Michael Smiley is An Irishman in London
The comic actor performs his one-man show, Immigrant!, at the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival
When Michael Smiley left Belfast for London in 1983 his first stop wasn't at Buckingham Palace, but a B&B run by a Hungarian couple in their mid-50s. They were both alcoholics, with a pair of frisky dogs who had the run of the house.
'They were the most eccentric old couple I've ever met,' recalls Smiley. 'He was a raving alcoholic. She was too, but she was holding it together a lot better. They had an Alsatian and a collie dog who used to put on a floor show for us every morning. Meanwhile the couple would be walking around out of their heads on vodka and Valium. It definitely put a different spin on what I thought London was like.'
It was an inauspicious start to a colourful theatrical career. Smiley has recently appeared in films like Burke & Hare and Kill List, winning a best supporting actor award for his performance in the latter film at last year's British Independent Film Awards alongside luminaries like Paddy Considine and Michael Fassbender.
On the small screen he's better-known as the ecstasy-loving bicycle courier Tyres O'Flaherty in Channel 4's cult comedy Spaced. In the 1980s, though, Smiley wasn't thinking of television. His compunction was to set off around the globe to wander a year here and a year there, returning to Belfast full of wisdom and worldly experience. 'That was the plan,' he says. 'I only made it as far as London.'
The city offered a start in stand-up comedy, after a friend named Stuart bullied Smiley into trying out at a London comedy club. One of the acts didn't show up so Smiley was offered a chance, winning laughs with a three-minute slot.
Immigrant! is Smiley's history of leaving Northern Ireland, a semi-autobiographical travelogue based on his past 30 years in England. More of a story than a series of fast-paced zingers, the show draws on the characters he knew as a child and on the misadventures he's had along the way.
Smiley's childhood Belfast was a deprived place, but lack of jobs and investment meant it was a place where everyone had to be a character. Or, as Smiley puts it, Belfast was a place 'full of nutters. I think you had to be,' he says. 'You could be anything so long as you weren't boring. I grew up with that quickness of wit where everybody had their story to tell.'
He describes his mother, an inner-city girl from the Markets, as sharp-witted. His father though, from the Holywood area, was more of a searcher. 'He was very philosophical,' Smiley explains. 'He was always spiritually searching. It wasn't like he had a religious belief, but he was always thinking about where man comes from.'
His father offered Smiley his first taste of professional comedy by dint of a VHS collection in the house. Performers like Billy Connolly and Richard Pryor planted the seed, but as a youngster Smiley didn't think stand-up was a viable career option. 'I never thought it would be for me,' he says. 'My mind never made that quantum leap. It came as a beautiful mistake, really.
'[The chronology] sort of went Billy Connolly, then Richard Pryor, and then probably Robin Williams. They were the three big seminal videos I remember watching as a kid. But as I say I never thought I could do that. I'd remember the jokes, and tell them to my mates. I was always collecting jokes. I think that's what we did in those days. I think you collected jokes.'
But before long Smiley's own comic impulse had grown. He remembers being nine years of age, telling his Dad his first original gag. 'I said I was a Catholic Buddhist: I've got all the guilt, but I rise above it.'
And while his own departure from Ireland worked out fairly well, Smiley says that anyone leaving today would do better to have an idea of what they want before setting off.
'Take a wee look at yourself and really ask, "What do I want?" It might be just around the corner from you, but you might need to travel to find it.' Failing that, he suggests having a place to stay so you don't end up in a B&B with a pair of feisty dogs. 'If you have a mate and can get on to a sofa, do that.'
Michael Smiley brings Immigrant! to the Belfast Assembly Rooms at 8pm on Thursday, May 10.