From local theatre to TV stardom
Maria Pepper talks to The Clinic's Gary Lydon, whose acting career started in Wexford in the 1980s.
GARY LYDON, aka O'Brien, became a psychologist without ever having to pass any exams. It was his first choice of career on the CAO form back when he was a Leaving Cert student in St. Peter's College but he didn't get enough points.
Now he is a well-known counsellor, helping clients through the practice of cognitive behavioural therapy. That's the beauty of acting: you can be other people without having to study or suffer any real-life consequences.
He has also been a small town rebel, a soldier, a GAA player, a priest and a drug dealer. But for the past six years, he has been a counsellor, playing Patrick Murray in the awardwinning RTE drama The Clinic .
People recognise him from the telly. He catches them looking at him sometimes on the street and saying 'there's that fella off The Clinic'. Occasionally, someone will come up to him and tell him about a relative who has difficulties, as if he really is the character on the screen and might be able to offer some advice. He doesn't mind. 'It's good to be known for something, I suppose,' he says wryly.
Filming for the latest season of the series began last week and for the next three months, Gary will travel to the set in Dublin every week from Cootehill, Roscommon, where he has been living for the past eight years.
The Wexford actor, whose professional career began with the Billy Roche trilogy in the late 1980s, is now the father of two young boys, Sean Luke (7) and James (6). Their mother Kara is a daughter of the late and legendary Fianna Fail TD Seán Doherty.
Gary took his own mother's maiden name for his acting career because there was already an actor called Gary O'Brien. He was born in London where his father Jimmy emigrated in the 1950s .
Jimmy met and married Julie Lydon in London and their family of four boys was born there.
Gary was nine when they returned to Jimmy's native Wexford which was a slightly more prosperous town in the mid-1970s than the one Jimmy had left 15 years earlier. He got a job in the German factory ABS Pumps on his return.
Gary had come here on summer holidays with his family before that, travelling on the Fishguard to Rosslare boat to spend two weeks with his paternal grandfather Jem O'Brien in Harbour View.
His uncle would take them out fishing in the harbour and they'd go to the Capitol Cinema to watch Kung Fu films. They always got new clothes before they came over.
One year, the four of them had tank tops which were the height of fashion at the time, and he remembers getting slagged by local kids as they walked along the road, these four fancy London boys with their sleeveless jumpers and their English accents.
Gary still has traces of a UK twang, his accent having been topped up over another decade spent in London as an auditioning adult, as do other members of his Ireland-domiciled family including his mother who was born in London to a Galwegian father and Tipperary mother. His brother Seamus lives in Manchester and Seamus's daughter Ciara, Gary's niece, is now studying medicine in Glasgow, so The Clinic influence and the uncle's faux medical career hasn't been wasted. His brother Anthony lives in Dublin while Ian is in Wexford.
Though he had spent carefree time in Wexford before the family returned permanently, the adjustment was a culture shock, especially when it came to school.
The school he went to in London had girls. Here he was in the male exclusion zone of the CBS primary. 'There was no girls. They still had corporal punishment and you had to learn Irish which was an extra stress,' he recalls. 'But I'm glad we came back to Ireland at that stage. Wexford is a good place to bring up kids. I really got into sport. I played GAA with the Mary's and rugby with Wexford Wanderers.' 'I really enjoyed my time in Wexford. It was an easier lifestyle, more relaxed. You could walk up the road to school. We'd climb over the back gate into Peter's College from Clonard Park. And also it's beside the sea. That's the thing I miss most in Roscommon, the sea. It makes everything feel more open.' The first time he ever thought about the stage was when he saw his father singing in the Tops of the Town with ABS Pumps in the Dun Mhuire hall.
All the family were in the audience. 'I saw him coming on. He sang in the chorus and then he sang on his own. It was a big thrill for us to go and see him. My dad was a bit of a singer and he looked quite dashing on the stage. He'll laugh now when he reads this in the paper.'
His own stage debut was during 5th year in Peter's College in a farcical play called 'Dry Rot'. He was one half of a comic double act with Declan Hassett and he loved it.
There was no acting course available to him on leaving school and he opted for a business degree course in Rathmines. He completed two years before taking a year out and joining the Wexford Theatre Workshop. The Worshop was run by Michael Way, who now runs the Riff Raff Theatre Company in Wexford, and whose daughter Laura also became an actress. She had a role in 'The Clinic' last year.
He joined a Government-sponsored CES Scheme with the Theatre Workshop and learned about acting on the job through theatre projects in schools and on the street, propmaking, set design and staging plays. 'He had good taste, Michael. We did 'Fool for Love' by Sam Shepherd, 'What the Butler Saw' by Joe Orton, 'Trumpets and Raspberries', 'Dario Fo', 'Equus'. In fairness to Michael, it was a good training ground.'
A stint with the National Youth Theatre followed, in which he acted in a play written and produced by Gerry Stembridge.
Appearing with John Crosbie and the late Tomas Murray and Oliver Sinnott in 'The Boker Poker Club' by Wexford playwright Billy Roche – later to become 'A Handful of Stars' – gave him his first early break.
He was brilliant in the role of the troubled teenager Jimmy Brady and when the Bush Theatre in London decided to take up the play, Gary auditioned and got the part.
'It was a fantastic opportunity for me,' he
says. The production ran in London for a couple of months. He went on to do stage, TV and film work. His movie roles inlcude 'Ordinary Decent Criminal', 'Nothing Personal', Deborah Warner's 'The Last September', the Irish Zombie film 'Boy Eats Girl' and Niall Heery's award-winning 'Small Engine Repair'.
He has played major roles in TV drama series including 'Pure Mule', 'Belfry', 'Amongst Women' and 'On Home Ground'.
One of his first high-profile television appearances was in an episode of the British police drama 'The Bill'. Co-incidentally, Billy Roche also appeared in an episode.
'It was a great thrill to be on British TV. I used to watch The Bill and getting a part as a featured character on it was great.' he says. He has won two IFTA awards for Best Supporting Actor for his role in 'The Clinic'. He is proud of the series – 'it is intelligent, it has depth to it and the script-writing is good'. He still enjoys stage work. The last play he did was Billy Roche's 'Lay Me Down Softly' at the Peacock Theatre in Dublin before Christmas.
The acting bug has never left him. 'I love it. You are always able to re-invent yourself and keep yourself fresh. It's always down to you. There's a great sense of achievement and satisfaction.
'The challenge in playing Patrick Murray for six years is that 'you grow with the character and the changes he is going through.
'As you get older, you're getting better. You are using your own history to give depth to a character,' he says.
He would like to return to London at some stage. 'I think you have to be in a big city to get the work.' But for the moment, he is happy being a dad in Roscommon.
'Because I have children, my priorities change. Your family comes first. But as they get older, I can see myself getting a second wind,' he says.
'I don't think I ever set out to be famous. I just like good writing. I know that sounds w**ky.'
On a recent visit to Wexford, he had a look at the new Opera House with Billy Roche and thought it was 'awesome'.
'I'd love to work there,' says the actor who enjoyed capacity audiences for Roche's Wexford Trilogy in the building when it was the Theatre Royal.