Live and Kicking: RTÉ's top satirist Oliver Callan is Belfast-bound for Imagine! Festival
David Roy chats to Co Monaghan-born comedian and satirist Oliver Callan about bringing his Callan Kicks Live show to Belfast next week
"JOE Biden is going to explode into life for me this week," says expert satirist and impressionist Oliver Callan when asked which famous person he's getting the biggest kick out of mimicking at the moment.
"He's going to be all over the media because of St Patrick's Day. But [his voice is] quite generically American, so it's all about the nice, slow physical moves you do on the stage."
Indeed, on the day we're talking to the star of the satirical RTÉ radio show Callan's Kicks and its TV spin-off Callan Kicks The Year(s) about his imminent appearance at the Imagine! Belfast Festival of Ideas, it has just been confirmed that President Biden will be visiting the north to mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.
Co Monaghan-born Callan senses great comic potential in the endearingly doddery 80-year-old's upcoming island-wide itinerary which will no doubt find Biden taking every opportunity to celebrate his Irish ancestry.
"I love it when he calls out to someone in the audience who's been dead for a long time," comments the Dun Laoghaire-based Callan, who has been filling in for presenter Ryan Tubridy on RTÉ Radio 1's morning show all this week and will be bringing a special version of his Callan's Kicks Live show to The Black Box on March 24.
"I love the idea of him quoting from Seamus Heaney and then going 'Where's Seamus? Stand up Seamus and say hi! Seamus Heaney, ladies and gentlemen, Ireland's only ever poet!'."
Another current favourite in Callan's repertoire is bumbling former British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson.
"Boris Johnson is always great in the live format, because it's a huge impression that almost doesn't require a microphone - or even complete sentences," explains the comic, who recently presented the excellent BBC podcast Killing Leprechauns in which he schooled clueless Brit comics on Irish slang, customs and history.
As fans of Callan's Kicks will already know, the satirical show is heavily loaded with take-offs of prominent/topical Irish politicians and pop cultural figures, from Micheál Martin and Michael D Higgins to Miriam O’Callaghan and Marty Morrissey.
However, Callan has decided to bring an entirely new, less Republic of Ireland-centric version of his live show to Belfast. Luckily, the Brexit debacle means that he can already do a mean Jeffrey Donaldson - or, rather, a mild one.
"Jeffrey’s all about being very mild-mannered and not expressing or showing any emotion whatsoever,” explains Callan.
"We're familiar with him in the south every time the Brexit thing flares up and he's a change of tone from, say, the quotes you'd hear from maybe Sammy Wilson or [Ian Paisley] Junior which leave no room for nuance. Whereas the clip they'll play of Jeffrey is him really not saying anything at all.
"It's interesting that [King] Charles seems to get along better with Michelle O'Neill than Jeffrey, going by their last meeting in September. They were laughing and joking and he was all 'oh, it's so wonderful to see you again'. He was practically high-fiving her, and then he turns to Jeffrey and it was basically a version of 'er, have we met before?'."
However, the live show isn't just about impressions of famous folks. As the comic explains, there's a lot of fun to be had in just examining the 'ordinary' Irish voice.
"Ironically, having spent so much time trying to hone real life characters, the stuff that goes down really well live is an accents tour of Ireland," Callan reveals.
"I literally just do a tour of accents from Donegal across Derry, Fermanagh, Tyrone and Belfast into south Ulster, Monaghan, south Armagh and the rest of the country. Because it kind of ticks everyone's boxes and it demonstrates just how incredibly melodically different our accents are on such a small corner of the world. I find that fascinating."
He adds: "Of course, my northern accents won't be accepted or appreciated in the north itself - because the one thing I've found is that, for example, when you do Galway in Galway they say 'hmm, no, no, that's not us at all'. Because no-one hears their own accent."
In addition to the accent tour of Ireland, there will be some 'hands across the border action too', appropriate for an era in which a united Ireland has never seemed closer thanks to Brexit and Sinn Féin’s rise to power on both sides of the border.
"I want to talk to northern audiences about some of the common connections we have," explains Callan, "and to make fun of British politics as well - because obviously, with the way Brexit has gone, we're all glued to that regardless of what side of the 'divide' we're on.
"I also kind of want to talk about Britishness and Irishness on the island of Ireland. I think it's interesting that maybe the most British parts of the island could be in posh south Dublin - you know, where de Valera and all these so-called rebels came down to the lovely upper-middle class part of the city and kept all the colonial names, whereas all the streets that were renamed after the warriors of Easter 1916 tend to be just for the poor people."
Having grown up on a Co Monaghan farm, the teenaged Callan used to practise his early impersonations - Ian Paisley, Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men - while herding cows from shed to field and back again. Happily, these days, the comic has a purpose-built studio in which he can hone each new voice to perfection without scaring passing livestock or annoying his long-time partner, John, whom he married last year.
"Yeah, there's actually very poor acoustics in a field for that kind of thing," he advises.
"But there's actually a very simple thing I often do if I'm trying a new voice: if you put all your fingers together and kind of cup your ears, you can hear your own voice very, very loudly. It's akin to having a microphone and headphones and I've done that on occasion to kind of tease through a new impression.
"You kind of start to build a wireframe - you get someone's accent, then you listen for the nuances and then off you go."
A top tip there, though Callan cautions that it can be tricky for folks on opposite sides of the border to mimic each other properly.
"Generally, people in the south can't do northern accents, and vice versa," he tells me.
"Similarly, I think people from the north can't do other accents, other than the American one, which is obviously G-Mac's [top Northern Ireland golfer Graeme McDowell] accent - and, increasingly, R-Mac's [Rory McIlroy's] accent as well."
Conversation then turns to every Irish movie fan's favourite subject: famous actors who have tried and failed to nail an Irish accent, which in turn leads to Callan pointing out that even one of the north's biggest stars seems to have difficulty with voices that are geographically appropriate for his characters.
"Poor auld Liam Neeson is usually struggling to do an accent that's not from the north," he observes.
"In some movies, he sort of seems to almost just give up trying to be American halfway through and just reverts to Ballymena.
"And then there's Jamie Dornan, of course, who tragically couldn't do a west of Ireland accent in that film that everyone refused to watch here, Wild Mountain Thyme - although even he wasn't quite as bad as Christopher Walken."
:: Oliver Callan brings Callan's Kicks Live to The Black Box in Belfast on Friday March 24 as part of the Imagine! Belfast Festival of Ideas. See Imaginebelfast.com for tickets and full festival programme.
10 TO SEE AT IMAGINE! BELFAST
Poetry & Politics - March 20, Cube Theatre, Crescent Arts Centre
Local politicians including Doug Beattie (UUP), Claire Hanna (SDLP), Deirdre Hargey (Sinn Féin), Emma Little-Pengelly (DUP) and Kate Nicholl (Alliance) will be stepping up to the mic to showcase the artistic side to their political personas by reciting their favourite poems. Chaired by the BBC’s William Crawley.
Five Days - March 20 to 22, The Deer's Head
In April 2005, writer Joe Nawaz and his family travelled from Belfast to the wilds of Pakistan on the trail of a mystery - the mystery of how, where and why his father Rab had been murdered. This new one-man play is a celebration of family and an exploration of identity in a place where identity is still contentious.
George Monbiot: Regenesis - March 21, online, free admission
Author, Guardian columnist and environmental activist George Monbiot's current research focus is on the global food system. In this online talk with Alan Meban, he will discuss how we can feed the world without devouring the planet.
Sherine Tadros: A talk about Love, War and Changing the World - March 22, Crescent Arts Centre, free admission
Award-winning former war correspondent Sherine Tadros explains how she swapped career to become a human rights activist and gives a passionate defence of human rights in an age of rising authoritarianism.
Medbh McGuckian: The Thankless Paths to Freedom - March 23, Cube Theatre, Crescent Arts Centre, free admission
Medbh McGuckian is one of Ireland's most renowned poets, with over 15 poetry collections: the most recent is The Thankless Paths to Freedom, which has won rave reviews.
Reunion by Julie Dutkiewicz - March 23 and 24, Vault Artist Studios, Belfast
This play produced by Kabosh Theatre is about "family, love and everything that went before". Reunion looks at the preconceptions of a domestic violence victim and what it takes to survive. This premiere also includes post-show panel discussions.
Homing in on Human Rights - March 24, Cube Theatre, Crescent Arts Centre, free admission
This event presents Irish journalist Sally Hayden and Ugandan human rights advocate and writer Stella Nyanzi in conversation with Liz McManus, plus poetry from Ammar Al Najjar.
Jonathon Porritt: Confronting Today’s Climate Emergency - March 25, Crescent Arts Centre
In this talk, the renowned author and campaigner will discuss how we can tackle the climate crisis.
The Garden Gathering: Imagining a future with greenspace for all - March 25, 2 Royal Avenue, free admission
Gardeners and the gardening-curious come together for food and chat about the many benefits of growing food.
Beans - March 23, Queen’s Film Theatre, free admission
Directed by Mohawk-Canadian film-maker Tracey Deer and inspired by true events, Beans follows a Mohawk girl on the cusp of adolescence who must grow up fast and become her own kind of warrior during the armed stand-off known as 'the 1990 Oka Crisis'.
:: Full festival programme and ticketing details available via imaginebelfast.com