Des O’Driscoll joins the stars of The Young Offenders on the set of the new TV adaptation, launching on RTÉ next month
They say you should never meet your heroes. For the group of young lads who sidled up to The Young Offenders star Chris Walley during a break in filming for the upcoming BBC/RTÉ series, this proved to be very much the case. As Walley — he plays the tall one Jock — began to chat to the kids, he noticed their formerly-star-struck faces dropping to a communal quizzical frown. Then one of them piped up: “‘Jesus, boy, you don’t sound like Jock at all. You’re fierce posh in real life!” The bubble was burst.
In fairness to Walley, even after a year at RADA in London, his Glanmire tones aren’t exactly Laurence Olivier. He is still unmistakably Cork, albeit with an accent a few notches down from his beloved character’s northside twang. Since that moment, the 22-year-old now stays in character when meeting young fans — “Just to keep up appearances and preserve Jock’s reputation.”
That encounter was a rare off-colour response on a project that has consumed a large part of the lives of Walley and his comrades since the summer of 2015, when the original film was made on a budget of €50,000. After its premiere a year later, The Young Offenders became the biggest Irish film of 2016, taking in over €1 million at the box office, and charming almost everyone who went to see it.
Obviously, it was a big hit on Leeside — the city and county looked so good, and proud Corkonians approved of how writer/director Peter Foott (see p16) represented them. Jock and Conor, the bike-robbing, cocaine-hunting duo at the centre of film were very much embraced as ‘our’ loveable rogues.
Unlike tripe and drisheen, however, The Young Offenders also had an appeal way beyond Cork. BBC and RTÉ joined forces to commission Foott to create a six-part series that was filmed across the city through August and September last year. The series will debut on UK-only digital outlet BBC Three on February 1, and will launch a week later date on RTÉ2 on Thursday, February 8.
A sort of reboot of the film rather than a sequel, the TV adaptation follows different plotlines, with the introduction of several new characters, and the recasting of PJ Gallagher as a school principal rather than a drug smuggler. Otherwise, all the original ingredients are very much there.
Given that there was a valid case for the film to subtitled in any cinema north of Mallow, it wouldn’t have been surprising if the British backers had asked for the Corkness of it all to be diluted somewhat. On the evidence of the first episode, that didn’t happen. A few visits were made to the set by the BBC, but Foott was thrilled with the amount of creative independence he was allowed.
“There was literally nothing that was toned down, or no discussion about anything that might not translate — the BBC and RTÉ were fully supportive of us keeping true to the vision we had for the project,” says Foott. “Alex Moody [commissioning editor] from the BBC was over the show creatively. She really got what the film was about and helped keep the series true to Cork. While the place is obviously very specific, we like to think the stories and themes are universal, and relatable no matter where in the world you’re watching the show.”
It’s a good time to be releasing a series such as The Young Offenders. The schedules aren’t exactly packed with decent comedies at the moment, and the Cork-made show is also following in the wake of Channel 4’s second-city mega-hit, Derry Girls.
Budget aside, the big difference in making the series in Cork in comparison to the film is that everybody knows about it now. Back in 2015, the lads and their crew might have brought a few idle glances from the passing public; by 2017, the shoot sparked viral texts (‘OMG... Just saw Young Offenders filming on Grand Parade!!!’) and regular incursions.
Such is the price of popularity, and those involved wouldn’t have it any other way. “I remember we were shooting a dance scene on Carey’s Lane, similar to the one in the film,” recalls Foott. “But unlike last time, people knew what was happening and we ended up with around 300 spectators. The amazing thing was when we asked if people would mind being quiet there was perfect silence on this street in the middle of Cork city.”
Before they started filming on the series, the cast had three weeks of rehearsals at the building that houses Griffith College on Wellington Road. They had their script, but were given room to improvise.
For actors with such a rapport as Walley and Alex Murphy (Conor), that’s a great way to work. “It’s such fun to do as you never know what you’re going to get from the person along side you,” says Walley, whose next big project is with Aidan ‘Poldark’ Turner in a West End production of Martin McDonagh’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore.
“The stuff that Alex throws at me sometimes is mad but just so brilliant. And then it all feels so fresh as a result of that. We’d read through the script every day and we’d offer up our own ideas.”
Even when they got to shooting the series, Foott allowed some room for manoeuvre. “As an actor they tell you to follow your impulses, and the first thought you have about your character is the right one and you should act upon it,” explains Walley. “The atmosphere that has been created on set is that no matter what idea I have during a take, now I won’t even think twice, I’ll just do it. Even if it’s going off script, as you could end up with something that’s just gold.
“Afterwards, Peter will be like, ‘That didn’t work’, or ‘That worked and it gets in’. It’s just so open you feel you can’t put a foot wrong.”
That benevolent ambience on set was a bonus for anyone involved in the gruelling eight-week shoot, with long days that began at 6am. Much of the work is repetitive, with each scene being shot multiple times, and there’s also a lot of hanging around, often in bad weather.
On-set, everybody looked focused and hardworking, but there was also plenty banter and a bonhomie that actually worked its way through to the finished product. St Vincent’s GAA club provided a welcome base for food and rest as the crew moved betweeen various northside locations, from Mayfield to Farranree to the secondary school in Knocknaheeny. The English Market in Cork city centre again features in the series, and it was a sequence at the Marina that provided Walley with his most uncomfortable scene.
“I jump off a lot of things in the show and in one of the episodes I end up in the River Lee,” he recalls. “It was raining, and then the rain would stop and we’d go for a take and then it would rain again. The water is less than appealing, and I even saw some questionable objects floating past me when I was in there.”
Though they didn’t know each other before the film, it isn’t surprising that Walley and his on-screen partner-in-crime Alex Murphy have become good friends since. They prefer to be interviewed together, and even bounce off each other just like... you guessed it.
Murphy, from Rochestown, is half-way through his three-year course at the Lir Academy in Dublin. He chortles at the thought of the impression himself and Walley must make when they’re seen together off-set.
“People must think we’re really sad, especially when we had the same hair and moustaches, and we were still hanging out even when filming was over.”
Take note kids, your heroes’ accents may change, but when it comes to the important stuff, Conor and Jock are 100% genuine.