The problem with Comedy in Norn Iron is that everybody is a comedian. Lets be honest, you and I could sit in company with co-workers and the craic would be great. But if a BBC producer was sitting at the next table, he would not turn round and offer us a series.
Because “good craic” is our limit.
Which brings me to “Give My Head Peace” which was unfortunately revived by BBC Norn Iron.
There was a time in the mid-1960s when the Hole in the Wall Gang (responsible for the above) seemed fresh. Their first one-off show in the mid 1990s seemed to capture the mood of the time. “Two Ceasefires and a Wedding” had the troupe in a parody of just about every worthy TV drama set in Belfast.
Going back to the 1950s and Sam Thompson’s “Over The Bridge”, Belfast’s artsy luvvies have been obsessed with the perfect play that would hold a mirror up to the squalid sectarianism of Norn Iron.
“Harry’s Game” based on the ITN journalist Gerald Seymour’s novel set the pattern. British Intelligence Officer, under-cover in the IRA and flame haired but doomed heroine from a republican family.
Stewart Parker carried it forward in the 1980s, with the “Billy” trilogy which introduced us to “Sir” Kenneth Branagh as a young loyalist with a doomed love across the barricades romance and James Ellis, a veteran of “Over the Bridge” as his loyalist uncle.
So far, so predictable…in a very worthy way.
“Two Ceasefires and a Wedding” subverted this circa 1995. “Billy” a young RUC man lived with his unreconstructed loyalist “Uncle Andy” in a back-street and a republican family, Ma, Da and their three adult children lived in Divis Tower…and of course love across the barricades blossomed.
Norn Iron in the mid 1990s was on the verge of a peace agreement. It seemed the Troubles had lasted long enough to be a cliché and we had the novelty of laughing at ourselves.
And The Hole in the Wall troupe expanded into sketch comedy with memorable characters like the All-Too-Nices from Cultra and Mickey’s Mammy on the Falls Road. It was the high tide of the ensemble. They were weakened when Nuala McKeever went solo.
And while “Give My Head Peace”, a sitcom based on the original one-off show, was initially successful with the addition of Red Hand Luke (Dan Gordon) and Big Mervyn (B J Hogg), it was noticeable that the writers/performers (Quinn, McGarry and McDowell) were not inviting us to laugh at ourselves but rather to laugh at people who are not ourselves. It had become the comedy wing of LetsGetAlongerism.
The signs were there that the premise had outlived its purpose. Another sketch show “Dry Your Eyes” was at best patchy and the comedy panel game “The Blame Game” hosted by McGarry and featuring stand-ups like Jake O’Kane and Colin Murphy is a poor imitation of BBCs “Mock the Week”.
Another attempt at sit-com “Number Twos” (based on Stormont special advisors) was risible but oddly the troupes serious drama on the Father Brendan Smyth scandal was the best thing they have ever done.
Maybe Norn Iron politics is just beyond parody or maybe the Peace Process never really matured enough to allow us to laugh. A Sinn Féin MP with a loaf of Kingsmill bread on his head, “Arlenes on Fire” and a Sinn Féin MLAs solving of his clamped car problem all fall into the “you couldn’t make it up” category.
But the return to the “Give My Head Peace” format with three episodes seems like a last hurrah. Maybe there was a time when “Da” getting a phone call from “Gerreeeee” was funny. Now it just seems sinister. Maybe “Constable Billy” of the RUC/PSNI underscores the collusion and the neglect of justice and the halfwit loyalists sit uneasily with the reality of Shankill Butchers and romper rooms.
Norn Iron just isn’t funny anymore.
We are used to British comedians being superior about their politics. Is there a single British comedian who voted for BREXIT besides the obvious Jim Davidson?
We are used to American comedians being superior. Is there a single American funny man/woman who voted for Donald Trump?
Which begs the question……….in Norn Iron, Britain, USA….is anything ever going to be funny again?