Michael Smiley: 'I'm an overnight success after 20 years!'
Ahead of his new BBC NI series on cycling starting tonight, Michael Smiley talks to Stephaine Bell
Michael Smiley is bonkers about bikes. The man who has spent his life making people smile suddenly gets serious when talking about his passion.
If you don't already own a bicycle then be prepared to want to rush out and buy one after you hear how the star of stand-up, TV and film enthuses about them.
The Holywood-born comic and actor believes bicycles are THE best invention of the past 100 years.
While Michael's acting career has seen him star in a long and impressive list of movies and TV dramas, last year he landed his dream job when BBC Northern Ireland asked him to hop on his bike and visit many of his old stomping grounds around the province for a new three-part series.
Beginning tonight, Something To Ride Home About sees Michael indulge his infatuation for cycling, giving his own unique comic insight into the places and the people who share his zeal for two wheels.
It was his love affair with bikes which led to his acting debut when a friend created a character for him – Tyres O'Flaherty, the bicycle riding raver who starred in two episodes of the cult Channel 4 sitcom Spaced.
It was based on Michael's days working as a cycle courier in London before he got his big break on stage as a stand-up comic.
Currently in Kerry filming sci-fi romance The Lobster with Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz, Smiley is very open when I ask him about all aspects of his life and career.
Strikingly, even though he has lived in London for the last 30 of his 51 years he hasn't lost an ounce of his strong Northern Irish accent. Nor is there a hint of a superstar ego, despite his considerable success and fame as both a comic and actor.
Married twice and a father of four, Michael and his first wife Merilees – whom he describes as his childhood sweetheart – left Northern Ireland in 1983 to start a new life in London.
The couple, who are still best friends, have two children, Dillon (30) and Jasmine (26).
Michael's second wife, meanwhile, is journalist and broadcaster Miranda Sawyer, with whom he has two children, Patrick (8) and Frankie May (3).
Incidentally, Merilees is godmother to his two younger children. He says: "We all get on great and are best mates."
Michael grew up in Redburn in Holywood and recalls the story of his birth which he says his late parents were often fond of telling him: "I was born in my mum and dad's bedroom in the winter of 1963.
"The snow was up to the window ledge and my poor dad had to walk to my granny's house in Belfast to get milk and coal. It was that winter everyone references as one of the worst and my first cot was a bottom drawer in my mum's dresser.
"I was the baby of the family. I have a brother, John, who lives in America and a sister, Collette, who still lives in Holywood. My mum passed away three years ago and my dad seven years ago and my big sister is great, she has always been there for me."
Growing up he describes himself as "a wee tearaway" who was "always chasing girls, blowing smoke and drinking cider".
Mum Alice was a seamstress and dad Frank a post office engineer, and they worked and saved hard to give their youngest a good education, paying for him to go to boarding school from the age of 11 until 16.
"Unfortunately it didn't really work," says Michael. "I wasn't an ideal pupil. I was a bit skittish and had a short attention span and was really hyperactive. I still haven't settled down.
"After boarding school I went to college in Belfast but I felt slightly disjointed and in the Eighties there was nothing really happening in Northern Ireland apart from the Troubles.
"There was a bit of a music scene in Belfast but no big bands were really coming to the city and I didn't know any creative people back then, no writers or actors or musicians."
He decided to move to London when he was 20 with no real career goal.
He did various jobs working on building sites and spent some time on the dole before getting a job as a cycle courier.
It was a friend who recognised his natural talent for making people laugh and persuaded him to go on stage at an open mic night in London in 1993.
"He used to drag me to comedy clubs and one night persuaded me to take a slot which I did and my life changed," recalls Michael.
"It was amazing. I got up on stage and I was so excited and nervous and that night I couldn't sleep. I just felt this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.
"I started to write material and for the next 20 years I did stand-up all over the world."
He was writing and performing one-man shows in Edinburgh when he got the chance to make his acting debut in 1999 in a role that was specially written for him.
"Simon Pegg and Jessica Stevenson were writing Spaced for Channel Four and they based the character Tyres O'Flaherty on me from my time as a cycle courier. They asked me to play him and I jumped at it."
Two series of seven episodes of Spaced each were broadcast in 1999 and 2001 on Channel 4, and became an instant cult hit, not only for the witty dialogue and numerous pop culture references, but also the 'will they, won't they?' relationship of the two leads.
A long list of acting roles followed including playing Jordan, a former member of the Parachute Regiment, in 2008 horror film Outpost, as well as a Tyres-like zombie cameo in old pal Pegg's movie Shaun Of The Dead.
In 2003, he guest starred in the Doctor Who audio drama Creatures Of Beauty and in 2004 appeared in an episode of Hustle as Max the forger.
He has also appeared in all three series of The Maltby Collection on Radio 4 as Des Wainwright, an eccentric security guard who keeps repeating himself and reminding people he was in the SAS. In 2010, he reunited with his Spaced co-stars for a major role in the film Burke And Hare and further cemented his cult credentials in 2011 after starring in the graphic and bleak British horror film Kill List.
The film received critical acclaim, and earned him the Best Supporting Actor award at the 2011 British Independent Film Awards.
Last year he appeared in an episode of BBC1's Ripper Street as George Lusk, and the critically acclaimed Channel 4 shows Utopia, as Detective Reynolds, and Black Mirror, as Baxter.
The list of credits goes on and on and this year he has been just as busy, playing Micky Murray in BBC Four's The Life Of Rock and filming one of the first episodes of the eighth full series of Doctor Who, playing a character by the name of Colonel Blue. While he is enjoying great success and increasing recognition, Michael remembers all too clearly what it was like to be unemployed. "I spent a long time not knowing what I wanted to do and being fearful of life and worrying about not being able to support my wife and family," he says.
"It wasn't a happy time for me, but I am blessed with good friends and beautiful relationships in my life.
"It took other people to see the talent and I think that for many people it takes those who love you to help you.
"At school I never settled and was always the class joker. Now I'm older I realise that exams at school give you the ability to concentrate.
"Its only now that I am capable of doing that, although there is still a wee part of me that wants to run around and blow raspberries.
"Real success takes work. It has taken me 20 years to be an overnight success.
"You have to work hard; it doesn't just drop in your lap. Each time you learn from your mistakes and so the next time you can do it better.
"It's like an education for my soul. I feel like I am learning every day now when I wasn't as a child."
Although he does return home from time to time to see his sister, his new BBC series filmed last year was his first chance to spend some quality time at home since he left for London 31 years ago.
The fact that he got to spend it indulging his passion for his beloved cycling was incredible to him, and it's obvious he loved every minute.
He lifts cycling onto a whole new plain as he extols its many virtues. "I've always had a love affair with cycling. Bicycles are by far the best invention of the past 100 years, they save your life.
"People in villages were able to escape and find work through bicycles and were able to shop for food at markets and get their kids to school.
"Cycling helps you get fitter and it also helps the planet. It calms the body and dispels depression.
"If you are feeling p****d off, just cycle for five minutes and I can guarantee you that you won't be feeling that anymore.
"You meet other cyclists and it lifts your spirits. It's not like being stuck in a gym – you are out in the countryside, smelling our cows*** and freshly-cut grass and feeling the sun on your face and the rush of fresh air. You meet a better class of people and as HG Wells said, 'When I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair of the human race'."
On his travels with the series he rides some of our most stunning local scenery, tries some alternative cycling disciplines and meets a number of local enthusiasts including a world record holder, and Newtownards-born cycling world championship gold medallist – and BBC NI Sports Personality of The Year 2013 – Martyn Irvine.
"The fact it wasn't studio-based really appealed to me, I loved it," says Michael.
"Chris Jones of Green Inc had the idea for the series and I just thought it was fantastic.
"When I left Northern Ireland in the 1980s I remembered it as being very parochial back then.
"The show made me realise there were three types of people in Northern Ireland during the Troubles – the ones who left and never came back, the ones who left but came back and the people who stayed. To me the people who didn't leave are the real heroes.
"Despite all the rubbish that was going on they stayed and educated their kids and did what they could under difficult circumstances.
"It was incredible to get the chance to talk to these people and to get a bit of the Northern Ireland craic.
"No one has a turn of phrase like we have here, or the humility.
"I got to talk to Isobel Woods in her home. Isobel set and held Irish records for cycling which were not broken until about six years ago.
"She still holds seven records no one has broken.
"She broke my heart, she is my hero, and I just fell in love with her."
The show has renewed Michael's love for his home country and has given him a new goal – to buy a camper van and tour Ireland with his children.
"Sadly I haven't got back home much over the years, mainly for funerals," he says.
"I am going to change that next year and buy a Mazda Bongo and take my children touring the north and south of Ireland."
Michael Smiley: Something To Ride Home About begins on BBC1 Northern Ireland tonight at 10.20pm
Pumped up for two-wheeled journey
In Something to Ride Home About, Michael begins his journey in Belfast and visits St George's Market, before meeting one of only six Penny Farthing owners in Northern Ireland.
Meanwhile, viewers also get a sneak peek behind the doors of a community cycle workshop which provides repairs and servicing for bikes in the city.
And after a visit to his home town of Holywood, Michael gets to meet keen cyclist, acclaimed photographer and one of his own personal heroes, Bill Kirk, in Newtownards.
He also experiences a hairy moment with a ladies cycling club in Armagh, drops in on a world record holder in Lisburn, puts himself on trial against the clock in Dungannon and meets a fellow comic on the banks of the Foyle.
Producer Chris Jones, from Green Inc, says: "In my opinion, Smiley is our finest actor and funniest comedian.
"We were thrilled to be working with him on this series that lets Michael revel in two things he's brilliant at: cycling and telling funny stories.
"It's his first outing as a presenter on a BBC NI series and you won't need to be a cyclist to enjoy it. Yes, although Smiley is a keen cyclist he didn't cover the full length and breadth of Northern Ireland but he certainly brings us to some breathtaking and interesting places and we get to meet some very fascinating people with great stories to tell with a lot of laughs guaranteed along the way with Michael. Maybe it might inspire some people to get on their bike!"