'Après' Match keeps viewers onside . . . Bill'

Sat, Jun 28, 2008, 01:00

Mary Hannigantries to keep a straight face as she interviews the stars behind the skits that for many RTÉ viewers have become more entertaining than the actual action on the pitch.

IT'S BEEN a testing three weeks for Bill O'Herlihy, at times keeping his composure has proved beyond him. He was finally sent over the edge by the Frankly Speakinginterview with Fernando Torres, when Frank asked the player if it was difficult for him having the hopes of all of Spain resting on his shoulders "seeing as they're quite slopey".

His panel, too, have often been seen to dissolve after an Après Match sketch, the parodies on Sky Sports' Andy Gray and Richard Keys, for example, often rendering a tearful Graeme Souness speechless. Spare a thought for him - this man has to work with Richard and Andy next season.

O'Herlihy, though, has struggled more than most to control the giggling, although he is now waving a white flag, having given up on his battle to convince anyone who will listen that Risteárd Cooper hasn't got him quite right.

"I felt at the start that the Cork accent wasn't correct, but I'm told by people that I do, in fact, speak like that," he says, sounding uncannily like, well, Risteárd Cooper.

"But what's astonished me are the hand actions. They were doing me the other night, 'I' was interviewing Giles and Brady, and my hands were going all over the place. I said to Tadgh De Brúin, the floor manager, 'do I move my hands like that?' and he said 'sadly, Bill, you do'. So, yes, they have me right."

"The interpretation I have of Bill is a lot more edgy than he really is," says Cooper, "he's genuinely a really warm person, an avuncular type, although I love the way he stirs, quoting something from some paper he can't quite remember - like 'Ballack is regarded as the best player running backwards and swivelling on his left foot - in the world! I read it in the Munich Gazette, I think. What do ye make of that?' At which point, of course, the panel erupts."

It's 10 years since the Après Match line-up of Cooper, Barry Murphy and Gary Cooke first teamed up on RTÉ for that summer's World Cup, the trio marking their anniversary the past three weeks with their biggest contribution yet to RTÉ's coverage of a major tournament.

While immersed in preparing and recording their sketches it hasn't been easy gauging how the viewers are responding to their work, but the reaction has been a positive one.

"Two years ago I thought we did a lot of really good work but it seemed like it was just another product in the Celtic Ireland boom," says Cooke.

"I just didn't get a huge amount of feedback, not nearly as many texts and things like that, whereas this time it's been good. Maybe it's because things are all going s**t again, we've returned to our real selves, now we're just grateful to have anything on TV," he says, laughing.

O'Herlihy has no doubts, though, that Après Match has played a significant part in what have been impressive viewing figures for a tournament that, in the absence of Ireland and England, he thought might not have generated as much interest.

"The figures are phenomenal, really. We had nearly 700,000 last Sunday at peak (for Spain v Italy), the English channel had only about 75,000 at peak that night - they're blowing BBC and ITV out of the water. There's no question that Après Match are part of that, I think they're the best comedy team for a long, long time.

"I just love their surreal humour, I cracked up the other night when they were doing a Frankly Speakingone, they're absolutely brilliant.

"They have lampooned me now for years and I have no problem with that - I'd feel more insulted if they left me out. That's the way all the panel feel, they love it."

This year Après Matchhas had its own producer, Gráinne O'Carroll, and production team, in contrast to previous ventures when they were largely left to their own devices. "RTÉ has always been pretty supportive of us but this year, financially, they've invested quite a bit in us," says Cooper.

"It's not that long ago that we'd arrive in to the canteen and discuss what we were going to do and realise that we'd forgotten a wig, so that meant we couldn't do the sketch we were planning.

"Now it's quite amazing - we've got runners getting our costumes for us, going down to wardrobe for us, and make-up comes up to where we're hanging out, as opposed to us to waiting in line to be made up. The luxury of it! And we get tea when we want it. Even chocolate biscuits - it doesn't get much bigger than that."

Do you have people massaging your feet?

"No, that'll be for the World Cup. But it is the most intense we've worked on a tournament in terms of the volume of stuff going out. I think this is the first time we've been on regularly every day, before and after the match. We've been doing the live stuff too, which is a challenge.

"It's good fun, but it can be more hit and miss. Some of it we've been really happy with, but there's been stuff that we thought could have gone better if we'd had more time."

"The live stuff is more nerve-wracking because you're trying to write something in the two or three hours before you're on, so you're hoping something comes out of the panel that you can somehow reference," says Cooke.

"I was doing Graeme Souness one night and literally a minute or two before we came on he referred to Croatia as being a bit "tippy tappy", which was very funny and such an un-Souness thing to say. So I could reference that immediately."

Cooke has been one half of the Sellotanta Sports sketches, featuring Paul Dempsey and Pat Dolan that, according to the poll on the RTÉ website, have proved to be amongst the most popular through the tournament.

"The dynamic between Dempsey and Dolan is just so odd and vaguely aggressive - in our case, very aggressive," says Dempsey, aka Cooper.

"You just feel there's something going on there, that afterwards they may actually kill each other, or at least have a bout of boxing."

"But Pat Dolan is one of the people I feel marginally sorry for," says Cooke, "because he possibly doesn't speak the amount of b******s that I talk as him, so it's a bit unfair - but any way, it serves the sketch."

O'Carroll, who worked with the team before when she produced their 2001 DVD, has, she thinks, survived the madness of the last three weeks.

"I'm a very lucky woman, I'm getting paid to laugh," she says, "it's just been great fun working with them. The fact that they had a break from each other the last couple of years has probably helped - it's like anything, they're fresher. They just spark off each other and they all throw something in to each sketch, they all contribute something different.

"The wackiest of the lot was probably the badger sketch. When we were recording that we went on to the real set and when the lads produced their badger, mushroom and snake from under the desk the crew were just looking at each other saying 'what?'.

"The next day I overheard a conversation in there where someone asked if they'd been on acid or something. You do wonder at times. But no, it's just them."

"Barry had heard the badger song on YouTube, it just came completely out of left field, as Barry's ideas tend to do," says Cooper. "I read someone in a blog talking about that sketch and they said "these are three trippy b******s".

As a balding, 43-year-old father of two I was very honoured to be referred to as trippy," says Cooke.

"It's been good. A whole load of people who wouldn't remember our earliest stuff have been watching, so this is all quite new to them.

"If you're watching now as a 16-year-old you were only six when Après Match was first on, which is frightening."

"But I think we've been helped by the fact that the football has been very good, there's a feel-good factor about this tournament which I don't remember, going right the way through any World Cup or European Championships since about 1992. So yeah, that's definitely helped."

Other than an appearance at the Comedy Carnival at the Iveagh Gardens in Dublin next month the team have no plans as yet for live work, "but who knows?" says Cooke.

When they next return to our screens there will be new characters to mangle, amongst them Giovanni Trapattoni. As the Après Match man who "does" Terry Venables, Cooke has mixed feelings on that front. "I was disappointed in a certain way that Venables didn't get the job - not for the country, but for me."

And with that they're off to work on their final sketches, with Frank keeping one eye on how Torres' slopey shoulders are coping against Germany and the crew wondering what they'll produce from under their desks next.

O'Herlihy, meanwhile, has the Kleenex at the ready.

The Last Word on Aprés Match

"The journey from make-up to the studio is quite a long one so it's very likely that you could bump in to someone - so, for fear of that, I don't get made up until I'm in the studio now."

- Risteárd Cooper on trying to avoid Miriam O'Callaghan, who he plays in Aprés Match, in the corridors of Montrose.

"They have lampooned me now for years and I have no problem with that - I'd feel more insulted if they left me out."

- Bill O'Herlihy.

"Neil Atkinson is being transferred for a record €2,000 to Wrexham - and you kinda go, how is that news?"

- Gary Cooke explaining why 24 hour sports news channels provide rich pickings for Aprés Match.

"I worked with them before, I produced their DVD, so I know what they're like - they're mad."

- Aprés Match producer Grainne O'Carroll.

"I was home one day and I saw the Last Word thing that they do, I just thought it was hilarious. The level of nonsensical detail that they went in to, it's extraordinary. I just thought we could have some fun with that."

- Cooper on the Andy Gray and Richard Keys sketches.

"Pat Dolan is one of the people I feel marginally sorry for because he possibly doesn't speak the amount of b******s that I talk as him, so it's a bit unfair - but any way, it serves the sketch."

- Gary Cooke on the Sellotanta Sports pundit extraordinaire.

"They were doing me the other night, 'I' was interviewing Giles and Brady, and my hands were going all over the place. I said to Tadgh De Brúin, the floor manager, 'do I move my hands like that?' and he said 'sadly, Bill, you do'."

- Bill O'Herlihy.

"Are they on acid, or something?"

- As overheard by O'Carroll in RTÉ after the badger sketch.

"The figures are phenomenal, really. We had nearly 700,000 last Sunday at peak (for Spain v Italy), the English channel had only about 75,000 at peak that night - they're blowing BBC and ITV out of the water.

- Bill O'Herlihy