Give My Head Peace's Olivia Nash: 'It's fantastic to be back on. Somehow we've never gone out of fashion, we give each side an equal rub and it's still topical'
Starring in a new series of Give My Head Peace as the legendary Ma, Olivia Nash (75) is as busy as ever. She tells Una Brankin how she coped after the tragically early death of her beloved husband, Bill, and what it was like working with acting greats such as Sir Richard Attenborough and Shirley Maclaine.
Ma's back home - after being stuck in snow-clogged one-lane traffic for a good part of the day. But she's not speaking to me from 47a Divis Towers, the famous pokey abode from the long-running sitcom, Give My Head Peace.
The actress Olivia Nash, who portrays the locally iconic matriarch, is curled up in her luxurious new apartment in her hometown of Larne, where she has lived since her birth in 1942.
A fast-talking mini-whirlwind, she has spent the morning in Downpatrick and will head out again later to record the third instalment of the current Give My Head Peace mini-series, playing Da's sharp-tongued, dim-witted wife.
"I hope I'm not anything like Ma but she's not as daft as she looks," the diminutive 75-year-old laughs. "She does care about her family in her own wicked way; about Da, too.
"I'm definitely not into her fashion! All those chains 'round her neck - they come from one night I was out having a meal and saw this lovely little lady sitting with a real medallion man, the colour of a Bisto tin, and she had all these necklaces graduated from her throat right down past her chest, and I thought that's a good look for Ma.
"It really is fantastic to be back on - I hope people enjoy it. Somehow, we've never gone out of fashion. We give each side an equal rub and it's still topical."
The voice down the line, though unmistakeable, is not quite as broad as Ma's, whose fictional background diverges from that of the actress in several respects. The daughter of a former navy man and widely travelled chef, Olivia grew up in a large, four-storey house and went to boarding school in Ballymena where she was encouraged to act in lavish productions by the nuns of the French order of St Louis.
And whereas Ma is a wee Belfast woman through and through, Olivia loves Larne and is adamant she'll never budge from it. A widow, she lived in her family home with her mother, Patricia, over the last three decades, only moving out after Patricia's death in 2016.
"Mummy had to go into a home for six months but to the day she died, at 98, she was as bright as a button," she says. "She loved Give My Head Peace. At first, she was 'Oh my God!', but I'd been an actress for a very long time - I came up through amateur dramatics and she was used to seeing me on the stage.
"She was always very proud of me and my sister, Mel, who's a lovely singer, but she wouldn't praise you too much. You'd be waiting for her reaction to whatever it was, and she'd say something like, 'Olivia, you know what you did on stage there, did you really need to do that?'"
She giggles. "Mummy was always afraid of you getting above yourself. It hurt, but she was just being a mother-hen."
The Ma character first emerged in 1991, as part of a series of A Perforated Ulster, by the Hole In The Wall Gang, on BBC Radio Ulster. Olivia had thrown herself into work in the late 1980s, following the sudden death of her husband, Bill Marcus, within six months of the death of her father, from cancer.
Bill was a set manager and director, who worked extensively in festivals throughout Ireland. The (Protestant) Marcus and (Catholic) Nash families both had deep roots in Larne, and had known each other for many years.
"We were a mixed marriage but a very happy one," Olivia recalls. And my in-laws were the most wonderful people in the world, they really were.
"I was very lucky in that way, and Bill was lovely. He was very much a backstage man. He and our daughter, Patricia, were unbelievably close. Usually Bill would stay in to mind her while I was on stage at night, but the night he died, the Irish Tenors were on and he wanted to see them, so he came out with me."
Ten years previously, Bill had suffered a heart attack but recovered. His death, from an aneurysm, came without warning.
"After the show we went to our friends' house and everything was normal," Olivia explains. "Then we came home and he dropped dead in the bathroom. I was in the bedroom.
"I was heartbroken. We were very happy ... he was my soulmate. He could see through me, and vice versa. But when I think about it, there are people who have to go through years of suffering before they die and the families have a very difficult time.
"We didn't have that, and I do believe I will see Bill again. I have a strong faith. It's been battered a bit, but I still believe there's something more to life."
Patricia was only 10 at the time of her father's death, and as Olivia's mother was on her own, she decided to move back in with her. The three of them grieved together, Patricia minding her granddaughter while Olivia went out to work for Health and Social Services by day, and for the Group Theatre at night.
Slowly, Olivia fell back into the busy rhythm of her life. Only 38 when she lost Bill, re-marriage wasn't out of the question, she remarks, but it wasn't to be.
"It's not that I never considered it - no one ever asked me!" she says, laughing again. "I'm not one of these people who say their husband can never be replaced; I don't hold with that, but we did have a fantastically happy marriage.
"I do believe you can meet someone else after a break-up or a death and be happy. It just didn't happen for me."
A keen supporter of integrated education, Olivia was awarded the MBE for her services to drama and charity in Northern Ireland in the 2006 Queen's New Year Honours List. It's an honour she could never have dreamt of as a young actress starting off, as a member of James Young's Group Theatre company in the 1960s.
She appeared in the farces Up the Long Ladder in 1967 and The Cat and the Fiddle in 1970, sharpening her comic timing. But it was an advertisement for Spar, in which she uttered the immortal line "Fred, there's no bread", which propelled the actress to the wider public's attention.
And in 1998, when the Hole In The Wall Gang launched Give My Head Peace, few could imagine anyone other than Olivia in the role as Ma. (Her salary for the first series of Give My Head Peace in 1998 was reported to be £5,000 per episode.) Deeply involved with the show's conception, Olivia was responsible for the title, explaining it was something she regularly said to her family.
"It was terrific; a lot of people recognised me after the Spar ad and ever since Give My Head Peace, there's not a day that goes past that somebody doesn't mention it. People are very kind when they come up to me on the street. The only thing I can't stand is bad manners, but 99% of people are wonderful.
"I'll never forget this woman coming up and saying, 'You don't know me but I've always watched the show and it got me through a very bad time a couple of years ago'.
"That was lovely. The rest of the cast get that too. It's a big responsibility. There's a lot of loneliness about."
Her own mother's loneliness, after the death of her father, was another good reason to move back home after Bill died.
"Mummy was very lonely in her big house and I knew Patricia would be well cared for when I was out working," she continues. "Mummy loved her home and she was very house proud, and family-orientated.
"She was small like me but gorgeous and slim, and dressed beautifully. She wasn't really extravagant but she took good care of her clothes. She and Patricia were very close."
Now a teacher living in Belfast, Patricia has given Olivia three cherished grandchildren: Gabriel (19), Davy (17) and Livvie (14), who phones her grandmother mid-interview. The actress also thinks of her fellow Give My Head Peace cast members as family, having been part of each other's lives for three decades: "I'll say to Dympna's mum, Ali, 'sure I half reared her!'," she giggles.
It follows that there was a large worried circle around Olivia when she started to suffer from severe, debilitating headaches 10 years ago.
"I had a dreadful pain in my head - I didn't know what it was at first," she says. "It turned out to be iritis (an inflammation of the iris of the eye which causes pain, blurred vision and problems with balance). It cleared up fine, but I never regained my balance properly. I don't fall about but it's not very good.
"It doesn't stop me, though," she adds. "Take today, I was working in Downpatrick this morning; now I'm talking to you and tonight I'm recording the show.
"And I do still swim - it's my only sporting activity and I'm always using the excuse I've no time to do more of it. But I'm very active in my mind!
"I enjoy everything I do and I have good energy. It's in the genes - mummy would never wait for a lift - I'd be going to get the keys of the car to bring her somewhere and she'd be halfway up the road!"
She breaks into the giggles again, and it's with reluctance that our chat must come to an end, with a reflection on her hopes for the future. Unsurprisingly, Hollywood fame isn't on her list, although she admits being thrilled to land a small part in Sir Richard Attenborough's Closing The Ring (2007), which was filmed partly in Belfast.
She recalls her co-star Shirley Maclaine as "quite eccentric - she had all these facial expressions, with the big eyes, and she come out with things like, 'Oh my God, it's Tuesday!'. I liked her.
"And I never expected to meet Sir Richard but he was there in person, for my scene," she adds. "He was a very huggy person, like me, and he'd keep jumping up from his chair and coming over to give me a hug, probably because I'm so small and there was very few women he could hug smaller than him!"
Her dearest wish for the year ahead and beyond, is a familiar one.
"Health and happiness for my family and friends, and to able to work as long as I'm able - or until they put me out to graze," she concludes. "Luckily, I'm able to keep up with the pace."
The next programme in the three-part Give My Head Peace series will be broadcast on Friday, BBC One Northern Ireland, at 10.35pm. Filmed on location and in front of a live studio audience in the BBC's Blackstaff studios in Belfast, the series features guest appearances from some well-known local faces, including Donna Traynor, Stephen Watson and William Crawley