The making of the pub Christmas advert that’s ‘better than anything produced by John Lewis’

The cast and crew: Martin McManus, Aoife Teague, Una Burns, Alex Middlemass, Meagan Burns and Missy the dog
The cast and crew of the viral ad for Charlie's bar in Enniskillen, pictured in the pub - Charles McQuillan

“We hoped it would do well locally for Una, but it went off the Richter scale altogether, you know. The simple truth strikes a chord with people.”

These are the words of 73-year-old amateur actor Martin McManus from Lisnaskea, who has been catapulted into the spotlight after the social-media advert he starred in for Una Burns’ Enniskillen pub, Charlie’s Bar, went viral.

The former painter and decorator’s friends have been gently joking with him that he’s now destined for Hollywood.

I had the pleasure of being dispatched from Belfast to chat to McManus and the team behind the advert that took three hours to film and cost just £700 to make, but has amassed tens of millions of online views and brought them to international media attention.

Bar manager Burns, local content creator Aoife Teague and a small group of local actors, many of whom are customers of the traditional Irish pub, are overjoyed and overwhelmed that their two-minute tear-jerking social-media film has been a roaring success.

Three generations of the Burns family have run Charlie’s bar and lounge, but festive season in the town has never been quite like this before.

“Never in my wildest dreams did I think this would happen,” says Burns. “One time we got 13 million views for a video of good dancing in the bar that I took on my way back from cleaning the toilets. I thought that was viral. And then this happened.”

It’s heart-warming to see, ahead of a festive wreath-making workshop being held in the community-orientated venue, the spectacle of locals and tourists clamouring for drinks and photographs in and outside the bar.

Martin McManus poses with tourists at the pub
Martin McManus poses with tourists at the pub - Charles McQuillan

And Warner Music has told Burns that there will be no issues around licensing (which hadn’t even been considered by her) Birdy’s 2011 version of the song People Help the People.

Its moving music and lyrics tug at the heartstrings in the advert, which depicts McManus as a lonely, grieving old man visiting a graveyard, who is then befriended by a couple and their dog in Charlie’s.

Posted on the pub’s Facebook, Instagram and TikTok pages to appeal to a hyperlocal audience, the clip has won plaudits from festive ad titans John Lewis, and launched Charlie’s Bar into the headlines and airwaves of Britain, Ireland, the USA, Canada, Italy, Germany and beyond.

Barman of 30 years Peter McManus says it’s been “complete madness” in the pub that Tyrone man Goose Murphy, who doesn’t drink alcohol, tells me is “the best bar in the town”.

Murphy offered to take part on the day of filming, so he landed the role of the man on the bench ignoring McManus’s character in favour of his newspaper.

Stills from the advert, which depicts McManus as a lonely, grieving old man, who is then befriended by a couple and their dog in Charlie’s
Stills from the advert, which depicts McManus as a lonely, grieving old man, who is then befriended by a couple and their dog in Charlie’s

Charlie’s is a relaxed place where customers read the paper or watch the horses on the television, and is most definitely a dog-friendly pub. A collection box for the local guide dogs charity sits on the bar, and little Missy, the two-and-a-half-year-old Lakeland fell terrier being courted by brands after her star turn in the advert, is busy sipping water from a paw-print-emblazoned bowl on the ground close to the open fire.

Last week Burns was worried that she had wasted money on the advert. Fast forward to this week and she tells the Telegraph it’s the best £700 she’s ever spent.

The 32-year-old former secondary-school teacher owns the pub with her parents, Gerry and Teresa, who like to avoid the limelight. Gerry went as far as pouring an Irish whiskey for a camera operator to film and then “legged it back up the stairs”, says Burns.

She found herself fronting the family business during the Covid pandemic quite by accident after the previous manager left. It is named after her late grandfather, Charlie, who owned it when it was called The White Star, by which name some older customers still remember it.

Burns wanted the pub’s festive advert to reflect its focus on community and convey the true meaning of Christmas, without it being “cringey, depressing, too negative or too joyful”. “Many people struggle at Christmas so we wanted to reflect that,” she adds.

She got the idea for making a festive advert from her friend Jonny, and had worked with Aoife Teague before on a St Patrick’s Day video, so she drafted her in again.

The cast: Martin McManus, Alex Middlemass, Meagan Burns and Missy the dog
The cast: Martin McManus, Alex Middlemass, Meagan Burns and Missy the dog - Charles McQuillan

McManus was picked for the role of the lonely old man because he isn’t from Enniskillen.

“The thinking was, if he had been a familiar face in the town and from the pub, it would have distracted from the message,” Burns explains. “And we didn’t want to associate grief with drowning your sorrows in alcohol, so the pint served was Guinness Zero.

“Enniskillen is a really friendly place and if you come into any bar in the town you’ll find people will join you for a drink,” she continues. “It’s a simple idea which is probably why so many people liked it.”

Scenes that featured a friend of Burns, filmed as a homesick woman on a packed London

Tube and then being welcomed home by her mother before heading to Charlie’s, had to be dropped because they didn’t fit the storyline.

“It was hard to deliver the news because she is my friend,” Burns admits.

The Burns family mobile-phone group chat, which includes Una’s brother and two sisters, is currently lit up with all the ad chat and details of her latest broadcast appearance. She knows the pressure is on for next year’s adverts, but lots of ideas are already flying in.

“I thought it was funny when someone said that in November we should put out [a message saying], ‘John Lewis, you better watch out. It’s coming,’” she says. “We are just really enjoying seeing new faces through the door. My parents can’t get over it.”

Martin McManus with Missy the dog, who is being courted by brands after her star turn in the advert
'The reaction has stunned us all': Martin McManus with Missy the dog, who is being courted by brands after her star turn in the advert - Charles McQuillan

McManus has decades of acting experience and has been a member of the local Knocks Drama Group for more than 30 years. Off the back of the Charlie’s advert, he wants the wider audience it has unexpectedly reached to think about how loneliness can affect anyone, and encourage people to look out for each other this Christmas.

“It didn’t take terribly long to film, and the reaction has stunned us all, and that’s the truth,” he says.

Creative-studio owner Meagan Daley (28) and her fiancé Alex Middlemas (32), who owns an alloy wheels business, feature as the couple in the advert, along with Missy. Previously the couple have done television commercials and some modelling together, but nothing that has garnered this amount of commentary.

“It has been crazy,” says Daley. “It’s overwhelming. We have been approached from businesses and brands about working with us. And people want to see more of Missy now, so she has her own social-media profiles too.”

The couple adopted Missy a year ago when Daley’s brother moved to Canada, and “now she’s a star, he’s like, ‘can I have her back?’”

Middlemas says that at the start of all the attention, he “got a bit of anxiety thinking, ‘What are the boys going to say about this?’” His mother Denise, a local primary-school caretaker, is enjoying her son’s new found fame. “She is loving it. She’s chatting to everyone about it.”

Aoife Teague (right) filmed the ad on her phone
Aoife Teague (right) filmed the ad on her phone - Charles McQuillan

Freelance content creator Aoife Teague (23) from Lisnaskea, a believer in the power of “organic marketing”, edited the video after filming it on her “well-used iPhone”.

“In a previous role I had a conversation with someone where I said, ‘I really think organic marketing could explode,’ and he told me, ‘Not a chance,’” she says. “I have now had people and businesses reach out to me about doing content for them, which is lovely. It is hard to comprehend at the minute. I can’t believe something I made has been seen by so many people. And John Lewis commenting on the ad is such a compliment.”

Teague’s family own the Corranny bar in the nearby village of Aghadrumsee, and while working on the advert she discovered that McManus had a connection to her late grandfather.

“I had never met Martin before filming this video,” she says. “While we were driving to the graveyard to film that scene, he asked me about myself, and I explained where I lived. He realised who my family was and told me in his younger years he had been a regular in my granda’s bar. I had brought a peaked cap for Martin to wear in the scene, because my granda always wore one and I thought it would be nice to bring it into the film. It was a lovely reminder of him and a nice moment.”

Teague’s new connection with McManus is a perfect example of the WB Yeats quote used at the very end of the advert, which is also painted on the side of the pub: “There are no strangers here, only friends you haven’t yet met.”