The heartbeat of John and Moya
John McColgan meets Barry Egan in London to discuss Riverdance, his friend Gabriel Byrne, the love of his life Moya Doherty - and the huge success of their creation, Heartbeat of Home
The great impresario is lost in reverie in the West End of London. Over breakfast last weekend in the restaurant of Liberty, on Great Marlborough Street, John McColgan recalls: "You know, Moya and I actually lived not far from here, in Highbury," talking of his wife Moya Doherty. He adds that his pal Gabriel Byrne and "his woman at the time - Aine O'Connor - lived near us. We were great friends with them. He and Aine and Moya and I lived in London at the same time. We went out together to dinner, and they socialised with us and we were in their house for dinner and them in ours.
"Then about a week after Gabriel met Hannah" - the stunning brunette Hannah Beth King whom Gabriel married in the grounds of Ballymaloe Country House Hotel in Co Cork in August, 2014 - "he came to our house in Martha's Vineyard in Cape Cod and stayed with us for about a week. So we got to meet her there. She is adorable and we love her very much. They have the new baby Maisie. She is adorable too.
"He is very happy. And I am very happy for him. I have known Gabriel from before he started acting. I knew him as a school teacher. He is a fantastic person. We have shared some incredible moments together."
The night before, across the road at the London Palladium on Argyll Street, there was an incredible moment as 2,500 people gave the cast of Heartbeat of Home - and its creators John and Moya - not one, but two standing ovations at the climax of the show's opening night.
It was an illustrious evening which I enjoyed enormously. John is still, as well he might be, on something of a high. "I think Heartbeat of Home captures the heartbeat of modern Ireland. I love dancers and the dance. I love musicians and the music. I love to dream, to imagine," he says, stirring his coffee and possibly his soul.
"As the director on this voyage of the imagination, I get to live the dream while spending time in the company of talented dreamers in every discipline.
"It is a show that I came up with the idea for about five years ago. It struck me that Ireland has become a multicultural nation beyond recognition from what it was 20 years earlier with emigrants from all over the world. I thought of the story of emigration and I came up with this idea.
"When they talk about dreamers and dreams it is so relevant now with so many emigrants being expelled from their countries and dreaming of a better world for them and their families.
"The first act is about a multicultural people who have to leave their homeland in search of a better world. It is all on the ocean. In the second act, they arrive in a new world. It is joyous and it is celebratory. We have the best Irish and Afro-Cuban dancers. We have a great score by Brian Byrne and it is a celebration of multiculturalism. It is celebration of hope and diversity."
Joseph O'Connor, who was concept developer and responsible for the lyrics of Heartbeat of Home, called it "carving pictures in the air; make music with the ground. It's dancing to music but it's music itself. When these young magicians dance, a spell of beauty unfurls. You're part of the heartbeat. You're home". Heartbeat of Home's producer Moya herself called it "weaving the new Ireland".
"Heartbeat of Home is not exclusively about Irish people," continued John - who created another show called Riverdance with Moya all those years before. "Most nations have had that experience of having to leave. So it is a common experience, and so we thread their experiences through with the Irish experience.
"There is no dialogue, so it is not like a play. It is all dance. We do a voice-over at the beginning which sets out the stall about what we are attempting to say about persecution and famine and emigration.
"So, to put all that into something that is high-energy, highly entertaining" (with elements of Latin Tango, Afro-Cuban dance and Irish dance, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Strictly Come Dancing and so forth and so on) "and at the same time says something real and true.
"All the different music and dance styled from all these different countries end up coming together to become a celebration of each other. Heartbeat of Home works as a big entertainment spectacle.
"It is a family show. It is aimed at everyone," says John, adding that he and Moya are weighing up various options at where Heartbeat of Home will go next in the world: a run on the West End of London or perhaps an American tour.
John is also currently working on the Riverdance 25th anniversary special.
"We will be strategically positioning Heartbeat of Home so as it is not competing with Riverdance or vice versa."
Is it true that John and Moya really had to re-mortgage the house to put on Riverdance for the first time at the Point (now the 3Arena) in 1994?
"Oh, yeah. But it didn't seem to me that it was too much of a risk," he says.
"We had to sell out the Point for a number of days and if we sold it out we were fine. We were going to lose everything if nobody turned up and nobody was not going to turn up. It was so hot. Gay Byrne had said that this is the greatest Christmas gift of all time."
And so it proved when the show went on to be a phenomenal success internationally, making John and Moya multimillionaires many times over.
How does he look back now at the difficult times after his first marriage broke up and for a long period of time he did not see his children Lucy and Justin?
"Maintenance meant things were financially very tight, on several occasions, the ATM said no," John laughs, referencing the sketch from Little Britain.
He met Moya Doherty in 1981 in RTE.
"I was head of entertainment in Network 2. I was very circumspect about getting involved with anybody I worked with. But I was immediately very attracted to her. She was a great worker. She was very pretty," John says of Moya, who was "on the cusp of 24 years of age".
What did John do for Moya's 24th birthday?
"I remember her 24th birthday well. I got some freesias and put them on her desk. It was early days. On our first date we went to the Eurovision Song Contest in RTE and then we had drinks afterwards in the canteen in RTE. I was very, very slow, because she was younger and if it didn't go well, you know? But in any event, she eventually asked me out and it went very, very well from there," he smiles. They got married at Christmas in London in 1986 and have two grown-up sons, Mark and Danny.
How does John look back on how far he has come in his life and his world since that day at Christmas 1978 in Donnybrook when the ATM said no?
"I don't look back. I'm very much an optimist. I got that from my late mother. I get that from Moya, too. I have a wonderful life, a great wife, wonderful children, a beautiful granddaughter Lola and eight loving siblings. I love life."
John casts his mind back to 1962 when he was working at RTE Radio in Henry Street.
One day he was called in to see his boss, Ernest Archibald. John was put on a month's notice and was warned to stop "fraternising with play actors", because the Radio Eireann players were there at the time and John had acted in the odd radio play.
"I think he was trying to look after my moral welfare," he chortles.
Then one day PP Maguire, who was head of drama at the time, gave John a part in a play, Fort of Gold, which was recorded on a Saturday on Henry Street when Archibald was away. Archibald had a face of thunder when he discovered what John had been up to behind his back.
"I was unmasked when the cheque of a guinea came in through the office. Archibald told me I was fired because not only had I ignored his order to stop fraternising with play actors but I had now joined them. But the interesting thing was I had applied for a job on television as a vision mixer, and the week before I was fired by Archibald I got a note from RTE Television saying: 'We are delighted to inform you that you have got the job of vision mixer. Can you start straight away?'
"So I was able to go in and tell Archibald, with a straight face, I had got a new job at RTE Television in Donnybrook and would he mind if I left straight away and didn't stay until the end of the week," smiles John ruefully, nearly 60 years later.
"RTE was a great education for me, the beginning of my RTE 'university' education for the next 20 years. Camera man. Floor manager. Producer. Director. Head of entertainment of RTE2. Then I went on to work as a director in London on television at TV-am with David Frost and Michael Parkinson, ending up as programme controller at TV-am and then setting up Tyrone Productions with Moya in 1986, the longest-running TV production company in Ireland."
So John never really stopped fraternising with actors?
"No," he laughs. "No, I haven't.
"But I am very lucky to love the work I do. I love getting up in the morning and knowing I am working with great people and that we are all very passionate about the projects.
"There are inevitable frustrations but in the main it is enormously pleasurable and it keeps me young."
I ask the great impresario what age he is.
Wearing a Prada jacket and designer jeans, he doesn't look his seven decades. "I don't feel it," says the toast of London with Heartbeat of Home.
"I do feel that working or being involved with some incredibly creative projects like Heartbeat of Home and Riverdance - and the documentary This is Palestine which I won an award for last year - both stimulate you and gratify you. I was touched last night to have a show in the London Palladium. It is a pinnacle of certain success.
'All of us of a certain vintage," he muses, "will remember Sunday Night at the London Palladium. Do you know Bruce Forsyth's ashes are buried under the stage of the London Palladium? That's what Bruce (one of the presenters of Sunday Night at the London Palladium) asked for."
Without meaning to be morbid, where would John want his ashes to go?
"Probably in the sea at Howth."
I ask John about his one failure: The Pirate Queen in 2007 on Broadway. What lessons were learned?
"I think that I should have directed The Pirate Queen myself. I think it probably would have worked a lot better in the UK. They would have understood it a bit better.
"We hired a very talented Broadway team but they maybe didn't get the story and maybe they didn't tell the story in the way that I wanted it told. New York is a very tough city sometimes for the theatre. We got a negative review in the New York Times and within weeks people stopped coming."
How did that make John feel?
"Horrible. It is like you have a child that you love and you nurture and cradle them in your arms and then when you let them out in the world and someone says: 'They are ugly, go away.'"
Was John depressed?
"Yeah. Very down. For weeks, yeah. I would say it was not much longer than a few weeks. Then you kind of dust yourself down and pick yourself up and start all over again."
Does he believe in God?
"I believe in a God. God is inside of us all. I am an a-la-carte Catholic. I value the church rituals, weddings and funerals. I respect and talk to a God."
John lived in Wexford until he was 12 before the family moved to Ballymun. Where did he prefer living, in the countryside of Wexford or the city life of Dublin?
"We lived on a farm. I felt very lucky to be exposed to the seasons, to see lambs being born. I think it gave me empathy for the natural world. I had six sisters but they were younger than me. There were no boys to play with. So it was just me playing on my own a lot. And I had a dog - Timmy - and we went wandering a lot."
Did Timmy come with John to Ballymun?
"No, he died before that. But I was a dreamer, always. Dreaming about what I wanted to be. I wanted to be James Dean. I wanted to be Spencer Tracy. I wanted to be an actor, I suppose. I did a bit of acting in an amateur dramatic society."
What would John still like to do with his life?
"I wouldn't mind trying acting just to prove to myself I could."
John belly-laughs. (Perhaps his bessy mate Gabriel could give him some tips.)
The young man who was once warned off about fraternising with actors will not rest before he becomes one. That says something about the heartbeat of John McColgan.