Defining Ivan Little
Lee Henry finds out how the Belfast journalist and actor has learnt restraint
One of Northern Ireland’s best known broadcast journalists and theatre actors, Ivan Little is a man of many talents. His autobiography Little By Little charts the highs and lows of a career that has seen him graduate from the modest induction of the Portadown Times to the mighty media climbs of UTV and ITN.
Plagued by the memory of an ill-fated piece to camera for UTV in which the bearded baritone momentarily lost all sense of pronunciation, his casting in the lead role of a new Martin Lynch play The History of the Troubles (Accordin' to My Da!) in 2002 would change his fortune forever, propelling him ever further into the public consciousness as the beloved Gerry Courtney, fulfilling a childhood dream or along the way.
Co-written by Conor Grimes and Alan McKee, Little’s co-stars in the play was originally commissioned to run for 9 nights by the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival, but has since gone on to become Northern Ireland’s most successful production to date, touring Britain and Ireland for a combined audience of more than 150,000 people: a truly phenomenal feat.
Catching up with the towering thespian was difficult. His schedule was busy to say the least. Traversing the country for UTV by day, treading the boards at the Lyric Theatre in Roy Heayberd’s newest production of the Willy Russell classic Educating Rita by night, Little had his work cut out.
Nevertheless, the self-effacing veteran was in good humour.
‘Me? A workaholic? Definitely not,’ he said, chuckling into his fizzy drink. ‘I’ve been working in television journalism for twenty odd years now and professional theatre sort of crept up on the sidelines. But I’m more than happy to do both.
‘With amateur drama I found that I could rehearse at night, whereas with professional theatre I have to take three or four weeks off from UTV to do the rehearsals. And when the show’s on for real, I work my day job and then do the show in the evening, which sounds harder than it actually is.
‘But as long as I get a break at tea time, as long as I get a few hours to just sort of chill out after UTV, I’m usually all right. I missed a lot of the World Cup though, which I’m not too happy about!’
In the hectic world of Northern Irish journalism, they don’t come much bigger than Little. From a famously hands-on encounter with Dr Rev Ian Paisley live on air to a rather hairy rendezvous with the Orange Volunteers complete with sub-machine guns and a bible reading, Little has seen it all.
Nevertheless, acting has always been his first love, and it all began with Shakespeare.
‘I started acting at Grosvenor High School. I’ve no idea why. A master who took drama picked me out one day and asked me to read a part. I never had any inclination towards acting because I was very shy at school and I wouldn’t have looked twice at anybody. But he gave me a part in Macbeth, a very small part, the Third Murderer. And after that, maybe because I was big and could play more adult parts, I always ended up playing the lead roles. And I found that I loved it.’
Although he harboured ambitions of attending drama school, hard times forced the young Little to enrol at Belfast’s College of Commerce, and a career in journalism was soon on the cards. But the heady world of the stage was never far from Little’s thoughts, and by the time The History of the Troubles came about, fifteen years of amateur theatre and a number of film and television roles proved education enough.
Telling the story of the hapless Gerry Courtney and his band of flawed associates, The History of the Troubles manages to cram in all of the watershed events of the Troubles – from the ’69 riots to the fin-de-siècle ceasefires – in just under one and a half hours.
‘It was quite amazing how it all came about,’ Little explained, still seemingly in awe of the play's monumental success. ‘We knew it was funny, but we had no idea how big a hit it was going to become.
‘Apparently there’s a laugh every twenty seconds. I believe somebody tried to work that out because it just never stops. But it’s also very poignant at times. One minute the audience is crying with laughter, the next with emotion. But people don’t find it awkward or hard to take. It’s brilliantly written and devised in that respect. It just switches beautifully. I’m just so grateful I got the part.’
Having become so close to the loveable Gerry, his next role as Frank – the alcoholic English tutor in Roy Heayberd’s Educating Rita – would be something of a leap into the unknown for Little, and a valuable lesson in the art of restraint.
‘From my experience in the Troubles I know that if I give a wee look to the audience that I’ll get a laugh. But with Educating Rita, Roy taught me to fight against that because Frank is a very troubled individual in many ways. I didn’t quite realise how troubled until we started exploring the various levels of the man. So it’s been a great discipline for me.’
With The History of the Troubles scheduled for a not-too-distant return to Belfast’s Grand Opera House, there’s time yet to see the mighty Ivan in all his cardiganed glory. Meanwhile, Little has a few plans of his own.
‘I’m hoping maybe to write a few more books,’ he revealed, casting a crafty eye around the UTV canteen. ‘I was about to start something when I got the call for Educating Rita. But I don’t have time to act, work in UTV and write a book at the same time, that’s for sure. I’ve a few wee ideas up my sleeve though. We’ll just have to wait and see.’