Pity poor Frank Marron. At 32, Frank is stuck. A failed musician, he is unemployed, single, and still living at home with his sexually incontinent mother and a revolving cast of her lovers. His ex-girlfriend has taken up with a posh doctor who, worse luck, practises mixed martial arts. His best pal, Doofus, is a doofus.
But perhaps Frank doesn’t deserve our sympathy? A feckless slob, a cowardly kidult, a faithless friend, selfish, unfeeling, Frank is a pathetic figure. He can’t even ride a bike.
He is, nonetheless, the hero, if there can be said to be such a person, of Frank of Ireland, a new six-part TV comedy, set in suburban Dublin, that embraces timeless concerns of the human condition (frustrated ambition, thwarted romance, broken gnomes) as well as fronting up to more pressing, contemporary issues (the not so subtle difference between MDMA and MMA; am-dram MILFs; the willingness, or not, of one’s lover to engage in anal sex).
Frank of Ireland is absurdist, scatological, infantile, and also warm and funny. Like the best sitcoms, it’s a show about people with big dreams but limited opportunities, richly flawed characters who are trapped in self-defeating patterns of behaviour, destined never to escape, perhaps because they don’t really want to.
It stars the brothers Gleeson: Brian, who plays Frank, and Domhnall, who plays Doofus. They came up with the idea and wrote the screenplay together with Michael Moloney, a friend of Domhnall’s since school.
Where did he come from, this big baby, this doughy monster, this Frank? “I think from early on we thought it’d be funny to have a man-child with a temper,” says Brian. “He has to be loveable in some way. But it was interesting trying to find the line of when we feel for him, and when we want to punch him in the face.
“Like all good comedies,” Brian says, “it’s about seeing the character struggle and seeing him fail. That’s a hallmark of all those great misanthropic losers from the UK and the States: Alan Partridge, Larry David...”
Domhnall’s Doofus is Manuel to Frank’s Basil Fawlty, Dougal to his Father Ted, Gareth to his David Brent: foil, sidekick, victim. In this case, a gormless misfit in a dry-cleaned tracksuit and a dunce’s baseball hat.
“Frank is 13 in his head,” says Domhnall. “Doofus is 10. He looks up to Frank, like that cooler, older kid in school who you were half in love with. Like, ‘Oh, my God, I think he’s the coolest guy in the world.’”
Domhnall and Brian are speaking on a Zoom call in February, the former coming through loud and clear from Dublin, the latter, in London, suffering some serious glitching. “You’re after breaking up there, Brian,” says Domhnall, more than once, before noting, with a certain dry irony, that, given comedy is all about timing, these are really the perfect conditions for a discussion of their new show. (I laugh, but Brian's frozen again, and misses the punchline.)
As with their famous father, Brendan Gleeson, star of In Bruges, The Guard, the Harry Potter movies — and, yes, none other than Knuckles McGinty from the unimprovable Paddington 2— you will perhaps recognise the Gleesons from their appearances in prominent movies. Thirty-three-year-old Brian has worked on a number of those — Phantom Thread, Snow White and the Huntsman — and he will be familiar to fans of Peaky Blinders as Jimmy McCavern.
Domhnall, older by four years, has emerged as one of the most exciting actors in cinema. He was a Machiavellian office drone opposite Michael Fassbender in the oddball black comedy, Frank; the nerdy programmer in Alex Garland’s sinister AI drama, Ex Machina; Captain Andrew Henry in The Revenant, caught between Leo DiCaprio’s scout and Tom Hardy’s trapper. Perhaps most famously, he was the dastardly General Hux in the Star Wars sequels. Domhnall (pronounced like “Donald” without the final “d”) played Oldest Son in Darren Aronofsky’s outrageous Mother!. Brian (“Ian” with a “Br” at the beginning) played Younger Brother.
Frank of Ireland has been five years and several lifetimes in the making. The Gleesons have been making movies together since they were kids, Domhnall most often directing, Brian acting. Domhnall and Michael Moloney became friends when they were 15.
“He is just weirdly, madly funny in a really individual way,” Domhnall says of his friend. They began by writing sketches together, some of which eventually made it onto an Irish TV show, Your Bad Self. “The point was always to make each other laugh,” says Domhnall. “To make something funny. We weren’t trying to make Schindler’s List.” Instead, they made a short called Father Justice Divine, about a crime-fighting priest. “Very, very silly stuff,” says Domhnall. They also for many years collaborated with friends on “shit country music”. Twelve years ago, when Domhnall made What Will Survive of Us, his first proper short as writer-director, Brian was the leading man while Moloney composed the music.
It took the three of them about 18 months to finish a rough first draft of Frank of Ireland. Momentum picked up when Domhnall showed the script to Sharon Horgan, co-creator and star of the hit comedy Catastrophe. “She immediately saw what was funny about it,” he says. Horgan’s production company, Merman, took the show on. It was another two years before the brothers were in front of the camera, at the end of 2019.
With exteriors filmed in and around Malahide, north of Dublin, where the Gleesons grew up, each episode is loosely (very loosely) and also transparently inspired by a famous Hollywood movie. These references are not always hard to spot. “You can’t handle the fruit!”shouts a character in the episode inspired by— correct! — A Few Good Men. “It’s like Home Alone,” we’re told, in the episode that’s like Home Alone.
“Frank imagines himself as the hero of his own movie,” says Domhnall. “He thinks his life should be like a movie. That’s what he expects for himself. He wants to be famous, he wants to be a star. But the world around him is nothing like a movie.”
“Movies are about myths, right?” says Brian.“This is about someone who hasn’t really had to fight or struggle for anything.”
Is there, I wonder, more in jest than in earnest, an autobiographical element to Frank of Ireland? “I hope not!” says Domhnall. “Is there, Brian? Please say ‘no’!”
“I don’t know if there’s something there about not wanting to grow up, not wanting to leave home,” says Brian. “And maybe just the fact of us being related and Michael being a child-hood friend of yours... On some level that feeds into it.”
The most successful sitcoms are more than funny. They involve us in a fully realised world and force us to care about their characters, no matter how pitiful.
“Jerry Seinfeld had a really interesting thing,”says Domhnall, “where he talked about creating a good world, like a good universe for your show, a place where [viewers] like to spend time. You smile because of the world you’re in.”
Frank of Ireland was conceived, written and mostly filmed before the coronavirus pandemic. But its stories of characters trapped in an endlessly repeating loop of dreary disappointment can’t help but feel resonant, and relevant, today. (“My days are devastatingly free,” notes Domhnall of his own lockdown situation.)
I tell them that watching the show while locked down myself cheered me up.
“Please put that in the article!” says Domhnall.
Here goes, then: Frank of Ireland cheered me up because it’s funny. And it cheered me up because it’s true.
“Mam,” Frank asks his mother in an episode inspired by Taxi Driver, paraphrasing Travis Bickle paraphrasing Thomas Wolfe, “Why does everything turn out shit for me? Is it because I’m ‘God’s Lonely Man’?”
“It’s because you’re a prick, Frank.”
Frank of Ireland starts 15 April at 10pm on Channel4. All episodes will be available to box set on All 4
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