Sunday 17 December 2017

All starting to add up for Dara OBriain

By Roger Crow, Press Association

Dara O Briain: School Of Hard Sums is back for a new run.
Dara O Briain: School Of Hard Sums is back for a new run.

Roger Crowe

Dara O Briain has made the leap from stand-up comedy to versatile presenter. He talks to about the success of Stargazing Live and the new series of School Of Hard Sums.

For some, just the word 'maths' is enough to send a cold shiver down the spine. But if you don't know the difference between long division and Joy Division fear not, as Dara O Briain: School Of Hard Sums is back for a new run.

"We're not trying to make maths cool, or fun or sexy. It's for people like me, who already think it's cool, so it's nice to be able to preach to the converted for a while," explains O Briain with the enthusiasm of a kid who's had too many sweets.

The 41-year-old comic and presenter has carved himself a considerable niche in the bedrock of British TV with Mock The Week, The Apprentice: You're Fired, Three Men In A Boat and Stargazing Live.


Tickets for his recent 135-date Craic Dealer tour sold like hot cakes, or that School Of Hard Sums was given another green light after 2012's successful first series.


This second series sees the Bray funnyman attempt to solve some of the world's biggest conundrums by using maths, physics, chemistry and logic against mathematically-challenged comedians.


Finding the right tone is crucial for any show's success, so not only can the numerically challenged warm to its charms, maths whizzes can enjoy it too.


O Briain is aware he needs to steer clear of sounding patronising, partly because of the time he went to a conference about maths teaching.


"There were a few people in there who tried to 'Bring maths to young people' and one of them was wearing a jacket with numbers sewn onto it! Everything is wrong about that," he says, sighing.


"Frankly I would sooner go the other way and almost be snobbish about it and people go, 'Oh that's too difficult'."


Despite the title, the show isn't all about sums; there's a certain amount of lateral thinking involved as well, though posing conundrums can create unintentional problems.


"The danger is if you do too many puzzles in front of people who are quite nerdy, they'll have seen the puzzle before," he explains, recalling the time he and two guests were asked to guess what colour hats they had on their own head.


"They said: 'OK Dara, we want you to be in the middle.' I said: 'I can't be in the middle, because I know this problem, and if you put me in the middle I'm obliged to raise my hand and pretend to get credit for being smarter than I actually am'."


The previous SOHS run featured a comedy guest of the week, and a couple of students to help out. Version 2.0 features a few additions to the format as the eponymous funnyman explains: "Now there are two comedians rather than one and we've got a whole bank of students rather than just two, so it's a more populated show."


When he's not working out problems with the likes of special guests Stephen Mangan, Marcus Brigstocke and Josie Long, O Briain is busy prepping for a string of other upcoming projects, including old favourite Mock The Week, which returns in June.


He admits the show which helped make him a household name in the UK in the mid-Noughties is tamer than it used to be.


"It's going through different phases," he explains. "It's slightly more mellow, middle-aged, less vicious now, which I'm enjoying more to be honest than the 'We'll say things that no one else will say' phase we went through."


Of course, the fact Dave always seems to be screening old MTW episodes means O Briain is rarely off the box.


"Occasionally I get a Tweet going: 'What, the Olympics are going to be a disaster?' And you go, 'Oh, it's 2005 again!'" he says, smiling.


MTW may be an ever-popular BBC Two/Dave staple, but one of O Briain's biggest success stories is Stargazing Live, January's week-long celebration of all things celestial.


To say he's over the moon about the response is an understatement.


"At one stage in season two we were getting four million (viewers) an episode," enthuses O Briain.


"We were settling into a more normal three or three-and-a-half [million viewers in season three], so maybe we've passed our peak but actually, for all the stuff I've done on BBC Two, Three Men In A Boat, all the Mock The Weeks even, this has got greater ratings than any of that."


It doesn't hurt that he and Professor Brian Cox are a dynamic double act.


"You can't underestimate the appeal of the man," explains O Briain.


"There's a thing in showbiz where you know when somebody's been hit with the star wand, and you know with Coxy that's the case, but it's a great operation to watch those people go: 'We've got a film on this, we're going to link to this...' You're doing a show that's going live to four different places - plus space!"


Whether waxing lyrical about Barnard's Star in Stargazing Live, or rising business stars in The Apprentice: You're Fired, O Briain has proved to be one of the Beeb's most versatile celebrities.


Later this year he'll be back on BBC Two grilling the losers, and eventual winner, of Lord Sugar's televised job interview.


O Briain admits he has a soft spot for the first few contestants in any series of The Apprentice, usually because they're given so little chance to prove their worth.


"You worry about the very first one because the person hasn't had as much screen time to establish themselves," he explains. "So I have fond memories of the first good one in each series."


Though O Briain, Griff Rhys Jones and Rory McGrath didn't get the "You're fired!" speech from BBC bosses, sadly there's little sign of their hit series Three Men In A Boat returning in the near future.


"As it stands it's not a bad time for me not to be travelling off doing stuff. I may do another trip soon - we'll see what pops up, unfortunately not with the two lads and not on boats," he says.


"Either way I've got to write the new tour show. That's a thing in itself.


"Stand-up gives me the right amount of freedom, and that's where I want to put all my efforts for the time being."


That and baffling comedians with maths problems obviously.




:: Dara O Briain was born in County Wicklow on February 4, 1972, the son of a trades union negotiator, and was sent to an Irish-speaking school.


:: He describes his schoolboy self as "quiet and nerdy and into science".


:: He went on to UCD where he gained a degree in maths and theoretical physics.


:: Before gaining success on the Irish comedy circuit he was a children's presenter on RTE's Jo Maxi.


:: O Briain and surgeon wife Susan married in 2006. They live in Chiswick with their two children.


:: The second series of Dara O Briain: School Of Hard Sums begins on Dave on Wednesday, May 1


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