Irish comic and actor Ardal O’Hanlon is showing off again. It’s his job. From his home in Dublin he’s regaling me with tales of filming in the Caribbean for his current top-rating tropical telly ‘tec show Death in Paradise, starring as dimwit priest Dougal in one of British comedy’s most loved TV shows, Father Ted, filming with Christopher Lee in a graveyard in Stirling and stacking up street cred with his turn in hit teen comedy drama Skins and now in his new stand-up show, called appropriately The Showing Off Must Go On.
Now the 54-year-old father of three is resuming his long-running love affair with stand-up comedy – he’s been doing it since he was 19 and a communication studies student in Dublin – and brings it to Scotland this month on a UK and Ireland-wide tour.
However, where O’Hanlon comes from in County Monaghan, showing off is even worse than kicking a priest “up the arse” (a particularly popular episode of Father Ted, the show that made him a household name).
“Showing off is a terrible thing, the worst thing you can do,” he says. “My show’s title refers to the idea that stand-up is showing off, which you don’t do where I come from. In my house growing up, if you got new clothes, you weren’t allowed to wear them, that’s how bad it was. People don’t wear hi-vis jackets in my town to this very day, because that would be just looking for attention, you know?
“You were encouraged to hide your light under a bushel. If you did have a talent, nobody would know about it. Even on the football field you wouldn’t dare try anything fancy because that would be showing off, and the supporters would jeer at you.” He laughs. “It’s terrible!”
When he was a child his mother was forever warning him about showing off, he says. However, O’Hanlon’s memory of his younger self differs.
“I remember being chronically shy. I came out of my shell a bit when I went to university, but I’m still fairly shy in company,” he says. “I was a very sort of watchful child, very alert to what was going on around me. I grew up in a fairly chaotic household because my father was a family doctor, the only one for miles around, and then when I was pretty young he became an MP too and had his medical clinic in one part of the house and his political one in another, sprinting between the two. There were days I remember well over 100 people in the house, sitting, standing, leaning wherever they could find a space, wanting to speak to him. Irish politicians are very accessible to the public, just the messenger boys for the local constituency.
O’Hanlon’s father Rory was Fianna Fáil MP for Cavan-Monaghan from 1977 to 2011, deputy then chair of the parliament’s lower house from 1997 to 2007, Minister of State for Social Welfare Claims, Minister for Health from 1987 to 1991 and Minister for the Environment from 1991 to 1992, but as O’Hanlon tells it, “as well as dealing with important concerns and so on, I remember a man came to ask my father could he get Hawaii 5-0 back on the telly.” He laughs.
A series where crimes are solved against a sunny, paradisiacal backdrop, sound familiar?
“Ha, yes. Certainly I was inspired by all those people in the house because you meet amazing characters. Where I come from people are very deadpan with a dry humour that I suppose rubbed off on me. My mother tells me I regaled people with stories but I don’t remember that. And she disputes the idea that I might be chronically shy. She says I was the most outgoing of all of us.”
The third child of six (two girls and four boys) – “clearly I didn’t get enough attention. There are no photos of me,” he jokes, maybe he made up for it by talking to the throngs of patients and constituents.
“I tend to let others do the talking if it’s small groups. But funnily enough I’m not shy in front of huge crowds of people. Every time I step out there I’m conscious it’s sort of showing off but, there’s still that absolute urge to talk and share opinions with the public, and that trumps any shyness or reticence.
“My show is a collection of jokes, stories and anecdotes, about myself, and my peers, our affectations and foibles, as I navigate through life as a man sliding into middle age. It’s satirising human behaviour which is my job. I really do feel that comedians have a role to play in society – not the most important, you’re not a teacher or a nurse – but it’s important nonetheless to poke fun at things and call out bulls**t.”
O’Hanlon was onto a winner from the start with his mellifluous accent that has film as ‘filum’, things as ‘tings’, starting with you is ‘sterting wit che’, and with a way with words, so when he left home to study, it was for a communications degree. After trying stand-up as a student, “I stumbled on stage and got the bug, was seduced by stand-up,” O’Hanlon won the Hackney Empire New Act of the Year competition in 1994. Father Ted followed the next year then he moved into straight acting in the ITV comedy-drama Big Bad World, before swapping dimwit Dougal for simpleton superhero Thermoman in BBC Sitcom My Hero (2000 to 2006). Writing has always been a passion, in different mediums – his novel Talk of the Town was published in 1998 and he’s worked on film scripts and a play, although the live element of stand-up always kept him out there. Landing a role in cult teen TV hit Skins, as creepy teacher Kieran in 2009 gave him the chance to play against type.
“That was really refreshing because since Father Ted I was nearly always asked to play a version of Dougal, kind of goofy. So to play something seedy and sleazy was nice,” and this year he had a spot back in comedy with Derry Girls.
“I’ve never been particularly pro-active in chasing jobs, I wouldn’t know how. I was always lucky that the phone eventually did ring. I just tend to go with the flow, and you do things with mixed results but the journey’s always interesting. There’s nothing I wish I hadn’t done, but there are things I possibly should have done.”
Ah, a young Irishman, we think we know which role he was being considered for.
“I went in for the meeting and I sort of didn’t like it, and expressed that. Really cocky and really stupid of me. I completely sabotaged myself,” he laughs. “But you can’t have regrets. Do what’s in front of you and do the best you can.”
It’s taken O’Hanlon four years to write the show in the attic of the family home he shares with wife Melanie, and two daughters aged 20 and 22, Rebecca, Emily and a son, Redmond, 17, starting when his last stand-up tour ended in 2013. He’s continued with the stand-up at festivals and comedy clubs, trying out bits and pieces as he goes.
“I love the writing process, tedious and soul-destroying as it sometimes is, because it’s a fantastic way of engaging with the world, an excuse to read novels, watch TV and the news ten times a day to keep abreast of popular culture. You’ve got to be mentally sharp, well informed, then you boil all that research and knowledge down into throw away one liners.” He laughs.
“I’m really slow because I’ve been dealing with other stuff... like a TV show I did for BBC,” he says, neatly demonstrating his ingrained fear of showing off, as he’s referring to Death in Paradise, now in its ninth season and pulling in seven million viewers per episode. He talks about having “a part in it”, in fact he’s the star, playing DI Jack Mooney, who replaced Detective Humphrey Goodman (Kris Marshall) on the fictional island of Saint Marie in 2017.
Deducing the reasons for its success, O’Hanlon puts it down to the show’s sure-footed formula.
“It’s quite an old-fashioned show on many levels. I think people love a bit of a mystery and it’s about the puzzle at the heart, and they’re quite complex so viewers play televisual Cluedo. And people like the beautiful, sunny backdrop. When it goes out in the depths of winter people here are cold and miserable, have spent all their money at Christmas and are feeling sorry for themselves, so it’s a little ray of sunshine.
“There are so many gritty, amazing shows we all love like Bodyguard, Killing Eve, Happy Valley, The Capture but we’re not plumbing the depths of man’s depravity here, it’s all very tongue in cheek and neatly wrapped up at the end and people like that certainty in an uncertain world. And we have fantastic guest stars, like Simon Callow, Nigel Planer, Rebecca Front who come out to film in Guadeloupe and give their all – and I get to hang out with them for a week.”
O’Hanlon has just announced this series, to be aired on the BBC in January, will be his last. After four seasons and having solved no fewer than 20 murders (show off) “Yeah, the murder rate is very high for a small place,” O’Hanlon is heading back for projects closer to home, “preferably closer to the Arctic Circle” he jokes, confessing that filming in the tropics took its toll.
“It is actually quite demanding physically,” he says, aware that he’s on shaky ground sympathy-wise when he refers to working in the French-Caribbean.
“I would never knock it for a second and pinch myself I managed to wrangle a part in it,” he says quickly.
On the upside there was the opportunity for O’Hanlon’s family to join him because it shot during the summer and enjoy the outdoor lifestyle. “Well, they did because I was working all the time,” he laughs, “but it was great they could join me in their holidays.”
O’Hanlon also made it his business to know more about that part of the world and its history, doing his research. “I read a lot about the slave trade and the sugar trade, and Andrea Levy’s fantastic novels The Long Song and Small Island,” he says.
“But it is quite a shock to the system with the heat and humidity and hurricanes, and it is demanding being away from home.
“Also I think you can do too much of a good thing; I could never imagine staying in anything, no matter how great, for longer than four series.”
It’s hard to believe that there were in fact only three series of the Bafta-winning sitcom Father Ted, the show that made his name playing the decent but dim Father Dougal McGuire, such is its influence on British comedy – this year Radio Times ranked it runner-up to Fawlty Towers topping its list of the “greatest British sitcoms”. It was always intended to end after three series but after series three wrapped, Dermot Morgan who played Ted, died of a heart attack, aged 45.
Running from 1995-8 it followed the adventures of three priests, Father Dougal (O’Hanlon), Father Ted Crilly (Morgan) and Father Jack Hackett (Frank Kelly), exiled to Craggy Island where they live with housekeeper Mrs Doyle (Pauline McLynn). Ted has been banished for diverting money for a child’s Lourdes visit to his Vegas trip, Jack for “women” and “drink” issues, while Dougal’s transgression is referred to simply as the “Blackrock Incident” which resulted in “many nuns’ lives being irreparably damaged”.
What was the Blackrock Incident?
“I have no idea!” laughs O’Hanlon. “It’s one of the mysteries of Father Ted, like Mrs Doyle’s first name.”
It’s Mrs Doyle’s catchphrase ‘go on, go on, go on’, that O’Hanlon gets the most, or Dougal’s slightly surreal, “the ants are back, Ted”.
O’Hanlon is not part of the Pope Ted: The Father Ted Musical, being written by the series writers Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews, with music by Divine Comedy frontman Neil Hannon.
“Apart from anything else I can’t sing or dance,” he says, “so even if I wanted to be involved I couldn’t. Once we finished Father Ted I really wanted to distance myself from it, much as I was always very proud and fond of it. I know the viewers are still very attached, but you were looking for the next job. You can’t rest on your laurels, you have to move on.”
Moving on now means stand-up and his current tour, which sees him on the road until next spring. He’s looking forward to returning to Scotland, having done stand-up in Aberdeen, Glasgow, Edinburgh, “But never before in Stirling. Although I did shoot a film there many, many years ago, a version of Greyfriars Bobby.”
It was playing Coconut Tam (a real life street vendor who sold fruit in Edinburgh’s High Street in the late 19th century) in 2005, that O’Hanlon filmed with legendary Hammer horror hero Christopher Lee.
“That was quite an experience. It was minus 15 and there was a freezing mist... and Christopher Lee…”
“Oh, he was lovely. It was great to work with him. And Stirling, around the castle, and the nearby graveyard we used for Greyfriars was beautiful.”
O’Hanlon was already well acquainted with Greyfriars from one of his first forays into stand-up at the Edinburgh Fringe.
“I was in a sketch group called Mr Trellis at Greyfriars Kirkhouse, about 1990, and our promoter was Eddie Izzard,” he remembers.
“Nothing’s as good as those early days in stand-up, no matter where you go in your career. There was no pressure, you’re doing it purely for the joy and go with your instincts. The enthusiasm, energy... before commitments, kids, mortgages…”
He’s joking again because the bubbly O’Hanlon still has that enthusiasm, in fact even more so now.
“I feel rejuvenated in a sense, like I always enjoyed stand-up and put a lot of effort into it, but now I don’t get as nervous, and feel very enthused. I love it more than ever.
“And actually, I’m fitter than I used to be,” he says, “I don’t drink as much, and I play tennis, and I actually feel more energetic than 20 years ago...”
There he goes, showing off again. n