Is there life after Dougal?

He says that he's trying to move away from television sitcoms and silly characters, but why then is Ardal O'Hanlon still doing stand-up comedy at the Edinburgh Festival? He tells Fiona Sturges
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There was a scene in the television series Big Bad World where Ardal O'Hanlon got to fondle a woman's breasts. It was deeply unsettling, like seeing your little brother downing his first pint of lager. Somehow you feared for his safety.

There was a scene in the television series Big Bad World where Ardal O'Hanlon got to fondle a woman's breasts. It was deeply unsettling, like seeing your little brother downing his first pint of lager. Somehow you feared for his safety.

The series was O'Hanlon's first television role since the Bafta Award-winning sitcom Father Ted where he played Dougal, the wide-eyed misfit in the knitted tank top. He was, if you remember, a man bewildered by sex and who went to pieces at the mere sight of a woman. The world was a place riddled with conundrums such as: were those cows in the field small or just far away? It is no wonder that his latest attempt to act like a fully-functional urbanite on television distressed us so.

It is more than two years since O'Hanlon's friend and the co-star of Father Ted Dermot Morgan died of a heart attack after filming the third and last series. The programme lives on in the minds of its five million viewers, though, and however much he tries to frown manfully in his publicity shots, you get the feeling that O'Hanlon is saddled with Dougal for life.

I blame the eyes. Even in the flesh, he has those huge unblinking eyes that so perfectly embodied Dougal's sense of wonder at the world. His attire is considerably more dapper though, as befits a man living in London's fashionable Crouch End. If the constant comparisons with Dougal irritate O'Hanlon, he doesn't show it. In fact, he still shows wonder at the programme's success.

"I knew it was very funny when I first read the script, but I didn't think anyone was going to watch it. Perhaps it was its freshness that people liked about it. It was utterly uninhibited and never tried to be cool. And yes, I adored Dougal."

It wouldn't be surprising, though, if his latest string of projects were partly a bid to shake off his former role. Last year saw his first novel, The Talk of the Town, published, a dark tale of adolescent frustration set in the fictional district of Castlecock. The story is told by 19-year-old Patrick Scully, an indolent individual recently out of school and working as a Dublin security guard.

"I grew up in a Northern Irish town where you couldn't help but be aware of the simmering violence of teenage men," O'Hanlon explains. "There was a general air of depression. I figured that I knew these characters very well and I wanted to write about them."

O'Hanlon's own childhood was happily uneventful ("If I'd written about my teenage years, it would have been very dull indeed"). He was one of six children. His father, Rory, was the former Minister of Health and a practising Catholic, though neither politics nor religion left much of an impression on him. As his book reveals, he was more fascinated by people around him. "Everyone was very dry in that part of the world. Everyone spoke out of the corner of their mouths and everything had two or more meanings. You were always having to work out what they really meant."

After getting a degree in media studies at Dublin University he and some friends set up the Comedy Cellar in the attic of Dublin's International Bar, now a breeding ground for new talent. "I never thought it would go anywhere. There wasn't much of a comedy circuit in Dublin in those days and it was impossible to make a living." What inspired him in the first place?

"I was kind of a shy teenager though I suppose there was a desire buried there somewhere to get up on stage. I think everybody wants to make an impact in some way. Some people don't need a platform and others do. Sad really..."

His parents struggled to find enthusiasm for his chosen career - both wanted their son to study law and begged him to return home. Ignoring their advice, O'Hanlon moved to London where his career immediately took off. In 1994 he won the Hackney Empire Newcomer Award, after which the job offers just rolled in. One, in particular, caught his eye.

"I had luck on my side, that's all I can say," he remarks modestly. Nowadays, he is still inundated with work, and as time puts a distance between O'Hanlon and Father Dougal, the roles have become increasingly serious.

"Certainly, they are moving away from sitcoms and from silly characters, I suppose. I never really thought about acting when I was younger, in fact I was averse to the whole notion of it. But as you get older you meet more people and you see what they are doing has some kind of validity. Often a lot more than you might have yourself."

It may seem odd that a man with a book under his belt, a handful of big-screen appearances ( My Left Foot, The Butcher Boy) and a flourishing television career should bother hauling himself to the Edinburgh Festival. After all, the Perrier Prize is out of bounds to him - several years ago he was disqualified from the short-list for being too well-known ("mind you, my show wasn't up to scratch"). And he won't be letting the critics in anyway. But O'Hanlon maintains that it is stand-up comedy that keeps him grounded and encourages the flow of ideas.

"For a start, you can't fool the live audience," he explains. "But it's good to be in Edinburgh around new talent. Comedy hasn't even grown up yet; it hasn't become what it can be. Rather than compiling a big list of jokes, people should be working on a structured show with a beginning, a middle and an end. That is what I'm always striving for."

Has he ever been heckled?

"No, not ever. I'd have to give up if that happened. I do get nervous of crowds but I'm always fairly comfortable with my material. The worst case is when you're running on auto-pilot and you're just hoping that the audience won't notice. But then you always think things can get better - that's what keeps you going till the next time".

* Ardal O'Hanlon is at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre tonight and tomorrow, Venue 151, 0870 9004555, 19.30 (21.15)