Father, glum father

Worried about sex, haunted by guilt, Ardal O'Hanlon endured a traditional Catholic upbringing. He talks to Janie Lawrence about Father Ted, his surreal taste in comedy and the joy of being miserable.

It's not that Ardal O'Hanlon isn't exceedingly amenable. He is. Nor that he isn't clever and articulate. He is. But, as he sits, shoulders tensely hunched, and gazes with almost pathological interest in his shoes, you know he has compiled a hundred other places he would rather be. After going through all the usual interview exchanges we come to land "upon the misery of the human condition".

"You can think too much because ultimately you end up thinking about death which is not much good to anyone.

"If I'm ever left on my own with nothing to do that's where I will end up."

So is he the classic public comic, private depressive?

"No, I fight depression."

What would the "Tedheads" make of O'Hanlon's musings?

Acclaimed for his portrayal of the gormless priest, Father Dougal, in the Channel 4 series Father Ted, O'Hanlon was named the top Television Comedy Newcomer in 1995.

With filming about to commence on the third series its popularity shows no sign of abating, although O'Hanlon is still frequently called upon to defend it against charges of racial stereotyping.

"Only misguided and extremely sensitive people would ever draw those conclusions. Being Irish is incidental. It could be anywhere. You can't have a sitcom with dumb characters. It is a unique hybrid of surreal absurdist Irish humour coupled with the best of the British sitcom.

Surreal is the adjective most often used to describe O'Hanlon's own comic stand-up routine, a video of which was released today. He sums-up his style as: "Here's a joke. If you like it, good". Where other comedians might opt for political satire, his concerns are more off-beat ("Sheep get a lot heavier when they're wet").

Brought up in the village of Carrickmacross, O'Hanlon's father is Dr Rory O'Hanlon, the former Fianna Fail Minister of Health under Charles Haughey. "It was very weird growing up and seeing him being vilified in the papers for the health cuts. That always hurt me in a way. I never supported the party and he was always disappointed and would say, `But why'. It wasn't a personal thing, but I had no interest in it."

The middle one of six siblings he was sent to boarding school at 13. "Sex wasn't discussed but you knew it was something nefarious and forbidden. Up to a point, I thought I better not have it for a while in case I was struck down. There's a tremendously clear picture of Hell painted and it looks quite a scary place."

He only stopped attending church after he left home. "Then you have this tension with your parents that lasts about 20 years. They ring you up on a Sunday and ask, `Have you gone to Mass yet?' You go, `No' and when the phone goes down you can hear your mother sobbing." Yet he maintains that he is "delighted" he had a Catholic upbringing.

"You have a very strong sense of right and wrong. You think before you act. With everything. Will I eat now or should I hold off for another two hours? Should I have sex or should I wait another ten years?"

A thoughtful individual, he concedes that on the moral issues such as abortion he is reluctant to step off the fence.

Comedy wasn't part of any game plan but after getting a degree in Media Studies at university in Dublin he and some friends set up the Comedy Cellar above a bar.

"I didn't think I was particularly good. I was doing it because I enjoyed it although I didn't think I had any prospects."

While his parents badgered him to go into law he spent several years on the dole and accepted the hardest gigs - including playing to prisoners - he could find.

After arriving in London four years ago and playing the Comedy Store he was, he says, left with "no ambition in life". Then came Father Ted. He thinks that in another few years. he'll probably return to Ireland along with his wife, Melanie, and daughter Emily, currently still only three months old.

"I love being a dad. I've never been happier." Was he at the birth? "Yes". His expression changes. And? "It was brutal, primitive, bloody, frightening and appaling. My arse, was it a mystical experience."

Despite his cult status, O'Hanlon says he is still "ambling along". "I've never made plans and I always trained myself not to expect too much." For the last few months he's been writing a novel which comes out next year. Meanwhile there are the roles that he's been offered since Father Ted to consider. "I don't have any confidence in my ability as a straight actor." But surely now he would relish the chance to play something other than gormless? "Why? My attitude is that we've got to learn to enjoy our misery a bit more," he adds barely able to disguise his relief - albeit in extremely polite fashion - that he can now go home.

`Ardal O'Hanlon Live', Polygram, pounds 13.99

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