BAZ Ashmawy worried that he had gone too far. “My mother and I were about to jump out of a plane. Suddenly, I was having all the thoughts I hated having — ‘was she too old? Could she do it?’ I hate judging people for their age. And I was guilty of exactly that,” TV presenter Ashmawy says.
It was the first day of shooting on Ashmawy’s new Sky 1 television show, 50 Ways To Kill Your Mammy.
The premise was straightforward: the Dublin presenter and his 71-year-old mother, Nancy, would travel the world, engaging in a series of potentially dangerous stunts.
There would be thrills and spills — but also valuable life lessons and an important message: old people should not be written off as helpless or useless.
“I was very close to pulling the whole thing,” he says. “Going up for the jump, my mum was fine. I looked really freaked out. She said she would go first. So, there I was, watching my mother jump out of a plane.
“I was overcome by this huge sense of responsibility. She was under my wing and I had put her in this situation.”
Ashmawy realised something was amiss when he found himself quietly laughing in a corner.
“I got very giddy. Normally, I turn that way if I’m nervous. Then, it disappeared and I went very quiet. It did enter my head — ‘who is the mad one here? My mum for agreeing to do this, or me for pushing her’?” His mini panic-attack was understandable, but unnecessary.
Nancy jumped, her parachute opened, and she landed safely.
And, suddenly, they were off to the races.
Soon, Ashmawy and his mother were traversing the globe, riding ostriches, handling snakes, white-water rafting in Thailand, fraternising with bounty hunters in Los Angeles.
“I’d been chatting to Sky about doing something for a while,” Ashmawy says. “We were coming out with ideas…throwing things around. I was at home one day, with Nancy, and the subject of a nun aged 70, who had done a sky dive, was raised for some reason. My mum goes ‘I’d love to do a sky dive — would you do a sky dive with me?’ My first response was ‘don’t be stupid — you’re too old.’ She got the hump.”
Ashmawy felt terrible: he’d reminded his mother of her age — had said that she could not do the things other able-bodied people could do.
“I started to think — ‘who am I to tell my mum what she can or can’t do. So, why not? Let’s go and do it. Let’s go for a sky dive’,” he says.
Ashmawy suggested the idea to Sky and they were instantly supportive. For Ashmawy, it was a huge opportunity as, with a global reach and massive budgets, Sky can produce programming of a standard that Irish television can’t. Forgive the pun, he says, but “the sky was the limit”.
“Sky are very conscious they have a big Irish subscription base,” he says. “They are hungry to source some Irish talent. And, in Ireland, you are limited in some ways — in terms of budget, and what have you.”
But Ashmawy was anxious the show be authentically Irish — not the toe-curling ‘Oirish’ nonsense that often makes its ways onto the British airwaves.
“My mother is very Irish and I’m very Irish, too, but in a different way,” he says. “We were never going to do something that was tacky Irish — no diddle aye music, or any of that. Sky were on the same wavelength throughout. They looked after me and my mum really well and, editorially, gave us a lot of freedom.”
Ashmawy refers to his mother as ‘mum’. And, yet, the show is called 50 Ways To Kill Your Mammy with good reason: amid the stunts and the bumps, it is a valentine to the stereotypical Irish mammy and the indefatigable ways in which they shoulder the burdens of life. Through the series, Nancy becomes excited, fretful, scared — without ever truly shedding an invisible force-field of calm.
Even when hanging off the world’s largest bungee cord, it seems that all that is required to set her right is a restorative cup of tea.
“My mum has this real Irish skill,” says Ashmawy “She is really clever and witty and wise and funny — but she does it behind the Irish mammy shell. She is the wittiest person — she has me and the missus, and my kids, in stitches all the time. However, she maintains an outer wall of ‘Irish mammy-ness’. I think a lot of people will recognise that.”
Ashmawy wanted his mother to be herself on camera. With no television experience, she was highly self-conscious at first. She was uncomfortable, grew tongue-tied. To counter this, the crew would creep out of her field of vision and shoot her through a long lens, as she and Ashmawy conversed.
“We’d be having these really, really heavy conversations,” he says.
“The crew would pretend not to be there. What I wanted was to get the sense of my mum talking to me. Normally, when you talk to someone, it isn’t on camera. By the end, they were right up in her face and she was perfectly at ease. For someone who had never been on TV before, she was incredibly confident. It was a very interesting transformation,” he says. Ashmawy is easy-going and you can imagine viewers in the UK, as well as in Ireland, warming to him. He enjoys taking things to the limit: in his RTÉ television series of several years ago, How Long Can You Go?, he dallied with prostitutes in Las Vegas and negotiated Australia in a beat-up van.
With the new show, he pushes the envelope further, flying airplanes upside down and swimming with great white sharks — only now he has mother in tow.
However, under the japery, 50 Ways To Kill Your Mammy has a serious message. Ashmawy wants to demonstrate that old people can embrace life as fully as the rest of us and should not be pushed to one side and forgotten.
“We were going into departures at an airport and one of the staff, with my mum in full earshot, asked: ‘how old is she?’ And she was standing there in front of him. I was going — ‘ she’s right there, she can hear you’. The way we treat older people is something I feel really strongly about.”