Almost a decade has gone by since she appeared in the final episode of Father Ted, but Pauline McLynn is still recognised in the street as the sitcom's mad-as-a-brush housekeeper, Mrs Doyle. The Irish actress tells JIM GILCHRIST how she has 'accidentally' forged a second career as a successful crime-fiction author, and why coffee - not tea - is the order of the day.
IT MAY be nine years since the last episode of Father Ted went in the can, but actress Pauline McLynn can still revert seamlessly to Mrs Doyle mode, as I discover when I talk to her at her Dublin home. Arranging the interview time, and unsure whether the very mention of Ted Crilly's obsessively hospitable housekeeper might seriously antagonise an actress who is still regaled in the street with cries of "Ah you will, you will, you will", I was intrigued by her e-mailed promise that she'd be waiting - "perched with a lovely cup of tea".
In the event, she has settled for coffee. "I had tea earlier, so I'm slowly ramping it up for the day. Oh, it's very dangerous," she says of the caffeine count with a low chuckle, and you can almost see Mrs Doyle's knowing leer. Yet many loyal fans of the surreal TV comedy may not know that McLynn leads a double life as a popular author, with six novels to her credit, three of them featuring a Dublin detective called Leo Street (and, yes, there's a road by that name near her home).
And on Monday, 16 July, it's her literary credentials she'll be brandishing, rather than the Craggy Island parochial house tea tray, when she is the guest presenter of the weekly books spot on Radio Scotland's Radio Caf.
"I was in Edinburgh last year doing an event at the Book Festival, and The Radio Caf got me and Barry Cryer and Joan Bakewell to contribute to a programme they were doing about growing older." McLynn is only 44, but her chronically bewildered and blemished alter ego from Father Ted apparently suggested to the Radio Scotland producers that she'd have her own perspective. "Then they covered my own event and I got on really well with them, so they had a rush of blood to the head and asked if I'd like to do their books programme for them."
McLynn, who grew up in Galway, divides her time between her north Dublin home - where she lives with her theatrical agent husband, Richard Cook, "and two elderly cats" - and London, where she goes for the making of TV and radio programmes such as Jennifer Saunders's sitcom Jam and Jerusalem, Bremner, Bird and Fortune and Just A Minute.
London is also where her book publisher is based, but it was the acting which came first, with the writing very much as a second string, she explains. While at Trinity College in Dublin, she joined the university's drama society - some of her fellow student thesps would go on establish the Dublin theatre company Rough Magic, with whom she has acted and is now a board member.
"When I left Trinity in the early 1980s there were no jobs in Ireland, no such thing as a good job at the bank, so people didn't really bat an eyelid at me giving acting a try. And it was acting first for many years.
"When I started writing, that was a kind of accident as well. When we went to London to make Father Ted in the studio, every Friday, everybody you met there, actors and the whole lot of them, were all writing things and being endlessly creative, and I just thought, 'Jeez, I've no other string to my bow,' so I started writing to see if I could do it and it just went from there.
"I was never afraid of dialogue, for instance, because a lot of the time, when you're acting, you might get asked to improvise. The main difference with writing, obviously, is that you sit and do it by yourself. Acting is usually very collaborative, you have the director with you all the time, and other actors... so you can blame other people if things go wrong," she guffaws.
"Whereas with the books, it's all down to me in the end. Even if my editor makes a suggestion, if I don't want to take it I don't really have to, and equally in the end I have to take the blame, if she was right and I was wrong." Her latest novel, Bright Lights and Promises, embraces something of both her worlds, as it is set among London's theatrical agencies, "so it was very handy having an agent in the family. I gave it to Richard to read before I handed it over to my editor and just asked if, procedurally, the offers from the agency in the book could happen, and he gave me a few pointers. And he says to me, 'You did a terrible deal for that actor at the end; you could do better than that.' So he talked me through contracts and deals, which is a bit like having the Theory of Relativity explained to you - the moment I'm hearing it I understand it, then he'd stop talking and I'd go, 'Now start again from the bit where I've got the part, right? Now what should I do?'
"Richard likes reading history books, but he takes a possibly unhealthy interest in my novels, and he's a very good note-giver, which I find helpful, but... you have to just bite down and take them, because he'll say things like, 'That whole passage will have to go. You're better than that.' And you think, 'I'm not, actually. God, I wouldn't have put it in if I was better than that,' and... oooh," she breaks off with a moan of mock-frustration.
The main character in her latest book works in a London theatrical agency, but domestically is caught between her newly teenage son and her feckless mother, who has arrived to stay. "So she seems to have no respite from her home life, and when she goes to work she's minding all of these actors... who can be really needy, and I should know," and she bursts into another big laugh.
"I know that end of it very well. I could whinge for Ireland." One the subject of whingeing, however, she appears not to find the persistent shadow of Mrs Doyle a burden, even though some nine years after the filming of the last episodes of Father Ted, a series which was tragically curtailed by the sudden death of Dermot Morgan, who played the eponymous island priest, she is still accosted in the street by would-be impressionists: "I don't know why they feel the need to shout at me. They'll be shouting, 'Ah, will ye have a cup of tea!' They could just walk up to me and say it, but they like to shout," she says, sounding mildly piqued. "But you can't really complain, because it's with huge affection that people do it."
The enduring popularity of the BAFTA-winning series (which also won McLynn a Best Comedy Actress award in 1996) was evident earlier this year when a convention of "Tedheads" descended on Inis Mor, the largest of the Aran Islands in Galway Bay, to hold a Tedfest. In fact, plans for the manic assembly generated a certain friction - between Inis Mor and the neighbouring Inis Oirr - worthy of a Ted episode in itself, as each island claimed to beg the most suitable venue. Inis Oirr arguably had the strongest claim, as its rocky shore still hosts the Plassey, the wrecked ship seen in the aerial shots that open each episode (these are the only sequences shot on the islands, the rest having been filmed either on mainland County Clare or in London), but the dispute was eventually settled by a five-a-side football match, won by Inis Mor.
McLynn wasn't at the event, as she was filming in Wales: "But I saw in the paper that people made a real effort to dress up as priests and nuns and Mrs Doyles. It must have been really weird to be surrounded by a whole load of Mrs Doyles," she adds, with something approaching awe.
"The really frightening thing is, I've heard that they're taking the Tedfest on the road next year. I'll have to leave the country again.
"But you know, next year is ten years since we made the last episodes of it, ten years since Dermot died, which seems incredible, the blink of an eye."
She first met Morgan shortly after leaving Trinity and she was appearing on RTE's Nothing To It?, a sitcom aimed at job-seeking younger viewers. Soon she was a fixture in Morgan's now-legendary satirical show on Irish radio. Scrap Saturday. "It became quite notorious," she says. "I wish he was still around so he could see me on Bremner Bird and Fortune. Dermot always admired Rory Bremner.
"We're doing more of it soon, because there's going to be a South Bank Show about the Two Johns [Bird and Fortune], and we're doing some stuff specially for it." She's also looking forward to starting work on a second series of Jam and Jerusalem: "There were days when I'd be working on that and I'd be pinching myself, saying, 'There's Joanna Lumley over there. Good morning, Joanna. And there's Dawn French. How are you, Dawn?' Me, playing with the goddesses. More, please!"
But McLynn can also play it straight, as demonstrated by her portrayal of Helen, a working-class housewife married to a racist (Paul McGann), in last year's hard-hitting Gypo, the first Dogme film to be made in the UK. She has a part in the next film by Gypo's director, Jann Dunn, due to start filming next month.
"It's about nuns, so I'm hoping to be wandering down corridors, wearing long robes, being a nun, possibly an evil nun. I'd love that," she says, with relish.
Clearly she has managed to avoid being typecast, but it's hard not to envisage something like Father Ted meets The Devils, or close encounters with a demonic tea trolley. It's worth remembering that even in her comic novels, not everyone gets out alive.
It is, she agrees, the two sides of the dramatic mask: "I don't think you can have the laughter without the bleakness as well. The more the risk, the more serious the situation, the bigger the laugh will be when it comes."
But it's not Mrs Doyle's dark side you'll be hearing on The Radio Caf: "Any excuse to be reading books and talking about them is fine by me."
• Pauline McLynn's current novel is Bright Lights and Promises, published by Headline. She presents The Radio Caf on Monday, 16 July.
FROM STAGE TO THE PAGE
THE world of literature has been enriched by numerous comedians who have swapped stand-up or TV for the pen.
• Another Father Ted favourite, ARDAL O'HANLON, who played the innocent (to the point of being mentally deficient) Father Dougal. Between 2000 and 2005 he starred in the comedy series My Hero, in which he played an alien superhero who juggled his world-saving duties with the crises of suburban living. His novel The Talk of the Town, published in 1998, tells the story of a teenage boy called Patrick Scully and his friends, in strange jobs and with odd aspirations.
• Scottish comedian RHONA CAMERON, who was raised in Musselburgh, first rose to fame via the stand-up comedy circuit, became a regular on British TV, and took part in the first series of I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here. Her first book, 1979: A Big Year in a Small Town, looked at life growing up as a lesbian in a small fishing port. This year has seen the publication of her debut novel, The Naked Drinking Club: Drunk, Disorderly and Down Under, a "darkly thrilling tale of obsession and addiction" about a hard-partying Edinburgh girl who heads to Australia.
• Left-wing Liverpudlian ALEXEI SAYLE was central to the alternative comedy circuit in the early 1980s. His TV series, Alexei Sayle's Stuff saw him awarded an International Emmy as well as a Fatwa declaration from a Syrian Muslim cleric after the show featured a mild insult aimed at Muslims in general.
Moving from performance to writing, Sayle published his first short novel Train to Hell in 1984 and he went on to publish several more as well as short story collections and a graphic novel, Geoffrey the Tube Train and the Fat Comedian. His most recent novel, last year's The Weeping Women Hotel, is set in a shelter for battered women. In typically Sayle surreality, the story of how the main character finds herself there includes parrots, a marionette execution, a South American novelist, an obscure form of kung fu and a tin of sardines.
• Her onstage persona may be that of an aggressive, foul-mouthed, hard-drinking, chainsmoker, but that did not stop JENNY ECLAIR, below, this year being voted 39th in Channel 4's countdown of the greatest ever stand-up comedians.
Her first novel, Camberwell Beauty, centres on a particular street in London located directly between an asylum and an arts college. The story follows the rise and fall of a seemingly perfect family that lives there. Her most recent novel, Having A Lovely Time, published in 2005, features two ordinary families on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Described as "funny, smart and refreshingly honest" it is a story of infidelity, jealousy, resentment, recriminations and, just occasionally, love.
• Starting out as a writer of comedies, the hugely successful BEN ELTON has his first major hit when he was just 23, as co-writer of the TV sitcom The Young Ones, in which he occasionally appeared. He went on to work on Blackadder, the worldwide hit which one four BAFTAs and an Emmy. Elton became a stand-up comedian, hosting Friday Night Live, primarily to showcase his own writing, and then became one of Britain's biggest selling live acts
His first novel, Stark, was published in 1989. Stark became a No 1 bestseller and has gone on to sell well over a million copies, and was made into a Australian TV film in 1993, in which Elton starred. He has written ten novels since then, most recently Chart Throb (2006) - a satire of X Factor/Pop Idol-style reality TV programmes.