‘I could punch walls to Lady in Red and free-form jazz is just hell’

Comedian and writer Tim McGarry chats to Joanne Savage about his new radio show Criminal Records, sending up sectarian stereotypes and why he’d actually like Jesus and Edward Carson over for dinner

By Joanne Savage
Friday, 8th October 2021, 4:27 pm
Tim McGarry's got some criminally bad records featuring on his new radio show. But no need to alert the PSNI for offences to good taste
Tim McGarry's got some criminally bad records featuring on his new radio show. But no need to alert the PSNI for offences to good taste

Now the man perhaps best known as the clueless republican ‘Da’ in the stubbornly popular Give My Head Peace, which sells out across Ulster in whatever theatre its members choose to serve up their novel combination of silly, slapstick humour that satirises the sectarian stereotypes that we all recognise so well, and has a pop at our politicians with a more powerful sucker-punch of righteousness than any serious member of the commentariat can actually muster, is back on the airwaves with a new show. Criminal Records features celebrities like boxing pro Carl Frampton, presenter Colin Murray, country singer Philomena Begley and actor Packy Lee. But no, it is not about any kind of criminal activities such names were involved in, but rather the records they despise, in an ingenious flip of the Desert Island Discs format.

I don’t know about you, but I’d imagine that in hell they play a mixture of bagpipe music and the Backstreet Boys, but Tim immediately interjects to correct me: “It has got to be Irish country music, but I don’t want Hugo Duncan fans coming after me with pitchforks for saying that! It’s just not my thing. Then I bet they play the kind of free-form jazz that they just make up as they go along. That is hell,” he laughs. “But for me personally I could punch walls to Lady in Red by Chris de Burgh.” Indeed the latter artist should be sent to the Hague for this track alone.

The passionate Cliftonville FC supporter, who grew up in north Belfast and got into comedy while studying at Queen’s University making funny sketches and moonlighting at the Edinburgh Festival with friends Damon Quinn and Michael McDowell, before BBC NI got wind of them, their numbers expanded, and the late David Dunseith started referring to them as the ‘gang’ and here they are in their 50s still making a career out of lampooning the absurdities of Northern Ireland and its politics.

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Presenter Holly Hamilton tells Tim why she's scundered by the Spice Girls and wants Katy Perry's Roar played at her funeral

A history buff who does stupendous standup, presents comedy panel show The Blame Game, and is involved in too many radio and TV projects than I have room to list here, he’s now full of anecdotes about the musical pet hates of some of Ulster’s most famous faces. The worst criminal record confession that first springs to his far too hyperactive and erudite mind is Carl Frampton. “He bought Barbie Girl by Aqua. But in his defence he was only 10 and he thinks he only asked his mother to buy it because of the woman wearing a bikini in the video.” I don’t think Carl should have made this public. But he redeems himself: “Carl cannot abide Achy Breaky Heart by Billy Ray Cyrus and I am completely with him. And sorry Hugo, but he hates Irish country music and really doesn’t want to be thrown out of the country for it.

“Colin Murray told me he cannot listen to Have I Told You Lately by Van Morrison because it reminds him of the day his grandfather died, and he wouldn’t even let me play it live in the studio with him there it drives him that mad. His worst gig was a Bob Dylan one where Bob was monosyllabic, and Van turned up, which didn’t improve matters. And modern bands who take venerable classic rock and vintage punk and sanitise it into rubbish drive him crazy too.”

Tim himself is fond of classical music, and has been known to sit down to a dose of Mozart, Schubert, a violin concerto or a string quartet. Though he grew up during the punk era, he was never into the leather, mohicans and mad anarchy of the punk movement, but he does still love Stiff Little Fingers and Joy Division, so is obviously a man of taste.

For his new show he also asked people what song they would have played at their funeral. He thinks actor Packy Lee from Belfast had the best answer. “He wants his coffin carried down the aisle to Stuck In The Middle With You by Steelers Wheel, so that it’ll go ‘Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right, here I am.’ Brilliant.”

Give My Head Peace: Tim as delusive republican 'Da' at BBC NI studios with presenter William Crawley

Meanwhile presenter Holly Hamillton, as an ardent feminist, wants to go out with a bang, he tells me, and would have Katy Perry’s Roar played. Good call: “I am a champion...And you’re gonna hear me roar’. Holly also confesses she once did a Spice Girls tribute act at Bloomfield Shopping Centre which went down badly. “So the Spice Girls just remind her of feeling completely scundered.”

Though the real people who should be scundered are those who confess publicly to loving the music of Daniel O’Donnell. And thankfully nobody did for this show. So they didn’t plumb the very deepest circle of musical hell exactly. Expect further revelations about criminal records not likely to alert the PSNI from top female footballer Marissa Callaghan too, and more from Philomena Begley, who cannot abide Sir Cliff Richard’s Summer Holiday in accordance with at least 99.99% of all sane adults.

‘A CHESS WIZARD WELL VERSED IN THE ECCENTRICITIES OF EDWARD CARSON’

I would have thought that venerable comic Tim McGarry was a laugh a minute around the house, but he tells me straight up that his wife and progeny would rate him as a “zero on a scale of one to 10 on a comedy scale, seriously. I mean sometimes if I write a funny column for the News Letter, my wife will read it and say ‘That’s OK’ and she’s a harsh critic, so that is her equivalent of a five star review! My children take no interest whatsoever and I think they are actually a bit scundered and embarrassed by me.”

McGarry is actually a quite intellectual man, reads stacks of history books, has a proficient knowledge of Latin and is a former star of the chess club at St Malachy’s Grammar School in North Belfast where he was a pupil about a century ago now, though to look at him, he has obviously been at the Oil of Olay.

“I thought I was pretty good in the chess club until I was about 11 and went to a competition where I was beaten by a bunch of seven-year-olds who had likely been practising so much they had never actually seen grass.”

He enjoyed getting “merrily missed” with Olivia Nash (who plays Ma in The Hole in the Wall Gang) in her back garden during lockdown, calling her a “superstar and the matriarch of the Gang.”

The Gang, he confides, are just like a family, able to pick up exactly where they left off even after long periods apart and when they perform in theatres across the province together they have such a laugh, it never feels like work.

“I love it. These characters are stereotypes and exaggerations but they are people we in Northern Ireland instantly recognise and I suppose I should thank our politicians for giving us such a plenitude of material to turn into high comedy.” If sectarianism is the real blight here in Northern Ireland, the Hole in the Wall Gang should be acknowledged on the Queen’s honours list for services to such robust comedic dismantling of it.

Certainly McGarry is against division and believes that integrated education is one solution to uniting Ulster: “If I had a magic wand, that’s the first thing I would do, make schools integrated.”

He recently made a documentary about Oscar Wilde and his connection to Edward Carson, and he is actually particularly fascinated by the latter character.

“Few people know this but while fighting to create Northern Ireland Carson was a terrible hypochondriac firing off letters to people about his bad back and ‘have you seen my big toe, it’s terrible?’

“He was a very interesting man and I would like to ask him about NI in this its centenary year.”

Q&A: ‘I’D INVITE JESUS ROUND FOR CHILLI CON CARNE TO SEE IF HE’D SHOW UP’

Tell us your earliest childhood memories?

I remember sucking my thumb a lot. I was a very easy-going, contented child. But that was until my mother and father started making my brother and I sing Two Little Boys to all our eejit aunties and uncles for a six pence. There were three years between us but annoyingly we were always meant to wear the same clothes, which I took exception at.

School days - what subjects did you excel at?

I was a smarty-pants-goody-goody-two-shoes so that I got away with everything, including bunking off school a few times. I loved sports but I couldn’t kick a ball for the life of me. I was very good at chess - that’s the type of nerd I really am. I did A-level history, Latin and Spanish.

Your ideal way to spend a day?

A nice lie-in, a trip to Solitude to see Cliftonville beating Linfield 3-0 in the afternoon and then a night out with a few friends, a visit to a lovely restaurant to munch on a lamb cutlet (my favourite) and copious amounts of red wine.

Who is in your life makes you laugh the most?

My colleagues on The Blame Game, Colin Murphy, Jake O’Kane and Neil Delamere. We have a ball making that show and we have such a laugh together, and that’s even before we get on set.

If you could invite anyone from history to a dream dinner party who would you bring and what would you serve them?

I would bring Jesus to see if he shows up and finally establish if he exists or not, then Oscar Wilde and Edward Carson, who created Northern Ireland. Was he happy with Northern Ireland’s creation? I’d like to ask him about that in this Northern Ireland’s centenary year. I can’t cook so it would have to be Marks & Spencer’s chilli con carne or tagliatelle and chicken all round with a wide selection of beers and wines.

Your favourite book?

The Tunnel by an Argentinian writer called Ernesto Sabato.

Favourite film?

Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

Describe yourself in three words?

Intellectual-sex-symbol, giant, humble.

Finish the sentence. Love is...All around.

The meaning of life is...It’s essentially pointless, so you may as well enjoy it while you’re here. 

Do you subscribe to any particular faith?

I left the Catholic Church as a teenager. I had them sussed out from very early on. At 15 I just felt this is nonsense, it just doesn’t make any sense. But there’s a very good book called Dominion by a writer called Tom Holland basically saying that yes, we may all be secularists and atheists but we are suffused with Christian values and Christian culture; it’s our heritage, and I accept all of that.

Criminal Records presented by Tim McGarry airs on October 10 on BBC Radio Ulster at 6.30pm. The six-part Hole in the Wall Gang Production can also be heard on BBC Sounds.