The YouTube videos are crude and derivative. They are written and performed by rank amateurs, a fact that is glaringly apparent in almost every scene. The editing is shoddy. Plot structure is sometimes nonexistent. And the picture presented of life in rural Irish towns is as bleak and depressing as anything penned by the late John Healy.
Oh, and the nine Hardy Bucks’ Storyland webisodes also happen to be some of the funniest comedy shorts this country has ever produced. Set in ‘Castletown’ – a.k.a. Swinford, Co. Mayo – and partly inspired by the redneck comedy of Trailer Park Boys, the Hardy Bucks was created by Chris Torduff and Martin Maloney in 2008. It features a cast of loveable losers, eejits, small time drug dealers and local headers (played for the most part by the lads’ own relatives and friends.)
When it was first broadcast last year as part of RTE’s Storyland series, the Hardy Bucks was a breath of fresh air. It captured perfectly the aimlessness and claustrophobia of small town life. But it did so in an endearingly affectionate way. The characters, for all their faults, were likeable. And while the humour was often vulgar, it was not always unsophisticated.
Jokes were never telegraphed. Punch lines were sometimes dropped surreptitiously in the backswing. (Was that intentional? Were the punch lines themselves even intentional? One never knew quite for sure.) Many of the funniest lines didn’t even make that much sense when you got down to it. (“It’s like Pierce Brosnan’s wedding all over again!”)
The show was more than just hilarious. For a generation growing up in ‘Castletowns’ the length and breadth of rural Ireland, it was also achingly, achingly true. The Hardy Bucks spotlighted and celebrated an Irish subculture that most television executives don’t even know exists, let alone would ever consider bringing to the screen. It was a world of ten spots, boy racers and unending boredom.
The response was instantaneous. Since October 2008, the nine Hardy Bucks webisodes have notched up an astonishing 3,000,000 hits on YouTube. The show has amassed 40,000 fans on Facebook. (The Late Late Show has 1,800.) It seems scarcely credible. But a bunch of novices from a small town in east Mayo have achieved what none of the comedy executives in Montrose has ever done: They haven’t just delivered a hit. They’ve created a phenomenon.
Which may explain why, when RTE rolls out its autumn television schedule later this month, sticking out like a sore thumb between the literary adaptations (Wild Decembers) and gritty crime dramas (Love/Hate), will be a brand new comedy series about the antics of four “shturdy, reliable fellas” from the west of Ireland.
So are the Hardy Bucks from Castletown on the brink of mainstream stardom? Or might this latest adventure prove a bridge too far?
On a gloriously sunny day in May of this year, I visit the set of the new series to find out. How much has changed, I wonder, since RTE came on board? Strolling around the set, the answer would seem to be everything and nothing. “It’s so much different now,” series director and co-creator Chris Torduff confides when I track him down. “In the old days there was no crew, no executive producer, no editor coming back daily with a list of pick-up shots we’d missed.” He smiles wistfully. “We were just trying to make each other laugh.”
New crew member Mike Hayes (who has worked on productions such as Ondine and The Wind That Shakes the Barley) has a slightly different perspective. He tells me that it’s bedlam onset. He says that the lads are casting parts 10 minutes before shooting. Random townspeople are coming in off the street and wandering into shot. He recalls one actor filming a scene and then announcing he couldn’t stay for the next scene because he had to give his mother a lift to Galway.
But things are working out, he insists. In fact, Hayes seems genuinely to be really enjoying the freewheeling anarchy of it all. No doubt, he’ll be dining out on Swinford stories for months to come though.“It’s all good,” he tells me. “But I don’t think there’s ever been anything like this on television before!”
It is impossible to spend any time around the Hardy Bucks’ actors without speculating about the extent to which their personalities overlap with those of the characters they portray. In the case of Torduff, who plays guttersnipe drug dealer The Viper, the overlap would appear to be zero. In real life, the 23-year old is thoughtful, politely spoken and diligent in the execution of his responsibilities.
Like Torduff, 27-year-old Martin Maloney (who plays Eddie Durcan) grew up in the north of England, but moved to Swinford in his early teens. The oft-spouted cliché about the pair is that it takes an outsider to capture the essence of a place, but a local to nail the detail. Well, they just happen to have the best of both world. While Maloney is clearly more ambitious than Eddie Durcan (the latter’s great unfulfilled ambition is to one day move to Galway), he is undoubtedly 50% Eddie and Eddie is 50% him.
With his long hair and bright red beard, Maloney provides most of the humour and most of the pathos in the show. But whether onscreen or off, he is to chaos what the Dalai Lama is to peace. It just seems to follow in his wake. He spots me as he’s about to film an important scene and charges over. He’s more interested in reminiscing about a night out in Dublin. “Can you believe we met Gavin Friday?” he asks. No, indeed I still cannot.
If Maloney is the face of the show, and Torduff is its brains, then Owen Colgan (Buzz) is it’s heart. It is Buzz who identifies the group as “hardy bucks around the town” and he who, in the same episode, sets out their oft-quoted “fightin’, drinkin’, schmokin’” manifesto. And in all the time I spend around him today, I see absolutely nothing to suggest that Colgan and his onscreen alter-ego Buzz are anything other than two sides of the same coin.
What are your ambitions for the series, I ask Owen/Buzz? “To get on the telly,” he answers. “To get famous.” That’s it. Next question. Had he any previous acting experience, I ask. I mean like, school plays, musicals anything like that? He ponders for a second before replying. “No,” he says. “Only jobs I had where I was pretending to be working.” I scrutinise his face for a flicker or even a twinkle in the eye – any clue that he might be joking. There is none. He is absolutely serious.
Today’s scenes revolve around a King of the Town competition, entailing a pint-drinking competition, a tractor-pulling contest and a raunchy dating contest called the (Se) X Factor .The night before, Maloney put out a call looking for extras. At that short notice, he hoped maybe a dozen fans might show up. In the end he got over a hundred. John O’Mahony (23) and Luke Murphy (22), both from Glanmire, and their friend James Brennan (23) from Freemount, have driven almost two hundred miles to be here.
“We saw it mentioned on Facebook last night,” explains Luke. “We thought, it’s now or never. The Hardy Bucks is the funniest thing we’ve ever seen.” He says that even his parents love the show. They must have had to get up at some ungodly hour to be here? “Oh, we did,” smiles James. “And we stopped for sausages in Charleville, so it took us about four hours in all.”
The cast, visiting fans and assorted locals all mingle freely in the early summer sun. Stateside, the mascara-wearing drug dealer who dreams of X Factor glory, is sitting at a picnic table alone. Uncle Mick – who really is Martin Maloney’s Uncle Mick, incidentally – is talking to some girls about the recession. (“No harm an auld shlap of reality now and ag’in,” he tells them.) Further down the field, a dog chained to a tent pole is threatening to drag the entire (Se)X Factor marquee down on top of the lovely ladies inside.
No one seems to notice, no one seems to mind. At one point I’m greeted and spoken to by a stranger. Her lips are moving but no sound is coming out. She’s an extra in one of the scenes. Oh God, I’d just wandered into shot, haven’t I? I turn around and spot the camera. Yip. Again, no one seems too bothered, so I join in the conversation. “……….,” I reply. “….-..-…”
In spite of all of the festivities, however, there is an awareness that there is a lot riding on this experiment. RTÉ is hoping to capitalise on the enormous online popularity of Hardy Bucks, but the broadcaster is hedging its bets. Only three half-hour episodes have been commissioned. Nonetheless, if the show fails, it will undoubtedly be criticised for squandering a golden opportunity.
Torduff and Maloney appreciate the opportunity they’ve been handed. But it’s an enormous leap from producing short, formless internet vignettes to television episodes with gags, structure and plot hooks timed to coincide with commercial breaks.
Moreover, having cut their teeth in the raucous, lawless world of online entertainment, they must now adapt to the comparatively conservative milieu of network television. Compromises are necessary, but make too many and they run the risk of alienating their existing fans and undermining their hard-earned credibility.
The RTE Drama Department, who commissioned the programme, have been enormously supportive throughout the process. But as they negotiate a complex maze of decisions, Torduff and Maloney must know that they are relying for guidance on a national broadcaster with a pretty abysmal record in producing successful comedies.
For the Hardy Bucks of Castletown, it is a gargantuan task but also an incredible opportunity. And given how far they’ve come already, it would take a brave man to bet ag’in them.