Diamond in the Sky
If you play it backwards, do they fix it?

Neil Delamere’s Flights of Fancy

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‘Delamere’ is a Norman name. Neil Delamere knew this. His sixth grade classmates didn’t. His teacher chose to inform them in the process of teaching the class about the Norman invasion.

“The teacher linked England and 800 years of misery, death, famine and oppression to the Norman invasion and then added, ‘Neil is Norman’,” the comic explains. “Ding, ding, ding, ding… break time!

“We went out and I got battered – absolutely battered. It was the Irish families versus the Norman families. Me and one guy called Steven Prendergast got the crap kicked out of us by the Dunns, the O’Kellies, the O’Sullivans, the Moores… the fact that the Cappuccis joined in was a bit of a disgrace, to be honest with you. They owned the chippy; he was hitting me with a cornetto, the Cappucci lad was!”

I had no idea Irish comic Neil Delamere was of Norman descent, and it’s hardly the most vital biographical detail to arm yourself with when going to interview him. Neil is in Sydney to present Crème Delamere, his most recent festival show, at the Comedy Store for two weeks, but good luck trying to find out anything substantial about him to take to the interview. There’s precious little on offer on-line. Or at least, that’s the case before I meet him: neither the ‘Neil Delamere’ Wikipedia entry nor his homepage have much detail, the homepage bio still refering to Delamere’s 2007 Edinburgh Fringe show as his most recent. Which is almost grounds for embarrassment, the surprisingly soft-spoken comic reveals when I meet him face-to-face. True to his description ‘banter bomb’ (as dubbed by The Scotsman) we have a long, entertaining and effortless chat – as you might surmise from the amount of text that follows. Thankfully, the handful of stand-up comedy and chat show clips available on-line reveal enough to get us started.

For example, there’s the set Neil delivered at the 2008 New Zealand Comedy Festival Gala, where he opens by explaining he’s from “the southern part, not the scary Northern part” of Ireland, and in so doing, demonstrates the mischievous and cheeky streak he brings to the world around him. He notes that New Zealand public transport is “the opposite” of his girlfriend: “this bus kneels on request,” he quotes. He marvels at the kauri, a species of tree native to New Zealand and famed for its longevity, that he longs to touch. “It’d be brilliant – just rubbing up against 2000-year-old wood. Like Catherine Zeta-Jones does.” But it’s his cute observation, that it takes “an awful long time” to get to this part of the world, that will prove  the best point of departure, so to speak:

I left my house on Monday; I got here on Wednesday. Two days just f*cked off! Don’t know where they went. It was like being Jesus at Easter. He wasn’t crucified – he just flew to Auckland.

© Neil Delamere

While it’s nice to see the Easter references emerging in his humour – suggesting a religious upbringing – I like it most because Neil’s surname, ‘Delamere’, is French for ‘of the sea’; this international visitor is clearly descended from international visitors. As we sit before a not-quite-roaring open fire – a gas flame in the fireplace – in the hotel foyer that clearly once was the drawing room of a fine and stately home – the perfect place to interview a visiting Irish comic – I put it to Neil Delamere that he “comes from a long line of travellers”.

“That could mean anything!” Neil laughs, not revealing whether I’ve somehow suggested he’s a bastard, or implied some other insult. There is an entirely different tale of lineage and bastardry to relate, it turns out. ‘Delamere’ is, indeed, French, and does mean ‘of the sea’, and “the fact the Delameres moved to the midlands – the only landlocked part of Ireland,” Neil explains, “suggests an awful lot about the lazy branch of the family from which I am descended.”

It is at this point that he tells me the name is in fact of Norman origin, as he always knew, but as his teacher only revealed to his classmates when it could do the most damage – bastard! That the chippy-owning Cappuccis joined in to go him with a cornetto is particularly insulting, since the Cappuccis and Delameres may well have been neighbours in the ‘old country’; the Normans did colonise the southern half of what is now Italy, as well as the islands off its coast. But that’s by-the-by. Turns out the Normans were originally Vikings – which Neil again knows a great deal about, since his 2007 Edinburgh Fringe offering was The Viking Show. “My mother’s side were Vikings, as well,” he says, “so technically, I am 100 percent Viking – although I don’t look it, to be honest.”

Well… okay, Neil Delamere is not tall and lanky, but he is at least a bloodnut – a common Viking trait. It’s an alternate explanation for why the ranga gene is common amongst the Irish – the other being that they are one of the Lost Tribes of Israel.

What did he say about his mother?

I’m glad Neil brought up his Mam. As mentioned, there is a dearth of biographical detail available regarding Neil Delamere on-line. According to the Wikipedia entry, he was born “circa 1980”. Wha? ‘Around 1980’? Either side, give-or-take? That’s an unfeasibly long labour – which, let’s face it, given Viking lineage, Neil’s poor Ma may well have been equipped to endure. Or Neil is being coy about his date of birth.

“No,” Neil says, “there’s no coyness. I’m 30.”

The reason there’s not been much of Neil Delamere on-line, the comic confesses, is because “I’m really lazy with my website – which is kind of ironic considering my degree was…”

“That’s another thing!” I interupt before he can finish. The Wikipedia entry says he “completed a degree”. No specifications. “What degree? Where from? It could have been purchased off…”

“No,” Neil interupts me this time. “It’s from Dublin City University. And I’ll tell you how I can prove it…”

Turns out, Dublin City University – Ireland’s self-proclaimed “most innovative” university – is now producing bookmarks. Neil discovered this while visiting his alma mater. But that’s not the most innovative bit. They feature photos of the institution’s more impressive alumni – or, in Neil’s modest words, “people who are meant to have a bit of a profile”. So, along with Matt Cooper, one of Ireland’s leading broadcasters and journalists, and Jamie Heaslip, who plays No. 8 with the British and Irish Lions rugby squad, you can find Neil Delamere’s “stupid face” (his words) peeking over the top of book pages. Of course, like any good comic should, he does material about this find. “The new Edinburgh show is called Bookmarks,” he announces.

So Neil Delamere attended Dublin City University where – get this – he completed a degree in Computer Applications. That’s the irony of his rather meager homepage. Since graduating, Neil’s “gone the other way” and become a “luddite”, more-or-less: “I still enjoy gadgets but I have no interest in geekiness,”  he says. Unlike Neil’s older brother, who completed the same degree. “Now he’s earning millions from IT and I’m doing this. I feel like Dannii Minogue!”


Offaly nice place to visit… by mistake

Neil’s branch of the Delamere clan comes from a small town called Edenderry, in County Offaly, virtually slap-bang in the centre of Ireland. As fitting as it may sound that marauding Norman invaders might settle in a place named after offal, Neil explains that ‘Offaly’ is actually an English corruption of ‘Uí Failghe’ – pronounced something like ‘ee-VOLE-ya’ – which means ‘land of the Failghe’. This is the original kingdom that occupied what is now Ireland, before said marauding Normans invaded. That the county takes its name from the land’s earliest known inhabitants suggests that it is steeped in history, and indeed it is. But the other way of looking at it, Neil points out, is that “the midlands of any country is the place time forgets”, producing “odd places and great characters”. He cites England – “always a bit odd in the middle” – Ireland, and even Australia, whose middle includes the likes of “Alice Springs, the Nullarbor and all that sort of nothingness”. According to Delamere – (‘of the sea’, remember) – “most people are drawn to and hang around coasts, and the ones who go further inland are the people who kind of look at you with a twitch.”

Historically, what is now County Offaly once included Clonmacnoise (I’m not even going to attempt to spell it phonetically!), a monastery whose monks kept learning alive while barbarians destroyed Europe during the First Millennium. Offaly’s more recent past has not proven so spectacular. “If you name the year, I can name the tourists,” Neil boasts, offering an example: “1994 was Jans and Ulrich, two lovely lads who grossly underestimated the cycle to Galway, and ended up in Edenderry.”

If two lost tourists are the highlight of your calendar year, there can’t be a lot to do in your small country town in your landlocked county. At least Neil had the influence of two brothers – one ten years older, the other seven – to broaden his horizons. They essentially introduced him to comedy.

“I’d be watching Blackadder when I was 12 or 13, and Cheers and MASH…” Neil recalls. When stand-up became popular enough to feature on BBC television, he was exposed to the work of Tommy Tiernan hosting The Stand-up Show. Ardal O’Hanlon (Father Ted, My Hero) was hosting by the time the likes of Tommy Tiernan and Dylan Moran were winning the Perrier Award for Best Show at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival (1998 and 1996, respectively). “So,” says Neil, “it was put in my head that ‘these are the lads who could do this sort of stuff and they’re from roughly the same background as you’.” Thus, he figured, he might as well give it a go. “I did it once in a bar and just kind of kept doing it. But didn’t do it until I left college – I was 21 or 22.”

Havin’ a laugh

That was in 2001. International success wasn’t too long in coming. In 2004 Neil Delamere was invited to play the Montreal Just For Laughs Comedy Festival, featuring in a related television show at the same time. “Somebody saw me and got me to do The Panel,” he says. Oh yes, Working Dog sold the format of The Panel to other countries, and Ireland’s version features Neil Delamere as a regular panellist as well as, in more recent years, host. He works a treat on it, as YouTube clips demonstrate. He’s so natural that it’s hard to tell if he’s pulling in pre-existing bits of stand-up where relevant, or is very good at making with the funny business on the fly. Neil insists he rarely resorts to doing pre-existing ‘material’.

“The great thing about The Panel is you’re on with four other people and we make each other laugh. We’re not good enough actors to fake that, to be honest with you. So what happens is, when you see one of us laughing at the other person’s jokes, it’s genuine and spontaneous.”

This is, of course, ground that would have been covered when the local version of The Panel hit big – and is probably asked of every humorous topical game or chat show: how much is spontaneous and how much is rehearsed? “There is no rehearsal whatsoever in the show that we do,” Neil explains. Of course everyone’s pretty much going to know what the main stories up for discussion are each week; working comedians would have written gags about them or immediately seen a funny side of them anyway – that’s what comedians do. I reckon if you put the same people from The Panel in each other’s company in, say, a pub, they’d have virtually the same discussion, and Neil agrees – adding you’d probably have to record the entire conversation over the course of the night and then “cut it down to the funniest 50 minutes.” But that’s the greatest compliment to the show – that feels as though it’s a bunch of mates – even you and your mates – having a bit of a yack at the pub.

“The lack of contrivance is the aim of all stand-up,” Neil reckons, but it’s also “one of the problems of stand-up”: when you make it look like uncontrived “talking off the top of your head” – as the best stand-up should – “the lines are blurred”. Nobody would heckle a play; they can’t heckle the telly. But they heckle at stand-up because “it’s like talking to you in a pub!”

This raises an important issue every comic must face: not every heckler is trying to be disruptive and some heckles actually contribute to the performance, giving the comic something new to react to and build on. But if you encourage it, it may become ‘open slather’ for the audience and then detract from the show. Where do you draw the line? How do you ensure it adds to the audience experience?

“You have to take each heckle as it comes,” Neil acknowledges. “There are myriad reasons why someone would heckle. Each one has to be dealt with on its own merits.” Pause. “And I have a hammer…”. We both laugh at the tag. “No, I don’t, I don’t,” Neil reassures me. “But it would be good if I did, though, wouldn’t it!”

The way the cookies crumble

You wouldn’t expect it of a so-called ‘topical’ comedy panel show, but old episodes of Irish Panel are be hilarious. At least, the bits that make it to YouTube are. There’s a clip that features the discussion arising from an expensive biscuit company wanting to sue a budget biscuit company whose packaging is, they argue, indistinguishable. Neil, as host, reminds the other panellists of the time when cheap brands actually looked cheap, because, he says, “poor people needed to be reminded that they were poor. Big military writing: ‘YOU ARE POOR!’”

Nowadays, I guess, printing is affordable enough that the so-called cheap brands can look expensive – and your parents always would argue that they tasted the same anyway, so why pay more money for the ‘prestige’ product? Because, Neil argues, “if your mates caught you with that” in the supermarket, they’d tease you mercilessly: “HA HA HA HA HA! Yellow Pack! Vincent de Paul! Vincent de Paul!”

Since the cheap stuff is virtually indistinguishable from the expensive, there has been a shift that coincides with Ireland’s fortunes. “Ireland was one of the richest countries in the world in the last ten years,” Neil acknowledges, “all based on a house of cards, really. But we went through this period of being loaded and lovin’ it. Lovin’ it! We completely lost our inferiority complex with Britain because it’s a lot easier to take a derogatory joke from somebody if you know deep down you can afford to have them killed. But now we’ve gone back the other way and it’s become genuinely fashionable to be thrifty again, so we’re all going back to those days and buying ‘home brand’ stuff.”

One other thing that may change back to how it was, now that Ireland is less well off, is a massive and groundbreaking tax incentive called The Artists Exemption. For a time, creative types who contributed to the cultural life of Ireland were granted tax breaks so significant that it was in the best interest for talented people like U2, say, to stay put, and inject their massive earnings back into the local economy, rather than going, as English performers were wont do, into tax exile. But it was such a good tax break that people like Van Morrison – from Belfast, Northern Ireland, and therefore part of the UK rather than the Republic of Ireland – and Elvis Costello – a Liverpudlian with Irish heritage that he conveniently rediscovered – moved to Ireland to make the most of it. The Artist Exemption was introduced in the ’80s by then-Prime Minister – or ‘Taoiseach’, as it’s called (pronounced something like ‘TEE-shock’) – Charlie Haughey, Neil explains.

“It was for struggling artists – your guys writing books or self-publishing poems, sculptors or artists or whatever. But they didn’t think to cap it, so you had people like Frederick Forsyth and Lisa Stansfield moving over.”

Lisa Stansfield, eh? She’d been around the world, and she, she, she – decided Ireland was the most lucrative place to be. Eventually, The Artists Exemption was capped at €250,000 – at which point U2 started moving their holdings to The Netherlands.

“There was a lot of controversy over that,” according to Neil. “Bono on one hand saying, ‘give your money to the poor and make poverty history’, meanwhile moving most of U2’s business holdings to a foreign country.” Question is, does such an exemption aid comics? Do government officials consider comedians as creators of art, contributing to the social life of their country?

“We absolutely do!” Neil insists. “The trouble is that it’s very hard to prove that it’s original material and it’s very hard to hand something to the taxman. If you write a book, you can hand him the book; if you write a script, you can hand him the script; if you write an album, you can hand him the album. It’s quite difficult to hand him your set of jokes. It’s weird, because it’s only on the writing of stuff, it’s not on the actual performing, so it’s complicated. I think it’s a great idea, but I would say that in six months, it’ll be gone, because we are poor again.”

Well then, Neil Delamere, you have six months to record, release and hand to the taxman a DVD of your work, I offer. To which he replies, “the DVD is already recorded – the second one. It’s coming out in early November.”

Neil’s first DVD, No Message was released in 2007 and went platinum – “in Ireland, that’s 14 DVDs, so all the family bought it” – but he has no idea where it’s available, and he hasn’t smuggled any into Australia to make some sly, tax-free spending money. “Once you release it, you kind of forget about it,” Neil explains. “I’m sure you could order it from somewhere.” Pause. “I’m the worst salesman in the world! ‘I’m sure you can get it somewhere…’ Jesus!”


Back downunder

Neil’s success as a stand-up comic grew with the success of The Panel, enabling him to tour off the back of the show. It’s also meant that he could return to Edinburgh Fringe with a bigger profile, and has been doing so over the last few years, as well as record and release DVDs. For local audiences, it’s meant he’s had a big enough profile to justify doing a show at this year’s Melbourne International Comedy Festival, and returning to Australia now for his two-week residency at the Comedy Store. But just as this year’s Comedy Festival turn wasn’t his first, this current stint at the Store isn’t his first visit to Sydney.

“I was here four or five years ago and probably did three or four gigs around Sydney, but people wouldn’t even remember,” Neil says. “That year we did the Fringe Festival in Adelaide, and then did a mini tour around places like Ayr, Townsville and Mount Isa.”

Mount Isa, eh? I had a friend in Mount Isa who, if you named the year, could probably tell you which comics toured, maybe even which ones misjudged their Georgetown cycling holiday.

“It was kind of strange, but a brilliant craic, I have to say,” the comic fondly recalls. “It was a ‘Best of Irish’ compilation show, which is amazing: you can put them on anywhere and people will go to see them, for some reason.” The reason is, as Neil says of that tour, and I’d say of this conversation, because it’s kind of strange, but a brilliant craic!

Lord of the flights

Seeing as we started our chat with long-haul flights, it’s fitting we should end with them. Neil flew to Australia this time with Air Etihad, a carrier he “can’t recommend enough” because they fly direct from Ireland. Which makes the most difference heading home.

“We always used to have to go through London, and there’s nothing worse than being on a plane for 24 hours and then realising you’re not home yet – that it’s going to be another four hours before you’re home!”

I’d agree, but before I’ve had time to, Neil considers what he’s just said. “When I say, ‘nothing worse’, I mean, obviously, crucifixion is pretty rough; and mutilation is pretty bad, as well. But four or five hours when you’re stuck in London…”

I’m wondering if it’s all down to a matter of those final hours, though. I’d heard Neil had been banned by Ireland’s low-cost airline – the ‘yellow label’ of flight, if you will – Ryanair.

“Well, that might be a slight exaggeration,” Neil says of the story. “I certainly did a gig with Michael O’Leary, who’s the Chief Executive Officer of Ryan Air, and I may, perchance, have slagged him off in front of 700 people…”

It was a corporate gig that Neil was MCing and the organisers had gone to great pains to point out that keynote speaker Michael O’Leary, “worth half a billion Euro”, was doing the gig for free. “Please don’t mess with his introduction,” they begged, and Neil, of course, promised he wouldn’t. But he was lying.

“I had no intention of agreeing,” he confesses. “I thought, ‘I’m never going to get this opportunity again’.” So he introduced Michael O’Leary:

“In 1987, Ryanair ferried 5000 passengers across Europe; in 2007 they carried 50 million passengers across Europe. Of those 50 million, 10 million got to the country they originally booked for, and some got their bags back. Ladies and gentlemen… Michael O’Leary!”

Naturally, O’Leary took the stage and started slagging off his MC. So when Neil returned to the stage after him, he gave O’Leary “dog’s abuse! It was dog’s abuse!” The best bit was when Neil produced a paper aeroplane, and said, “I’d like to symbolically represent a Ryanair flight right now. If you can just imagine that corner to my right over there is the country you actually want to get to – watch!”

And then 700 people watched Neil Delamere turn and throw the paper aeroplane in the opposite direction. The crowd loved it. Michael O’Leary leant over and said, “It’s good to go last, isn’t!” to which Neil replied, “Yes it is!”

For Neil, it was an opportunity to be funny with a well-known identity. “I thought, you’re never gonna get this opportunity again’. It was an odd gig; it was very loud. But as he was the keynote speaker and I was the MC, I knew he would be the one whose introduction I would listen to, so I took the opportunity to get the few lines in there and just kind of slag him off a bit.”

So there is a conclusion you can draw, as to why Neil Delamere may avoid flying Ryanair nowadays. “I had a horrible feeling, the next time I took a Ryanair flight,” Neil concurs, “that as I walk up to the counter I’d see the guy reach under for a silent alarm and dogs would bound up and rip my testicles off. But that only happened once…”

Time to go

Our own craic has run its course. Neil’s got a gig in a few hours, and since he only touched down in the country five hours earlier, it’d be nice if I let him rest. But I’m quite amazed that he’s awake and so lucid.

“No,” Neil corrects me, “I’m actually asleep. This is entirely a dream. I’ll have no recollection of this conversation in about 20 minutes.”

Neil Delamere is at the Comedy Store until Sat July 18


Some YouTube Clips:

2008 New Zealand International Comedy Festival Gala clip

The Panel McVities v Jacobs clip

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