When Grimes Met McKee

The comic spark is alive and well thanks to the NI duo, finds Emma Heatherington

TV presenters, playwrights, and actors, Conor Grimes and Alan McKee have been described as ‘bordering on comic genius’ by the Irish Times, and ‘original, life affirming and very, very funny’ by the Irish News.

The duo, who met as students at Queen’s University, have built on their onstage comic success to form a career on the small and silver screen.

Their recent successes include presenting The Visitors and Motor Mouth on BBC television, as well as the massive success of The History of the Troubles (Accordin’ to my Da!), which they co-wrote with Martin Lynch.

The first project that Grimes, from Donaghmore, and McKee, from Coleraine, worked on was alternative Christmas pantomime Button’s Hole at the Old Museum Arts Centre in Belfast in 1998. McKee describes the early days, and how things aren’t so different now.

‘We started off writing and performing sketches together, in small venues in Belfast. We built up a small, loyal audience of people who wanted something a bit different.

'Not much has changed in terms of how we write together - I type, Conor sleeps - but these days we’ve been working on plays as opposed to sketches. Plays are much harder.’

The History of the Troubles ... is perhaps the most well-known play penned by the pair. With Lynch on board and the acting talents of UTV’s Ivan Little as Gerry, Grimes and McKee illustrated the past thirty years of trouble in Northern Ireland as witnessed by a very ordinary Belfast working class father of two, who gets caught up in the city’s quandaries through circumstances beyond his control.

McKee lists the success of the play as one of the duo's proudest achievements.

‘It started off in a 100-capacity venue as part of the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival, and has since sold out the Grand Opera House four times. We're bringing it back in 2007.’

As well as their combined successes, both men are equally well-known as individuals. Grimes is still recognised from a television advertisement as the fisherman whose ideas are stored in a ‘filing cabinet’, and his alter ego 'Datsun Donaghy' is a regular BBC panelist on The Championship.

Datsun is now in great demand in his own right, having shared his worldly views on the GAA with the country for the past two football seasons, and his 'How I won the Sam Maguire' DVD. Meanwhile, McKee has graced the big screen down under.

‘I appeared in a movie called The Craic, an Australian film written by Jimeoin McKeown. We played two Irish illegal immigrants in Australia. It’s one of the top grossing films in Australian history. I’m really big in Australia - honest.’

Following the success of The History of the Troubles was not easy, but a new Christmas show ensued. Of course, it was written in Grimes and McKee’s trademark alternative style, depicting the story of the birth of Jesus through the eyes of the donkey in the manger.

What the Donkey Saw ran at The Lyric Theatre and asked questions like, just how gullible was Joseph? Why didn't he think to book a room in advance? Didn't he know the place would be packed for Christmas? Did the wise men's camels have one hump or two? And why did Herod have the hump?

‘We explored why two thousand years later we re-tell one of the greatest stories by dressing our children in tea towels and dressing gowns and making them play carols on the Devil's instrument - the recorder.’

From stage to screen, Grimes and McKee's writing and humour has transformed them into successful TV presenters. The Visitors, an eight-part series for BBC, followed the pair as they visited one home per week, in search of 'the good life'.

The properties in the show were all someone’s dream home, but each house had its quirks and represented the diverse tastes and personalities of Northern Ireland.

In Motor Mouth the pair set out to help someone buy a car every week. Whilst Grimes was portrayed as a genuine car-loving culchie, McKee, who doesn't drive, played at being 'as corrosive as battery acid'.

As might be expected, each man takes inspiration from unlikely sources.

‘The late Rod Hull’, says Grimes. ‘He made a little go a long way, and died trying to fix his TV aerial the night Manchester Utd won the Champions League. A glorious chancer.’

Alan admires the bilingual talents of cross-dresser Eddie Izzard.

‘He did a gig in French. I sometimes have difficulty in English.’

When asked what careers they may have found themselves in had they never met, the pair reply in their usual humour.

‘We have thought about changing to McKee & Grimes and setting up as accountants. The only flaw being that neither of us are accountants. So Alan would probably be working for a private security firm in the Southern Iraqi city of Falujah and I would be a priest, possibly a Bishop, by now.’