Owen O’Neill told David Hennessy about returning to his poetry roots, getting out of Northern Ireland at a fractious time and working with a young Danny Boyle.
Owen O’Neill from Cookstown has had success as a comedian, actor, writer and director.
He has written scripts for Danny Boyle, Christian Slater and adapted the work of Stephen King.
But poetry was his first love and he is returning to it when he brings his Nine Yarns show, a mix of poetry and comedy, to the Irish Cultural Centre in Hammersmith.
Owen has won a string of awards for his comedy including two Fringe Firsts at the Edinburgh Festival, The Edinburgh Critics Award for Best Play and the LWT writers award for best comedy.
As an actor he has appeared in films such as Michael Collins and The General and won awards such as Best Actor for his off Broadway performance as Nathan in his one-man play Absolution.
But poetry came before all of this right at the start of his many years in London.
Owen told The Irish World: “I’ve been here for a long, long time. I’ve been here for about 35 years.
“I think I was about 18 at the time when I came maybe 19. Dropped out of college and worked on a building site and then I took up poetry.
“I joined this little poetry club. Then there was a pub in Holborn called The Adams Arms.
“It was called ‘Poems for Pints’ and you went on a Tuesday night and if you read three of your own poems, you got three free pints.
“I couldn’t believe it. I thought, ‘This is brilliant’.
“So it got me writing and performing in front of an audience.
“I sort of dropped the poetry and I started to do comedy and stand up and stuff like that, and I did that for a number years.
“But I’ve kind of come full circle and I’ve come back to my roots doing poetry.
“I do comedy stories as well but it doesn’t exactly stand up. It’s like a hybrid of the two. That’s what I like to do now.”
While the show includes comedy, it also includes serious topics.
“I say, ‘Look, there’ll be poems about your granny and there’ll be poems about death. There will be poems about marbles. There’ll be poems about pints of Guinness’.
“So when I introduce the show at the beginning, I think they know what to expect.”
In addition to his screen and stage work, Owen has also published three poetry books including 2015’s Licking The Matchbox.
The Independent said of him: “He has the turn of phrase of Roddy Doyle and the darkness of Patrick McCabe.”
While he used to be up and down the motorways working the comedy clubs of the UK and Ireland, he admits that doesn’t appeal so much any more.
“As you get older and you go on the comedy circuit, it’s just all these young guys talking about their girlfriends and the audiences are very young.
“So I think, with this, I’ve kind of found my audience.
“I’m not going to be talking about relationships or anything like that or what young guys talk about because I’ve been there and done that.
“I’ll be talking about my upbringing in the north of Ireland in the 1970s and before that, and all the characters that used to be in our town and when I came to London and all the stuff that happened to me here. I talk about that.
“I came from Cookstown.
“There were 14 of us in my family, a big family.
“Out of my class of 1968, there was 29 boys in that class and four of them ended up dead.
“They joined The Provos after 1972, after Bloody Sunday and the four of them were killed over a period of time.
“Who knows? If I hadn’t got out when I did, you never know what might have happened.
“But I just wanted to get away not really because of the troubles but just because when you come from a big family, you want to get out and have your own room for a change,” he laughs.
“I talk about when I had a problem- I mean I have a problem- with drink in the 80s and 90s.
“I used to drink quite heavily and get into quite a lot of scrapes. I talk about that.
“I haven’t drank in 25 years, been off the booze.”
Of course on account of his accent he got some pushback when he came to London.
“How shall I put it? In the 80s, we weren’t as welcome as we are now in London, especially if you’re from the north of Ireland.
“And there was plenty of times when I was being picked up and questioned and going home to Belfast, I had the long hair and the denim jacket, ‘Hey you, come over here’.
“I would be in the interview room for maybe two hours, all that kind of thing which you just had to put up with and just get on with it.
“But in those days, it was tough.”
Owen recently starred with Darragh O’Malley at the Finborough Theatre in David Ireland’s Yes So I Said Yes, a play about a former loyalist paramilitary who sees no place for himself in his own province.
“That was quite a piece, that was. It was really out there. It was almost surreal, but it had a quite an important point to it.
“It was all about that guy and the inside of his head. And he was having a nervous breakdown really and it was to show everything through that.
“I thought that was a unique way to tell the story and that was a really interesting play to do.”
Although Northern Ireland has come a long way since the dark days that Owen mentions, Brexit has thrown that peace into doubt.
“It’s a shame because the DUP, I think, have held everything up in the north of Ireland for years and years and years.
“They’re not really progressive and I think that they’ll be found out in the elections in May, because I think even ordinary Protestants in the north of Ireland are fed up with them.
“I think there’ll be a shock. I don’t think they will do very well at all in the elections in May.
“I think they’re in for a bit of a kicking and I think it’s long overdue.”
Of course, Owen himself was taking something of a surreal view of the situation in Northern Ireland long before the Good Friday Agreement with his film Arise and Go Now, directed by a young Danny Boyle, dealing with exploding poets, randy bishops and bungling IRA men.
“Whatever happened to him?” Owen asks of the director now, who has gone to win Oscars and direct Olympic ceremonies, with a laugh.
“At the time, Danny was sort of up and coming. And I think that was the first thing that he directed for the BBC.
“He was a young buck but a good man, a nice guy.
“Obviously he read the script. He loved the script, and we met up for a coffee and we chatted.
“He was a big fan of the Coen Brothers, and I was as well.
“He said, ‘Look, I’d like to go down that road’.
“And I said, ‘Yeah, Perfect. Yeah, sure’.
“So we were on the same page from day one. It was easy to work with him.
“We keep in touch which is nice.
“It would be really hard to get that on today at the BBC because you have to jump through so many hoops.
“In those days, all I had to deal with was a producer and an editor. And that was it.
“It’s just a nightmare developing anything for TV now.
“You need a name. And then you have to have diversity- And I’m okay with that. Don’t get me wrong- But it’s like, ‘Here’s a box and we have to tick it, which really gets on my nerves.”
Of course Owen is not saying he has a problem with people wanting diversity on screen.
But the sad thing is in today’s climate something like Father Ted would never be made.
“You would not get it on now,” Owen agrees. “You would not get it on now.
“That’s where we are in the arts.
“This ultra PC thing, it’s driving everybody mad. It’s a shame really.”
As mentioned before Owen won a Best Actor award for his Off Broadway show Absolution. It also won a Best Director gong for director Rachel O’Riordan.
Owen was looking to develop it for the screen but only got so far.
“There was talk about it. But again, the powers that be were thinking, ‘Oh, this is a bit edgy, you know? It’s about a guy killing paedophile priests. This is going to be a hard sell’.
“We got as far as the boardroom and then they pulled out because they just thought, ‘Oh, no, this isn’t the right time’.
“Which is what they always say, ‘The time isn’t right at the moment for this’.
“It didn’t happen.
“I think it’s really hard to get anything on the BBC, ITV, you need to go to HBO, Netflix or Sky to get anything online these days.
“I know it’s a few years ago now but if you take Breaking Bad: Fantastic piece of writing and plotting and acting and the whole thing, but you try and get that on the BBC. You wouldn’t have a hope in Hell. Not a hope.
“I go to meetings and they say, ‘Well, we need this and this is our standards and has to be like this and blah, blah, blah’.
“And you think, ‘Okay, well, that’s a high standard’.
“And then you get a drama like Hope Street. Oh my God.
“I don’t want to be slagging off other people’s writing, I don’t want to be doing that.
“But all I’m saying is that they when you meet these producers and they have this high standard and they say, ‘We want this, this and this’. And then you see what they actually produce in the end, it’s just baffling really.”
Owen may not be a fan of the daytime drama recently produced from Northern Ireland but is enthusiastic about other content coming out of there.
“Derry Girls was great and what I liked about it was that they didn’t compromise on the accents.
“Because when I saw it I thought, ‘Well, English people aren’t going to be able to understand this’.
“They’ll need subtitles but that wasn’t the case. It was a big hit here in England.
“So that was great to see.
“All the young actresses in it were all brilliant.
“It was a breath of fresh air really. Really was.”
It was roughly ten years ago that Owen adapted Stephen King’s novella The Shawshank Redemption, also a classic film starring Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins, for the stage. It was a hit in Edinburgh, The West End as well as around the world.
“It was tough to do an adaptation of The Shawshank because it’s everybody’s favourite movie, so there’s pressure there straightaway.
“But we weren’t allowed to use anything from the film, we were only allowed to use it from the novella.
“So that gave me scope to add other elements into it that were not in the film, so that was good.
“But it was still quite a lot of pressure and he had script control over it.
“So he read the script, Stephen King, and he gave us the thumbs up.
“So that was good enough for me.”
The play will tour all over the UK from September to December.
This was not the only classic piece to get the Owen O’Neill reworking treatment. He also did One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with Christian Slater.
“Yeah, we did that (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) with comedians in Edinburgh initially, and then it went to the West End with Christian Slater and Frances Barber playing the lead roles. And also Mackenzie Crook was also in that.
“We had a great time on that.”
What was it like working with Christian? “It was brilliant. I mean, he was great. He’s a lovely guy to work with.
“you would have thought Hollywood star and all of that, he would have been up his own backside but he wasn’t at all.
“He was very down to earth and we all got on well together.
“I mean at the beginning, he didn’t understand the slagging.
“He did after a while, ‘You guys. Okay, this is what you do. You’re joking. Okay. Okay, I get it’.
“But at the beginning he was like, ‘What’s going on? What do you mean I’m a shit actor? What are you talking about?’
“I went, ‘Listen man, we’re winding ya up’.”
Owen appeared with Liam Neeson in Michael Collins but this was not their first meeting as Owen was actually thrown out of the venue by the big Ballymena man when he was a young bouncer.
“That was really weird. That was way back in Ballymena in 1969.
“I went to see Rory Gallagher and Rory Gallagher only ever played The Flamingo in Ballymena the once.
“I went there with my mate and we got thrown out towards the end.
“And then when I did Michael Collins, we were having a coffee one day and I said, ‘So where are you from?’
“‘I’m an Antrim man. I’m from Ballymena’.
“And I said, ‘I remember going to the Flamingo Ballroom to see Rory Gallagher’.
“And he went, ‘What? I was there that night. I was actually on the door as a bouncer’.
“I went, ‘You’re joking. I was thrown out that night’.
“(He said) ’He’s only played there once so it must have been me who threw you out’.
“We had a right laugh about that.
“Bloody hell, it’s a small world.”
Owen has some exciting things in the pipeline including reciting his poetry at the Seamus Heaney Centre “which I’m very excited about really, because I’m a big fan of Heaney.
“I have another play on at the Lyric in Belfast in the autumn. It is called Shaving the Dead.
“And I will be doing a couple of poetry festivals and going back to Listowel in June to do The Writers Week.
“I’m developing a screenplay with director Stephen Bradley.
“It’s called The Safe.
“It’s about a father and son and it’s set during the crash in Ireland.
“This old man and his son run a garage in the middle of nowhere in Mayo and the old boy takes all the money out of the bank, every penny they have.
“He buys an old safe and it goes into the safe, you know the ones they have in the old movies with a tumbler?
“It’s one of those and he forgets the numbers and they can’t get it open.
“We’ve been developing it for the last three years. I’m very excited about that.
“Hopefully, that will go into production March next year.”
We wanted to get Owen’s take on the whole Will Smith Oscars slap affair as someone who has been a comedian himself.
“I think that whole thing was just a nonsense.
“I thought it was a very sort of arrogant thing to do, to get up and slap a comedian.
“You can’t be doing that.
“You can’t get up and slap anybody.
“If you’re at your work and you’re annoyed, you can’t slap people.
“But he thought, ‘I’m Will Smith and I can do what I like’.
“What was strange about it was that initially he laughed at the joke and then he looked at his wife and she rolled her eyes, and then he went up and slapped the guy.
“Forevermore, when you say the name Will Smith, the word slap will come after it.
“It’s a shame because I think he’s a good actor. Maybe he was just having a bad night. I mean, who knows?”
Owen O’Neill’s The Whole Nine Yarns, a night of poetry and comedy is at The Irish Cultural Centre in Hammersmith on Saturday 23 April.