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Jason Manford on his love affair with Northern Ireland and sending his parents on a weekend break here

As the comedian prepares for a theatre appearance in Belfast, he tells David O'Dornan about encounters with fans here and the vital role he believes comedy has today

Jason Manford
Jason Manford

By David O'Dornan

He does everything from stand-up comedy to presenting TV shows and from stage shows to sitcoms, but Jason Manford could add another string to his bow as a tourism ambassador for Northern Ireland.

The Salford-born star has revealed an ongoing love affair with Ulster that has seen him make the most of his visits here and even bought his parents a weekend trip to Belfast because he loves the place so much.

He says: "I've got to say, the times I've come over, not just in my stand-up, the times I've come over to do shows, the people - more than anywhere else - have been so welcoming. Not just on the night but just in the street.

"I remember me and Phill Jupitus were here for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and walking around and people coming over and saying, 'Thanks for bringing the show here' - that was just really lovely, really nice.

Jason Manford stars in Curtains at the Grand Opera House in Belfast later this month
Jason Manford stars in Curtains at the Grand Opera House in Belfast later this month

"I remember coming in the late Nineties, early Noughties to play the Belfast Empire and the comedy clubs and you were nervous naturally, like you would be anywhere, and then what you actually ended up doing was you'd have your best gig.

"It was like you were a treat, just hearing somebody different, with a different accent and talking about different things.

"You know, just coming over and talking about the funny things in your family rather than some of the stuff that people have had to deal with over the last however many years. It was always exciting."

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The 38-year-old father-of-five will be back in Belfast next month to star in Curtains at the Grand Opera House and said he always makes the most of his trips on tour here to get out and about and take in the sights and attractions.

He says: "I must say that's one of the brilliant things about doing a musical rather than doing stand-up - with stand-up you do the theatre or the arena one or two nights and then you head somewhere else, but when you're coming for a week it's great, you can get stuck in to do other things.

"I remember when we did Chitty Chitty Bang Bang we went and did the full Game of Thrones tour and went on a coach trip, we did all that.

"When I was on Producers we had a couple of Americans - you know what Americans are like, pretending they're Irish, so they wanted to do the full tour of the Troubles hotspots. We did that with a black cab driver and he took us around.

"And so each time we've been there's been something. Last time there was a big international festival on and all this food.

"In fact, I've been back and done a weekend trip with my family, it's just one of those places that is really good fun. And my parents - at Christmas I always get them a couple of plane tickets - because they don't want things any more, they just want experiences.

Jason Manford
Jason Manford

"So I always book a couple of weekends. They'd done Amsterdam and Prague and Berlin and whatnot and Belfast is one of the places I've sent them as well."

His latest show is called Curtains, a whodunnit from the creators of Chicago and Cabaret, that rolls into town on November 19 for a five-night stint.

The production centres on a Broadway actress murdered on stage on opening night and the entire cast and crew are suspects - and Jason plays local detective Frank Cioffi, who just happens to be a huge musical theatre fan, who tries to solve the mystery.

He says: "There's a lot of second-guessing and I think it might be worth bringing a notepad! It's written by a guy who has written a lot of this sort of thing and it feels like a really fun, musical episode of Columbo or Murder, She Wrote or Quincy.

"It's got that sort of feel and it's just a really good show, a really good idea. It's a show within a show. The main woman is murdered on opening night, nobody likes her and then I'm the detective who comes along to try and solve the case."

Jason said that the show doesn't have audience interaction to help his character crack the crime - but joked that he wouldn't be surprised if our local crowd join in anyway.

He adds: "No, not really, but you never know, do you? I've got to say, in all the musicals I've done, the only time anyone has joined in has been in Belfast. I think we were doing The Producers, there was a gun on stage, he was sort of aiming the gun at somebody and somebody shouted out from the back, 'Shoot him now'. And we were all like oh my god, that was dark. It was very funny."

Away from performing Jason has used his high profile to support a number of causes, like testicular cancer awareness having had a scare himself, as well as championing the teenage cancer fundraiser Stephen Sutton, who sadly died but raised more than £3m to help fund charities that deal with the disease.

He says: "I think it's important. There's a difference between those people who are trying to stay in the news and stay current and seem to be tweeting and talking about everything just to get in the papers.

Stephen Sutton
Stephen Sutton

"And then I think there's also a responsibility with this job. Because essentially this job - it's hard work - but it's a privilege. People pay their money to come and see you, and that is something that you can never take for granted.

"And what you realise I think, after 20 years of doing it, is that there are people who see themselves in you.

"And certainly when I've talked about mental health or going to get your testicles checked or whatever, there's blokes who wouldn't necessarily do that.

"And because I'm just a lad or a dad or a bloke or whatever, they've sort of gone, 'Oh right, well maybe if he's having anxiety problems, or if he needs to go and get himself checked, maybe that's reminding me to do that as well'.

"So I sort of think that's all part of your job in a way, especially if you're talking about it in a humorous way - certainly at the end of my last show, when I finished my Muddle Class tour, I talked a bit about mental health and I got a lot of messages off fellas afterwards to say, 'Thanks to that on the drive home I opened up to my wife about something and it's been really helpful'.

"Your main job's to make people laugh, but if you can also give them something to think about as well then happy days."

Jason also thinks part of his job is to provide escapism for people from day to day life and pressures or the big issues of the day like Brexit.

He says: "I'm the opposite about politics, so I think what's great about doing a show like this Curtains is that when the world feels like it's hard work, when you're worried about things, that's what the theatre's for.

"It's to go there and forget about those worries for a couple of hours. I used to play the job of a comedian or an actor down quite a lot, and I've got material about it not being a proper job compared to other people's jobs and I remember saying to my dad, 'It's not a nurse or a police officer', you know what I mean, a proper job like that.

Jason Manford in the musical Curtains
Jason Manford in the musical Curtains

"And my dad says, 'But when a nurse or a police officer or a surgeon or a social worker needs to relax and chill out and have fun, that's when they need you'."

And while the workaholic has showed his versatility to move seamlessly between stage and screen roles, he also revealed that he has another ambition he wants to achieve in his career.

He explains: "I'd like to do a bit of writing. I think the next thing I'd like to do is to write something and have other people say my words - that would be nice.

"I've written and said my own words, I've read and said words that other people have written, but what I haven't had yet is had someone else read the things I've written.

"And see if maybe I could write a little play, nothing major, but that would be nice, or maybe a little sitcom or a one-off thing or something that would be nice - if I could write Fleabag and get a £50m deal that would be nice!"

Curtains is at the Grand Opera House, Belfast from November 19-23. Visit www.goh.co.uk for booking details

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