Bestselling author and sitcom star talks about his previous crippling stage fright and why being a victim of crime once seemed far preferable to talking in front of strangers
'I'm a very reluctant show-off.' Irish comic Ardal O'Hanlon is perhaps still best known for his role as Dougal McGuire in the classic 90s Channel 4 sitcom Father Ted, and comments such as this might make people believe him to be carrying on that character: the shy, timid and naïve junior member of the Catholic clergy on Craggy Island. But these days, O'Hanlon is a fearless stand-up (now that he's managed to cast aside the debilitating stage fright that made him wonder if live work was really his bag), who is deep into another nationwide comedy tour.
The Showing Off Must Go On is the title of his new stand-up set and he's determined to put that image of the wilting wallflower firmly behind him. 'I come from a part of the world where showing off is anathema; it's the worst thing you could possibly do. When you grow up in a border area of Ireland, people are very wary and cagy and keep their head down at all times. Don't speak unless it's absolutely essential, and don't give anything away. So showing off was a really terrible thing to do. It's up there with armed robbery.'
Curious that O'Hanlon should mention that heinous crime given that he was in fact involved in one some years back. It might be worth pointing out immediately that he was not a perpetrator of said act. 'It's a bizarre story but true,' recalls O'Hanlon. 'I was lodging my first ever pay cheque when these armed robbers burst in and we're then all lying on the floor. This guy I'm beside is looking at me and has a smirk on his face. He says "did anyone ever tell you that you have lovely eyes?" He just said that for the craic but I was incredibly scared. Though it wasn't as scary as stand-up.'
Before his big break in Father Ted, O'Hanlon was making a decent fist of it as a rising stand-up star, but the enjoyment he was offering audiences wasn't matched by the turmoil he was going through. 'At the time I felt awful and thought that other people just weren't experiencing it. I was the only one in the corner retching, but it was fine once I got onstage. But something definitely changed; when you have kids, you become less self-centred or obsessed with your career and you later realise that it's just a gig.'
In the post-Ted years, O'Hanlon wrote a bestselling novel (The Talk of the Town), and played the lead character in sitcoms (the generally liked My Hero and the overwhelmingly unloved Blessed) and escapist crime drama Death in Paradise (it was recently announced that he was leaving that BBC show after four series as DI Jack Mooney) while also appearing in the varied likes of Cucumber, Skins and Doctor Who.
Admitting that he was quite happily sliding into middle-age, fairly sure he knew all that he needed to know about the world, O'Hanlon was jolted out of that complacency by recent world events, and inspired to get back in the stand-up saddle. 'There's an awful lot to talk about,' he admits. 'Especially in the last two or three years, the world has changed dramatically. I thought I'd cracked everything and then suddenly you have to completely re-engage with the world as it shifts.'
While he's had a varied career and a complicated relationship with live performing, stand-up always seems to sink its teeth into Ardal O'Hanlon. 'I've been lucky to have other dimensions to my career, but I'm constantly drawn back to stand-up: there's something compulsive about it. For this tour, I'll have a modest saloon car and my little bag of jokes and a toothbrush. I love the whole process of it, engaging with the world, and trying to figure stuff out. Stand-up is the best medium for that.'
Ardal O'Hanlon: The Showing Off Must Go On is on tour until Saturday 7 March.