Niall Buggy told David Hennessy about joining the cast of To Kill A Mockingbird in the West End, how he has witnessed racism with his own eyes and how people still ask him to say the lines of his Father Ted character, Henry Sellers.
Multi-award-winning Irish actor Niall Buggy has joined the cast of To Kill A Mockingbird in the West End.
The Olivier Award-winning actor from Dublin is playing Judge Taylor in Aaron Sorkin’s stage adaptation of Harper Lee’s classic novel.
Buggy takes over the role from another Irish actor in Jim Norton who is known to television audiences for playing Bishop Brennan in Father Ted and to stage audiences for his work with Conor McPherson.
And he is not the only new addition to the cast as Richard Coyle takes over the role of Atticus Finch from Rafe Spall.
Although he has been in the theatre for 50+ years, Niall says taking over a role in a production that is already up and running is a new experience for him.
Niall told The Irish World: “I’ve never done a takeover before so it’s quite a new thing for me. But it’s a very exciting show.
“They’ve already done it for quite a long time and myself and Richard are joining.
“He’s got a very tough job because he’s playing Atticus Finch. But he’s brilliant so he’ll be fine.”
Memorable as Geoff in the comedy Coupling, Coyle was last on the West End stage in the Olivier Award nominated hit play, Ink.
Asked about taking over from Jim Norton, Niall says: “It’s a bit nerve wracking, but it’s something well worth doing.
“Because it’s such a wonderful piece, extraordinary piece.
“It’s so important for any time, really so I’m very pleased to be doing it.”
The production directed by Bartlett Sher has already been critically acclaimed with The Evening Standard calling it ‘magnificent’ while The Daily Telegraph says it ‘captures the zeitgeist’.
The Harper Lee adaptation has been one of the major hits of this year’s West End season, playing to full houses at the Gielgud Theatre since its opening in March.
And Niall Buggy joins a cast that includes Belfast actor and former Tir Chonaill Gaels footballer Patrick O’Kane.
The story of To Kill a Mockingbird is one of racial injustice and childhood innocence.
Harper Lee’s original novel has sold more than 45 million copies worldwide.
Set in Maycomb, Alabama in 1934, To Kill a Mockingbird has provided American literature with some of its most indelible characters: lawyer Atticus Finch, the tragically wronged Tom Robinson, Atticus’ daughter Scout, her brother Jem, their housekeeper and caretaker Calpurnia and the reclusive Arthur “Boo” Radley.
The story, its characters and portrait of small-town America have helped to, and continue to, inspire conversation and change.
“I saw the film when I was very young.
“I remember being very, very touched by it even as a kid.
“It is an extraordinary story.
“Stories will out, won’t they?
“A really good story will get the people coming into the theatre to listen to it and find out what they can from it.
“Atticus is an extraordinary character.
“But I have to say I’m beginning to realize now the judge is also an extraordinary character, maybe a little bit of an older version of Atticus.
“I think there’s something maybe quite spiritual about him.
“And he’s certainly a moralistic man.
“It’s very interesting to hear these people talk, these white men.
“Judge Taylor is an elderly white man and his ideas and thoughts about how people should live are very different to what his generation of people, who were racist, would have been thinking.
“They were brought up that way, comes out of fear I presume.”
Told through the eyes of six-year-old Scout, the story sees Atticus Finch asked to defend Tom Robinson, a black man who is accused of raping a young white woman.
Many of the prejudiced town people disapprove but Atticus, who has strong morals, agrees to defend Robinson to the best of his ability.
It is something that Scout and her brother are even taunted for by other kids at school.
“He (Judge Taylor)’s the one who goes to Atticus and tries to get him to defend Tom Robinson who’s been found guilty of committing this crime, which obviously he didn’t do.
“But he goes to Atticus thinking he’d be able to defend him and look after him in a way. And that’s what he does try and do.
“He’s a member of the townsfolk, Judge Taylor, but he really believes that it’s time for things to be different.
“He says that Tom Robinson should be given a jury trial, ‘It’s time for that to happen. I want Tom Robinson to have a jury trial, it’s time’.”
Niall breaks into character here going into a southern American drawl at the end there.
While his morals prevent Atticus from turning down the judge’s request, it makes him a target for lynching himself so prejudiced are the people of the time.
“They want to think of black people as bad.
“That’s the basic crudity of it really.
“And then when they come across white people who don’t believe that, they think that they are in cahoots with these people.
“It’s terrible. It still goes on, it hasn’t finished.
“It’s not as bad, I suppose, as it was.
“I remember when I was a kid coming over from Dublin, I think I went to Paddington.
“I remember seeing these signs up on the bed and breakfast, ‘No blacks, no Irish’.
“And it’s not that long ago. I know I’m an old person but it’s not that long.
“It’s strange, it’s 45 years ago, you know?”
Asked if he came up against the sort of anti- Irish sentiment, Niall says: “I mean I was very lucky because I was in the theatre.
“You don’t come across that at all in the theatre.
“So I didn’t on a daily basis experience that animosity.
“But I certainly was aware that it existed.
“And of course, to see that outside on a window outside a bed and breakfast was very horrifying.
“Very shocking to see for a young fella coming over from Ireland.”
Although it’s a classic tale, To Kill A Mockingbird may have a special poignancy now in the times of Black Lives Matter.
“I was on the subway- I love New York. I love the whole atmosphere of the place- and a young girl came on who had just made her communion with her parents.
“She was in a black group of people and this woman came over, she said to me, ‘I gotta sit beside you’.
“I said, ‘Why’s that?’
“’Because I can’t sit beside them’.
“And she pointed her finger at them.
“I just said, ‘Well, you’re not going to get the opportunity to sit beside me’.
“And I got off because I didn’t want those people to be more disturbed than they already were by her terrible behaviour.
“We come across it all the time in some form or another, not only black and white but in every way. It’s all out of fear I suppose. I don’t know.”
How awful for the little girl… “Oh my God. Terrible.
“But hopefully she has learned that not everybody is like that.
“Well, one can only hope.”
Niall has been acting for 54 years now but laughs, “I haven’t been counting”.
Of course he is counting from those days when he came to London as a young man. He has been based here ever since although often gone back to work in Ireland.
But his history in the theatre goes back further than that as he was eleven when he looked for his first audition.
“I ran away from home when I was 11. But I only ran away from the day.
“And then I went to try and get an audition at the Theatre Royal in Dublin, which was a big old variety theatre, because I used to sing when I was a kid. I still sing.
“I was a very unhappy child so I thought that that would be my saviour.
“But I eventually got into the Abbey school and then got into the Abbey.”
Did you ever think of doing anything other than performing? “No, not really.
“No, it’s always been there.
“Yeah, always been there in my heart and in my soul.
“I never have done anything else.
“I wouldn’t know how to do anything else.
“Some people think I don’t know how to do this.
“You’re always up against that.”
Buggy has acted in the work of Brian Friel, Sean O’Casey, Samuel Beckett, Oscar Wilde, Conor McPherson and Martin McDonagh.
It definitely seems like he has acted for all the greats.
“So lucky. These great writers.”
Are there any great playwrights whose work he hasn’t got to act in that he still has ambitions to do? “I’ve done quite a lot of Friel and Tom Murphy.
“And I love all of those.
“But I’d love also if I got the opportunity to do some of the more modern Irish playwrights.
“I worked with a girl called Sonya Kelly.
“She’s a wonderful young writer and I did a play of hers called Furniture about two years ago.
“She was great. It was great to work with her because we went on tour with the play.
“It’s actually five little plays and we had a great time doing that.
“Bring it on, anybody.
“And this is a great piece of work too, I think.
“A great, great, great piece of work.
“So I’ve been blessed with the people that I’ve been associated with and the people that I’ve worked with, Aaron Sorkin adapted this. And it’s an extraordinary adaptation. Yeah. Very exciting. Yeah.”
Niall acted for London-based Armagh director Gavin McAlinden when he and Paul McGann performed in Tom Murphy’s The Gigli Concert at The Finborough Theatre.
“I had a great time,” Niall says of that production.
The Irish World has covered the work of Gavin McAlinden who is an award-winning director whose acting gymnasium and theatre company gives actors the chance to gain experience.
Niall says it is ‘very important’ to give younger actors the benefit of his experience.
“You have to be there to encourage and to pass on things that you may have learned, or not learned and try and help, to be there.
“But I’m constantly insecure and nervous about it, but eventually that disappears, and you start to get in to the play and let it do what it has to do to you.”
Buggy has won numerous stage awards. He is a Drama Desk Award winner, he also took the Irish Times Theatre Award for playing the lead in Brian Friel’s Uncle Vanya.
He also won an Olivier Award for playing Brian in Dead Funny.
“No, I don’t ever think about it,” he laughs when we bring it up.
“But thanks for reminding me.
“One of my favourite parts that I ever played was a character called Casimir in Aristocrats by Brian Friel.
“Casimir got about 15 awards for that, because I went to New York with it and won an Obie and lots of things. Time Out.
“It’s lovely to get awards but, and I am not saying this in a smug sort of modesty, it’s really the part you play that gets the awards.
“If you get good parts, it can be recognized that you might be good in it.
“But they have to be good roles.”
Many will remember Niall for his appearance in Father Ted.
Niall played Henry Sellers, a celebrity from the BBC, who comes to the island to judge a talent competition.
But what Ted does not realise is that Henry is a ‘terrible alcoholic’ who has been sacked by the BBC and is not too happy about it shouting the now iconic words, ‘I made the BBC’.
As Father Ted has become so iconic, do people remember Niall for this role still? “Oh God they do.
“About four weeks ago in Dublin, I was walking down and two Gardai, women police, stopped me and said, ‘Oh, Henry Sellers’.
“They asked me to say it (‘I made the BBC’) into the phone.
“They asked me if I would say it.
“So I did.”
To Kill A Mockingbird at Gielgud Theatre until 19 November.
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