Imagine, for a second, that you’re an ITV commissioning editor. You want a famous Irish person to present a series. You’re looking for someone prepared to sample brandy made in County Cork, swim with dolphins at Dingle, take a seaweed bath in Strandhill, go spearfishing off the west coast and root for the Irish hopeful at the World Oyster Opening Championship in Galway. Who you gonna call? James Nesbitt, of course.
He is one of the world’s best-known Ulstermen. Not least because his latest movie, The Hobbit: an Unexpected Journey, in which he plays the dwarf Bofur, has already taken a billion dollars at the box office worldwide. And he also came in at number 34 in a recent list of “100 reasons to love Northern Ireland”.
In person, Nesbitt, 48, is just as you might hope: a beguiling combination of warmth, wit and wisdom. He is also canny enough to realise that a series in which he explores the island of his birth could easily become a case of the bland leading the bland.
“At first I was wary, because I didn’t want the programme to be seen as twee or patronising. But after 18 months away doing The Hobbit, I thought it would be a great opportunity to go back and revisit wonderful places I’d been to long ago. I also wanted to find new places and to meet new people. Above all, I wanted to celebrate Ireland for the Irish, as well as hopefully opening a few eyes across the water and challenging people’s preconceptions.”
Nesbitt, who once persuaded the producers of 1990s comedy drama Cold Feet to film his character Adam’s stag weekend in Portrush, has idyllic memories of his own childhood in Northern Ireland.
“Of course, when you go up the west coast, you can’t help seeing the effect of the boom and bust. Edna O’Brien refers to all those huge incomplete buildings as ‘ghosts’. But despite that, there is still so much there that is so beautiful and untouched. We still have that innate sense of connection with nature that I remember very clearly.”
More specifically, Nesbitt recalls working for a couple of summers in his first-ever paid jobs, as a bingo caller and then a brakeman on the big dipper at Barry’s Amusements in Portrush, the largest theme park in the whole of Ireland. “I had a blast working there. In the programme, we go back and show that kids are still thrilled by the park – they walk in open-mouthed. It’s great that goes on, generation after generation.”
Nesbitt, who lives with his wife Sonia and two daughters in south London, still pines for many aspects of his youth in Northern Ireland. “I miss my mates, obviously. I miss the Harbour Bar in Portrush. And I miss Veda bread. That’s a type of malt loaf that I can’t find anywhere in England. I have very strong memories of eating it toasted in the morning. There is something incredibly evocative about it.”
Having lived in London for nearly three decades, could he ever envisage returning permanently to Northern Ireland, where his father and three teacher sisters still live?
“I don’t think so. Maybe in my dotage it would be the place to go. What would I do there? Like so many older people in Northern Ireland, I would sit in my car with a flask of tea and some sandwiches and look out to sea.”
What does Nesbitt, a Protestant, make of the renewed tensions in the Province, with Loyalists protesting, sometimes violently, at the decision to limit the number of days each year that the Union flag flies over Belfast City Hall?
“I don’t think it can go back to what it was. What’s happened recently in Belfast is a result of the fact that leadership has been a bit weak. It needs to connect much more.
“They should ask why these kids are doing this – some of those kids have no idea what they’re rioting about half the time. There’s a sense of disconnection. Kids are not being involved or being given options. Leadership has to get hold of that. But this will pass.
“What’s fabulous is that a lot of graduates are now staying in the country, and the universities are also getting in more foreign students. That’s a great sign. Belfast is a city which, while not forgetting its past, is living comfortably with its present and looking forward to its future.
“When I was growing up, Belfast City Hall was surrounded by security and we had no access to it. But now people come in and out of it all the time. On a nice day, office workers and students sit on the lawn outside and have lunch. It’s great to see how Northern Ireland has changed. To be part of that is fantastic.”
The change he speaks of will not, in his mind, lead to a united Ireland. “It’s interesting that a recent poll suggested a lot of Catholics in the North don’t want a united Ireland. As long as it continues to be a trouble-free Ireland, the North and the South will sit very comfortably together. Unification is less important than the fact Ireland is now conflict-free.”
Finally, Nesbitt reflects that people in Britain might be able to learn a thing or two from the Irish. “As fabulous as technology is, it can also make us very anxious.
“What I discovered all over Ireland is that people living simple lives by the sea or in the remote countryside seem a lot calmer than city folk with their iPads and their Android phones. Across large parts of Ireland, you can’t get a mobile signal, and I came away thinking, ‘No signal, no worries’.”
James Nesbitt's Ireland begins on Monday at 8:00pm on ITV