Tim McGarry: ‘I’m sick to the back teeth of Brexit’

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Tim McGarry, political satirist, stand-up comedian, actor and host of TV and radio shows, talks to Helen McGurk about Give My Head Peace and why Ma, Da, and the rest of the gang, still resonate with audiences

Reflecting on the early days, when he and his comedy cohorts toured the live stage show of Give My Head Peace, Tim McGarry says, with mock ruefulness, ‘‘we used to be rock ‘n’ roll’’.

‘‘We have a bus that we go around in and we used to drink and smoke far too much and go a bit daft.’’

But, according to the 54-year-old, times have changed and the once raucous days have been replaced by more sedate pleasures.

‘‘Now we’re all of an age where we have a cup of tea and put on Newsnight to see what’s happening with Brexit.’’

So, on tour, there is no backstage rider with diva-ish demands for lavish food or other indulgent miscellany to be placed in their dressing rooms?

‘‘No. Olivia Nash does not demand her M&Ms are separated into the brown ones and the blue ones,’’ he laughs.

‘‘We’ve always been an ensemble piece and always been mates, so it helps that there are no egos and nobody is bigger than anybody else in the show. I think that comes across, that we are all mates and all enjoying ourselves.’’

Tim McGarry has had a prolific and successful career. He is currently on our screens as the host of the TV panel show, The Blame Game, trading quick-fire quips with regular panellists comedians Colin Murphy, Neil Delamere, and Jake O’Kane.

But he is undoubtedly still best known to Northern Irish audiences as the republican dunderhead Da in Give My Head Peace, the popular sitcom that satirises sectarian stereotypes with such aplomb.

In post-Troubles Ulster the show struck a chord, the characters resonating with audiences even though they represent a lot of sectarian attitudes that sadly still proliferate.

And next month the Give My Head Peace troupe will be going back on the road with a brand new stage show. McGarry is in his element.

‘‘I am really looking forward to it. We’ve been doing a tour now for years and the craic is mighty. Many people have a lot of affection for these characters and that’s reflected in the audiences we get.

‘‘Genuinely, we were going to stop doing the stage show about 10 years ago and then the theatres came back to us and said ‘there’s still life in this, keep doing it’.

‘‘There’s huge public affection for the characters and that’s reflected in the audiences we get.’’

Tim McGarry grew up in north Belfast and read law at Queen’s University, where he would meet fellow law students Damon Quinn and Michael McDowell, who had a similar view of the mayhem that was going on all around them in Northern Ireland.

While his comedy career got off the ground, McGarry worked as a legal officer for the Equal Opportunities Commission and was an expert on maternity and sexual discrimination rights.

But after the Hole in the Wall gang, which included Nuala McKeever and Marty Reid, secured a weekly slot on the late David Dunseith’s BBC Radio Ulster show in 1996, the group fully committed to comedy.

The Gang’s popularity soared and they became a cult must-see act in Belfast before Radio Ulster gave them their own Perforated Ulster series which included a sketch called ‘Too Late to Talk to Billy and Paddy about love across the barricades and the terror triangle’ which eventually morphed into Give My Head Peace.

The TV version of Give My Head Peace ran to 11 series and 77 episodes and though critics loved to hate the humour, it was a massive hit with the public – a collective guilty secret in some quarters.

So what can audiences expect from the new stage show?

‘‘We’d like to tell you what the show’s going to be about but given Brexit, Trump, and an empty Stormont .... who knows? Anything can happen!

‘‘All we know for sure is that Ma, Cal, Da, Billy, and Dympna will be there. Uncle Andy can’t make it (he’s spending a year in bed in order to get a PIP claim) so he’s asked his old mucker Big Mervyn (BJ Hogg) to take over.’’

And along with Ulster’s favourite menacing cleric Pastor Begbie (Paddy Jenkins) the gang guarantee a night of topical comedy, fantastic jokes and

up to the minute satire. Plus there’ll be some superb stand-up from McGarry.

Rehearsals are short and sweet, just a week before the tour kicks off.

‘‘A week is more than enough,’’ says McGarry. ‘‘We like to keep the show as topical as possible. Some days we write during the rehearsals; you don’t know what is going to happen from one day to the next, so we like to keep it as tight as possible. We get a structure and a plot outline and then we add the topical bits as we go along.’’

The comedian admits, though, he is ‘sick to the back teeth of Brexit’

‘‘We have been doing it every single week on The Blame Game because you have to, it’s kind of hard to ignore.’’

So why has Give My Head Peace - particularly the stage shows - endured?

‘‘When you buy a ticket, you are guaranteed a darn good laugh. We write a brand new show every single year - you won’t have heard any of it before, you won’t have seen any of it on the telly, it’ll be as up to the minute as it possibly can be, it’ll be very silly, there’ll be a bit of slapstick, there’ll be stupid jokes and there’ll be puns and there’ll be hard-hitting political satire as well; we will spare no politician of any ilk whatsoever’’.

*Give My Head Peace Live on tour kicks off on February 19 at the Ardhowen Theatre, Enniskillen. Tickets on sale.