by Brian Doherty
Little more than a year has passed since I last spent an hour in the company of Graham Linehan, yet the differences in his demeanour could not be more stark. Where once there was restlessness, there is now the hum of focused creativity. Indignance has been replaced by a strange kind of serenity. There is only one question to open with.
“Well, and this is going to sound like a bad joke, but it was actually a conversation with my lawyer. There’s a chap on Twitter who I’ve crossed swords with in the past, and I’d got it into my head that I was going to sue for defamation. And so my solicitor had to sort of kindly take me to one side and say, ‘Graham, your blog is just a litany of defamation lawsuits waiting to happen. Are you sure you want to open this can of, potentially very expensive worms?’”
And this prompted some kind of moral re-evaluation?
“Well, you know. You’ve got to figure that when a lawyer is hesitant to take your money, that’s as good a sign as any to take some time out for self-reflection.”
Self-reflection is a concept that keeps arising over the course of our hour-long interview, with Graham espousing psychological insights beyond what you might expect from such a purveyor of broad comedy or online controversy.
“Well, that’s the flip side I guess of the kind of single-mindedness I’ve been accused of in the past. It does give you a certain degree of focus when it comes to learning new things that might not typically be in your wheelhouse, whether it’s mental health or writing in a different genre or what have you.”
And what is the most important thing you feel you have learned, to prompt this change in perspective?
“The one big lesson I’ve taken from all this, is that it all comes down to anger. That’s the one I’d get tattooed on my body like your man from Memento, you know, lest I forget. We all deal with negative emotions to varying degrees, and in my case, the big two you could say, are anger and anxiety.
But anxiety is a thing that’s generally well-understood these days, and nobody really feels they have to justify it. Even without a chemical imbalance, if you look at what’s going on in the world, it would almost be weird not to have some level of anxiety. And so, you know, you take your pills and you try your best to get on with it.
Anger is a different beast altogether though because it needs a reason. You need to be angry ‘about’ something. And if the thing that’s fuelling that anger is maybe too traumatic or painful to be able to consciously process, then it’s very tempting to find something outrageous going on in the world and decide, right, that’s the reason I’m angry.
And the trouble with that is that you then feel you have to act on that anger. Not only that, but you have a moral obligation to. Which is the thing that perhaps people don’t understand, when you know, they accuse you of hatred or being a bigot or whatever.”
So you deny ever being motivated by hatred?
“One hundred percent. Even if I retract most of what I’ve said online, which I may well do, the one thing I will defend to my dying day is this accusation of being some kind of fountain of hate. I truly believe very few people are fuelled by hate. The problem is misdirected anger and people convincing themselves that they are in the right. Once you’ve, you know, made yourself believe that you’re standing up for the rights of women or children or whatever, then of course you should let that motivate you to action. You’d be a monster if you didn’t! But the problem is that initial lack of self-reflection in the first place, where people find themselves becoming angry about things they don’t actually need to be angry about.”
And you credit that self-reflection entirely to that one conversation with your solicitor?
“Well, of course, initially I was very indignant, and went scrolling back through my blog, looking for things to prove him wrong. And the more I did so, the more I noticed how little of my content was actually to do with pro-actively campaigning for safeguarding measures, or standing up for women, and more to do with smearing my opponents or winning some Twitter battle or online feud.
I’d almost liken it to someone who might get into politics with the noblest of intentions, but then gets sucked into becoming so focused on beating particular opponents in particular campaigns, that they lose sight of what it is they stood for in the first place. And you could say that’s what happened to me, I lost sight of my actual values by constantly giving in to anger.
That might sound like I’m over-simplifying it, and of course there are myriad other factors, such as social media addiction, and the kind of positive reinforcement that anyone with a certain level of celebrity has access to. But anger is at the root. And even then, the ego wants to sort of stick its oar in, and say ‘Don’t tell me to just be kind when there’s real dangers out there’. But yeah, when you find yourself constantly comparing transgender women to predatory pedophiles, without ever really articulating what this supposed link actually is, it probably is time to switch out the anger for some compassion. Even towards yourself, dare I say.”
So you do regret saying those things?
“I do, and I apologise for it, and while I don’t want to add any qualifications to that, I’m also wary of trying to spin this as some kind of redemption narrative. I don’t think there are trans folk out there holding their breath for my seal of approval. Right now I think it’s more important that I cease to create further problems, and start to use my powers for good, as it were.”
Any plans in this regard?
“Well, and congratulations by the way for going this far without mentioning Pope Ted. But there are a few things I’m tinkering with that I think might be of interest to people. Maybe even some of those I’ve alienated in recent years.
But not Pope Ted?
“Well, one of the main things that kept coming up amongst all the speculation is that people don’t seem to want to see Ted played by anyone other than Dermot [Morgan], which obviously isn’t a possibility. But we’ve still got all these great songs and story ideas, looking for a home. So believe it or not, what I’m considering right now is actually continuing the show, with Dougal having sort of fallen upwards into the position of seniority. But not necessarily as the main character. We might just call it Craggy Island and expand the world with a mix of old and new characters. That way we can conclude Ted’s story off-screen without having to recast the role. Also, Pauline [McLynn] is still younger than the age Mrs Doyle was supposed to be, so I think there’s certainly some comic mileage in presenting her completely unchanged, a quarter of a century later.
Or it may all come to nothing. We’ll see who’s still open to working with me. But the main thing I’m excited about right now, as a writer, is the blank canvas. It doesn’t matter if we’re in lockdown, it doesn’t matter if all I’ve got left in life is a pen and a blank sheet of paper. That’s enough. I will make amends to the trans community in my own time, in my own way. But right now, I just want to focus on creating something new that everyone can enjoy.”