he really began to find his feet.
"I remember my first ever gig in town, I was very nervous," he recalls. "I had a big red shiny face. But that all disappeared after 30 seconds and I settled down and got a great lift from that. I really didn't know what to do with my life until that point. It wasn't like I saw a distinctive career path, but I knew there was a potential there.
"And I was into the whole aura of comedy and art. I had just read W Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage and Joyce's Portrait Of the Artist and I liked the idea of leading a bohemian life."
After four years of doing weekly gigs in Dublin he decided to take the plunge and "scarpered" to London. There, he won the Hackney New Empire Act of the Year prize in 1984.
In a sense this was all a boon for his confidence, but in another sense he remained the shy, cerebral chap he'd been before the stand-up bug bit.
"I was so crap with women anyway that comedy didn't make a difference," he says. "I think my first girlfriend and I hardly spoke to each other in the year we were going out. In fact we never even spoke to each other to formally break it off. For all I know she still thinks we're together. Maybe in a parallel universe we're very happy."
If success didn't improve his prospects with women, it did gain him the attention of television writers, however. Arthur Mathews and Graham Linehan both came to his gigs and spoke to him about a sitcom they had written for Channel 4. By then, O'Hanlon was touring all over the UK and hesitant to get involved as working on a sitcom was seen, to an extent, as "selling out".
After the initial readings it was decided he would join the cast, however. A huge selling point was the involvement of Dermot Morgan, whose career he had followed from afar.
"He was a very lively character, very loud and outgoing, very scatterbrained and always on his phone and fidgeting," he recalls of Morgan. "He could be hard to rehearse with. In this context we were acting properly for the first time.
"There was a giddiness about the whole thing: we were in a British sitcom and we'd grown up on British sitcoms like Fawlty Towers. I think he thought of Father Ted as payback for all of the s**t he'd had to put up with over the years."
The first inkling he had of how successful the show would become came during the tapings before a live studio audience - those nights were "magical" he says.
"Then, after it was all recorded, I went around to Arthur and Graham's flat in Kilburn and we watched all six episodes back-to-back. I was blown away and I didn't really see myself in it. There was a tremendous sense of satisfaction."
The celebrity that went with being Fr Dougal wasn't instantaneous, but when it came, it changed his life forever. "Being recognised took a while because the first series kind of went under the radar a bit. It was the second series when it really caught fire. After that it was a treadmill of press and publicity and going to parties."
Morgan's death, in 1998, precipitated a bout of soul searching on Ardal's part.
"It was a wake-up call in many ways. Me and my wife and child went to a hotel down in Limerick and just tried to take it all in. I felt terrible for his family. Maybe Dermot didn't look after his health.
"I took a big step back after that in terms of priorities. I was a thirtysomething comedian in London, living that lifestyle, I had stopped doing exercise. After Dermot's death, I said to myself: 'I'm going to enjoy my life and enjoy my family, because who knows how long any of us will be here'."
The tears of a clown are something of a cliche, but when Ardal mentions difficulties with the sometimes solitary nature of comedy, I wonder if he ever had mental health issues? "It's hard to say. I think a certain amount of depression is sort of a normal state of mind to have. Deep depression is another story - and I wouldn't say I've been quite there, but you know I have been quite down at times, I have not wanted to leave the house for days on end. With the type of work I do, you can get insecure about things people say about you. You are a one-man band in a way and strangely, sometimes, the only relief from that is when you are alone up there on stage."
After Father Ted, Ardal's stand-up career took off as he toured in front of sold-out crowds across the world, and filmed his own stand-up special for Comedy Central, released films of several shows, and appeared on Live At The Apollo. Meanwhile, in 1998, he published a bestselling novel, The Talk Of The Town, which was translated into several languages and voted as one of the 1001 Books To Read Before You Die.
I wonder what he makes of the recent controversy around Graham Linehan and his opinions on transgender rights.
"I feel for Graham, because I know the kind personality he is and he doesn't let things go. He's a bit obsessive and I don't understand why he has waded into that debate to the extent that he has. I think you can be passionate and outspoken without it getting as personal as it has with him."
Ardal lives in Rathmines in Dublin now, but spends roughly half the year in the Caribbean, where Death in Paradise, the BBC crime drama in which he stars, is filmed. His family - wife Melanie and their three kids - travel there with him as much as they can.
"Melanie has an incredible sense of humour. I knew her slightly in my youth. We started hanging out over a summer and things were casual for a while, but then became more serious, and when I moved over to London she came over too. She is a brilliant judge of my stuff. I'd be more your tortured artist type, whereas she knows everything and everyone within a 10-mile radius."
Despite the fact that his youngest is now 21, he says he still sometimes feels like he's learning about fatherhood. "I was always a little bit of a fogey but I still feel very youthful. Sometimes, I think I don't have a clue how to be a parent. I still look at my wife behind closed doors and go 'what the f**k? How do we solve this problem?' I still feel like a newly-wed in that regard."
He understands that as a comedian he is "obliged but to be informed about pop culture and politics and who's who in news", but his kids, he says, are the reason he doesn't need to be on Twitter. "The reason I'm not on social media is that I have my own live-in trolls. They are great at telling you where you went wrong with your life. There is that old saw that the Irish are the only race in the world who can't be psychoanalysed. I think Freud probably didn't say it; it's just a line from a movie but I also think psychoanalysis is a bit redundant here because any Irish person will tell you what's wrong with your psyche."
He describes his new show as "sort of a love letter to the English" and there will be lots about the absurdity of Brexit in it. "There was a time when I didn't want to rock the boat and be too controversial," he says. "Now I'm totally over that, I'll say whatever comes to mind."
He's in his "very very early 50s now" and says there may be signs he is enjoying becoming a little more sociable.
"I was at home the other night and someone called to the door. And when he was gone my youngest said to my wife, 'Daddy was very nice to that man', like she was surprised or something. So maybe there's hope for me; I am mellowing."
Ardal O'Hanlon's tour, 'The Showing Off Must Go On', kicks off on March 19 in Leeds. He plays Dublin's Vicar Street on November 9 and Belfast's Waterfront on November 30. Tickets from Ticketmaster and usual outlets
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