Fair bucks to these hardy lads

 

COMEDY:Raucous and irreverant, a few “hardy bucks” from Co Mayo have become a comedy phenomenon via a string of internet webisodes. Can they make it this season in the more straight-laced world of television, asks EOIN BUTLER

THE YOUTUBE VIDEOS are crude and derivative. They are written and performed by rank amateurs, a fact glaringly apparent in almost every scene. The editing is shoddy. Plot structure is sometimes nonexistent. And the picture presented of life in rural Irish towns is as bleak and depressing as anything penned by the late John Healy.

Oh, and the nine Hardy Bucks Storyland webisodes also happen to be some of the funniest comedy shorts this country has ever produced.

Set in “Castletown” – aka Swinford, Co Mayo – and inspired partially by the redneck comedy Trailer Park Boys, Hardy Buckswas created by Chris Torduff and Martin Maloney in 2008. It features a cast of loveable losers, eejits, small-time drug dealers and local headers, played, for the most part, by the lads’ own relatives and friends. When it was first broadcast last year as part of RTÉ’s Storylandseries, Hardy Buckswas a breath of fresh air. It captured perfectly the aimlessness and claustrophobia of small-town life, but it did so in an endearingly affectionate way. The characters, for all their faults, were likeable. And while the humour was often vulgar, it was not always unsophisticated.

Jokes were never telegraphed. Punch lines were sometimes dropped surreptitiously in the backswing. Many of the funniest lines didn’t even make that much sense when you thought about them. (“It’s like Pierce Brosnan’s wedding all over again.”)

The show wasn’t just hilarious, though. For a generation growing up in Castletowns the length and breadth of rural Ireland, it was also achingly, painfully true. Hardy Bucksspotlighted and celebrated an Irish subculture that most television executives didn’t even know existed – a world of 10 spots, boy racers and unending boredom.

The response was instantaneous. Since October 2008, the nine Hardy Bucks webisodes have notched up an astonishing three million hits on YouTube. The show has amassed 40,000 fans on Facebook. ( The Late Late Showhas 1,800.) It seems scarcely credible, but a bunch of novices from a small town in east Mayo have achieved what none of the comedy gods in Montrose has ever done. They haven’t just delivered a hit; they’ve created a phenomenon.

Which may explain why, when RTÉ rolls out its autumn television schedule later this month, sticking out like a sore thumb between the literary adaptations ( Wild Decembers) and gritty crime dramas ( Love/Hate), will be a brand new comedy series about the antics of four “shturdy, reliable fellas” from the west of Ireland.

So, are the “hardy bucks” from Castletown on the brink of mainstream stardom? Or might this latest adventure prove a bridge too far?

On a glorious day in May, I visit the set of the new series to find out. How much has changed since RTÉ came on board? Strolling around the set, the answer would seem to be everything and nothing. “It’s so different now,” series director and co-creator Chris Torduff confides when I track him down. “In the old days there was no crew, no executive producer, no editor coming back daily with a list of pick-up shots we’d missed.” He smiles wistfully. “We were just trying to make each other laugh.”

New crew member Mike Hayes (who has worked on productions such as Ondineand The Wind That Shakes the Barley) has a slightly different perspective. He tells me that it’s bedlam onset. Parts are being cast 10 minutes before shooting. Random townspeople are coming in off the street and wandering into shot. He recalls one actor filming a scene and then announcing he couldn’t stay for the next scene because he had to give his mother a lift to Galway.

But Hayes seems to be genuinely enjoying the freewheeling anarchy of it all. “It’s all good,” he tells me. “But I don’t think there’s ever been anything like this on television before.”

It is impossible to spend any time around the Hardy Bucks’actors without speculating about the extent to which their personalities overlap with those of the characters they portray. In the case of Torduff, who plays guttersnipe drug dealer the Viper, the overlap would appear to be zero. In real life, the 23-year-old is thoughtful, politely spoken and diligent in the execution of his responsibilities. Like Torduff, 27-year-old Martin Maloney (who plays Eddie Durkin) grew up in the north of England, but moved to Swinford in his early teens. If it takes an outsider to capture the essence of a place, but a local to nail the detail, they are the best of both worlds.

There is more of a crossover here between actor and character, although Maloney is clearly more ambitious (Durkin’s great unfulfilled ambition is to move to Galway some day). With his long hair and bright red beard, Maloney provides most of the humour and pathos in the show. Onscreen and off, chaos seems to follow in his wake. He spots me as he’s about to film an important scene and charges over, more interested in reminiscing about a night out in Dublin. “Can you believe we met Gavin Friday?” he asks. No, indeed I still cannot.

If Maloney is the face of the show, and Torduff is its brains, then Owen Colgan is it’s heart. It is Colgan’s character Buzz who identifies the group as “hardy bucks around the town” and who, in the same episode, sets out their oft-quoted “fightin’, drinkin’, schmokin’” manifesto. And, in all the time I spend around him today, I see nothing to suggest that Colgan and his onscreen alter-ego are anything other than two sides of the same coin.

I ask Owen what his ambitions are for the series. “To get on the telly,” he answers. “To get famous.” Next question. Any previous acting experience? He ponders the question for a second. “No,” he says. “Only jobs where I was pretending to be working.” I scrutinise his face for a flicker, or a twinkle in the eye. There is nothing.

Today’s scenes revolve around a King of the Town competition, entailing a pint-drinking competition, a tractor-pulling contest and a raunchy dating contest called the (Se) X Factor. Last night, Maloney put out a call looking for extras. He hoped maybe a dozen fans might show up. He got over a hundred. John O’Mahony (23) and Luke Murphy (22) from Glanmire, and their friend James Brennan (23) from Freemount, have driven more than 300km to be here.

“When we saw it mentioned on Facebook last night, we thought, it’s now or never,” says Luke. “Hardy Bucksis the funniest thing we’ve ever seen.” Even his parents love the show, he says. Did they have to get up at an ungodly hour to be here, I ask. James smiles. “Oh, we did. And we stopped for sausages in Charleville, so it took us about four hours in all.”

The cast, visiting fans and assorted locals all mingle freely in the early summer sun. Stateside, a drug dealer in the show who dreams of X Factor glory, is sitting at a picnic table alone. Uncle Mick – who really is Martin Maloney’s uncle Mick – is talking to some girls about the recession. (“No harm in an auld shlap of reality now and again,” he tells them.) Further down the field, a dog chained to a tent pole is threatening to drag the entire (Se)X Factor marquee down on top of the lovely ladies inside.

No one seems to notice; no one seems to mind. At one point I’m greeted by a stranger. Her lips are moving but no sound is coming out. She’s an extra in one of the scenes. Oh God, I’ve just wandered into shot, haven’t I? I turn around and spot the camera. Yip. Again, no one seems too bothered, so I join in the conversation. “ . . . ,” I reply.

In spite of all of the festivities, however, there is an awareness that there is a lot riding on this experiment. RTÉ is hoping to capitalise on the enormous online popularity of Hardy Bucks, but the broadcaster is hedging its bets. Only three half-hour episodes have been commissioned. Nonetheless, if the show fails, it will undoubtedly be criticised for squandering a golden opportunity.

Torduff and Maloney appreciate the opportunity they’ve been given. But it’s an enormous leap from producing short, formless internet vignettes to television episodes with gags, structure and plot hooks timed to coincide with commercial breaks.

Moreover, having cut their teeth in the raucous, lawless world of online entertainment, they must now adapt to the comparatively conservative one of television. Compromises are necessary, but make too many and there is the risk of alienating existing fans and undermining the show’s hard-earned credibility.

For the hardy bucks of Castletown, it is a gargantuan task but also an incredible opportunity. And, given how far they’ve come already, it would take a brave man to bet ag’in them.

The Hardy Buckswill be on RTÉ in October