Give My Head Peace: 'Life on the road is less rock and roll, more rock and hair rollers' for Olivia Nash and Alexandra Ford

As the Give My Head Peace gang are set to go across the country on tour, Olivia Nash and Alexandra Ford tell Leona O'Neill why they love working together and how the show has survived for over two decades

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Olivia Nash and Alexandra Ford

Olivia Nash and Alexandra Ford

Stephen Hamilton

Olivia and Alexandra enjoying each other’s company and sharing a laugh during their photoshoot

Olivia and Alexandra enjoying each other’s company and sharing a laugh during their photoshoot

Stephen Hamilton

Alexandra and Olivia

Alexandra and Olivia

Stephen Hamilton

Alexandra as Dympna with screen husband Billy (played by Michael McDowell)

Alexandra as Dympna with screen husband Billy (played by Michael McDowell)

Olivia and Alexandra with Give My Head Peace co-stars Tim McGarry, Damon Quinn, Michael McDowell and Martin Reid

Olivia and Alexandra with Give My Head Peace co-stars Tim McGarry, Damon Quinn, Michael McDowell and Martin Reid

Olivia as Ma with Da (Tim McGarry) and Cal (Damon Quinn)

Olivia as Ma with Da (Tim McGarry) and Cal (Damon Quinn)

Olivia Nash and Alexandra Ford

They say that if you can't laugh at yourself, who can you laugh at? And the Give My Head Peace gang - Da, Ma, Cal, Dympna and Billy the Peeler - have been absorbing Northern Ireland's many little 'quirks' for over 20 years and reflecting them hilariously back on to adoring audiences in their BBC NI show of the same name.

Whether it's belittling Brexit, tackling sectarianism, RHI, poking fun at paramilitaries or political scandals, no issue is off the table for laughs as Northern Ireland's two most dysfunctional families prepare to take their hugely successful show across the country once more.

The show, as well as the television programme, is written by Hole in the Wall Gang stalwarts Tim McGarry, Damon Quinn and Michael McDowell, who star alongside Alexandra Ford and Olivia Nash in a "uniquely Belfast" show set in the lofty heights of the city's Divis Tower that made us laugh at ourselves even during the darkest of times.

Olivia Nash, who portrays the locally iconic matriarch - the sharp-tongued, dim-witted Ma - is now in her 70s. She is from Larne, where she had a happy childhood with her mother Patsy, father Tommy and sister Mel. Olivia has one daughter, Patricia, and three grandchildren.

She says that when Give My Head Peace first started she never expected the show to have been taken so much to the hearts of Northern Irish people.

"Give My Head Peace has been going for 22 years," says Olivia.

"I absolutely did not think it would go on for this length of time. We couldn't have believed it, but now that it has, we can, because it is still as successful and people seem to be enjoying it as much as ever.

"I think the title originally came from a radio series that they had a fair few years back.

"It may not have been called Give My Head Peace but the same characters were in it and then when it came to putting it on television, that's what they called it. But I wish I had a pound for every time I had to say it, that's for sure."

The ladies also both star in Radio Ulster's hugley popular show A Perforated Ulster, a sketch show in which the Hole in the Wall Gang deliver their hilarious verdict on the politicians and current events in Northern Ireland. On the air for the past 10 years, it recently won a Celtic media award.

The concept for today's Give My Head Peace originated in a BBC Radio Ulster music programme called Across the Line in the late 1980s, as a five-minute slot.

It was here that Olivia, as Ma, first burst on to our airwaves, during a time she says was very traumatic personally for her.

The Ma character first emerged in 1991 with 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, from an aneurysm. This tragedy occurred just six months after the death of her father from cancer.

Olivia says she was glad to have her on-air "family" to hold her up.

"It was a nasty time for me," she says. "But thank goodness I was able to use what talent I had and the boys were very kind when I was introduced to them and that is the story ever since.

"The Give My Head Peace gang are like one big family and they helped me navigate those days. After 22 years working together - and I know it sounds a bit twee sometimes using that expression - but we really are like one big happy family.

"We not only care about each other in our characters, but we care very much about other in our lives and what is going on. So it is a very happy place to be, all together."

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Olivia and Alexandra with Give My Head Peace co-stars Tim McGarry, Damon Quinn, Michael McDowell and Martin Reid

Olivia and Alexandra with Give My Head Peace co-stars Tim McGarry, Damon Quinn, Michael McDowell and Martin Reid

Olivia and Alexandra with Give My Head Peace co-stars Tim McGarry, Damon Quinn, Michael McDowell and Martin Reid

Alexandra Ford (46) plays Ma's daughter Dympna, who is married to Billy the Peeler on the show. The Antrim-born mother-of-two says that she is very lucky to have two mothers - her own and also her on-screen 'Ma'.

"I'm a very lucky girl, I have two mummies," she says. "It is lovely because Olivia and I have a rapport, we are great friends and we share a dressing room. It is lovely to have someone to rely on and ask questions of and who is a great support to me. I really value our friendship. It's been a real cherry on top of the cake over the last 20 years.

"Unlike families, we don't fight. We have a great bit of banter and everyone takes the Mickey out of everyone else.

"There are times when everyone gets excited and works hard, but it is not like a family in that way.

"There is no fighting as such. An awful lot of taking the Mick, but no fighting.

"At the end of the day it is a show, so if we are misbehaving we are pulled up on it. But everyone wants the show to be a success. We all work so well together."

Olivia says working with her on-screen daughter is "beautiful".

"It is a blessing," she says. "Literally from the first day that we worked together on Give My Head Peace we shared a dressing room.

"And the same thing happens when we go out on tour. It's just part of it."

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Olivia and Alexandra enjoying each other’s company and sharing a laugh during their photoshoot

Olivia and Alexandra enjoying each other’s company and sharing a laugh during their photoshoot

Stephen Hamilton

Olivia and Alexandra enjoying each other’s company and sharing a laugh during their photoshoot

Alexandra says that the writing is what keeps Give My Head Peace fresh, even after two decades.

"It's definitely the writing," she says. "I think the boys are constantly coming up with great stuff. You know how the world is very politically boring at the moment and there is not really much to talk about?

"But I think that the satirical element keeps it really sharp and then there's the lovely element that we enjoy, which is the silly nonsense and the slapstick, so it's a nice mixture of things."

Olivia mirrors that sentiment.

"The boys are amazing writers and we have every confidence in them," she says.

"They are right up there with whatever is happening today. And the lovely thing is they write in character for us. So when we get our script we automatically read it as Dympna or Ma and you hear your voice."

Olivia says that it can be tough playing Ma, when people in the street expect her to be exactly like her character.

"I always say about Tim McGarry and me, that neither of us can disguise ourselves," she says. "I'm me and he's six foot and more. It's a nice thing in a way, but it gets a bit embarrassing at times when people stop you in the street and feel that they can share their greatest private things with you. You are told things sometimes that you maybe shouldn't be told.

"It's lovely that people have that trust in you. At the end of the day the thing that we have to remember is that without our audience, we don't have a show.

"People do hold the show and the characters dear. I remember one day I was sitting on a bus and there were these two ladies sitting in front of me and they were having a great conversation about Give My Head Peace.

"They didn't realise I was sitting there. And they were trying to outdo each other with their knowledge of it, and one of them turned to the other and said 'well I've actually been in 47a Divis Tower'. And I thought 'oh my Lord'. I think she truly believed that she had."

Alexandra says she loves that people have taken the show right to their hearts.

"I think that's a part of the job I really enjoy," she says. "Being part of something like this which has become successful and people hold it so close to their hearts, and love it and enjoy it.

"It's such a joy to be in people's homes and whenever you do talk to them out and about, and people do stop you to chat, it's never anything unpleasant. It's always fun and a bit of craic and they'll make reference to whatever you've been up to in the last show. It's just lovely, it's a real privilege.

"People do shout things at you in the street, at Ma. I'm less recognisable because I have a lovely blonde wig.

"I think people recognise my voice more, so it's when I start to speak then they twig on to who I am."

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Olivia as Ma with Da (Tim McGarry) and Cal (Damon Quinn)

Olivia as Ma with Da (Tim McGarry) and Cal (Damon Quinn)

Olivia as Ma with Da (Tim McGarry) and Cal (Damon Quinn)

The ladies say they have not been inspired by characters outside the show - rather, by the writing, creating and moulding of their characters by the scriptwriters.

"I am inspired more by the writing than by anyone outside," Olivia says. "I think the boys write it so well and, added to our own talent, we have created these characters. Yes, sometimes you hear something and you would tell the guys and then the scene maybe appears in the show."

Alexandra says she has been playing Dympna for so long she slips very easily into her character.

"That's the thing about playing a character for so long - you kind of forget where you end and the character begins," she admits.

"I get Dympna's shoes on and the wig on and it's just like you become her. It is something that I have done over such a long period of time."

Olivia says that even though she has played Ma for such a long time, the character hasn't defined her and she has enjoyed other roles which allowed her to play strong women.

"I think we have both had roles that we have played which have meant a lot to us personally, but maybe not to other people," she says.

"My favourite stage play was when I was cast in The Loves of Cass McGuire by Brian Friel and more recently I did a film called Grace and Goliath and I had a very happy time in it. In both of those roles I played a really lovely, strong character - I was so lucky to play her."

Alexandra says she loves performing on the A Perforated Ulster radio show, taking on the role of royalty one minute and Northern Ireland's politicians the next.

"I left drama school just wanting to solely do Shakespeare and classical theatre," she says. "And it's funny how your life turns out. I never thought I'd be sitting here 20 years on. But having said that, the joy for me is not only being able to do Give My Head Peace but also doing A Perforated Ulster with the boys.

"Radio is such a joy because you can be anyone on the radio. One minute you are Camilla Parker Bowles or the Queen and the next you are Mary Lou McDonald or someone else.

"Playing on different platforms and being different people and having the freedom to do that has been a real pleasure for me."

The gang are off on tour across Northern Ireland later this month. Alexandra says it can be gruelling but that they feed off the audience's energy. She says life on the road is less rock and roll, more "rock and hair rollers".

"What keeps us going through the tour are the audiences who come to see us," she says.

"We are so lucky because we play to full houses everywhere we go. The energy of all those people coming out, often on a dirty, dark February or March night to see you, is amazing.

"I jest you not, we all arrive off the bus, after having a little snooze on the way there, and we troop in the stage door like sleepy dormice.

"We get our costumes and the wigs on, the make-up done and suddenly you hear the audience... and boom! The energy and the adrenaline rises and the audience just gets you going."

  • The Give My Head Peace tour starts on February 25 at the Ardhowen Theatre in Enniskillen and rolls out across Northern Ireland during February and March. For more details and to purchase tickets, visit www.davidhullpromotions.com
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