Global king of comedy

 

PROFILE GRAHAM LINEHAN:THREE YEARS AGO, Graham Linehan was working on a new sitcom about a group of people who work in a travel agency. It was going well - one of the scenes had a character on the phone to a customer saying: "No, I wouldn't go to France. France is very rude at this time of year." 

Linehan's computer crashed and he got an IT worker in to have a look at it. He listened to the IT guy for two hours - not understanding a single work he said. That same day he put the travel agency idea on the back burner and began writing a sitcom about two IT workers in a large company who, because of their lack of social skills, are banished to a dingy basement office. Whenever anybody rings them up with a problem, their advice amounts to: "Have you tried turning it off and turning it on again?"

This week Linehan's The IT Crowd, won an International Emmy for Best Comedy - beating off strong competition from Germany and Japan. At the award ceremony in New York, the 40-year-old Dubliner who is an obsessive popular culture fan, said he was more thrilled at receiving the award from the noted film director, John Waters, than he was by the award itself. The third series of The IT Crowd is currently running on Channel 4.

While it was a chance meeting with an IT worker that brought Linehan to the Emmy awards winners' rostrum, it was another chance episode much earlier in his life that has made him one of Britain's most in-demand comedy writers and producers. His credits to date include co-writing Father Ted, Big Train and Black Books, all multi-award winning and critically praised TV comedies.

BROUGHT UP IN THE Navan Road area of Dublin, as a teenager Linehan had a subscription to the music magazine New Musical Express. Much to his annoyance, one week it didn't arrive so his father brought him the Irish equivalent, Hot Press, instead. He noticed that his favourite band in the world ever, The Pixies, had received a somewhat less than adulatory review. He hastily penned a letter to the magazine about such treasonable behaviour. A journalist at Hot Press, Damien Corless, was impressed by his writing style and offered him work. On his first day at the magazine, he met the magazine's illustrator, Arthur Mathews. During long production shifts, Mathews would speak in the character of a gormless priest he had invented called Father Ted. Over drinks in the International Bar, they talked about writing a comic documentary which detailed Father Ted's day-to-day life. But nothing ever came of it.

With his big, gangling frame and punctilious attention to good manners, Linehan had grown up as a geeky outsider on Dublin's northside. His interests began and ended with films, music and books. His three biggest comedy influences were Woody Allen, The Simpsons and Seinfeld, but all he ever wanted to be was a music critic. He wrote with a trainspotter's zeal about music and film, frequently clumsy but always engaging. He made a big impression at Hot Press and later In Dublin magazine.

His best friend, the Sunday Tribune journalist, Ken Sweeney, remembers meeting him for the first time. "It was in Dublin in the 1980s, I met him in a bar and he immediately lent me seven albums. I thought it was strange that someone I had just met gave me all these albums, but he really wanted me to listen to them. And he's still like that. In London, he's known for dragging the heads of comedy departments to gigs by up-and-coming Irish comics. He has a voracious appetite for popular culture and a huge enthusiasm for the area. He was the bright young kid back then and Dublin in the 1980s, where there really was only Hot Press and In Dublin for music and film fans, moved too slowly for him."

Moving to London, he began writing for the now defunct indie music magazine Select. Remembering his plans for Arthur Mathews' Father Ted character, he convinced Mathews to chuck in his job at Hot Press and move to London. The duo began writing short sketches for Alexei Sayle, quickly developing a reputation as quick, fast and original writers. They were promptly given the green light to write a sitcom, Paris, about a group of artists in the fin-de-siècle French capital. Paris all but bombed when it went out on Channel 4 in 1994 and the doors that had been opening for the pair were now being banged shut.

They went back to their Father Ted idea, decided to add in two more priests and set it on a remote Irish island. An early blow though came when Linehan's choice for the role of Father Dougal, Kevin McAleer, turned down the part - quite possibly on the basis of how Paris had failed to perform. However, Father Ted did get picked up and Ardal O'Hanlon was offered McAleer's role. Despite the fact that Father Ted was basically an Irish Only Fools and Horses with a soft, surreal twist (the three male characters in both are almost interchangeable) it went on to become one of Channel 4's most watched comedies and has long since entered the cultural mainstream.

Linehan and Mathews only worked on one post-Ted series together, the BBC2 sketch show, Big Train, before professionally breaking up. There was always the sense that because the character of Father Ted was Mathews invention, Linehan didn't get due credit for his involvement in the show - even if it was very much a collaborative effort with Linehan even directing the third series.

IT IS PERHAPS THIS which motivated him to write his first solo sitcom (his work on Black Books and on various Steve Coogan programmes was in collaboration with others). He had two provisos though - he didn't want any swear words used (which for a Channel 4 comedy is like having Rory Bremner but without any impressions) and, after Father Ted, he didn't want to cast any Irish actors.

He fell at the first hurdle on the latter when the Roscommon actor (and ex-professional Bob Geldof impersonator) Chris O'Dowd read for a part. O'Dowd ended up playing an excitable IT worker with a puppy-like enthusiasm that plays against his co-worker's (Richard Ayoade) more stolid bearing.

It's noticeable that the relationship between O'Dowd and Ayoade on screen is not too dissimilar to the professional relationship he had with Mathews. Perhaps tellingly, Linehan himself wanted to play O'Dowd's character but when he mentioned this at the first production meeting he was met with stony silence. The sassy, with-it woman who invades the lives of the two computer geeks is played by Katherine Parkinson and is based on Linehan's real-life wife, the Liverpudlian TV producer, Helen Serafinowicz.

A finely observed piece of comedy writing, The IT Crowd plays to Linehan's preferred set-up of two men interacting with a woman (in Father Ted this was Ted/Dougal and Mrs Doyle). It's also a nod to the Seinfeld set-up and indeed, Linehan has described the show as "Seinfeld with laptops".

Apart from his work, what makes Linehan unique is his utter lack of conceit or self-regard. He is the product of a Dublin media world which can be fuelled by mean- mindedness and malice. Ken Sweeney was the best man at his wedding to Serafinowicz five years ago. "I had to make this speech in front of Jonathan Ross, the two Little Britain guys and all these celebrities," he says. "I said that Graham had got on without shafting anyone or ripping anyone off and that he really is the most gentle and well-meaning person I have ever known. I do know he was a bit disappointed with a documentary RTÉ made of him last year. They interviewed all these UK celebs who Graham has worked with but none of his best friends in Dublin - people like Damien Corless and Paul Woodfull. It gave the wrong impression, I think. He detests celebrity. He's far happier hanging around in scuzzy indie clubs in London than he is at the Groucho Club."

Given that most of his cultural heroes are American, Linehan would like a go at the US market. A re-make of Father Ted was never a runner because you can't "offend" any religious grouping on US television. There has been talk about a US version of The IT Crowd - a pilot was made - and may well get prioritised on the back of his Emmy win.

No matter where he goes though, his legendary politeness will always precede him. When he and Mathews shared a flat together in London, Matthews arrived back once after a weekend in Dublin. Linehan was waiting at the door for him looking guilty and crest-fallen. "Arthur, I've something to confess," he said. "While you were away I took some of your marmalade."

Who is he?Comedy writer behind Father Ted and Black Books.

In the news because:Go on, go on, go on - have another award. This time an Emmy for The IT Crowd.

Hear him saying:"I'd like to thank the guy who came to fix my computer and ended up giving me a sitcom.

Never hear him say:"Hello, is that the RTÉ comedy department? I have a great idea for a show."

Essential trivia:Never get into a game of poker with him. Hes close to a professional-level player.