First published in abbreviated form in the Evening Echo, Friday 6th February 2015
Playing Cork Opera House is a bit like playing the West End, says Paul Howard, as his creation Ross O’Carroll-Kelly returns here for the third time.
“Well, Cork gave the world Ronan O’Gara,“ laughs million-selling author Paul Howard, “So Ross would forgive Cork anything for that. I think Ross would quite like Cork, especially Montenotte. I think he would see Montenotte as a spiritual home-away-from-home for him.
“I think Ross would love Cork.”
Cork certainly loves Ross, if the success here of his two previous shows is anything to go by. The new play, Breaking Dad, sees Ross older but certainly none the wiser. The year is 2022 and the Irish economy is again booming (“The Celtic Phoenix” – copyright Charles O’Carroll-Kelly). Thanks to the machinations of Ross’ old man, Bertie Ahern has quit his job as a taxi-driver and is about to be re-elected Taoiseach. Ross’ happy middle age as “Ireland’s most eligible married man” is shattered when his teenage daughter brings home her boyfriend Traolach – captain of Blackrock College rugby team – her arrogant, obnoxious and disturbingly-familiar boyfriend.
“This is the third show we’ve brought to the Opera House and I was probably more worried about Cork than any other show because I had some inkling the Dublin crowd would get the jokes but I worried about Cork,” admits Howard. “It’s kind of like playing the West End, in a way. You wonder ‘Will it transfer?’ “
To his relief, he says he has found Cork audiences receptive to Ross before the lines were even delivered. “I think they find that stereotypical South Dublin rugby jock such a ridiculous character that they’re prepared to laugh before he even opens his mouth.”
Howard finds such differences fascinating, remembering when he brought the first Ross O’Carroll-Kelly play to Cork in 2008. Ross and his wife Sorcha discuss their daughter Honor’s first word (‘Focaccia’).
“Ross comes in with the line ‘I told you to stop bringing our daughter to Avoca Handweavers. Do you want her to grow up Protestant?’ Now, the gag there is that there’s a kind of a Protestant lifestyle aesthetic to Avoca Handweavers, I think, with tray-bakes, shawls and a parish fete kind of atmosphere. So when Rory Nolan (who plays Ross) said ‘Do you want her to grow up Protestant?’ the Dublin audience instantly got the joke.
“When we took it to Cork, as soon as Rory said ‘Avoca Handweavers’ the audience just burst into hysterics and started applauding, so no-one even heard the line about Protestantism because Avoca Handweavers to a Cork audience I suppose signifies a certain type of Dublin snobbishness.
“So after three performances, Rory Nolan asked me ‘Will I just drop the Protestant line?’ and I said ‘Yeah, because that’s not the joke anymore’.
Howard says he is conditioned from his many years working in newspapers. He commutes from his home in Stillorgan to the house in Avoca where he puts in a full working day most days. “I recognise that I’m a lark more than an owl. I don’t really work well at night. I like to start at six in the morning and try to be finished by four or five in the afternoon. That’s what I do but I don’t do it twelve months a year. I’m writing the next Ross book at the moment and I’ll probably be finished that by the end of February. At the moment I’m doing eight to ten hour days and that’s usually for the three to four month period while I’m writing a book. I try to treat it as a job.”
Ross is hardly the only string to Paul Howard’s bow. The multiple award-winning writer is currently writing a biography of Tara Browne, the socialite peer and friend of the Beatles. He wrote Anglo the Musical and he writes sketches for Irish Pictorial Weekly and the Mario Rosenstock Show. He has also ghost-written for George Hook and,er, Roy Keane’s dog Triggs.
He recalls reporting from Athens the 2004 Olympics for the Sunday Tribune, working twelve to fourteen hour days as a sports writer and then putting in another four or five hours writing a Ross O’Carroll-Kelly book. “It nearly killed me.”
Howard says that for the first few years he found it hard to get into Ross’ voice. Now the character is in its seventeenth year, he finds it hard to switch that voice off. “It’s never lost on me the bizarreness of what I do for a living: my working day involves thinking in the voice of an idiot for about ten hours. I’m always conscious that I can’t ascribe any big words to him or big thoughts. Occasionally he’ll have little insights that might be quite prescient but it’s entirely accidental if he has any kind of insight at all. This moronic voice is going on in my head when I finish in the evening and it’s getting out of that voice is the tough bit.
“I do get to take a break from Ross. I finish this book at the end of February and then I won’t start the next Ross book until the end of October. Even though I have the weekly column, I do get to spend six days a week not thinking about Ross. If I get a little bit Ross-weary toward the end of writing a book, I do get to take a six month break, during which time I can get my enthusiasm back up again.”
Howard says it took him a while to like the character. “It was a slow evolution. I don’t think I realised he was likeable until he became a father. I think that was the turning point for me, but I think slowly I had been warming to him. I certainly wouldn’t have been able to sustain a newspaper column for seventeen years unless I had some regard for him.
“At the beginning, I did hate him. Ross O’Carroll-Kelly was born out of my hatred of that whole rugby club stereotype.” He cites George McDonald Fraser’s “Flashman” books as a major influence on Ross’ evolution as a despicable character occasionally redeemed by moments of self-awareness.
I tell Howard that the first time I met Ross’s world was in a piece Ross’s father Charles had “written” in the Sunday Tribune, where he bemoaned Political Correctness Gone Mad In The Workplace, where a man can no longer so much as pat a young woman approvingly on the behind anymore for fear of a bloody tribunal, for God’s sake.
“I love Charles,” admits Howard, “because you’re not supposed to like him but you do. Even though he’s irredeemably corrupt, he’s also a nice guy. And those two things can live side-by-side in someone. Nobody’s just one thing. We’re all far more complicated than that. But besides being this loveable man, there’s an edge to him too and he has this sidekick, Hennessy Coughlan-O’Hara, who is downright evil. And Charles doesn’t even really know how deeply malevolent a character Hennessy is.”
There is one pivotal scene in Breaking Dad where Charles (played by Philip O’Sullivan) shares a conspiratorial moment with his grandson Ronan (Love/Hate’s Laurence Kinlan). Given the clear chemistry between the characters of Charles and Ronan and the actors playing them, might the Kelly gene and its native cunning have skipped a gene with Ross?
“It does happen that sometimes very brilliant people have very average children,” he laughs, “And Charles, to his dying day, will never, ever admit that he’s been disappointed by Ross but I think he sees the brilliance in Ronan that he wanted to see in Ross and I think that’s why they’re so close. I think also they recognise that dodginess in each other. I think Ross is too stupid to be dodgy, but Ronan is on the fast track to Dodge City. Where Charles is the Mayor!”
For as long as Ross has been a success, Paul Howard has been asked when he intends to stop writing him. “At the beginning, I said I’d write a trilogy and then I said I’d do five and then I said ten is a good number, because ten is his number and then…” The current book, Keeping up with the Kalashnikovs, is the fourteenth in the series and is, if anything, funnier than its predecessors.
“I enjoy writing them so much and people are still reading them and finding them funny and finding them relevant. I think I’ll know when the time is right to stop.
“I don’t have an end in sight but I think what will eventually happen is that one day one book is going to be exactly the same as the very first book. All of the very same stuff will happen in it and that will be the time that we’ve come full circle, when we are in the midst of another economic boom, of another period of complete and utter madness. Ross is slowly morphing into his father and I think Honor is essentially becoming Ross and Sorcha is in some ways becoming Fionnuala.
“Everybody is eventually going to end up back at where they began and we’ll have learned nothing along the way,” says Howard, breaking into laughter.
Howard says he does worry a little about spoiling the books by referencing in his weekly newspaper column life-changing events which have taken place in the books. Likewise, he doesn’t want to spoil the enjoyment of reading the columns by making that experience dependent upon having read the books. (There are no spoilers in this interview but suffice to say Rosser’s life has seen some big changes of late.)
“The two worlds diverged about five or six years ago and it didn’t used to be an issue because, when I was writing for the Sunday Tribune, I always had a sense that the column readership was very different from the book readership. I really felt that there were different people reading it but then I went to the Irish Times and I think that (now) it’s the same audience.
“It’s a bit like in The Simpsons,” he says, “where there’s never really any narrative continuity. One day Homer will just be working as a postman and they’ll never explain how his job in the power-plant is still open and he’ll go back to it. He’s just working as a postman and you just go with it! I think I’ll have to be a little like that with Ross.
“I think I’ll just have to throw out that sense of narrative consistency for the sake of keeping the various storylines going. It’s a bit like plate-spinning. I’m always thinking when I’m writing ‘Did I start that storyline in the column or in the last book?’”
(For example, Howard points out that while Ross’ company Shred Focking Everything has recently gone out of business in the column, it went about four years ago in different circumstances in the books but in the play Ross is still its managing director seven years in the future. He says that he is confident that his readers will continue to forgive minor narrative inconsistencies so long as the jokes work.)
“I don’t know if I do continue writing Ross until 2022, will the events of the books match up with the events of (Breaking Dad)? I don’t know will Charles become the Fianna Fáil Director of Elections who oversees Bertie Ahern’s resurrection. I don’t know if Sorcha will have gone back to college and become a human rights lawyer.”
Howard says he keeps a bible of all the characters and their stories but he knows his audience values laughter above the weight of continuity. “I think, really, people just go with it.
“Really, it’s about making people laugh. That’s the most important thing to me.”
As a million-plus book sales will attest, making people laugh is something Paul Howard does brilliantly. Long may he – and Ross – continue to do so.
“Keeping Up With The Kalashnikovs” is available in bookshops.