THIS year marks the 25th anniversary of BBC Northern Ireland sitcom Give My Head Peace, the endearingly silly send-up of local stereotypes created by local comedy troupe The Hole In The Wall Gang.
Gang leader Tim McGarry – who plays frustrated family man and hapless would-be republican leader Da in the show, alongside Hole In The Wall Gang comrades Damon Quinn (AKA Cal, Da’s half-wit son), Michael McDowell (AKA Da’s son-in-law, Billy ‘the peeler’) and Marty Reid (AKA lovable loyalist schemer Uncle Andy) – can scarcely believe they have now reached such a major milestone.
“The first one went out in January 1998, which makes me feel old just saying it, but we’ve still managed to retain our audience,” says Tim, who will be back on our screens and BBC iPlayer with Give My Head Peace: Total Christmas on December 28 – “our very silly take on A Christmas Carol in which Uncle Andy ruins Christmas for everybody,” he teases – the first of four brand new instalments filmed in front of a live studio audience for the first time since 2019.
“People still seem to love it: even though we’ve got older and moved with the times, the main core of those characters is still there. And the affection that the audience has for them is still amazing.
“I think that’s the main reason that we’re still at it – the public love to see these characters and what they are up to.”
Indeed, with the show’s televisual roots dating even further back to 1995′s ‘one-off’ TV film Two Ceasefires & A Wedding and many of the characters having featured in the Gang’s radio sketches before that, Give My Head Peace has certainly stood the test of time.
The success of its annual stage-based spin-off, Give My Head Peace Live, a topically-informed version of the show which has been touring to packed houses for the past decade, offers further proof of the format’s enduring popularity.
It will return to the road next February, once Tim and co have actually written it.
“We’re trying to get a few days sorted before Christmas where we’ll sit down and try to get a plotline together,” admits the north Belfast comic, who chairs BBC NI’s popular topical panel show The Blame Game and co-hosts the Irish history-themed BBC radio and TV series, The Long and The Short of It.
“We do genuinely try to leave it as late as possible in order to keep the show as topical as possible. So, we’ll not write the whole thing in December or even early January. God forbid, the DUP might go back into Stormont, or there could be a general election. So we’ll wait and see.
“We’ll leave it as late as late as we can – and we have left it very late on some occasions, where the script has been delivered to the actors the day before rehearsals. We have a week of rehearsals and then we’re on a week after that.”
According to Tim, getting the show written is always the hardest part of the Give My Head Peace Live process: it’s usually a lot of fun once he and the rest of the live show’s cast – which also features Olivia Nash as Da’s long-suffering better half, Ma, Alexandra Ford as their glitzy/ditzy daughter Dympna, Oscar-winner Paddy Jenkins as loyalist Pastor Begbie and recent recruit Ciaran Nolan as his sidekick, Sandy – are up and running on the road.
“It’s a pain in the backside now, but once it’s written and we get the first couple of shows under our belts, we genuinely have a ball,” he tells me.
“There’s three of us, Damon, Michael and myself, who do all the writing, and I’m the worrier. Every year I go, ‘it’s no good, it’s no good’ – and then we do the first one and I go, ‘oh it’s brilliant, we’re alright’.
“We go all around the country and sell-out virtually everywhere we go.”
Of course, despite Tim’s tendency to stress, a decade of performing together and 25 years of TV work besides means that slipping back into these characters and their dynamics has become second-nature to the core cast.
“We know each other so well, and the characters are very well established,” he admits.
“We also try to spread the parts as evenly as we can, so that everybody gets a wee turn, and I do a bit of stand-up in the middle as well, so it’s not quite a full hour-and-a-half play.
“We have a nice build-up and then we go all around the country, including up to Derry for three nights [March 14 to 16 at Millennium Forum], and finish off with 10 shows at the Grand Opera House [March 23 to 30] in Belfast.
“It will be lovely to get back there, because it’s just such a lovely theatre.”
As mentioned, the show now has an Oscar-winning performer in its cast: Paddy Jenkins, who won for his role in 2023′s Best Short Film, An Irish Goodbye, is actually the second Give My Head Peace alumni to receive an Oscar nod after Damon Quinn, who was a producer on Oscar-nominated short film The Crush in 2010.
Sadly, Paddy wasn’t able to join his co-stars and directors Tom Berkeley and Ross White on the red carpet in Hollywood to celebrate their big night as he had a previous engagement closer to home.
“Poor Paddy, God love him: he could have been at the Oscars, but he was at Downpatrick Arts Centre with us instead,” chuckles Tim.
“I mean, it was a very good show, with a very lovely audience, but not quite Hollywood, LA.”
In fact, one of the new episodes of Give My Head Peace will actually feature two Oscar-winners among its cast, thanks to a special cameo from An Irish Goodbye leading man, James Martin.
“I actually knew James before he was famous via football [both men are big Cliftonville FC fans] and a couple of other things,” explains Tim, “so I was absolutely delighted for him when he won the Oscar.
“However, he has said that getting to be in Give My Head Peace is obviously the biggest highlight of his year.”