One of Northern Ireland's top comedians has advice for aspiring stand-ups, writes Lee Henry
Meeting Tim McGarry outside the BBC's Broadcasting House, I suddenly understood what life must be like for Ronnie Corbett. Standing tall at six foot four, with legs like stilts, McGarry appears like something out of a Roald Dahl book - a big friendly giant smiling from ear to ear. He lights up a tiny cigar - as if smoking a toothpick - and shakes my hand before leading me to the bar. I have to quicken my step to keep up.
Recognised by all and sundry as the perpetually ill-fated Da from Give my Head Peace, Tim McGarry is as much a feature of the Northern Irish landscape as soda bread and rain clouds. He may not have Patrick Keilty's bank balance, or Nuala McKeever's good looks, but you get the feeling that he's more than happy with his lot.
With a career that spans radio, television and stand-up, McGarry has written his way to Royal Television Society and Sony awards as part of the Hole In The Wall Gang. But it's Northern Ireland's longest running sitcom of which he's most proud.
‘In twenty years from now - when I'm old and retired - people will remember Give my Head Peace,’ he says. ‘There's a real affection towards it from the public. There's some that could be better, but we've done seventy episodes, which is a hell of a lot.’
Currently touring the country with a new stage version Give My Head Peace, McGarry & Co are putting the finishing touches to their first feature film script, ‘a story about eleven working-class blokes from Belfast who end up in Vienna.’ It sounds fantastic, and it has nothing to do with the Troubles. The Hole In The Wall Gang have moved on.
With Belfast having played host to the likes of Frank Skinner and Bill Bailey as part of the 2008 Belfast Festival, does the big friendly giant have any advice for Northern Ireland's own aspiring comedians.
‘The only way to learn your craft is to get out there. There's no point writing your jokes at home and putting them in the drawer, you've got to perform them,’ he offers. ‘That way, you learn very quickly what works and what doesn't work. Then you can gauge if your writing is too wordy or windy, what went wrong with a particular punch line, why did the parts that worked work.
‘I think the scene is improving. The Empire Comedy Club is undoubtedly the best place to learn. It's a bear pit, but if you're serious about comedy, you need to go there and see how stand-ups perform; and the BBC also has a comedy unit trying to find new talent, so that's another outlet. It's a hard business, but there's a need for a new generation to come up. Start young and get going.’