Paul Howard loves the reaction Ross O’Carroll-Kelly gets in Cork and other regions, writes Richard Fitzpatrick
Ross O’Carroll-Kelly turns 21 this year. We can’t get enough of him. His antics have spawned books, weekly newspaper columns, spoken-word albums and musicals.
His fourth incarnation as a stage play, entitled Postcards from the Ledge, is touring Irish theatres next month. What’s surprising, perhaps, for such a stereotypically posh Dublin satirical character is that people outside the pale have embraced him so wholeheartedly.
“I think that kind of archetype — Leinster-loving, South Dublin, privileged rich kid — is instantly funny to people outside Dublin,” says his creator, Paul Howard.
“He’s a comic figure. The experience we’ve had in putting Ross on in Limerick and Cork in the past is that people are laughing before he gets a word out.
“Also the Celtic Tiger made it a nationwide-thing. I remember being in Galway a few years ago on a radio show. We were talking about whether Galway had a Ross O’Carroll-Kelly class of people. As we were in the studio, a story broke where two women had a fight in a motor showroom over who was going to get that year’s first [G-plated] version of a BMW X5. The gardaí had been called. The two of them had to be pulled apart. It is everywhere.
"And when it comes to understanding the Ross-type of person everybody in the country has a friend or a cousin or someone they knew in school who went to UCD, for instance, and lost their accent in about a week and a half. The Cork, Galway or Limerick accent was just sucked out of them by the water tower at Belfield – all the accents go into it. They come home talking in that horrendously ugly, South Dublin way.”
In the new one-man show, Rory Nolan takes on the part of Ross again. Howard says he couldn’t envisage a different actor doing the part. Nobody can nail the character’s outsized foibles so well. The fact that the play is set in 2029 when Ross is 50 is also a concession to Nolan who, as he’s inching towards 40 in real life, can’t be expected to play a 22-year-old rugby jock forever.
“Val Sherlock, who does the make-up and wigs, reckons he could tell the story of Ross O’Carroll-Kelly in hairpieces because in the very first Ross play, Ross had this tiny little quiff at the front,” says Howard.
Howard uses a sports analogy on the issue of whether they should get somebody younger to play Ross.
“It’s like in football where you retire the jersey when somebody so good finishes. Rory just makes me want to retire the jersey. He’s so good at playing the part. A lot of it has to do with the way he holds himself and Rory can play that thing really well where he’s being shoulders-back, chin-up arrogant, but at the same time there’s a vulnerability there. That it doesn’t take a lot to prick his bubble. It is all ego; and when you stripe away the front there’s something interesting going on behind it — the vulnerable Ross, and Rory got that straight away.”
Howard points out, too, that Nolan sprung from that world so the Ross character is familiar to him. Nolan’s credentials could hardly be better — he’s from Killiney; he played senior rugby for CBC Monkstown in Dún Laoghaire, Co Dublin — and he has, of course, the acting chops to pull off a two-hour emotional roller coaster.
“He knows exactly how much pathos to put into the character as well, especially with this show,” says Howard. “It’s a one-man show so he has to carry himself for two hours and I’ve given him a lot of emotional jumps to make. There are scenes where he’s reflective; and talking about people close to him dying; about his daughter getting married to somebody he doesn’t approve of; and he’s interspersing this with anecdotes about his life. He’s got to keep the audience laughing.”
Howard has had a remarkable career as a full-time writer since jacking in his day job as one of the country’s finest sportswriters 13 years ago. Along with the Ross O’Carroll-Kelly cottage industry, he’s since written several non-fiction books, including a spoof memoir of Roy Keane’s dog, and a notable
biography of the doomed life of Guinness heir Tara Browne. He’s currently working on two children’s books, which will be complete next year, and has had some interesting adventures in Hollywood.
In 2014 he sold a sitcom he worked on with Sharon Horgan to E!, the entertainment channel. It was about four young female writers working in the screen industry in Los Angeles called The Cliterati. It went to pilot, but never got picked up. They hawked it around to eight or nine studios. Howard was struck by the age profile of some of the people who assessed their pitches.
“When I found out we were going to be pitching in HBO and ABC I had an expectation of what a television executive was going to be like. That was completely exploded when I went into the rooms. A lot of them were people in their twenties. They weren’t wearing sharp suits. A few were in hoodies.
The age issue in the TV world also surprised Howard. “Some of the notes I was getting during the script-writing process were like, ‘This character is reading too old. Can you age her down a bit?’ And ‘reading too old’ was 29. Shows like Girls have done that. They’ve created expectation in people who watch TV that this is what female characters look like on television — they’re young.
“It wasn’t at all what I expected, but I really enjoyed it. When I write Ross and I create characters I have an expectation that the book is going to appear one day and people will get to enjoy it or not but a lot of the stuff I’m doing now – television scripts and that – you produce a script and then at some point it gets shut down.
You’re told, say: ‘we’ve got something else in production that’s kind of similar.’ And you have to say goodbye to all your characters and storylines. That’s really heart-breaking for me. It doesn’t matter if you’re getting paid for it – you still want to have a sense it’s going to appear one day, but that’s just the nature of that work.”
Postcards from the Ledge tours in February, including UCH, Limerick, 12-16; Cork Opera House, 19-23; and Town Hall Theatre, Galway, 25-28. See postcardsfromtheledge.ie