It is 20 years since she left the mad world of Craggy Island behind her, but you feel it wouldn’t take a lot of persuading to get Pauline McLynn to stick on a mole, don the floral pinny, put the kettle on and resurrect Father Ted’s disaster-prone housekeeper Mrs Doyle.
Not that McLynn in person reminds you of her most famous role, other than that they both share an effervescence and garrulousness bordering on hysteria. Interviewing Pauline McLynn isn’t easy, as her train of thought is derailed at every bend in the conversation.
She is touring the UK in East is East, Ayub Khan-Din’s very funny play about a racially mixed marriage, in which she plays Ella Khan, wife of a bigoted and sometimes violent Pakistani patriarch not very affectionately known to his children as Genghis.
Deciding to take the role of Ella was a no-brainer for McLynn. “Touring can be tough, I know, but it’s such a great part,” she says. “It’s a big night out at the theatre, and I think people have forgotten the play’s dark side, the fact that Ella gets knocked about by her husband. There will be gasping and tears, I’m sure.”
One of her reasons for wanting to do the 15-week tour was that it goes to places in the UK she has never visited. “I’ve even joined English Heritage so we can have days out and visit grand houses. I’m marking each venue on a huge atlas of Great Britain. I’m hoping my husband Richard will come and visit me occasionally, and my mother says she is coming to see me in Torquay.”
McLynn, who enjoys a parallel life as a novelist, also hopes to begin work on her 11th book in the quiet times. “I’m hoping to find some great stories in some of these places we’re visiting that will inspire me. After 10 books, I’d started to feel I was running out of stories to tell.”
In pursuit of inspiration she says she recently went to see some bog bodies in Ireland – “I love a good bog” – so look out for one or two of them in her next mystery. “And they mightn’t be as old as you think,” she adds with a faux sinister Mrs Doyle sideways glance.
Growing up in the west of Ireland, McLynn admits she was a schoolgirl show-off who jumped at the chance of reciting or performing in public. “I always had a teacher who fancied doing a play, and I was first in line at auditions. The first thing I did when I went to Trinity College was to join the drama society. I was never the pretty young juve, always the comedy character parts. They’re more fun.”
In her early years as an actor, McLynn did a lot of work with the Galway-based Druid TC, and the Dublin-based Rough Magic. As recently as 2006 she was an outstanding Katherine in an Irish-themed Taming of the Shrew for the latter. “Everyone thought we’d adapted the text to suit the Irish accent, but in fact we never changed a word,” she says.
She first worked with the late Dermot Morgan, aka Father Ted, on the cult radio show Scrap Saturday, which lampooned Irish politics in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and propelled them both into the public consciousness. Even so, McLynn insists she was far from a shoo-in for Mrs Doyle in 1994.
“They saw everyone in the country for Mrs Doyle before me. When they did eventually get round to me I was grey to the gills because I’d had a bad chicken sandwich the night before and I was afraid I’d hurl over someone at my audition. But maybe that’s what got me the part.”
None of those involved had any idea Father Ted would become the enduring cult comedy it has. Two decades on, it continues to attract legions of new fans year on year. “The writing was so brilliant, you couldn’t go wrong,” says McLynn. “The scripts always came perfectly formed. I don’t suppose I’ll ever have that experience again.”
Her TV appearances since have been few and far between – Frank’s love interest in Shameless, Dot Cotton’s daughter-in-law in EastEnders – leading one to suppose she is picky about the work she does. Not so, she says. “I’d love to think I have that reputation but I’m not sure that I am. I do get some offers that are easy to say no to, but not as many as you might think. The meaty roles are not in plentiful supply for actresses of a certain age.”
So would she ever consider giving up acting to concentrate on her successful writing career?
“I hope it’ll never come to that. I love the social side of acting, meeting so many interesting people. It feeds into the writing. I’m not a person who has ever enjoyed what they call a career arc. It’s more a case of staggering from one job to the next, trying not to panic in the quiet times. Something usually turns up. I’ve been lucky enough to be able to mix it up – theatre jobs, TV jobs, a radio play here and there, the odd novel. My mother always says I’m the first person in the family to get paid for showing off.”
East Is East is on tour until August 15,