Ardal O’Hanlon: ‘I was paid just £2,000 an episode for Father Ted’

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Actor and comedian ‘wasn’t in it for the money’ but invests in art and dabbles in shares, while property is the domain of his wife

Ardal O’Hanlon: ‘I was paid just £2,000 an episode for Father Ted’
Ardal O'Hanlon
Ardal O’Hanlon made his start as a London comic aged 28 CREDIT: Channel 4 / Simon Webb

Ardal O’Hanlon, 56, started his career as a stand-up comedian before rising to overnight fame as the bumbling Father Dougal McGuire in the cult Channel 4 sitcom Father Ted. He has also played leading roles in Big Bad World, My Hero and Death in Paradise and has written two novels. He and his wife, Melanie, have three children and live between Dublin and London.

What were your family circumstances growing up?

I grew up in a small town in County Monaghan, just south of the border. I was one of six children, a small family by the standards of the day.

During my childhood my father, Rory, was a hard-working country doctor. He was always on call and never turned anyone down. My mother, Teresa, had been a schoolteacher but gave up work before I was born, which was the done thing at the time.

When I was 12 my father also became a Fianna Fáil MP [he went on to hold several ministerial positions in the Irish government]. He held his medical clinic in one part of the house, his political clinic in another, and we would have 100 or so people waiting to see him on a Saturday morning. It was like an open house. We had a bomb scare once and Mum chased us out of bed into a waiting car. It was probably just some disgruntled constituents, but it was a febrile time in Irish politics and occasionally the Troubles would spill over from across the border.

Were you well off?

It was a comfortable existence by the standards of the day, although professionals like my dad were paying 70pc tax so there wasn’t much disposable income. Everything was hard earned and my parents were very careful.

They were typical of their generation. We lived in a fairly big house but for convenience all the boys were thrown into one room with a big pile of clothes in the corner and we just helped ourselves. I don’t think I ever had my own room or even my own bed.

Ardal O'Hanlon as Father Dougal in beloved UK sitcom Father Ted
Ardal O’Hanlon as Father Dougal in beloved UK sitcom Father Ted CREDIT:

What were your first jobs?

When I was 12 I got a job shelling peas at a local restaurant. In exchange for a few hours every weekend I was paid 50p and a can of Lilt. Does that qualify as my first paid job?

I also helped out on pig farms during the summer holidays. On one occasion, armed with an electric prodder, I was sent to entice a pretty savage boar out of a truck. I remember thinking: “If I get out of this alive, I’m never doing it again.”

Have you ever struggled to pay the bills?

Yes, when I co-founded an alternative comedy club with two university pals above a pub in Dublin. We were influenced by alternative British sitcoms such as The Young Ones. I was only performing about one gig a month and it was a hand-to-mouth existence.

I was living with my then girlfriend, now my wife, in a tiny terrace house and relying on rent allowance. We made sandwiches from the cheapest sliced meat you could buy and drank wine from boxes, but it was actually a very enjoyable time in our lives.

Was there a financial turning point in your career?

Yes, when I made the momentous decision, aged 28, to try my hand at comedy in London. It was the last throw of the dice career-wise, but within weeks I’d won two awards. They put me on the map. I’ll never forget my first night at the Comedy Store in Leicester Square. When I performed my first 20 minutes and walked out with £300 in my hand I thought I’d arrived.

How did you land your role in Father Ted?

The co-writers saw me perform at a comedy club and mentioned the show to me. I was ambivalent about the role because stand-up comedians were a precious bunch at the time and it was felt you lacked credibility if you did television or advertising. That usually stopped as soon as anybody was offered anything.

What were you paid?

People would be shocked by how little it was. I was paid something like £2,000 an episode. To put it in context, I remember hearing that a senior figure in sitcom was doing a Christmas special for £45,000 per episode. I was fine with that. I wasn’t in it for the money.

What has been your best-paid TV job?

The BBC sitcom My Hero [in which O’Hanlon played a dim-witted superhero known as Thermoman]. It was very well paid for British TV at the time and ran to five series. I did 44 episodes in the Lycra. Playing DI Jack Mooney in Death in Paradise was also well remunerated, although actors aren’t paid anything like they used to be.

Ardal O'Hanlon (second right) as DI Jack Mooney in Death in Paradise
Ardal O’Hanlon (second right) as DI Jack Mooney in Death in Paradise CREDIT: Red Planet – Photographer: Denis Guyenon

What has been your worst career move?

I was considered for a role in Cold Feet but I didn’t like the script and expressed that. I don’t think I was a very good judge of scripts.

Is writing well paid?

When I wrote my first novel, The Talk of the Town, in 1998, it did well critically and commercially. My advance was in the region of £50,000. I’ve really enjoyed writing my second novel so I won’t leave it another 25 years.

What has been your best financial decision?

Buying our first flat in Crouch End, north London, for about £250,000 in 1996. We didn’t double our money, but we did well. We’ve made quite a few house moves.

My wife is brilliant at property investment. I was always incredibly cautious because I never knew where my next gig was going to come from, but she was far bolder. We took out big, flexible mortgages and paid them back as soon as we could. She bought when the market was depressed and flipped when it was good. We currently own a family home in Dublin and a flat in London.

Do you invest in shares?

Yes. I take big risks, although I don’t stray beyond what I’m prepared to lose. I dabble on the Alternative Investment Market in start-ups and tech companies.

Most years have been good, but I always assume that next year is going to be terrible. There was one particular share, a couple of years ago, where I invested £3,000. My stake is now worth £100.

What are your greatest luxuries?

My wife and I share similar tastes in contemporary Irish art. The Irish art market is quite small and incestuous, but good paintings by good painters tend to hold their value.

When the kids were younger we also made it a priority to go on massive family adventures. We did a month in Colombia and another in China. That was an investment in memories.

Ardal O’Hanlon’s new novel, ‘Brouhaha’, is published by HarperCollins at £16.99

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