DES BISHOP, 34, already has a licence to thrill as one of the sharpest comics to cross the Irish Sea in the last decade. Now his latest show, My Dad Was Nearly James Bond, is gearing up to be one of the highlights of this summer’s Edinburgh Fringe. “This time,” he says, “it’s personal…”
The Edinburgh Fringe Programme launches this week and your show My Dad Was Nearly James Bond is being tipped as the one everybody should see. What it’s all about…
Before I was born, my father was an actor. He was in Day Of The Triffids and had one line in Zulu. He also auditioned for the lead role in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. The final choice was actually between him and George Lazenby (below) who eventually got the part. After my dad was diagnosed with lung cancer last November, I felt I wanted to tell his story.
In a way, the show is also a celebration of the genuine heroics of fatherhood, isn’t it?
It is. And, of course, James Bond is the ultimate hero so I’m really exploring the difference between that fantasy of what a man should be like and the reality of dads and the sacrifices they make for their children. It’s a mix of funny personal stories, but also universal truths about fatherhood, dads in general and growing up, which is something everyone can identify with.
It must have been devastating to find out your dad is so ill. Has writing the show helped you come to terms with that?
I can’t honestly say it helped with the news but it did help keep me connected. I’d been at home spending time with my dad then I had to go to Australia to work for three months. It’s hard when someone you love is so ill and you’re so far away. But talking about it keeps you connected and you’re able to process it all on a deeper level. That definitely helped me.
This won’t be the first time you’ve played the Edinburgh Fringe though, will it?
This will be my third year in a row at the Festival and fifth I’ve done overall. I love Edinburgh. It’s one of the world’s great cities. The Festival in itself has a great energy of course and to be able to perform and be part of something known internationally as one of the greats is incredible.
Now last year, a few locals might have spotted you running quite fast around the back streets. You weren’t being chased by angry audience members were you?
No. I was actually training for a marathon. I discovered loads of unused railway tracks and secret little runs down by the Water of Leith. Oh, and a tunnel that comes out of nowhere on the other side of Arthur’s Seat! I love the city anyway, but last year I developed a deeper love for it because I discovered all these unbelievable places.
You had a bit of an international upbringing didn’t you? Your parents are Irish but you were born in London, lived in New York until you were 14, then went to live in Ireland…
My family moved to America when I was three weeks old then I moved to Ireland, by myself when I was 14. But I used to go back to New York in the school holidays. I was really just a part-time Irishman.
You went to Ireland after being expelled from New York’s famous St. Francis Prep School. Had you been playing the class clown?
I was ALWAYS the class clown. But the truth of why I got kicked out was very unexciting. They have an academic bottom line and if you failed in two subjects, you were told not to come back. I failed four…
Moving from the most exciting city in the world to rural County Wexford must have been a massive culture shock…
I was hugely distracted in the most exciting city in the world. Less so when I got to Ireland. It motivated a desire to learn in me that might not have happened if I hadn’t gone there. I don’t know if I would have been so successful as a comedian if I hadn’t had that experience.
Your comedy is very socially aware, though, isn’t it? For example your breakthrough TV show, 2004’s The Des Bishop Work Experience, saw you spend six months exploring the difficulty of doing minimum-pay jobs…
The original idea for that came from Jennifer Griffin. She was a Canadian producer who was working in Ireland. She and I had read a book called Nickel And Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich who’d done something similar in a campaign for a living wage in the USA. Jennifer was looking for the right person to star in the show and we really worked the idea out together. The most frustrating job was the kebab shop – Abrakebabra – because of how badly people treat you when they are drunk.
Your next venture, 2006’s Joy In The Hood, then saw you run comedy workshops in tough estates and getting local residents to showcase their skills. Could that help the stars of BBC Scotland’s The Scheme do you reckon?
People from those areas often don’t believe they have something to offer the arts. I wanted to give people a vision of what happens when you DO get involved and believe in yourself. Belief and self-esteem and image issues are a big problem in areas which are stigmatised.
But your TV show did have successes…
That’s right. One guy has just left his job and is now a full-time comedian. The process was really much more empowering than the TV show. It’s very hard to capture exactly what went on in a 26-minute programme – to show people’s journeys and tell their stories. From the absolute fear of not having a joke to getting up on stage to perform. That was incredible.
And didn’t you break a rib along the way?
That was boxing. I broke my rib in the boxing ring, sparring with an Irish traveller. In each programme, I totally immersed myself by living in the area where I was running the comedy workshops. While I was living with the travellers, I discovered boxing is a big part of their community. So I got involved with the boxing club. While these guys were worried about getting up on stage, I was worried about getting in the ring. There’s a great fear that Irish people have about getting in a fight with a traveller! But it was fine. It adds to the drama.
You’re not frightened of a challenge though. In your award-winning telly series In The Name Of The Fada you had to learn Irish Gaelic and then do an entire gig in the language. Sounds scary.
It was terrifying. A lot of things I fall back on were taken away from me. On the other hand, I was quite surprised by how far I’d come by the time I got on stage.
You’ve written two stage plays, Shooting Gallery and Rap Eire. with Irish playwright Arthur Riordan. Just as the second of them got to the stage, in 2000, you were diagnosed with testicular cancer…
Yeah, the first run was cancelled because of it. It was a week and a half before it opened when I was diagnosed with it, which seems a tad dramatic. But it is 10 years ago now. I’m quite flippant about it. I have joked about it. It was such a long time ago. Unfortunately, the timing of it meant I was getting radiation, so I eventually did the whole run while getting radiation. I was not feeling great for a large portion of that play! I’m fine now though. Even insurance companies don’t add anything on now – when insurance companies aren’t trying to make money out you, you know you’re OK!
You’ve been pretty candid about the experience. But you were only 24. You must have been left reeling weren’t you?
Luckily, even back then, there was plenty of information. I think most men know, if they find a lump, they should get it checked out straight away. Don’t wait. And as far as the fact that you have to get a testicle removed as part of the treatment, it has never been an issue for me, at all. I haven’t had kids yet, but it doesn’t affect that at all. Really, it’s the weakest of all the cancers. Deal with it straight away and it shouldn’t spread. It is totally treatable. The most important thing is to get treated immediately.
What drew you to comedy? What made you realise you had a talent for telling a gag?
I always liked to make people laugh, I always liked to be the centre of attention, sometimes dysfunctionally so. It’s just a part of my personality. I guess it wasn’t until I got on stage that I realised that I actually had a talent for it though.
And, finally, tell us about the funnymen who inspired you . . .
In the early part of my career I had a massive love of Tommy Tiernan (right). I modelled myself on him. I was fascinated by his energy and performance style. I have also got a lot of respect for David O’Docherty and Reggie Watts. Reggie is really unique and really entertaining. For comedians he is great because he does something no one else does. I watch a lot of comics and find them funny, but I kinda think they are doing what I do. When I watch Reggie Watts or, say, Bill Bailey, they do things that just make me laugh. It doesn’t make me go, ‘I wish I was doing that’. I just go, ‘That’s f***ing brilliant’!
DES appears at the Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh August 6-29. Tickets are on sale from June 10. Call 0131 623 3030 or log on to http://www.assemblyfestival.com.