The Young Offenders: Breaking into the English Market
The runaway success of the film has led to a BBC series and a new level of attention in Cork
Chris Whalley and Alex Murphy play, respectively, the lanky Jock and the compact Conor as the most amiable sorts of idiot. Photograph: Miki Barlok
It is early September and we are stationed on a windy patch of grass in the northern suburbs of Cork city. I doubt film crews often turn up in this part of the world. We should, thus, not be overly surprised so see kids in school uniforms peering excitedly over garden walls. Why wouldn’t older people pause on their way back from the shop? But the attention is more rapt than you might expect. There is a genuine sense of excitement. It’s as if Brad Pitt or one of them mad fellas was about the set.
A tall actor in a tracksuit (it’s not Brad Pitt) is shooting an action sequence. He runs up the hill before swerving leftwards in the direction of the city. A security guard puffs up behind him and looks about in confusion. This happens many times.
As the afternoon progresses, the small crowd continues to swell. When each new person arrives, we hear delighted muttering under respectful breath. “It’s that The Young Offenders? It’s The Young Offenders.”
When Peter Foott’s The Young Offenders premiered at the 2016 Galway Film Fleadh few knew what to expect. A modestly budgeted comedy about two Cork layabouts searching for a haul of drugs? Foott had done some good work on telly and had made some terrific shorts. It might pass the time.
The picture played to howls of laughter and went on become a smash at the domestic box office. It later opened in the UK to more excellent reviews. And it’s now being made into a sitcom by the BBC. Nowhere was it more heartily celebrated than its home city.
“Every day we hear stories of how popular it was,” she says. “I met this girl and she said told me there was a staff member in the wine bar across the street. His nephew is 10 years old and he watches the film every night before he goes to bed. I thought that was so sweet. It’s almost become part of the culture.”
Alex Murphy and Chris Whalley play, respectively, the compact Conor and the lanky Jock as the most amiable sorts of idiot. They get up to appalling mischief, but their befuddled decency is never too far from the surface. No wonder Cork has embraced its own latter-day Laurel and Hardy.
Hilary’s character works in a version of Pat O’Connell’s fish shop in the city’s famous English Market. You may remember Queen Elizabeth dropping in there during her state visit. Pat had a picture of her Majesty between the crabs and the turbot.
“People used to come in and have their photograph taken with the photo of the Queen,” Hilary explains. “He asked us for a signed poster. We asked him to put us up next to the Queen and he said: ‘No problem’. We came in one day and said: ‘Where’s the Queen?’ He said: ‘She wasn’t as popular. So we took her down.’”
Faces of the zeitgeist
Peter digs out his phone and shows us a photograph of crowds gathering round the current shoot in Cork City. When they made the film nobody paid the slightest attention. Now they can’t set up a light without starting a riot. Conor and Jock are faces of the zeitgeist.
The film’s success outside Ireland is more of a surprise. This is not to suggest the humour isn’t universal. The combination of pathos and slapstick has been a cinematic staple right back to the silent era. But the boys’ accents are unforgivingly Corkonian. For all that, the picture – without the addition of subtitles – has played to great reviews at the Fantastic Fest in Texas and the BFI London Film Festival.
The series, though made in co-operation with RTÉ, is driven by the BBC’s online channel BBC Three. Did they ever tentatively suggest toning down the accents?
“Not at all,” Hilary says. “In fact the BBC were wholly supportive of keeping the core of it. The language hasn’t been changed. We are not thinking: we’re playing to an English audience, will they get this joke? The film proved that wasn’t a problem. There was a subtitled version of the film that wasn’t used. The BBC were hands off.”
This is just the right route for an offbeat comedy like The Young Offenders sitcom. Series such as the hugely fashionable Fleabag have premiered on BBC Three before moving on to the terrestrial stations. Word is built up. Cult status is stoked. But how the heck did this happen and how did it happen so quickly? Foott and his team were shooting the series little more than a year after the feature premiered.
“When we were making the film we were sort of thinking it seems like a waste that we’d created this world,” Foott says.
He mentioned the notion of a spin-off to his agents and they began setting up meetings in the UK. Channel 4, Sky and the BBC all expressed interest.
“Usually you pitch your idea. They give you a certain amount of money to write a draft. You get a bit more to shoot a pilot. But when we went back to the BBC they said: ‘We love it. We really want to do it. Shoot it this summer.’”
Hilary remembers an email coming in on a Thursday evening asking them to “write, shoot and deliver as fast as possible”.
Aware that, like many comedies, the film essentially tied off its narrative stream at the close – enemies became friends, confusions were clarified – Foott decided not to deliver a formal sequel. The series is more of a remake than a follow-on. Conor’s mum is once again an avowed enemy of Jock. The cops are once more on the trail.
I worried filming would be less crack because it’s bigger and everyone may get more uptight. The big difference is actually that it’s more efficient and you get things done a lot quicker. But there’s the same level of crack
Still, the shoot has a very different feel to it. There’s more money for a start. We have retired to a near-by GAA club for the highlight of any set visit: a decent lunch and plenty of mini-Mars bars. Alex Murphy, energetic and irreverent, and Chris Walley, a little drier in his humour, are here to spread endless good cheer. How has the larger budget affected the process?
“The catering is a bit better,” Chris says. “Having a happy cast and crew is very important. Food is a big part of that and it has definitely improved.”
“I worried that filming would be less crack because it’s bigger and everyone may get more uptight,” Alex continues. “The big difference is actually that it’s more efficient and you get things done a lot quicker. But there’s the same level of crack.”
The two guys explain that once they pull on the Young Offender look – track suits and pudding-bowl haircuts – the characters start to surge through their veins. They seem to enjoy a playful relationship that can’t help but assist in the development of such buddy-buddy comedy. Indeed, they treat the interview like a double act. Someone asks them how Jock would respond to the news that Cork has just been declared the least sexy city on earth.
“Bullshit!” Chris says.
“It depends who they’re asking,” Alex continues. “Are they people in nursing homes? But we’re not in Cork. We’re in London and Dublin.”
“But now you’re back. So it’s changed.”
There is every chance that new levels of fame are about to attach themselves to our heroes. We mentioned Fleabag earlier. Phoebe Waller-Bridge, star of that show, is in the Han Solo film. Anything can happen. But they’re not there yet.
“I remember being out in Cork and I put my coat in the cloakroom,” Chris says. “A group of girls walked past. I heard one of them say: ‘I thought that was the guy from The Young Offenders. But it’s not. He doesn’t have curly hair.’ Ha, ha, ha!”
Let’s see if that qualified anonymity continues. Shall we?
The Young Offenders series begins on RTÉ2 on Thursday, February 8th at 9.30pm
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