"I want to put a smile on the face of TV in Northern Ireland"
Seven years after Give My Head Peace ended, BBC One NI presents Number 2s, a fresh and funny take on political life in Stormont. Writer and producer Damon Quinn tells how he is hoping to make local audiences laugh again
I love this quote from Jack Lemmon, a supremely gifted actor who could do both drama and comedy and make the two look easy: "It's hard enough to write a good drama, it's much harder to write a good comedy, and it's hardest of all to write a drama with comedy. Which is what life is." And it's great advice for writers as well.
That said, when we sat down to write Number 2s, our new sitcom set in the heart of Stormont, the comedy seemed to come fairly easily. As we all know, sometimes reality can be more hilarious than anything you could ever make up. I've often joked to BBC journalists that sometimes it's they who get the funnier material!
Early on, I suppose we thought Number 2s should be somewhere between Yes Minister and The Thick Of It - done, of course, in our unique Northern Ireland style.
It's one of those ideas that you just know is a good idea and hope you can bring to life successfully. Here in Northern Ireland our political animals could be said to be funnier than political animals elsewhere in the world. Yes, they can annoy and frustrate us. Yes, they can even make us angry - but they can also occasionally make us laugh.
So, armed with the perfect setting for our situation comedy, we set about bringing this brand of comedy back to local audiences.
Since Give My Head Peace ended back in 2007, it would be fair to say our television work for BBC Northern Ireland has taken a gigantic step away from the comedy genre. Myself and co-writers Michael McDowell and Tim McGarry decided to use our backgrounds in law to write, direct and produce factual and courtroom dramas, which have been a world away from the antics of Ma, Da, Cal, Uncle Andy and Billy.
Our first of these was Scapegoat five years ago in 2009. This period drama looked in to the real-life events of the 1952 murder of Patricia Curran, the daughter of a high court judge, and the subsequent investigation into the murder. In Brendan Smyth - A Betrayal of Trust, broadcast in 2011, we told the true story of one family's struggle for justice in the wake of abuse at the hands of the convicted paedophile priest, Father Brendan Smyth. And in 2012, to commemorate the centenary of the Titanic, SOS - The Titanic Inquiry was a courtroom-based drama around the Westminster Inquiry into the sinking of the iconic ship.
Each of these projects was immensely rewarding and it was both challenging and refreshing to work on something different. But comedy has always been at the heart of the Hole In The Wall Gang and we never let it go completely.
On BBC Radio Ulster, we have reprised some of the classic Give My Head Peace characters (who made their debut on Talkback in the early 1990s) in the series A Perforated Ulster, which has now enjoyed a couple of series and gone down well with audiences.
It was also on BBC Radio Ulster early last year that we first piloted Number 2s. It was then picked up as a radio comedy series and broadcast earlier in the summer of 2014. Again, the positive response from the studio audience and listeners gave us some indication that we were on to something special.
We believed in our scripts, we believed in our characters and we loved the team of actors who brought them to life. When we received the news that Number 2s had been commissioned to be the first television sitcom by BBC Northern Ireland since Give My Head Peace, it was exhilarating to see that others believed in it as much as we do.
The 'Number 2s' referred to in the programme's title are the civil servants who have to work with our imaginary Stormont ministers. They are told they are called 'Number 2s' because next to the ministers they are number two in the department to the ministers' number ones. And, of course, it's fair to say the real reason is that they get all the cr*p of the day dumped on them.
Our Number 2s are two bright young things called Ricky and Sinead. They work in the fictional Department For Equality Proofing, Cross Community Co-Operation and Implementation of Shared Future Strategies - or DFEPCCCOAIOSFS for short.
Their two co-equal ministers are Mr McCoubrey of the DUP and Mr O'Hare of Sinn Fein. McCoubrey and O'Hare are two larger-than-life personalities who together share the Seven Deadly Sins. Ricky and Sinead spend most of their efforts trying to save their ministers from themselves. All this happens under the watchful eyes of their horrible boss, Tony Hunt, the Permanent Secretary. Although he has the top job, Hunt has a huge chip on his shoulder. He failed his 11-Plus. It scarred him for life and he hates Ricky because he passed.
With Number 2s we have tried to mix great political satire and acerbic wit with some sexual tension, local politics, office politics and unresolved childhood issues. Add to that storylines including 'edukation', 'On The Runs' and 'cuts' and we feel Number 2s is now more than ready for the small screen.
And it is great to be back on BBC One Northern Ireland doing a sitcom again even if this time we're not actually in it. This time around we've got good looking people for audiences to look at. We've kept the same cast we used for the radio series and none of them has a face that just belongs on radio.
With Number 2s we're introducing two promising up-and-coming talents, Sophie Harkness and Michael Condron, who play our Number 2s Sinead and Ricky, respectively.
For our two Ministers and Tony Hunt we've gone for some polished Northern Ireland acting talent. We didn't even audition for these parts. We knew who we wanted and luckily they were available and up for the challenge. For Tony Hunt we have Patrick FitzSymons. He's good at playing bosses - he played King George V in the First World War drama 37 Days and did the late King proud.
Playing Minister McCoubrey is Game Of Thrones actor Ian Beattie. Ian is a very versatile actor. Indeed, we've worked with Ian before when he played Father Brendan Smyth in Brendan Smith - A Betrayal Of Trust.
Completing the line-up is my old school friend Marty Maguire, who plays Minister O'Hare. Marty, who was last seen in The Fall, is a brilliant comedy actor - and I've been saying that since we were 12!
It may have been seven years since Give My Head Peace ended but when we returned to Studio A at BBC Blackstaff it seemed like yesterday. Yes, it's a completely different show with a new set and a new cast of actors but there are more than a few familiar faces amongst the crew. There was a real buzz about the place when we got together to record the first episode and that hasn't wavered as we continue filming. We are back working with designers, costume, make-up, production and technical crew, many of whom had worked with us on Give My Head Peace. They are so enthusiastic about doing our own locally-produced sitcom again that the atmosphere on set is infectious.
But the real test will always be with the audience. I believe there is a really big appetite among our TV audience for our own locally-made comedy that is of here and about here. This is what we tapped into with Give My Head Peace and wanted to do again with Number 2s. But while our audiences have tremendous goodwill for domestic comedy product, the same rules apply as with any comedy - it has to be funny.
This is why comedy is so much more difficult to write than drama - because it is so instantly subjective in front of a live audience. There is nowhere to hide if the laughs just don't come. There are no arty farty excuses to be made. No point saying that they just don't get it. If they don't get it, it probably means that it's not funny. In the old days we wrote and performed our own material to the instant judgement of that live audience. In many ways this was a self-protection thing. We only trusted ourselves to do it and we were "proved right" when we got those laughs.
But here we are years on with a new show and cast and the difference is that this is a show we have written and produced with our chosen cast. It's not everyone who can write comedy but it's also true that not every actor is good at comedy. I believe the cast of Number 2s are all good at comedy. They are so into their characters and clearly enjoying it. We knew ribs were tickled at the radio performances, but TV is different - as is every script we write.
We have a couple of the television recordings in the bag now and in the studio the atmosphere really builds when the audience come in. They are the real judges. As the audience gathered for the first recording of Number 2s there was that electricity and sense of anticipation in the air you only get with a live recording. It's like the first night of our stage show. You can't tell what's going to happen until the first lines go out.
Everyone behind the scenes and on the studio floor is busy doing their job. Everyone is good to go. The actors are nervous but that's as it should be. One of them is sitting with his head in his hands. "I don't know why I do this … I don't know why I do this," he keeps muttering to himself. Of course, I know why he does it - because he's blooming good at it!
But of course we, the writers, are nervous too. We want to see if our new show is going to work for TV. We know better than to just rest on our laurels and expect the audience to laugh. We wait with anticipation. The titles roll. We are quickly into the first scene. The laughs break out in the audience and we know that, perhaps unlike the fractured assembly up at Stormont, this show might just work after all.
Maybe, like Jack Lemmon, there's a chance we can do both comedy and drama. And if the audiences agree, maybe that will stop us from turning into Grumpy Old Men.
Now meet the show's main characters ...
Ricky, who is played by Michael Condron, is a well-educated man in his early 30s who is a senior civil servant in the Department for Equality Proofing Cross Community Cohesion and the Implementation of Shared Future Strategies. He's a nice lad from Bangor who ends up being the 'Number 2' civil servant to Sinn Fein's Minister O'Hare. Ricky is a cynical and frustrated man stuck in Stormont working for people whom he doesn't respect or even like. Though he does have a very soft spot for his new colleague Sinead.
Michael Condron was born in Toronto and is now based between Belfast and London. Michael has performed around the world, from Belfast to Broadway, and also currently filming for the next season of Game Of Thrones.
Sinead, who is played by Sophie Harkness, is new to the DFEPCCCISFS. She's on the same grade as Ricky and is bright and optimistic. She thinks working in Stormont will help bring about a better Northern Ireland. Sinead learns very quickly how to cope with Stormont's petty politics and how to manipulate her Minister, Mr McCoubrey of the DUP. She can cope with McCoubrey ok but can she cope with Ricky's rather clumsy advances?
As well as her role in Number 2s, Sophie has also acted in CBBC's The Sparticle Mystery, the film X-Moor and the short film The Morrigan.
McCoubrey, played by Ian Beattie, is the DUP's Minister in the DFEPCCCISFS and co-equal with O'Hare. McCoubrey is not a happy man at the best of times and even less so now that his wife has left him for a Gaelic player from Tyrone. Plus his new Number 2 civil servant is called Sinead. His default mode is "uptight'. When he's not fighting with O'Hare, McCoubrey enjoys building model aeroplanes and hoping to find Mrs Right.
Ian will be familiar to fans of Game of Thrones for his role as Ser Meryn Trant, a knight of the Kingsguard. He also starred in the recent prison drama Starred Up and played Antigonous in Oliver Stone's Alexander. He last worked with the Hole In The Wall Gang playing convicted paedophile priest Brendan Smyth in the drama Brendan Smyth - A Betrayal of Trust.
O'Hare, played by Marty Maguire, is Sinn Fein's Minister in the DFEPCCCISFS. If Equality is Sinn Fein's Trojan horse and O'Hare is inside the horse, unionists have nothing to worry about. O'Hare always toes the Sinn Fein party line, unless it suits him not to and unless there is an attractive woman involved. He has his constituency office in a west Belfast drinking den called Chucky Ar Bar and enjoys summonsing Ricky to hand out orders.
After starting his acting career with the Ulster Youth Theatre in 1985, Marty Maguire moved to the United States, where he worked for 20 years. Film and television credits include The Fall, Vikings and Pulling Moves.
Mr Hunt is played by Patrick FitzSymons and is a typical horrible boss. He is rude, overbearing, unreasonable and demanding … on a good day. As if that wasn't bad enough he also has a chip on his shoulder. A very, very large chip. Hunt failed his 11-Plus by half a mark more than 40 years ago but still hasn't got over it and never will. He didn't get to go to Bangor Grammar school, like Ricky did.
Patrick has appeared in numerous radio dramas and was a Gold Medal Winner at the NYC International Radio Drama Festival. He has also played King George V in the recent BBC Two drama 37 Days and has also appeared in The Fall and forthcoming films High Rise and Halo: Nightfall.
The comedy series that became one of Northern Ireland's best-loved shows
Give My Head Peace was a satirical BBC NI comedy that poked fun at Northern Ireland's politicians and paramilitaries. It was the brainchild of three Belfast men who all had backgrounds in law: Tim McGarry, Damon Quinn and Michael McDowell, also known as the Hole in the Wall Gang. The men also played central characters in the show.
The show first ran as a slot on Radio Ulster's Across The Line before developing into a pilot TV film, Two Ceasefires and a Wedding. The storyline was based on Northern Ireland's clichéd 'love across the barricades' theme, the basis for several books and dramas.
The series starred McGarry as Sinn Fein man Da, Quinn as Da's son Cal, Marty Reid as loyalist Uncle Andy, McDowell as Uncle Andy's nephew Billy, Nuala McKeever as Emer, who marries Billy, and Alexandra Ford, as Dympna, who replaces Emer as Billy's girlfriend.
The series ran until December 2007, although the team has performed live shows at venues across Northern Ireland. They have also diversified since, writing a number of serious dramas for TV, including Scapegoat and SOS - The Titanic Inquiry.
The phrase Give My Head Peace is a Northern Irish saying which means 'stop annoying me'.
- The new six-part series of Number 2s starts on BBC One NI on Monday, January 12 at 10.35pm