IT’S BEEN a rollercoaster 12 months for Baz Ashmawy. The television and radio presenter had his first taste of international success, with his Sky series 50 Ways To Kill Your Mammy, a hit with audiences and critics.
However, the exposure had a downside, as it shone a spotlight on his difficult upbringing and the father (now deceased) who walked out on the family when Ashmawy was just eight.
“It was a little bit uncomfortable,” he nods. “I did one big interview where there was a lot of personal stuff. I kept thinking: ‘I don’t know who is interested in all this?’ That’s the interview they wanted, so it was the one I gave. That is part and parcel of TV: you can’t complain.
“Essentially you’re playing with the devil — you like it when they are promoting your new project, you’re unhappy that they are following you and taking your photograph. That’s how it is.”
You suspect he’ll be OK. Though it received a lukewarm response in Ireland, Mammy was acclaimed in the UK. In the series, Ashmawy and his septuagenarian mum embarked on a series of stunts, including sky-diving and whitewater rafting. The tone was jokey, yet with a serious undertone as mother and son were forced to re-examine their relationship and their outlook on life in general.
Buoyed by the positive reception, in December, Mammy was sold to some 30 markets globally, including France, Vietnam, and Israel.
With Ashmawy attached as producer as well as presenter, it’s likely he’ll do very well financially — some reports estimate he could pocket upwards of $5m from the venture.
But he isn’t waiting for the cash to roll in. Later this week he’s back on Sky as the face of a rather different offering, a quirky TV quiz called The Fanatics.
As the title implies, it’s a celebration of kooky obsessives: People who know all there is to know (and possibly a great deal more) about Marvel Comics, the London Underground, the complete works of JRR Tolkien, and so forth.
“There was a really quick turnaround on this,” says Ashmawy. “I was halfway through doing publicity for Mammy when Sky came to me. They’d been looking for a presenter for a game show, had tried other people, and it hadn’t worked out. They certainly weren’t buttering me up. It was a case of ‘Do you want to come over and give it a try?’”
He says he is glad Mammy was well reviewed — but would have stood over the show no matter the response. As a veteran of several gleefully low-rent RTÉ series, most notoriously the Jackass-esque How Low You Can Go?, he understands critical acclaim and high ratings do not go hand in hand. Sometimes, it appears to him, they are mutually exclusive.
“I have given up looking for good reviews,” he says. “When How Low came out people slammed it. And I thought: ‘Oh God, this is awful.’
“Then you went out on the street and the people who actually watched your show came up and told you they loved it. You start to need the acceptance of critics less and less. In the UK, we got all these good reviews for Mammy and I truly didn’t care. No offence to the people who write about TV for a living: I don’t need their acceptance.”
The contestants on The Fanatics might kindly be described as eccentric. Ashmawy had the delicate task of poking fun about their passions without coming across sneery or condescending. Honesty, he concluded, was the smartest policy.
“As a presenter I’ve always been straight up with people,” he says. “If I think something is weird, I’ll say it to their faces rather than behind their backs.
“These people know themselves that they are obsessed and a bit off. We had this one girl talking about the end of Spiderman 2.She burst into tears. I was like: ‘You know this is a comic right? It’s not real’. It obviously meant something to her. And you have to respect that.”
- The Fanatics begins on Sky 1 on Wednesday