Friday October 30, 2020

'I am disappointed with any celebrity who remains apolitical at this time' - Graham Linehan

In a no-holds-barred interview Father Ted creator Graham Linehan offers strong views on the state of our nation, Brexit, the eighth amendment, American politics and beyond

Barry J Whyte

Chief Feature Writer

8th April, 2017
Linehan holds forth Pic: Getty

First, a confession: I was once on the receiving end of a Graham Linehan social media haranguing.

It was early February 2013, and Linehan was ill. He had taken a well-known cold medicine, he told his Twitter followers, and the results had moved him to tweet about it.

I was standing on a train platform when I saw the tweet. Hastily, I posted a joke in reply about how this looked like a paid advertisement. I then put my phone back in my pocket to catch my train.

It was, in hindsight, a terrible idea. The joke was a bad one, and wide open for misinterpretation as a direct accusation of pay-for-play.

Linehan read it as such, and did not take the allegation kindly. “Twats like this are why I’m wary of praising things. Ho hum,” he wrote in reply.

So far, so mild. Unfortunately, by quoting my original tweet, he had placed me on a sacrificial altar in front of his hundreds of thousands of followers. For the next few hours, I was subjected to a barrage of abuse from people who misread my joke, or wanted to tell me they thought the joke was crap, or who were simply offended that I had the temerity to insult Linehan in the first place.

Eventually, after some rearguard defence on my behalf by a small number of people, he conceded – albeit reluctantly – that it had been intended as a joke, though I remained blocked by him for some time afterwards.

I’m not alone. Linehan is primarily famous as the man behind such popular comedy shows as Father Ted, The IT Crowd, Black Books and Count Arthur Strong. But in recent years, he has become just as famous for his sulphurous Twitter outpourings and occasional

ad hominem social media attacks.

Four years on from our exchange, I’m sitting in front of Linehan in the offices of TwoFour in London, the ITV-owned umbrella group of production companies through which his own production label, Delightful Industries, operates. There’s no sign of the angry @Glinner, his Twitter persona. In the flesh, he’s polite, friendly, engaging and – when I remind him of the tweet – deeply embarrassed.

In fact, when I mention it, he virtually crawls into his chair, his face buried in his hands.

“Oh no! I’m so sorry. Did I block you? Have I unblocked you? I’m so sorry! I must have unblocked you! Give me your username so I can unblock you now! Did we not make up online? I’m so sorry!”

He contrasts his approach with that of celebrities such as comedy actor and writer David Walliams, whose social media feed is a gentle array of replies to pleasant messages from fans and pictures of his beloved mother.

“I notice that when people get mail or tweets from the general public and they’re in any kind of showbusiness, their usual response is a mild kind of ‘well done’ or ‘thumbs up’”, he says.

“My interactions with the public, for the most part, are ‘F**k you’, ‘Don’t write to me again’, ‘This is too stupid to reply to’, ‘Muting you now’. My default is kind of like I’m sitting on a boil,” he says, referring to his Twitter style. “I’d like to say it’s not me, but obviously it is a version of me.”

This interview – which he says has inspired feelings of “shame and guilt” – is not the first time he’s encountered someone in real life who he has blocked on social media.

“I have met one other guy I blocked,” he says. They were standing on a train platform together and “we were wearing the same jacket. He says, ‘Nice jacket’ and I said, ‘Oh, cheers’. And he walked over to me and said, ‘You blocked me and I’ve been dining out on it ever since,’ and poked me in the arm and walked away.”

“That one I don’t feel bad about. That one I think, ‘No, that was exactly the right thing to do to that guy.”

Who was he, I ask?

“Just some c**t.”

Linehan is working on the show Motherland, which was originally conceived by his wife Helen, and where his co-writers are Irish writer Sharon Horgan, writer of Catastrophe and Divorce, and English comedian Holly Walsh, making this effectively one of the dream teams of British television comedy writing.

While Linehan talks to me, Horgan and Walsh continue to work on in a small office with glass windows plastered with multicoloured post-it notes which carry the scratchings of new joke ideas.

Already, Motherland’s launch is keenly anticipated: the show’s pilot has aired and been lauded, and they’re working on the first six episodes of the show proper. But while Horgan is currently the darling of popular culture writers, Linehan gets as much press – maybe more – for his peevish and crotchety social media persona.

It’s a timeworn trope now, that all comedians are at heart depressives – and that even comedy writers are afflicted by some touch of Pagliacci syndrome – but Linehan recognises the wellspring of anger in him. “I’m an angry person,” he says. “I’ve got a temper.”

Linehan was born in Dublin and, by his own account, he was an introspective kid with a slightly nerdish set of interests. It set him apart from his peers, along with his height – over six feet – and made him a target for bullies in 1980s Dublin.

“I had a rough time in school. School was very, very . . .” he says, before trailing off.

He pauses, grasping for a metaphor to explain it. He alights on Legend of Zelda, a well-known computer game.

“There’s one power you can have in Zelda – you can put things into stasis,” he says, describing a move in the game which allows you to transfer energy to an object that has been frozen in time. The power in the object, frozen, can then be released; and that power from releasing the energy can be used as a weapon in the game.

“So you can get a big block that otherwise you can’t move, freeze it in time, and then hit it a thousand times with your sword, and when you unfreeze it the block will go whoosh,” he says, making a kind of exploding sound to mimic the power of all the frozen energy being released.

That frozen energy from all of the bullying in his childhood, he suggests, is one of the motive forces in his life.

“School was horrible,” he repeats. “It was coming to the end of the leather strap and stuff like that. That only bugged me once or twice. But it was the thing of just the kind of savagery of it.”

It’s clear he regards the dynamics of his school years as a kind of Lord of the Flies.

“Just walking across the school yard, minding your own business, and someone just kicks you in the shins for no reason. Like, really f**king hard,” he says, in what sounds initially like a hypothetical or generic example of the kind of mindless bullying he experienced.

“And then, and this is the thing, you start . . .” he says before pausing to revert to the first person. “I was crying and someone else goes: ‘Haha’. And it’s like, ‘Are you f**king kidding me?’ ”

It’s a topic Linehan has discussed before. In an interview in the Guardian in 2011, he described how his parents urged him never to fight back against his tormentors, and recounted one particular fight in which “a huge group of kids surrounded me and this other guy, and they created this ring, so that I couldn’t leave, you know? And I didn’t want to join in, so I just waited for my moment and walked out of the ring”.

It was just “basic bullying”, he says, but it left a profound mark. “That was what my childhood was like. It was a feeling of real frustration being made fun of, not taken seriously. You know, not unusual stuff, just bullying, basic unhappiness for years and years and years.

“I think it just all stored up in me. So things like that, they powered a lot of my resentment and anger for years and possibly bled into my left-wing feelings.

“One thing I’ve noticed about life, if someone makes you angry, the next person you meet you take it out on, even though they don’t do the thing that’s as bad as the other person. So people suffer because of this knock-on effect. And ever since school, that’s been my story, to some extent.”

Linehan works hard to make sure that this Twitter persona does not bleed into his personal life.

I think there is an argument you could make a Ted musical where you really go for the jugular

“I’ve luckily managed to keep it under control in my home life. I think one day I went into the kids and they’d done something wrong and I kind of clicked into this angry mode that I had – and my daughter or my son said: ‘When you get like that, it’s like you don’t like us’.

“The bottom just dropped out of my world, and I realised then and I made this promise – and kept to it – that I’d never let them see me make that face again.”

Quite a bit of that anger, perhaps as a consequence, spills out on social media.

Just lately, it has mixed with Linehan’s natural interest in politics and social justice. Whether it’s his hatred of Rupert Murdoch, or his running commentary on the rise of a political climate that has thrown up Brexit and Donald Trump, on a variety of issues, Linehan has recognised that his fame can help – in his words – signal-boost an important message.

Take, for example, his advocacy for abortion rights in Ireland – highlighted by his and his wife’s personal experience of a fatal foetal abnormality – which has led him to many stinging criticisms of Irish society.

“I thought that was despicable,” he says of the Eighth Amendment’s ban on abortion. “Despicable. And I still do.

“A lot of people think I’m going to be telling Ted anecdotes [on social media] or writing about writing. But especially when something like Trump happens, that just consumes me.

“It’s why I really am so disappointed with any celebrity who stays apolitical at this point in time. It’s gone from being possibly a savvy business decision to being absolutely inexcusable.”

He points approvingly to Ewan McGregor, the actor who refused to appear on former News of the World editor Piers Morgan’s television chat show because of Morgan’s scorn for the women’s marches which occurred in the wake of Trump’s inauguration.

“And who’s [Morgan]? A failed newspaper editor. He couldn’t even do that. Not that it’s easy to be a newspaper editor. But he’s in no position to be telling people what they can and can’t talk about.”

It raises a broader point: is there a moral responsibility on well-known people such as celebrities to use their positions to be political or social advocates?

It’s not an idle question for a comedy writer like Linehan. Pungent satire has always been an effective weapon at tense political times, and in the US comedians like Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and John Oliver have used their platform to educate as well as entertain.

Linehan is not convinced, perhaps surprisingly, and is somewhat downbeat on just what a difference a mere comedian – as he seems to characterise himself – can make.

“If I tweet that comedy isn’t any good any more, that’ll get into the news,” he says. “But if I tweet that abortion is necessary for a healthy society, then it doesn’t make any impact. So it kind of depends what you’re talking about.”

The truth, he says, is that “no one cares what a comedy writer says”.

If that sounds a little cynical and gloomy, there’s a glint of hope in there – you just have to dig for it.

Amid his analysis that “Brexit is a real kick in the teeth because it’s so stupid” and that Trump’s win was “a victory of stupidity”, he says it means that everyone is much more aware now that they all have skin in the game.

“I was of the mind that voting had begun not to matter, because the choices were so similar,” he says. “I was beginning to think there might be an argument for abstaining. And then [Jeremy] Corbyn happened. And Trump happened, and Brexit. And I realised [that view was] so stupid and so short-sighted,” he says, rebuking himself for thinking that voting wasn’t crucial.

“The one good thing about it is that it’s woken us all up. I think Trump will ensure that a couple of generations will be very politically active.”

If I tweet that comedy isn’t any good any more, that’ll get into the news, but if I tweet that abortion is necessary for a healthy society, then it doesn’t make any impact

It’s close to the end of the day, and Linehan is clearly a little worn out. He and Horgan and Walsh are still at the very early stages with Motherland, and the energy required to generate hundreds of fresh ideas and new jokes appears to be exhausting.

“A lot of that really involves just sitting and staring at words, and nothing’s funny and nothing works and nothing’s good,” he says.

“And then, every so often, something makes you laugh and that goes on a card; and if enough good things go on a card, then suddenly all the bad ideas come down off the board and a new plotline goes up.

“It’s a slow thing. I’ve got this arbitrary number of 100 ideas on a piece of card. So in the very early stages, you’re collating those ideas and writing and having a hundred ideas just up on a board, then you start moving things around. ‘This makes me laugh, this makes me laugh, this is shit, this is shit’,” he says, gesturing to an array of imaginary ideas.

“And then little things start clicking. Like: ‘Oh, that storyline is quite like that one. We could move them together.’ It’s a cyclical thing every day.

“The hardest thing is getting it simple. The whole job is making it super-clear so that, finally, you can have a two-line description in the Radio Times of what the episode is about.”

For Lenihan, the constant pursuit is of specificity. He cites George Saunders, the author, who pointed out that writing: “Phil is an asshole” is less interesting than writing: “Phil snapped at the young barista because she reminded him of his dead wife who he missed so much, especially now, at Christmas”.

“That’s what we’re looking for when we’re writing these things on the board,” he says.

“Today, we had an idea where two of the kids – Liz’s kid and Julia’s kid – get into a fight, and Liz and Julia come to the school and they sit down in the tiny kid chairs, and they get into a fight that’s quite childish,” he says.

“We played with it for a couple of minutes, but we thought, y’know, it just feels like what you would expect to see in a show like this. So the question is always: what’s more specific than that? What’s more unique?”

In a couple of weeks, it’ll be 22 years since the first episode of Father Ted aired in April 1995. For Linehan, working today at 48 – with his wife, with Horgan, and with Walsh – is very different to when he was in his 20s and writing Ted with Arthur Mathews.

He looks back fondly at those days when “Arthur and I were living together and we were drunk on each other’s sense of humour”.

They were also doing so at a precise moment in Irish social development.

“It was like hitting a cricket ball and it bouncing perfectly – whack! It was a perfect time to write,” he says. “Ireland was on the crest of this kind of acknowledgement of the past, and we were in a mood where we just thought: ‘This is really funny.’

“But there’s no way on earth that Arthur and I could write the same show today, given all that’s come to light since then. The Lovely Girls competition [for example], that was written before we had a full knowledge of things like the Magdalene Laundries. That makes Ireland’s sexism evil . . . institutional evil. And it would be hard for us to sit down and write about jolly old Ted afterwards.”

That said, he’s wedded to his belief that a Father Ted musical could work without it being part of that trend towards “reheating old food”.

“I think if you look at something like the South Park boys and the Book of Mormon,” he says, “that’s pretty hardcore, and I think there is an argument you could make a Ted musical where you really go for the jugular and you get all the things people loved about it, all the innocence and all the sweetness, but introduce a harder edge.”

How would it work tonally?

“The only thing that’s stuck in my head is a dance sequence in the Vatican with spinning cardinals. I can see that quite clearly,” he says. “Also, because it’s such a special event, it would have to be about something that’s kind of world-shaking. It would have to be about Ted becoming Pope, or some weird succession thing that means Ted’s next in line. It would have to be substantial and big.”

At the end of the interview, we’re packing to go our separate ways – Linehan to a pro-choice comedy show in the London Irish Centre, myself to Gatwick Airport and a flight back to Dublin – and he once again takes the opportunity to make amends for our little disagreement in 2013.

I point out that no apology is necessary. I walked myself into the situation with a bad joke that was easy to misread. If there is to be any retrospective shame, it should be equally shared, I suggest. If anything, it was a lesson well learned – don’t try to trade wit with people who get paid, and have won awards, for their ability to be witty.

He’s not convinced. “If it’s any consolation, the same thing happened to me with George from Seinfeld,” he says, referring to the actor Jason Alexander.

“I love him hugely. And he retweeted this guy, and I replied to the guy saying: ‘Ah, you’re an idiot’ or whatever,” he says. (In fact, with no small irony, he makes a bad joke about the person’s Twitter handle.)

“And then George from Seinfeld said: ‘Could you untag me from this conversation please’,” Linehan explains, feigning exaggerated but clearly keenly-felt horror at the rebuffing from one of his heroes. “I was like: ‘Oh no, you don’t understand: I worship you! I love you!’ ”

So he apologises again. “I’m so sorry for giving you a horrible day.”ν

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