Ciarán Dowd on Don Rodolfo's move to TV

As daring lothario Don Rodolfo charms his way onto the small screen, we chat to the character's creator Ciarán Dowd

Feature by Emma Sullivan | 22 Apr 2021
  • Don Rodolfo

Don Rodolfo Martini Toyota is back! Having won the 2018 Edinburgh Comedy Best Newcomer Award with his swashbuckling rogue, Ciarán Dowd has now adapted his acclaimed solo show for BBC Two. Co-written with Tom Parry (Pappy’s, Badults) and directed by Tom Marshall (Ted Lasso, Chewing Gum, Famalam), the short is a slice of lush historical TV comedy – think Upstart Crow by way of Game of Thrones.

We caught up with a clearly delighted Dowd on the eve of the TV premiere. Excited to see the reaction, Dowd described the process of making the short. It was apparently a relatively smooth translation from stage to screen, the lost connection with the live audience amply made up for by the shift from its solo form to an ensemble show. And it’s a pretty spectacular cast: with Jayde Adams (Good Omens, Alma’s Not Normal), Ariyon Bakare (His Dark Materials, Rogue One), and Abbie Hern (The Twilight Zone, The Pact) among others. If the dynamics between the ensemble proved fun in the making, they’re a delight to watch, with Adams’ dour, grimy sidekick especially enjoyable. Bakare is also excellent; his deadpan skepticism and what Dowd calls his "RSC gravitas" proving a great foil for the posturing Don.

Tom Parry directed the stage version, and also worked with Dowd back when he was a member of the critically-acclaimed sketch show Beasts (another member of the trio, Owen Roberts, is also in the short). When it came to transferring to TV, however, they wanted Tom Marshall to direct, knowing the BBC would be excited to have him on board given his track record for "making stuff look good on a budget". Parry became co-writer instead, with his directing experience also proving invaluable for Dowd during the intense day-long shoot.

Another gain in the move to TV is the richness of visual possibilities, and it soon becomes clear how much this element was key to Dowd’s original vision for Rodolfo. He worked with the legendary photographer and designer Idil Sukan on the poster for the show's original run, and was clearly a little frustrated that the vivid colours and textures of those images couldn’t translate to a Fringe portakabin. It’s all there in the short though. Set in a smoky, fire-lit tavern with bad teeth all round, Don Rodolfo holds court at the heart of it; all flashing kohl eyes and leather-clad swagger.

The short captures something that’s missing from the current comic landscape: amidst the comedy drama that has come to dominate our screens, Dowd is clearly proud that it’s "an out and out comedy" with "big characters, big scenarios, and big jokes". Amidst all the slice of life stories ‘set in flats’, it’s an unashamedly historical romp, drawing upon the much-loved tradition of Blackadder, but updating that older model with locations that avoid the sense of a studio setting and without a laughter track.

There are also key differences in terms of the diversity of the casting, with Adams’ casting as the Baldrick figure a particularly significant part of the narrative. Dowd specifically wanted her for the part, having worked with the comedian and actor before, and says she had been waiting for a role like this. Adams may be the Don’s servant but they’re "very much equals – toe to toe in drinking, being powerful, being funny". 

Dowd has clearly thought hard about the creation of a new mythology that comes off the back of characters like Zorro, Casanova, Don Juan and Don Quixote who are ‘built around toxic masculinity’. Crafting a new iteration that speaks to the MeToo era, he and his team have come up with new ways of handling the issue of masculinity: the Don is pansexual – "everything goes" (women, men, hamsters), and actively engages in questions around consent. 

It sounds like a rich seam well worth exploring, and with Dowd having at least three series of ideas up his sleeve, we’re hoping this short will be the start of big things for the Don.

Don Rodolfo premieres on BBC Two, Thu 22 Apr, 10pm, then streaming via BBC iPlayer