Tim McGarry: We might have to smuggle Neil Delamere across the border in the boot of a car

With live entertainment venues currently struggling to survive under Covid restrictions, David Roy speaks to veteran Belfast comedian Tim McGarry about getting back to stand-up under trying circumstances and paying tribute to late Give My Head Peace colleague BJ Hogg

Blame Game host Tim McGarry is getting back to stand-up
Blame Game host Tim McGarry is getting back to stand-up Blame Game host Tim McGarry is getting back to stand-up

"THIS will only be the second gig I've done since March – it's bizarre," says Belfast comedian Tim McGarry of his imminent stand-up performance at The Limelight alongside fellow Blame Game man, Co Offaly-bred comic Neil Delamere.

Indeed, these are strange times for anyone who makes their living through live events like comedy, music and theatre. McGarry (56) himself was in the midst of the annual Give My Head Peace Live! tour with his comedy troupe The Hole In The Wall Gang when lockdown kicked in, and has pretty much been out of work ever since.

However, efforts are now under way to prove that live events can be presented to the public in a safe, socially distanced manner: Friday night's gig will be a 'cabaret style' performance for a fully seated audience split into tables of four and six, a format which the Belfast venue has already trialled successfully, as McGarry explains.

"I actually did a show at The Limelight with Shane Todd a couple of weeks ago," he tells me. "The Limelight's doing a really good job, I have to say. They've got all their Covid guidelines and protocols in place and I think the chief constable and the chief medical officer have even been down to check them out and approve them, so all's good.

"The gig itself was brilliant, it was really good to get back on the stage – in fact, we did two shows in one night. As I say, it was the first time I'd done it in six months and I was a bit nervous. I kind of forgot bits in the first set but by the late show I was back into the groove and everything was fantastic.

"So I'm really looking forward to doing the next one with Neil – although somebody is maybe going to have to go down and smuggle him over the border in the boot of a car."

Naturally, it helps matters that Belfast comedy fans are currently ravenous for live stand-up in he wake of months of cancellations and closed venues. While some comedians have been performing online gigs during the pandemic, according to veteran stand-up McGarry, there's just no substitute for the real deal.

"Comedy relies on a live audience, real people in a real room," he tells me. "I know people were trying to do stuff on Zoom and all of that, but it's not the same as having the crowd in front of you where you can see them and smell them.

"The Limelight audience were great, so we're hoping to repeat the trick next week with 'half The Blame Game' if you like."

As for what the comics will be cracking wise about during their sets, while many are currently suffering from 'Covid fatigue' in terms of how the pandemic has dominated every aspect of life lately, it seems there's just no getting away from the fact that the (mis)handling of the debacle by our political leaders offers a rich vein of comedy material.

"It's the elephant in the room," admits McGarry. "Everybody's talking about it and our whole lives and livelihoods are governed by these things, so it would be a bit weird not to mention it.

"I mean, having a prime minister who has invented the rule of not knowing what the rules are is a kind of penalty kick for comedians, you know? 'You've Donald Trump and Boris Johnson in charge – everything's going to be OK.' What a year.

"But there are plenty of other jokes to be made as well, I'll be talking about politics, history, the news and whatever takes my fancy. It's great to be able to get back on the stage to vent my spleen and say a few things I haven't been able to say for six months."

The fact that he'll be sharing a bill with Neil Delamere makes the next show even sweeter – especially as the pair are well used to social distancing already.

"I've been keeping my distance from him for years," jokes McGarry of his Blame Game chum. "I always have a two-metre stick handy to keep him away from me, so we're going to be all right."

And, if you're wondering whether the pair will compare notes to ensure their material doesn't overlap, think again.

"I'm going on first so I don't bucking care!" laughs McGarry.

While there was much talk how of the recent coronavirus lockdown was going to afford creative types a once in a lifetime opportunity to finally get stuck into their magnum opus – the great Irish novel, a hit play for our times, or perhaps some really funny new comic material – alas, it seems this may have been something of a misconception.

"During the Plague in the 1580s, William Shakespeare wrote King Lear and Macbeth: during lockdown, I wrote a few jokes about Ian Paisley – so kind of the same thing, really," chuckles the Belfast funnyman.

As mentioned, Give My Head Peace Live! was cut short in March this year due to Covid. Tragically, McGarry's co-star BJ Hogg – who played loveable loyalist Big Mervyn on the long-running BBC Northern Ireland sitcom which inspired the stage version – then passed away suddenly on his 65th birthday in April.

However, with a new TV series of Give My Head Peace recently commissioned, fans will soon get to see the comedians paying fitting tribute to their departed colleague, as the Hole in The Wall Gang leader explains.

"We'll absolutely be paying tribute to BJ, in fact we were just writing that very piece last week." he tells me.

"He was a great loss. He was just part of the family who was with us from the very beginning. The really sad thing was that because he died in the middle of lockdown, we weren't able to give him a decent send-off.

"But BJ was an old-style actor and he would want the show to go on, so we're going to make sure he's well remembered. The fact that he's no longer with us will be well marked.

"In fact, we might have a plot outline about what was in Big Mervyn's will. We're just now planning a four-part series which has been long delayed for all sorts of reasons. It'll be great to get back together because we haven't seen each other since March when the tour collapsed.

"We'll have to do it in a different way because we won't have a live audience – but we're going to pre-record stuff and play it to an audience. We'll have a Christmas special and three other ones and, touch wood, we'll be filming in November if all goes well."

Interestingly, it seems protocols will be in place during filming to ensure that the cast members will not be required to 'bubble' together prior to recording – perhaps at the talent's request.

"Jesus, I mean, you wouldn't want to be stuck in a bubble with Uncle Andy, would you?" chuckles McGarry.

"Although of course, he has been social distancing from Shinners since about 1973."

:: Neil Delamere, Tim McGarry and compere Paddy McGaughey, Friday October 9, The Limelight, Belfast. Tables of four and six available via Limelightbelfast.com