Ardal O'Hanlon on filming in Caribbean climates for Death in Paradise and getting over stage fright
When Love Sunday greets Ardal O’Hanlon in a smart meeting room in an office in central London, he’s looking ever-so-slightly bedraggled, having battled through heavy rain to get here, and curses the British winter weather.
"I had to keep popping into different coffee shops to take shelter, so now I’m over-caffeinated!" he laughs in his mild-mannered way.
Of course, for six months of the year rain and cold are but a distant memory, thanks to his role as DI Jack Mooney in the gentle BBC detective drama Death In Paradise. Now in its seventh series, the popular show is set on the fictional Caribbean island of Saint Marie, and is actually filmed on the real Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, where temperatures can climb to around a positively scorching 35˚C.
"The heat is one thing," he states. "The humidity, however, is quite another. It seems to add an extra 10 degrees! And you’re always, always wet. You’ve no sooner dried yourself after coming out of the shower, than you’re soaking again!"
How does he cope?
"Well, we’re quite well looked after," he smiles. "There are big industrial fans to stand in front of, and the crew literally come and mop you down – they have all these small hand towels dipped in ice, which they wrap around your neck. If you’re lucky enough to be bald, they just drape them over your head. I’m thinking of shaving mine just for that."
Being away from Dublin, where he lives, and his family – wife Melanie and their three children, Emily, 20, Rebecca, 18, and Red (short for Redmond), 15 – for such a long time must be tough?
"Well, they came out for two months over the school holidays last summer," he explains. "There’s a lot to see and do – you can hike to the top of a volcano, then there’s a rainforest with all these glorious waterfalls hiding in it, with refreshing pools to cool down in, and we even swam with turtles!"
It’s a shame he’s terrified of water, then…"I mean, I can swim, but when I get out of my depth I feel very uncomfortable," he confesses. "It was a massive psychological effort for me to go into deep water and see these turtles. As soon as I spotted them I was like, 'Right, that was lovely, but now let’s get back on dry land!'"
Saint Marie is not the only fictional island Ardal has worked on, of course. From 1995 to 1998, he filmed on Craggy Island in what is perhaps one of television’s greatest comedies: Father Ted. His role as the nice-but-dim Father Dougal McGuire catapulted him to stardom after working the stand-up comedy circuit, and he freely admits it changed his life. But even now he can only watch it with what he describes as a ‘critical’ eye.
"If an episode like the one where the priests are trapped in the lingerie section of a department store comes on telly, I do sit down and watch it – but only for about 10 minutes," he reveals. "I often spot myself being incredibly unprofessional – I’m usually sniggering in the background! But the whole thing was such fun to make."
It also introduced his kids to his work.
"When I went to pick up the girls from school when they were younger, I’d have all these eight and nine year olds coming up to me in the playground, bowing down ironically at my feet. And the girls would be like, 'Why are our friends bowing to your dad?!' So we showed them a few episodes, and they loved it."
Ardal’s had dozens of comedy roles during his TV career, which has been both a blessing and, apparently, a little bit of a curse.
"You do tend to get pigeonholed," he says frankly, "but then it’s not like I’ve gone round knocking on people’s doors saying, 'Hey, I should be a pirate!' or anything. That said, I’ve played a few darker characters in theatre, and last year I nearly got the chance to play a serial killer. A director I know was making a film with a character who was a murderer, who went around with a severed head in a bag. But I couldn’t do it, because I was already working on something else."
One role that has definitely deviated from his range of amiable, if somewhat bewildered, characters – from dim-witted superhero George Sunday in My Hero, to unemployed dad Peter in After Hours – is as Brannigan the Catkind in a 2007 episode of Doctor Who.
"That’s my finest work!" he beams. "I’m only in it briefly, but when the call comes, you have to answer it! I think I was in that make-up chair for about four hours. They used two different types of industrial glue to stick the fur on. I don’t think it was from a real cat, though," he jokes. "That’s still one of my wife’s favourite looks on me!"
His career has made millions laugh, but Ardal wasn’t always aware he was funny. Born in Carrickmacross, Co Monaghan, the son of a GP-turned-politician father, he’s one of six siblings.
"I was the third child, there’s no photos of me in the house," he says, straight-faced. "No, it was grand, but I think there might be something in the third child syndrome where you have to fight a little bit harder for attention. I first realised I could make people laugh in secondary school, then at uni I set up a comedy club with a few friends."
Afterwards, becoming a stand-up comedian was something Ardal thrived on – although he struggled for years with extreme nerves before going on stage.
"I couldn’t eat anything after lunch on the day of a show, or it’d just come back up again!" he laughs ruefully. "But as soon as I was out there, I was fine. It was just a mental thing, but doing stand-up at all is a bit crazy. I come from a part of the world where showing off is up there with armed robbery as a thing not to do, so there was always this conflict."
Thankfully, he’s going to be making people laugh for at least a while longer.
"I don’t know if I’ll still be doing comedy into my 60s or 70s, but who can say?"
We only hope he does.
Keep it in the family
Are Ardal’s children thinking of following in his footsteps?
"They’re all developing in very different areas. My eldest daughter, Emily, 20, studies medicine, so that couldn’t be more different – I don’t know where she got the discipline or the interest in it, but she wanted to be a doctor from a very early age. She was always very studious and focused, it’s amazing, I don’t know where she came from!
And Rebecca, 18, is also really hard working, but she hasn’t a clue at the moment, she’s just doing her A-levels.
My son Red, 15, is probably the most likely candidate to follow me into comedy – he’s a bit of a wag! He’s far more confident than I ever was at that age. I was a really shy and awkward teenager, but this fella’s great, he holds his own, and he’s very amusing and a good impressionist."
How does Ardal spend his Sunday?
What did you do last Sunday?
Sunday mornings revolve around Red’s football schedule. I really enjoy watching the game. You’re out in all weathers, but I’m always with the same bunch of dads on the sidelines, and we’ve become great mates over the years. Then I walked our Golden Retriever, Bonnie, and later the family went out for dinner.
Lazy lie-in or crack of dawn?
I have quite a civilised start to Sundays – I get up around 9am. If I get the chance, though, I love to loll around reading in bed.
Traditional fry-up or healthy option?
I’m sort of a Weetabix-porridge-granola kind of man. And because I have daughters who are up to date with current trends, they have eggs – but only the whites – and avocados, we’re drowning in avocados. So I get a bit of avocado-and-egg-white-on-toast action. I imagine if they ever went to a street protest they’d only throw the whites of the eggs at people.
Papers or online?
I tend to do online, and I’ll read an Irish paper, a British one and an American one – I just want to know everything, even though it’s all the same rubbish! I grew up in a house where no one actually spoke on a Sunday, we were all buried up to our necks in newspapers – people would fall asleep under them.
Active or sofa slob?
Fundamentally, I’m lazy, but I also feel guilty, so I’ll be torn between two impulses all day. I’ll be lying on the sofa, then think I should really get up and do something active (I play tennis when I get the chance). And afterwards I’ll think, ‘Oh good, now I can go and lie down for a while!’
What could you not get through the weekend without?
I always think a trip to the cinema really rounds off the weekend, but I don’t do it very often. I like to go with the kids, although it’s hard to round them up. If not, we’ll find a box set we all like.