With Baz Ashmawy on your side, what can go wrong? Everything
In the first episode of Wingman, his new series, Baz stages a play with a lonely farmer
Louth farmer Jimmy Byrne with Baz Ashmawy
Of all the discussions you’re every likely to imagine Baz Ashmawy having with someone, a careful explanation of theatre-industry lingo might not rank high among them. Yet there he is, the eternal lad, in Wingman (RTÉ One, Sunday, 9.30pm) explaining cast-size terminology to a dairy farmer in Togher, Co Louth, named Jimmy Byrne, who has “a need to put on a play”.
The voluble (and, it transpires, quite mercurial) Jimmy is awestruck to learn that a “two-hander”, such as The Quiet Land, the show he hopes to stage in his parish hall, is a play for two actors. That tells you how steep this challenge is likely to be. What if the show has ten people, he asks Baz? “That’s just called a play,” Baz explains.
Wingman, Ashmawy’s first entertainment show for RTÉ, is itself pitched as a two-hander, a slight departure for the one-man show that is Ashmawy. Each week Baz partners with someone who needs his help, casting him in the role of best buddy, life coach and – the show’s graphics and Highway to Heaven references makes explicit – guardian angel.
Ashmawy, a contagiously likeable figure, is assisted in this by his whitening hair and beard, which give him the aura of a distinguished scamp or a superannuated cherub. With Baz on your side, and cast as the play’s co-star, what could possibly go wrong?
Everything, it turns out.
That loneliness is affecting Jimmy is patently obvious: “It’s head -wrecking,” he says of his solitude. “It’s not healthy for anyone.”
Does Baz love company, though? When Jimmy shies from the task almost as soon as it is announced, Baz urges him to embrace a kind of selfishness. “My whole career’s been me, me, me,” he counsels. That’s how I make a living.” Is this screen big enough for the both of them?
Producing the play “for one night only”, a resonant tale of ageing farmers in rural Ireland, Baz and his director Joanne McGrath neatly construct their own drama: the “Let’s put on a show!” narrative, where the odds and the clock are against them. (“There’s never enough time,” shrugs Peter Reid, the theatre director conscripted to help them, although the two-week rehearsal time is self-imposed.)
Jimmy is slow to learn lines, constantly late, low in self-confidence, prone to self-sabotage. Baz confides his doubts to the camera frequently, while insisting, “Sometimes you just need one person to believe in you.”
But must this show go on? Even Baz’s amusing, constantly self-aware quips remind you he has his own programme to consider (“I think I’ll exit this shot with a milk jug,” he says, hoisting an urn). That may be a more driving concern than Jimmy’s vulnerability.
For Jimmy is given to darker ruminations, attracted to the play, by Malachy McKenna, because “there’s no happy ending”, and similarly aware that, when this job is done, Baz will move on. Jimmy may be better suited to the fatalism of theatre than anyone admits: take the encouraging words of the play’s director, following the preview performance: “It was a level up from catastrophe.”
Wingman, on the other hand, won’t settle for anything short of uplift. The production is a triumph, Jimmy is buzzing, Baz is gratified. The beatific light, paradise-white hoodie and jokey credits all wink at the hokiness of Wingman’s conceit, though.
Baz is a shrewd entertainer, and he knows how to put on a show. But he’s not a miracle worker.