Mervyn & Me
Published 16/12/2006 | 13:43
There we were, filming in our bowler hats and sashes, while all these bus loads of tourists we pulling up to see where Ballykissangel was filmed
What are you like in a relationship? are you a giver or a taker?
I'd like to think that I'm a giver, but I suspect that like most men I'm really a taker. I can be a giver when needs be - for example, if someone calls me at 4am needing help, then I'd be right over, but otherwise ...
Elish and I met in the theatre, when we were both in the Ulster Actors' Company. The production was The Queen's O'Neill. She was a costume designer and had made me this beautiful big cloak, with this big brushed wool collar. But when I tried on the cloak during a dress rehearsal, it cut the neck off me. It turned out there were still 24 pins in it as it wasn't finished, and so I went straight in to see Elish.
Around the same time the director suggested I also take on the role of acting stage manager. That was the traditional way to learn your craft as an actor in those days - and I'd say it was one of the best ways to do so. You'd get an insight into lighting, props, you name it, as well as roles on stage. Part of my duties was to drive Elish around, picking up costumes, going to tanneries to collect strips of leather, whatever, and that's how we first got to know one another.
We went out for two years, then married in early spring in 1981. Her being in the business has made everything a little easier. It can be tough on the family when you are away a lot, but Elish understands.
Still, I try not to take on long contracts because it's hard to run your life down a phone line.
One of the worst times was when I was starring in a play in Philadelphia, which we toured back to Ireland, at the same time as we were building a house in Holywood. I got back to Belfast for a few days, then had to go on to Cork and Dublin. I was away for 14 weeks in total.
Elish's best quality is probably that she can put up with me. She is also a very loyal person, to everyone in the family.
I'm always striving to be a better husband. I have that male trait of the one-track mind. I go off on something and forget about everyone else and what their needs and wants are.
Is there a touch of Big Mervyn in me? I think there's a bit of Big Mervyn in every fella. Certainly, years back I shared his innocence in the face of what everyone else knows to be true. But I'm fond of Big Mervyn. I'd worked with the Hole in the Wall lads since the early 80s, initially on the late night TV programme, The Show.
Then in 1997, when I had five different jobs on the go, I was offered the part of Big Mervyn. I remember flying home from filming a part in Manchester, then going on to Donegal, where I was playing a mad reverend in a film, then onto the Vale of Avoca, to meet the lads to film my first scenes for Give My Head Peace. For one of the other parts, I'd had to grow a moustache and a goatee, so they just kind of stuck with Big Mervyn.
There we were, filming in our bowler hats and sashes, while all these bus loads of tourists were pulling up to see where Ballykissangel was filmed.
Some critics have accused us of making fun of people, but I would say that we are laughing with people, not at people. Mind you, there was one incident that I found really hilarious. A few years back the BBC brought us in for a meeting and they had lawyers present. We were told that the Red Hand Commando had sent a warning that we were sullying its name, and they were also annoyed that we had got their name wrong - they stipulated that they were the 'Commando' and not 'Commandoes'.
You also get a lot of what I refer to as the 'brushed denims and desert boot liberal crowd' who insist they would never watch the show, and then proceed to quote every line of it back at you.
Elish has probably come to an appreciation of Big Mervyn relatively late. Recently, we wanted to buy a new chair, but it was rather expensive. So, she said to the salesman: "Do you know who that chair is for? It's for Big Mervyn." After that, we clinched a deal.
ONLY CHILD OR ONE OF A CROWD?
I have an older sister, Aileen, and then there's myself and my twin, Rosemary.
In later years I've certainly become closer to Rosemary. When it comes to, say, texting, we've had the occasional deja vu experience, where she has sent me a message just as I'm about to send her the exact same one, or vice versa.
When we lost our mother in 1989 that brought everyone closer and, then, dad's death this year had a similar effect. Even though I was 50, I remember thinking 'I'm an orphan'. Suddenly you realise you are on your tod. And since dad's death Rosemary and I would send each other texts when we're feeling low.
Rosemary and I went to the same primary school, Brownlee, in Lisburn, but afterwards she went on to a girls' school and I went to a boys' school. Educationally, we met up briefly again when we both studied at Lisburn Tech - I was training to be a chef. I went on to the College of Business Studies and then to a hotel school in Switzerland. When I came back here I knew how to thicken a game sauce with blood and egg yolk, but none of the hotels in Northern Ireland was interested in that kind of cooking at that time.
Worse, so many places were getting blown up. I was working at the Conway hotel in Dunmurry when bombers came in and told us all to lie on the floor. After we knew they'd gone we ran out, only to be grabbed by these Army guys and thrown to the ground as the place went up. It turned out the soldiers had spotted the bombers leaving and rushed to help. I then worked for Harry Toner's restaurant at Knocknagoney, but after it was targeted with a milk churn bomb at the back of the kitchen, I decided catering was too dangerous. I had a Musicians' Union card, so I spent the next four years playing with showbands up and down Ireland. I then took a job at Belfast's Arts Theatre, where the director told me I would have to decide whether I wanted to work backstage or be an actor. But he had only offered me small parts in the next three plays so I went to the Lyric for an impromptu audition and was offered a decent part. I've been working as an actor ever since.
ARE YOU CLOSER TO YOUR MUM OR DAD?
I was pretty close to my mum, who ran a sweet shop. She was diagnosed with cancer, then got two years' remission, then it returned and she died within a few weeks - at 5pm on September 7, 1989. But before she died she asked us to make sure we looked after dad. I became close to him, too.
Dad died in August this year. He was a great character. He had a little black book that he kept contact details in, and if he wanted a shirt, then he went to a certain shop in Portadown and if he wanted a tweed jacket, he went to Donegal. He worked as a plater in Harland and Wolff shipyard, marking out the steel sheets for the bulk heads - pretty impressive work. In the 1930s, as an indentured man - his father had to pay the yard to train him - he had made his own tools. We're currently building a house and I've been using some of those, which is nice.
I grew up in Lisburn, but spent most of my summers walking out to Ballymacash where my maternal grandparents lived. I was never a city bird and preferred the country. I'd have gone to Belfast to play in the dance halls and then used my golden gains to do other things, like scuba dive. I once spent a summer working as a salvage diver. I'd keep two flasks in the boat - one full of hot tomato soup and the other full of hot water. When I came up, I'd take a mouthful of soup and get someone to pour some hot water down the back of my suit to warm me up.
My parents were proud of my work and my dad definitely liked the character of Mervyn. They were happy I had trained as a chef - it's the Ulster Prod work ethic of getting a trade behind you - but after I'd that under my belt they didn't mind if I acted. Basically, they were happy as long as I was happy.
WHAT ARE YOU MOST PROUD OF?
My kids and my wife, and the fact that I'm still in the family home, that I've been let stay.
Also, the fact that I have not done anyone any harm - and that I have raised a smile.
WHAT ARE YOU MOST ASHAMED OF?
That's such a strong word, and I don't think there is anything I have done that merits that. If I did feel ashamed of something, then I'd try and do something about it.
Er, there is one thing, though. As a child in the Sixties I remember hearing that the Queen was coming to Lisburn, and I stole a wee periscope from Woolies so that I would be able to see her better. My mum had refused to buy it because she couldn't take us to see the Queen herself and she said if I went on my own someone would only take the periscope off me. But she was raging when she found out I'd stolen one and marched me straight back to the store, where I had to apologise to the manager. It was that classic scene of a gurning child being dragged along by his mother, then afterwards she spit on her hankie and wiped away my tears. And, no, I never stole anything after that.
HAVE YOU EVER BEEN TO A FORTUNE-TELLER?
No, but my wife has gone to them and had plenty of weird experiences. She's been given information which has turned out to be true.
Do I believe in it? I believe there is too much energy in millions of people's brains and auras for it just to dissipate. I'm also a great believer in random logic and the chaos theory - all we have to do is to stand further back to see what is really happening. It's like looking at an ant farm. It just looks like hundreds of ants, but then if you use a microscope you can see all these ants carrying out individual tasks. The energy started with life does not go away, it comes back and we see it in other things. Some people see it more than others. I don't believe in literal white ghost figures, but I do think there is energy from the deceased, as well as other random energy on the planet.
HAVE YOU EVER BEEN TO A LAPDANCING CLUB?
Yes, in America and in Limerick - oh, I haven't told my wife about the time in Limerick, so I'll have to explain that one to her now.
When I was on stage in Philadelphia in 1993/94, we used to go to lapdancing clubs because you could get cheap beer there - the idea was that you would then spend money on the girls, though we never did.
Then, in Limerick, one of the young guys in the cast was celebrating his birthday so we decided to treat him. But it wasn't a very nice place - there were shady-looking characters on the door and so we made a quick getaway.
HAVE YOU ANY PHOBIAS?
I'm a picture straightener. Nor do I like cobwebs - spiders are dead meat if I see them.
I'm also not great on heights, although I have no fear of flying. In fact, I learned to fly Chipmunks with the RAF Cadet Force in the late Sixties and I also parachuted from a de Havilland. I'd joined the Cadets because at one time I thought of becoming an Army musician, but then I underwent a skin test and nervous asthma was diagnosed, so that was the end of that.
DO YOU TIP IN RESTAURANTS?
Yes, because I worked in the service industry. I remember spending two days at the Conway hotel on this ham and aspic 3D creation. I set in on a mirror, surrounded with elaborate icework and before anyone got a chance to admire it some big drunk hallion from a Rotary club stuck his hand into it.
If you can't afford to leave a tip, you shouldn't go into a restaurant. I know how hard those people work.
DO YOU BELIEVE IN GOD?
Oh yes, absolutely. He is numero uno. I have a problem with man getting in the road and making up churches. I'm an old Lutheran - "there is nothing between the top of my head and God but sky".
What sort of church it is doesn't bother me - though I was brought up Church of Ireland, I have sung at more chapel weddings than I've had hot dinners. Ours is a mixed marriage - Elish is a Catholic - but it has never caused a problem between us or our families. Once, years back, when we were living in east Belfast, someone heard Elish's accent - she was born in Co Roscommon - and daubed something on our door. But we got that sorted out with the help of the police and locals.
We later moved to Holywood for a while, but that was because we wanted our children to go to the Rudolf Steiner school.
I'm not a regular churchgoer - I'm away travelling so much that it's not easy to do anything on a regular basis. But when I'm on the road I'd often go and sit in a church - again, I don't care what denomination it is, I just find it very peaceful.
QUICK DEATH OR TIME TO PREPARE?
Quick death. I had an uncle, who at a New Year party, left the room to get ginger ale to put in some brandies. As he bent down to get the ales out of the cupboard, he had a massive stroke and hit the floor. The doctor said it was like a light going out and that he would not have known a thing about it. I think that sounds perfect.
REGRETS ... HAVE YOU HAD A FEW?
Who hasn't? I'm a biggish fellow and I wish I had been slimmer.
I also regret that I'm not better travelled. Every child in this country should get a visit to another country, just so they realise we don't live in that bad a part of the world.
Recently, I was shooting a movie, Jungle Book II in Sri Lanka with my mate Hal Fowler, who is married to Kim Wilde. We were dressed up as a British captain and a colonel in the last days of the Raj, and we were walking along, watched by young people who were begging at the side of the road. They didn't need food, but they needed money to pay for school classes or eye operations. That's a kind of poverty that you'd think wouldn't exist in the world in this day and age.
BJ Hogg stars in the Give My Head Peace Christmas Special: The McGlinchey Code, Friday, December 22, BBC ONE NI, 9pm