Ardal O'Hanlon: 'Playing Father Dougal was TV comedy heaven'
TV series often have a hard time getting off the ground, so what makes his new comedy After Hours different? Ardal O'Hanlon gives Keeley Bolger a hint at what's lying in store.
Awkward kisses, jittery first dates, fumbling attempts at romance, raging hormones and an overwhelming ambition to rebel against parents make teenagers a rich source of dramatic and funny material on television.
And the next sitcom to celebrate - and commiserate - the passage of youth, is new Sky1 sitcom After Hours, which stars John Thomson, Jaime Winstone and Ardal O'Hanlon.
Directed by Craig Cash, the six-part series follows 18-year-old music fan Willow Hannigan, played by upcoming actor James Tarpey, who stays put in his declining home town, Shankly, after his friends head off to uni.
With his dad Peter (O'Hanlon) out of work, and his love life in tatters after his girlfriend dumps him, Willow's only solace is local independent radio show After Hours, which is transmitted from a barge by Lauren (Winstone) and Ollie, played by The Syndicate's Rob Kendrick. Here, O'Hanlon shares his thoughts on the show, the state of UK comedy and his time in Father Ted.
Shankly is a fictional town but, as O'Hanlon explains, it's a familiar world: "After Hours is set in a typical northern England town, which is in decline, but there's a tremendous community spirit there still. People make the most of what they have."
That community spirit is tested when Peter loses his milk round, and mum Anna (Susan Cookson) treacherously eyes up a job at the new supermarket which has seen off the town's local industry.
Added to the drama, Peter's mate Geoff (Thomson) is kipping on the Hannigans' sofa following a fall-out with his wife Sheila, who is played by guest star - and Cash's old writing buddy - Caroline Aherne.
Widely known for his role as hilariously hapless Father Dougal McGuire in Irish comedy Father Ted, O'Hanlon is aware that means he is often associated with suchlike characters.
"Sometimes you're at the mercy of other people's perceptions," says the Co Monaghan-born actor.
"I go with the flow to some extent," adds the 50-year-old. "I have other careers in terms of stand-up, stage acting and writing, so I don't feel too hidebound by that, but I do quite like playing those warm roles.
"There's enough cynicism in my life and in the world at large, so it's escapism for me to play those gentler roles."
After two decades in the industry, O'Hanlon, who has also starred in My Hero, Skins and Nelly & Nora, knows just how tough it is for comedies to get commissioned these days.
"On the one hand, there is an awful lot of outlets now," explains the father-of-three. "There are lots of channels and lots of companies looking for content, as they say, but it's quite difficult to get things off the ground.
"I think Sky are innovators, in that they'll take a punt on things without pilots. I don't think something like After Hours would make it through the very many layers of BBC bureaucracy."
While Willow seeks solace in music, O'Hanlon, who grew up as the son of a politician, turned to comedy in his youth.
"I was quite young when my dad went into politics but, as it went on, I became self-conscious about it," explains the actor, who is "proud" of his dad, who also worked for many years as a GP. "I certainly wouldn't have drawn attention to it in any way, and particularly then, as I was doing stand-up, it became incompatible having a father in politics.
"That's when I went to London. It was the centre of gravity for stand-up comedy at the time. And certainly, one of the reasons I went, was that in a small country like Ireland, people would very quickly make the link between this stand-up comedian and this senior politician. It would have been very uncomfortable."
While the third and final series of Father Ted finished in 1998, the popularity of the hit comedy has endured.
"All my memories of Father Ted are very pleasant," says O'Hanlon. "It was an unexpected career twist for me. I was very much stand-up at the time, so to be plucked out of that and thrown into TV comedy - TV comedy heaven, it must be said - was just exhilarating. I loved every minute of it."
But he did find himself in an awkward position with his children's friends.
"I do remember when they were quite young, dropping them off at school and their friends would approach me with reverence and bow and kneel," O'Hanlon recalls, laughing, "which is only right and proper."
- After Hours begins on Sky1 on Monday, 9.30pm