Tim McGarry on the return of Give My Head Peace Live

David Roy chats to Hole in The Wall Gang leader Tim McGarry about getting Give My Head Peace Live back on the road...

Give My Head Peace Live returns to venues this week
Give My Head Peace Live returns to venues this week Give My Head Peace Live returns to venues this week

THEY hadn't gone away, you know: while Covid may have put paid to last year's annual Give My Head Peace Live show, this week will find comedian Tim McGarry and co back on stages across the country for another 'local colour'-informed laugh fest featuring Ma (Olivia Nash), Da (McGarry), Cal (Damon Quinn), Billy (Michael McDowell) and Dympna (Alexandra Ford).

When we spoke to the north Belfast funnyman, who co-founded comedy troupe The Hole in The Wall Gang with fellow Queen's University students Damon Quinn and Michael McDowell back in the 1980s, he was hard at work writing this year's show while trying to keep up with seismic events in local and global politics that could potentially affect storylines and punchlines.

"The news keeps changing every bloody five minutes – it's like they don't even care about the poor comedy community at all," he mock grumbles of yet another collapse at Stormont and the increasingly perilous position of British PM Boris Johnson, who made a brief but entertaining cameo in the most recent series of the Give My Head Peace sitcom on BBC NI.

"But it's OK, we like to write right up to the wire anyway to keep things as topical as possible: I do a bit of stand-up before the show which is as topical as possible and then [in the show] we like to keep the main issues alive, whatever people are talking about. It's always a lot of fun."

As mentioned, the live show was forced into a 'fallow year' in 2021 due to Covid restrictions, perhaps the first time in living memory that the comedy team behind it have had a break from their reliably sold-out annual live performances.

Indeed, they were nearing the end of a hugely successful 2020 run just as the live theatre scene succumbed to lockdown.

"In 2020 we had done 20 shows out of 29, so we lost nine shows just as the lockdown happened – and then last year obviously nothing happened," says McGarry, who is also the host of long-running topical comedy panel show The Blame Game on BBC Radio Ulster and BBC NI.

"So it'll be a bit weird [getting back on tour]. We do it every year and when it comes round we go, 'Ach, for goodness sake, we've to do a tour', but then it starts and we love it.

"It's always great craic once we get out there on the road, so we're really really looking forward to getting back into the various different theatres."

Sadly, much-loved Give My Head Peace regular BJ Hogg, who played Uncle Andy's side-kick Big Mervyn, passed away in 2020 not long after the end of their last foreshortened tour, adding an element of poignancy to the cast's imminent return to the stage.

"Obviously, we've one big loss this year with having lost poor Brian," McGarry tells me.

"In fact, the last time we saw him was on stage with us in the middle of March 2020."

The Give My Head Peace team with late cast member and friend BJ Hogg (back row, second from right)
The Give My Head Peace team with late cast member and friend BJ Hogg (back row, second from right) The Give My Head Peace team with late cast member and friend BJ Hogg (back row, second from right)

The surviving Give My Head Peace players paid tribute to Hogg in the 2020 series of the TV show with an entertaining plotline revolving around Big Mervyn's will. A framed photo of the late actor/character now gets regular screen time hanging on the wall of the Give My Head Peace set beside Uncle Andy's favourite armchair.

"We were very careful and obviously ran the idea past Brian's family to make sure they were happy with it," explains McGarry.

"He was genuinely part of our 'family' as well and we always had great craic with him when we went out on the road."

Unfortunately, noted loyalist/schemer/drinker Uncle Andy, AKA actor Marty Reid, will not be part of this year's Live show either due to Reid's work commitments with his 'other' job at Queen's University, while recent Give My Head Peace recruit Diona Doherty – another Blame Game regular who plays Derry-born student Grainne in the series – is apparently "busy doing stand-up, writing her own play and lots of other things".

However, the GMHP regulars will be joined by another familiar face from the recent TV series in the form of Kneebreakers proprietor Sandy, portrayed by Ciaran Nolan.

"Ciaran's a great comedian and a brilliant theatre actor," comments McGarry.

"He's going to be doing the double act with Pastor Begbie (Paddy Jenkins), so we're really looking forward to that. I think he's going to have a ball."

While Give My Head Peace Live is as close to a 'sure thing' as you can get in terms of drawing full houses every time it goes on the road, and despite (or, perhaps, because of) the recent relaxation of Covid restrictions regarding social distancing in theatres, there aren't quite as many sold-out venues for this year's run.

"We're still doing well right across the country," says McGarry of their advance ticket sales for the show's 2022 'comeback', which kicked off over the last couple of days at the Market Place Theatre in Armagh and reaches the Alley Theatre in Strabane tonight.

"There's a few theatres which are a bit lower than before as some people are still kind of going, 'Jeez, how do you go to a theatre?' after such a long break, but we're really looking forward to getting back to the Grand Opera House in Belfast, which I have to say is looking absolutely fantastic since it re-opened – so we're looking forward to lowering the tone."

While many are quick to criticise Give My Head Peace both in its small screen and on-stage incarnations, the simple fact is that – Covid notwithstanding – the latter show has returned year after year over the past decade due to public demand.

"We're not Shakespeare or Ibsen, but what we do do is guarantee you a good night's laugh," offers McGarry of this long-standing live success.

"Our stage shows have always been very successful and so now we're hoping to recreate that and get back into the groove.

"There's a bit of satire, a bit of slapstick and the odd song or two, with characters that people know and love. We're always very clear that we want people to be laughing as soon as the show opens and we want them to still be laughing right to the very end."

Give My Head Peace Live 2022

March 5: Alley Theatre, Strabane

March 10: The McNeill Theatre, Larne

March 12/13: Riverside Theatre, Coleraine

March 16: Strule Arts Centre, Omagh

March 17–19: Millennium Forum, Derry

March 20: Theatre at the Mill, Newtownabbey

March 21: The Braid, Ballymena

March 23/24: The Ardhowen Theatre, Enniskillen

March 25/26: Burnavon Theatre, Cookstown

March 27–April 2: The Grand Opera House, Belfast

Tickets on sale now from venue box offices.