Michael Smiley’s teenage obsessions: ‘I heard the Beat and came back to Belfast a rude boy’

The comedian and actor on dancing with his mother to Ray Charles, the power of Seamus Heaney’s poetry and how Richard Pryor showed him his future

Ray Charles

Music was like a totem pole for us, growing up in Belfast in the 70s. My mother was a singer and a dancer: she had a beautiful voice, and if there was ever a chance to get on the dancefloor, she’d take it. She loved Motown, but especially Ray Charles. I still love a ballad with a driving beat. And I still love to dance. My dad didn’t dance, so my mother was always dragging me on to the dancefloor with her when Ray Charles came on. I got used, at a young age, to clearing the dancefloor with my mother; putting on a show together. That was our bond. People would stand around clapping while we danced. That was my first public performance.

Monty Python

My dad loved Monty Python. And it was sometimes on TV on a Sunday morning. If it was on, I’d be allowed to stay at home and watch it with him while my mother went to mass. I used to love the sound of my dad’s laugh, and how the show could make him laugh like that. I remember him getting me Life of Brian on audio cassette. I thought it was the funniest thing in the whole world. By the time I saw the film, I knew every word, and I’d visualised the whole thing. So I hated the movie. My dad believed in developing your imagination. He’d say: “The radio gives you your imagination. The television takes it away and gives you someone else’s.”

The Beat

The summer of 1979 I went to Batley in Yorkshire to see my brother. I got a job in a biscuit factory – Fox’s Biscuits. When you see Shane Meadows’s This Is England, the journey the Thomas Turgoose character goes through is exactly the journey I went through. I was a young kid and I got in with an older group. They were a gang of mods and rude boys, and they all had scooters. They would smuggle me into nightclubs with them. I still remember getting in the first time. The dancefloor was painted black. The bar was painted red with cages in front of it, with just enough room to get a pint glass through. As we came in, the DJ was fading out Punky Reggae Party by Bob Marley and fading in Ranking Full Stop by the Beat. The opening two bars of that tune, that rhythm, that noise, just threw me on the dancefloor. It was a proper epiphany for me, and the Beat became my band. They would put you on the balls of your feet. That summer changed everything; I just completely changed. I came back to Belfast as a rude boy.

The Beat.
The Beat. Photograph: Fin Costello/Redferns

Richard Pryor

I never watched a movie growing up and thought: I want to be part of that. I have that working-class low self-esteem thing; people on television were from another planet. That world wasn’t for the likes of me. I come from a blue-collar, socialist background. We were creative, and, looking back, culture was all around. My dad wrote. My mother sang. But it never seemed like something you could take up as a job. It was a pastime. I was a flibbertigibbet as a kid. I couldn’t concentrate. My friends were learning the guitar in their bedrooms and then forming bands. I couldn’t sit still long enough to learn the chords. I was hyper; I just ran around, played football, chased girls, smoked and drank with my mates. So the idea of joining a theatre group or something? I didn’t know anyone doing that. The closest we got was comedy. There was a culture growing up of joke-telling in the playground. I remember making up jokes at school and then coming home and telling them to my dad, seeing if I could make him laugh. My first joke was: “I’m a Catholic Buddhist. I’ve got all the guilt, but I rise above it.”

Then I remember discovering standup. A friend had a VHS of Richard Pryor’s 1979 Live in Concert, where he’s wearing that red silk shirt. It just blew my mind. I couldn’t believe you could say things like that. I couldn’t believe you could command an audience just by prowling the stage like that. I knew he was in front of a bunch of strangers, but it was like he was in a room with all his friends. He wasn’t wrestling with his environment. He couldn’t be happier, and neither could the people around him. He would snap my head back by making me laugh, but he didn’t even seem to be telling jokes. He was angry and had this incredible way with language. That was the first time I saw something and thought about the chance of doing it professionally.

Seamus Heaney

My dad was always writing, but it was an endless book. I used to call that book The Child That Never Left Home. He was never going to publish it, but it gave him a lot of comfort. My dad wasn’t the kind of man to go down the pub, or have mates coming to the door. He wasn’t a hobbyist. He’d sit down with a can of beer or a glass of wine and his notepad and off he’d go. The books he loved were really philosophical, and the first book he ever gifted to me was Seamus Heaney’s Death of a Naturalist, which was Heaney’s first collection of poetry. I love it to this day. It’s poetry that isn’t trying to be clever. It’s just imaginative. It’s him, in poetic fashion, describing his world. I remember reading Mid-Term Break, which is where he describes being sent to school as a child after his four-year-old brother is killed in a car accident. I just burst out crying. That line: “A four-foot box, a foot for every year.” I can’t think of anything more sad.

Bernadette Devlin

A bit later, my dad gave me Bernadette Devlin’s The Price of My Soul, and told me to read it. She was the youngest female politician in the House of Commons at that time. That was a gamechanger for me. I was a socialist when I was younger; I still am in my heart. It’s about believing in people, and trying to care for others. That was an important thing for us growing up, and Bernadette really captured it, and how it exists amid the mix of cultures in the north of Ireland.

Michael Smiley’s latest film, The Toll, is in cinemas and on digital platforms from 27 August.


As told to Tom Seymour

The GuardianTramp

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