Interview: Dylan Moran: “I’m bewildered by modernity” 2009

26th September 2008

Dylan Moran: Mr Mumbly-Stumbly. Comedian, writer and actor Dylan Moran talks about his mistrust of the modern world ahead of his What It Is tour. First published, Daily Telegraph, 26 Sep 2008.

“When I was young, all the politicians looked like ancient Latin teachers or greengrocers,” says Dylan Moran. “They were mumbly, stumbly men with their hair blowing in their eyes, walking into trees, opening the wrong door. They had no idea how to present themselves. Nowadays, politics is all about presentation.”

Moran – pronounced as in “sporran” – says this in a quiet, mumbly-stumbly way: a sort of sit-down variant on his stand-up comedy.

If he’s not expressing outright support for Gordon Brown here, he is at least offering up some incredulity on his behalf: “I think it’s refreshing that he has a shaky relationship with the camera and soundbites. You’d think people in Britain would also find that refreshing, but…”

Although, at 36, Moran has the kind of good looks and charm that most politicians lack, when performing he shares with those fondly remembered politicians of his Irish childhood a pleasingly untutored quality.

He knows how to knock out a punchline, but one of his most endearing characteristics is his capacity to meander, never to appear too neat or too self-certain.

He’ll saunter on stage, shirt untucked, glass of red wine in hand, like a priest who’s taken to the pulpit with insufficient notes, a desire to ruminate and a sudden tipsy instinct for mischief in his heart.

Because he played – to perfection – the misanthropic bookseller Bernard Black in his Bafta-winning Channel 4 sitcom Black Books, the common assumption is that Moran, who is openly reticent about his private life, is an awkward, even curmudgeonly sod.

Yet, when you listen to what he says, it’s plain that he’s not so much out of sorts with people as with the world in which we live.

His latest stand-up show, What It Is – for which tickets are already scarce – will, he says, tackle the modern world and its shortcomings.

“Maybe this is just me, but as time goes by I’m more bewildered by modernity,” he says. “It gets more unfathomable with every passing year.”

He mourns the loss of individuality and community that globalisation has brought in its wake: “It’s a very opaque area, the recent past, but if you consider the changes of the past decade or so, they’re amazing.”

He shakes his head at the mention of social networking sites such as Facebook. “I fear we might be losing the basic human facility to be alone – and with that you throw out independent decision-making, what to trust, what not to trust, key stuff, a perilous loss.”

I ask him if there us another era he’d prefer to live in. “I quite fancy the 1940s,” he says in a flash. “I like the trams and the trousers.”

He has made strides as an actor over the past few years, displaying unexpected versatility as Michael Caine’s sidekick in the under-rated Dublin underworld comedy The Actors and popping up in Simon Pegg’s durably funny flicks Shaun of the Dead and Run Fatboy Run.

A larky low-budget Irish film, A Film With Me In It – in which he plays the friend of a thrusting thesp – will be released in January, but for the past year or so he has concentrated on writing short stories and new stand-up material, at home with his wife and two kids in Edinburgh.

He compares the slow process of putting a live show together to building “a cairn, a pile of stones. It’s quite primitive. You get something and you think, ‘I like that’, then you hunt for other stones to go with it or that might offset it in an interesting way. You reject a lot to get what you’re after, and what you’re after changes after a while.”

With his gift for poetic, aphoristic turns of phrase and a free-thinking cast of mind, you’d swear he must have been a high-flying literature or philosophy student in his youth.

But he left school in Navan, County Meath, at 16, without qualifications. There then followed, by all accounts, four years given over to drinking, writing bad poetry and a lot of adolescent floundering.

“Sure you’re not properly alive if you’re a teenager and not angst-ridden,” he jokes. “I could have ended up in permanent stupor,” he concedes. “Some people never pull through.”

But if it’s the standard anecdote I’m after, about how he found salvation in a Dublin comedy club at the age of 20, he’s not obliging today. Too pat. I make the mistake of asking if he was funny as a child.

“How would I know?” he responds, baffled rather than berating in tone. “How would a seven-year-old boy know? I remember friends of mine laughing, but who cares ultimately? What does that get you closer to?”

What Moran is angling to get closer to are those moments when we experience a flash of genuine insight. “I want to phrase my observations in such a way people think: ‘That’s exactly how I feel.’

They’ve always known it but suddenly they see it as if for the first time. That’s all you can really hope to do, I think.”
“What is religion but people talking to you at length about their imaginary friend?”
“Mobile phone cancer is more common in the city than the country – but then so is everything else, including sex, coffee and conversation.”
“I’m compulsive and indecisive. I don’t know what I want but I know I want it now.”

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Dominic Cavendish - Theatre Critic & Journalist

Dominic Cavendish is the lead theatre critic for The Daily Telegraph. He is the founding editor of the audio archive Theatrevoice

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