Olivia Nash is in the middle of rehearsals for the next Give My Head Peace tour, in which she plays the targe-like, broad Belfast, quick-witted ‘Ma’ to Tim McGarry’s delusive republican ‘Da’, with impeccable comic timing and an appreciation for dark Ulster humour and sending up the absurdities of sectarianism that has become the hallmark of The Hole in the Wall Gang, who have now been making so many across this province laugh for 25 years.
”It’s going well, but it’s hard work too,” says Nash, now in her 70s (although like any lady she demurs from relaying her precise age). “It’s a very, very funny show.”
McGarry describes Olivia as the ‘matriarch’ of the crew because of her wisdom and good sense, but there is plenty of bedevilment in her too, and she admits to the trials of keeping a straight face amid Give My Head Peace rehearsals - with Paddy Jenkin’s Pastor Begbie always making it particularly hard for her to keep composure in the thick of the slapstick and onslaught of gags, and her lockdown survival entailed more than a few knees-ups with Tim out her back garden, no doubt together plotting material for the new tour.
Mum to Patricia, and grandmother to Gabriel, Daisy and Livi, Olivia has had a many-storied career as a thespian, broadcaster and award-winning star of the seminal 1980s Northern Irish Spar TV ad wherein she was known to shout in a flat Belfast drawl from TV screens in living rooms up and down the province, ‘Fred, we’ve no bread!” (Who doesn’t remember that iconic ad, or Olivia targing her husband to get out there for a loaf sharpish or else they might have ended up headed for the divorce courts? And that more recent radio ad for Maud’s ice cream, yes, that’s Olivia too).
Diminutive and a laugh-a-minute, Nash, who received her MBE for services to theatre and charity from the Queen in 2006, displayed her talents early, first entering elocution competitions despite admitting to having been a desperately shy child, plagued by asthma but always finding her imagination kindled by Lorna Doone, Enid Blyton and the stacks of books her mother would bring home to her.
She grew up in Larne, a place she won’t have a bad word said about, because even though these days she is settled in Belfast, the port town “will always be home to me” and it was there that she first entered into community with other budding actors when she joined the Larne Drama Circle, and after appearing in myriad productions including musicals (even though she claims not to have a note in her head), went from there to an 11-year collaboration with the late, great comedian Jimmy Young, with whom she worked at the Ulster Gate Theatre, but also on skits and sketches for broadcast.
“Jimmy was a true pro,” she recalls, fondly. “I always had to play the wee hard ‘Pratestant’ woman named Sadie, but she had various other names too.
“Jimmy was once in a wee corner shop and it was going to be taken over and turned into something else by paramilitaries, and we all got together, Protestant and Catholic, and tried to save the shop.
“Everybody had a wee ticky book and I went in one day and I asked for my book back and I brought the two toilet rolls back because I was tired of them never arriving. It was silly, but to give Jimmy his due there was always a wee message in it, just like the work I do with the Gang today.
“Always, each side of the community got an equal send up, again just like what we do with Give My Head Peace. It was all very even.
“At that time I was still working in the court house for Antrim County Council because in those days, unless you were wealthy, actors could never afford to give up their day jobs. You were in the performing arts for the love of it.
“I would come out of the court house like the clappers and get a bus up Royal Avenue to the Group Theatre. Sometimes we would do double shows for three weeks over Easter and over Christmas, but it was so much fun, you didn’t resent being so busy.
“Every six months we changed the show, but when we would do two shows, the same people who were into theatre would be sitting there every single Saturday. People would come to the play at half six, go to John Long’s fish and chip shop for their tea and then sometimes be back in time for the second performance.”
Olivia recalls that the love of her life, her late husband Bill, whom she met through the Larne Drama Circle, died of an aneurysm in 1984.
“Bill and I were always trying to get married, and I would say, ‘I’ll just do another play, Bill, and then we’ll get married.’
“We got married on June 14, 1971, and got a flat, and we put every penny we got into it, and we just thought we were the bees’ knees.
“Then in August of ‘71 internment came in and absolutely everything stopped, the city went dark and the curtains came down in the theatres. No plays, nothing, and there was Bill and I sitting like two prunes, albeit in love.
“There’s not a day goes by when I don’t miss him, but after his death I had to raise my daughter Patricia who was just ten then, and life had to go on. My love of acting sustained me.”
She first joined Tim ‘and the boys’ on BBC NI’s Perforated Ulster and then came the call to join the cast of Give My Head Peace for what would go on to become the now iconic satirical series in 1991 and ever since nobody has dared cross, or targe, the inimitable doyenne of the dramedy.
‘I’M ACTUALLY VERY SHY OUTSIDE A ROLE’
“At age three I was signed up to do elocution lesson,” says Olivia. “I was always used to standing up and speaking.
“Basically though, and people may be very surprised by this, but I am actually very shy, and I hate going into rooms with people who I don’t really know, because I always think, ‘well why would they want to talk to me?’
“So I was always nervous, but I never had any qualms about going on stage and I always did a lot of public speaking.
“At first, when I started to do it, I used to pretend that I was somebody else, for about the first two minutes and that’s what got me through.
“With drama you can be very shy, but when you take on a role you become somebody else, and there’s a real liberation in that because you no longer feel self-conscious - you are transformed when you play a particular part.”
Nash added: “When I left school, I joined Larne Drama Circle at the age of 17 and it was the making of me as a performer and to this day all of us are like family, my family outside my family - 100%.”
‘IF YOU CAN MAKE PEOPLE LAUGH TOGETHER, THAT’S REALLY OVERCOMING DIVISION’
Olivia, who starred in the iconic Billy Plays in the 1980s alongside a very young Sir Kenneth Branagh and the late Jimmy Ellis, whom she remembers as an “absolute gentleman”, received her MBE in 2006 not just for the rich tapestry of her theatre work but also for her uwavering support for the Northern Ireland Hospice for whom she has gone on innumerable fundraising walks and loves to visit to chat and entertain patients. She feels all of us could learn some perspective, namely “how to stop grumbling about things that don’t matter”, from witnessing the incredible work they do there.
But today she feels blessed beyond measure, that besides working in radio which allows her to play a “tall, slim blonde” when she feels like it, she is delighted to be part of a show that frequently flags up the absurdity of our sectarian politics and entrenched, ludicrous division where we could have unity and fraternity.
”No disrespect to Stormont, but if the cast of Give My Head Peace had a half an hour up there, I think it would get politicians on both sides of the divide working together much better.
“If I had a pound for all the times people stop me in the street and tell me how much Give My Head Peace made them laugh and upllifted them, whatever circumstances they were going through, I would be very rich, and I feel very privileged to have been allowed to be a part of something so wonderful, which I think very much shows that whether you are orange, green or neither, there is so much more that unites rather than divides us in Northern Ireland.
“There is barely a day when somebody doesn’t shout out ‘Ma!’ to me in the street.”
It’s obvious the gang are thick as thieves and Olivia tells an hilarious story about a programme special they did on the continent when she fell a*** over face into a freezer trying to retrieve some prawns, with a passerby having to pull her out by the ankles, which became comedy gold in one episode, and on a special set in Rome when they had the full humour of Uncle Billy wanting to meet the Pope.
How does Ma keep Da in line, I wonder? “Oh that’s my secret,” laughs Olivia. “Da gives her a hard time, but, as in so many households, it all runs off Ma like water off a duck’s back. “You know I’ve a fabulous family, great friends and an acting career that allows me to do one of the most wonderful things, which is to make people laugh even in the midst of their own personal struggles and to be able to spread joy.
“And to me the arts and comedy deserve more respect than they are often afforded, because if you can make people laugh together, that’s really overcoming division.”
‘IF I HAD A MAGIC WAND, I’D MAKE EDUCATION IN NORTHERN IRELAND INTEGRATED’
Olivia, who calls Dame Judi Dench her ultimate acting inspiration, not only because of the incredible range that has allowed her to do everything from Shakespeare to the Bond franchise but also because she seems “so lovely” in interviews, recalls being repeatedly in trouble at school because she was simply born a very chatty and bubbly livewire.
“I was at school in the days of the slap, as it were, and I had lots of them. I hold my hands up, I was always talking too much in class.”
After joining Larne Drama Circle at 17 she was involved in so many different productions and drama festivals, appearing in comedies and plays like Brian Friel’s The Loves of Cass McGuire, Tea in a China Cup and even musicals.
“Our church had a very strong music society and I cannot sing for peanuts. If I joined a choir, they would pay me to leave, probably.
“But one year we did The Music Man I played Mrs Paroo. It was like speak-sing, you spoke it to the beat. We went to Waterford for the festival of light opera and I actually won a prize for best comedienne and to this day I can’t stop laughing about that or marvelling at how it actually came about.
“The next year, we did Brigadoon, and I had a part as Meg Brockie, and one of her songs was My Mother’s Wedding Day, and I won a prize that year as well!”
If Olivia had a magic wand and could change anything at all about Northern Ireland over night, she would like to see integrated education implemented here.
“I remember growing up in Larne, being wheeled about with my friend in a buggy. She was a Protestant, and she was my best friend. Then, because I was a Catholic, she and I had to go to different schools when we got older, and I could never understand it.”
Olivia added: “We should be together and everybody should be allowed to follow whatever religion they want to follow without it being a question of you being right and the other person being wrong, or anyone trying to impose their beliefs on anybody else.
“We need to have mutual respect for each other and I think integrated education is the way forward in trying to make that a reality.”
See Give My Head Peace 2022 on tour on March 3-4, at the Market Place Theatre, Armagh; March 5, at the Alley Theatre, Strabane; March 10, at The McNeill Theatre, Larne; March 12-13, at the Riverside Theatre, Coleraine; March 16, at the Strule Arts Centre, Omagh; March 17-19, at the Millennium Forum, Londonderry; March 20, at the Theatre at the Mill, Newtownabbey; March 21, at The Braid, Ballymena; March 23-24, at The Ardhowen Theatre, Enniskillen; March 25-26, at the Burnavon Theatre, Cookstown; and March 27-April 2, at the Grand Opera House, Belfast.
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