Tuesday 16 October 2018

So, how low did they go?

John Meagher went out on the town with the three wild lads behind RTE's irreverent travel show, now in its fourth season

The middle-aged American tourists have been looking disdainfully in our direction for the last half hour, and now it appears their quiet evening has taken another turn for the worse.

They're staring at Mark O'Neill -- one of the presenters of RTE's madcap travel series How Low Can You Go? -- who is on the ground, on all fours, making the sort of lewd gestures that one doesn't ordinarily see in a typical Dublin bar.

Mark is the exuberantly gay one from the show -- and, like his co-hosts Bazil 'Baz' Ashmawy and Michael Hayes -- appears to be little different when the cameras are off than when they're rolling.

I'm with the trio in a venerable Dublin pub and I'm beginning to wonder how long it will be before we get thrown out.

The poor Americans are having to listen to all sorts of smutty talk from the boys -- but it's as hilarious as it is vulgar.

They're recalling some of the things they got up to on the US road trip that forms the basis of the new series of How Low Can You Go?

For those who haven't seen it, the show -- now in its fourth season -- is like a cross between Wish You Were Here and Jackass.

"We went on the set of a porn film in California," Baz says. "We saw things there that will be in our minds for a very long time. This guy and girl were at it without stop against a tree for what seemed like three hours."

"And, for some reason, she took a shine to Mark here," says Michael, incredulously. "I mean, of all the ones to like, she picks the gay."

In Las Vegas -- a city Baz loved and Michael hated -- they were treated to a lap dance from, Baz says, "a former hooker who looked like she was in her late 50s". And he points out that as the whole idea behind the series is to get by as cheaply as possible, the lap dance cost them just $5 each.

Mark, 24, is from Donaghmede, Dublin, and attended the school made famous by U2, Mount Temple. He came out as gay early on -- "I was a happy-go-lucky kid" -- and long entertained an interest in working on TV. His early forays working behind the scenes for a television production company hardened his resolve to get a job in front of the cameras.

Baz, 33, is half-Egyptian and was born in Lybia although he moved to Ireland at eight. He grew up in Rathfarnham, Dublin, and was schooled there and in Offaly. Although he says comedy is his natural forte, his background as an actor has led to classical theatre and Shakespearean work. He has also starred in TV dramas and films including Hooligans.

Michael, 35, hails from Navan, Co Meath, and jokingly suggests that the town is proud of its other comedic exports -- Dylan Moran and Tommy Tiernan -- but not him. He also trained as an actor and was a reasonably well-known face on the Dublin theatre front.

None of them knew each other before filming the first series but are firm friends now. Assembled by a TV production company for what would be the pilot of How Low Can You Go? the three -- and a fourth, unnamed, hopeful -- went to London and something clicked. Often people flung together as 'TV friends' are anything but -- though Baz, Michael and Mark found that they could get on despite their differences.

And, crucially, the makers of the series reckoned the trio would be able to provide plenty of gags and get up to all manner of devilment.

"You've got to get on if you're going to spend two months together in the US with a camera in your face 14 hours a day," Michael says.

"Obviously, there are moments when we are sick to death of each other," Baz adds. "But those don't happen as much as you might think.

"I went to the Canaries with a bunch of friends some time ago and we couldn't stand the sight of each other after the week. A road trip with them would have been a nightmare."

"Filming the US series and the Australian one before it is far more involved than the two previous series where we went somewhere for a week and then retuned home," Michael says. "We're really earning

our money this time around."

The show is popular among its target audience -- 15 to 30 year olds -- and I see that later in the night when Baz and Mark (Michael having left long before) are being accosted outside a fast food joint by a good-natured gang of college-going males. "You're an absolute legend," one of them gushes to Baz.

"But it's not just younger people that like what we do," Mark says. "I'm always surprised by the really old people -- and by that I mean 80-year-olds -- who are not only watching the show, but liking it as well."

Michael reckons he knows the reason why: "We get up to some crude things for sure, but I think people can see the humour behind it."

"It's not done for crudeness sake," Baz adds. "I think if something like this was made in the UK it would be a lot more in your face. I think there's a real Irishness coming through in the stuff we get up to."

Not everybody is a fan. "Most TV critics hate us and the show," Baz says, laughing. "One of them wished us death while filming the next one. And we heard that Hector [O hEoghagain, another TV travel show stalwart] thought we were trying to rip off what he was doing when we started and that it took three of us to be one of him."

"But it's an entirely different show to his," Michael says. "Yes, there's a fly-on-the-wall aspect to it too, but the scenarios are very different. And one of the things that hopefully makes it funny is the way we spark off each other."

The three are currently filming the next series. It will mark a departure for them because it's set in Dublin and will seemingly blur the lines between fiction and reality. The acting backgrounds of Baz and Michael are likely to come in handy. It will also feature a new title, possibly Low Life, as well as cameos from the sort of RTE figures who always crop up on other RTE shows.

Baz asks me not to name them. "I don't know if we're allowed give out that information yet," he says, uneasily. Of the three, Baz is the one who censors himself most.

At one point Mark tells me a hilarious anecdote that would probably make him look petulant and big-headed in print and Baz, realising this, begs me to exercise discretion. "He's young," he says, amiably. "Sometimes you just don't think before you speak, do you Mark?" His colleague does a very good mock horror expression.

"It's the way I am," Mark says. "Someone in RTE gave out to me recently for talking about STIs, but what's so wrong about that? Anyway, I'm a complete hypochondriac. Just touch me and I think I've picked up something. I worry about it all the time."

When the tape recorder is switched off, the triumvirate let their hair down fully and I can see why they work so well together, even if Baz and Mark seem to have the closest bond.

I can also imagine that the rather large crew that follow them about probably have more than their fill of them once a day's shooting is finished.

"We have no idea how long we'll keep working together," Baz says. "It's gone really well so far, but we might all fancy something else further down the line. And maybe RTE will get sick of us as well."

Michael is the only member in a relationship and he's been with his partner, Ailbhe, for two years. On his Bebo page he refers to her as "the greatest person ever to have graced this world." He, for one, is glad to be filming in Dublin right now. "It's not easy being with someone and then having to head off for months on end and not see them," he says.

The others are -- to use euphemistic language -- enjoying themselves.

Mark emerged from a four-year relationship recently. "I've gone on 30 dates since then and I've slept with two guys," he says. "It's so hard to meet a good man in this city."

Surely his career-choice and TV celebrity must open plenty of doors? "Not at all. Gay men can be so bitchy. They might grudgingly say they've watched the show, but the last thing they want to appear is over-enthusiastic or uncool or whatever."

Baz certainly has a way with the ladies. He's been single for some time, although he's no shrinking violet. Later, in a nearby tapas restaurant, he gets to work on two English tourists and his charm is palpable. At first, they seem to doubt his story that he's a TV presenter but, as the evening progresses and he has to pose for many photos, their doubts are quashed. As night draws to a close, however, he doesn't end up with either girl.

As the taxi carrying him and Mark pulls away, and after spending the best part of seven hours with them, I feel like I've entered some weird nether world between reality TV and real life.

I understand what the producers originally saw in the three -- a larger than life quality that could make for good, sometimes irresistible and often deeply funny television.

Just don't tell that to the TV reviewers -- or Hector.

How Low Can You Go? is on RTE Two on Thursdays at 10.25pm

Entertainment Newsletter

Going out? Staying in? From great gigs to film reviews and listings, entertainment has you covered.

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment

Back to top