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BJ Hogg was a supreme actor, a wonderful friend and a man who lived for his family... pals pay tribute

He was best known as Big Mervyn in Give My Head Peace, but BJ Hogg was also a hugely versatile TV, stage and screen actor. Fellow performers tell Ivan Little about life with him both on stage and off

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Actor BJ Hogg, star of Give My Head Peace

Actor BJ Hogg, star of Give My Head Peace

WILLIAM CHERRY/PRESS EYE

The  cast of Give My Head Peace

The cast of Give My Head Peace

Actor BJ Hogg with Marty Reid as his sidekick Uncle Andy

Actor BJ Hogg with Marty Reid as his sidekick Uncle Andy

Actor BJ Hogg, star of Give My Head Peace

For the team from the Give My Head Peace TV 'family', so used to making the public laugh, yesterday the mood was strikingly sombre as they struggled to get their collective heads around the sudden death of one of their closest friends, the giant of a talent that was BJ Hogg.

The Hole in the Wall Gang who created the immensely popular BBC NI TV comedy were trying to come to terms with the sad reality that the passing of the Big Man with the big heart would leave a hole in their professional and personal lives that they could never fill.

The sorrow of the people who knew BJ best was shared by thousands of people who didn't know him at all but thought they did ... the TV viewers who loved his larger than life - and dopier than most - character, Big Mervyn, through 20 years of Give My Head Peace (GMHP) on television and in theatres.

Trying to count the social media messages of stunned sympathy after the announcement of his death - on his 65th birthday on Thursday - was impossible, and among the stream of words about BJ there wasn't a bad one.

But, of course, nowhere was BJ's loss felt more keenly than in the bosom of his family: his wife Elish; two children, Nathan and Abigail; and grandchild Georgia.

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The  cast of Give My Head Peace

The cast of Give My Head Peace

The cast of Give My Head Peace

Yet amid the tears for the towering professional, BJ's friends couldn't resist the occasional smile as they wandered down the memory lane of their reminisces about the Lisburn man who approached his comedy just as seriously as the way he tackled the straight and often thought-provoking roles at which he excelled.

One of the creators of GMHP, Tim McGarry, said BJ - his full name was William Henry Brian Hogg - had been an invaluable member of the show's team who had brought his experience and expertise to the series, and he added that his character Big Mervyn was hugely popular with audiences across Northern Ireland even though he was in essence a sectarian bigot.

Tim said he had been talking to BJ's wife Elish yesterday and his loved ones were "devastated".

He also said it was too early to think about how the GMHP writers would deal with the loss of BJ after the comedy show returns.

Tim continued: "That's for another day. We're all obviously in shock but it's been nice to think back on BJ's funniest moments in GMHP as Elvis or as the last Orangeman to walk down the Garvaghy Road in Portadown in record quick time - 15.2 seconds."

And even though BJ was and will forever be Big Mervyn in the minds of most people in Northern Ireland, one of his GMHP co-stars, Olivia Nash, said she hoped his "incredible" performances in serious plays, films and TV series would also be recognised and remembered.

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Actor BJ Hogg with Marty Reid as his sidekick Uncle Andy

Actor BJ Hogg with Marty Reid as his sidekick Uncle Andy

Actor BJ Hogg with Marty Reid as his sidekick Uncle Andy

"I think some people have no idea just how marvellous an actor he was," she said. "He had a beautiful sensitivity and he was amazing in The Fall, for example. It didn't matter if he was Big Mervyn or Othello, he would have given both parts 100%.

"He was also a wonderful friend who was always looking out for others. He also used to give magnificent hugs and you could have trusted him with your innermost secrets."

BJ was also a gifted musician who could play a range of instruments and he had sung and danced in shows dating back to his early days in the Arts Theatre, Belfast.

Paddy Jenkins, who played Pastor Begbie in GMHP, was in awe of BJ as an actor and as a man. "I had the best time ever with him," he said. "I last saw him in Derry before the coronavirus lockdown on the final night of our aborted tour of Northern Ireland. And he was in great form.

In America he was a hoot after the authorities wouldn't allow him to fire blanks from a musket on stage Paddy Jenkins

"He was a supreme actor who had so many levels to him. We were in the Bobby Sands movie Hunger together and his portrayal of a loyalist orderly in the Maze was terrifyingly ice-cold and brilliant.

"On stage, BJ liked everyone to get their lines right but he enjoyed a practical joke, too.

"BJ and I had toured the US and Holland together with the Ulster Scots musical On Eagle's Wing some years ago.

"In America he was a hoot after the authorities wouldn't allow him to fire blanks from a musket on stage.

"BJ told them to catch themselves on because thousands of people were running around the States with real guns."

In Holland, BJ and Paddy spent two months sharing a tiny log cabin and having to sit together on a tour bus. Paddy said: "We were like the Odd Couple living in each other's pockets and at times we were doing each other's heads in. We were both looking forward to coming home. But then that Icelandic volcano stranded us with its ash clouds."

Even so, their friendship survived.

Paddy said: "Brian would have done anything for anyone. And he lived for his family. He was always talking about them."

Dan Gordon, who played Big Mervyn's sidekick Red Hand Luke in GMHP, said BJ would be sorely missed by him and the rest of the cast as well as by the public.

Dan recalled how he and BJ first met on the set of Four Days In July, a 1984 Troubles TV drama in Belfast directed by the acclaimed Englishman Mike Leigh and which also starred Stephen Rea and Coronation Street veteran Charlie Lawson.

Dan and BJ were also in a large number of plays together at the Lyric Theatre and in a TV sitcom, Foreign Bodies.

"He was the kindest soul," said Dan, who remembered how BJ worked long hours as a taxi driver to supplement his earnings from the theatre. "He loved people, which made him a shoo-in as a taxi man because he had all the chat. And he knew Belfast like the back of his hand."

Dan recalled how there were fears for BJ's life after he fell seriously ill several years ago. "I went to the hospital but they wouldn't let me in to visit him because he was in such a critical condition. But thankfully he recovered."

Charlie Lawson said BJ Hogg was a gifted actor and a "dear friend". He added: "We hit it off the first time we met in 1984. We enjoyed each other's company very much and we rarely talked about the business. The conversation was usually about building houses or about cattle.

"Every time I was in Belfast we got together for a few jars and I worked with him on a TV series, My Mother And Other Strangers, a couple of years back. He had been through that serious illness and I sensed that he knew how lucky he had been and he was looking on every day as precious and that life was to be cherished.

"The last time I saw him was in February in the Duke of York pub in Belfast and he bought us a bottle of champagne and gave us a huge hug. It wasn't in any shape or form like a goodbye and he later sent me a video of his new home.

"He invited me over to see the house this month but everything changed with coronavirus and tragically he's now gone.

"He was one of life's good souls. He was a human being who did a bit of acting."

Belfast Telegraph