Life is Shortt
Pat Shortt discusses his new role in a recession comedy and life as a national treasure
Blast Private Eye magazine! The satirical publication recently introduced a column entitled National Treasures dedicated to the promiscuous overuse of that handy construction. But how else can we describe Pat Shortt? Over the past 20 years, since his emergence as one half of comedy anarchists D’Unbelievables, the Tipperary man has become one of those personalities it’s impossible to hate. You may as well hate kittens, ponies or ice cream. More than a few scriptwriters have told me that the phrase “Is there something for Pat Shortt in it?” is never far from any potential funder’s lips.
“Yes. I’ve been approached by a few writers to ask if they can put my name on a script,” he laughs.
So, what has he got that people crave?
Shortt is a versatile performer, but he has a particular gift for inhabiting lovable idiots and incorrigible rogues. Working alongside Jon Kenny, he invented a score of such characters for D’Unbelievables. A few more appeared in his TV series, Killinaskully. From today, he can be seen as another amiable fool in Lance Daly’s agreeable comedy Life’s a Breeze. Pat must have pondered his rampaging popularity with Irish audiences.
“Ah, I hate trying to analyse things too much,” he says. “I worked primarily on pre-watershed TV and that is not always acknowledged by the media. It’s more family-oriented. I know from my own perspective – watching TV with my kids – that that’s an important thing. You connect with families. And that’s vital.”
The downside to that level of exposure, of course, is that a misleading version of “Pat Shortt” has now been disseminated throughout the nation. It hardly needs to be said that Shortt is not any sort of gap-toothed village idiot. In fact, he speaks in a round-vowelled voice that – particularly in mid-anecdote – tends towards the actorly. Like the late Barry Fitzgerald, he’s a clever, erudite man who enjoys pulling on the sly beggar’s tweed cap.
“You do become an extension of the character,” he says. “I am supposed to be some sort of mucker from down the country. What I have done with my comedy is to echo certain rural characters – the daft ones. And sometimes people do expect you to be like that. They’ll shout out: ‘Ah, ya boy, ya!’ And they’ll be surprised when you don’t engage with that.”
Shortt has shown them. In 2007, he delivered a superb performance as a sensitive man with learning difficulties in Lenny Abrahamson’s poetic rural drama, Garage. He has appeared at the Druid in Martin McDonagh’s The Lonesome West. As we speak, he is acting opposite Daniel Radcliffe in a production of McDonagh’s The Cripple of Inishmaan in London’s West End. He does seem to be on the point of brushing aside those occasionally unhelpful stereotypes.
Watch the trailer - Life's A Breeze
“I know I’m a good actor,” he says with a slight ironic twinkle. “I am a decent actor and the prospect of getting to prove that on the London stage was fierce exciting to me.”
Do the stage-door fanatics gather for Radcliffe? “About 200 a night. Really. They have to put up crash barriers. If you go for a pint there is security.”
So where does all Pat’s charisma, talent and self-confidence come from? It’s hard to shake the notion that growing up in a family of 11 must have driven his compulsion to perform. It can’t have been an altogether easy life. When he was just eight, his mother died of cervical cancer. His father, a schoolteacher, later remarried. So, there was a great deal of noise, emotion and activity in the house. He must have had to shout to make himself heard.
“Being from a big family probably did help,” he says. “I think I was always messing around at home and entertaining people. I started out in a brass band playing music in Thurles at the age of nine. I think I played at more Munster finals than most hurlers did. Those experiences from a young age brought me in front of an audience. I enjoyed all the rounds of applause and as I got older, I loved it more.”
Pat’s ambitions remained in music. But, somehow or other, he ended up at art college in Limerick. He didn’t really have any serious notions of becoming the next David Hockney and happily drifted into comedy when he encountered kindred spirit Jon Kenny. D’Unbelievables were unlike any other comic double-act we had seen up to that point. There was, maybe, a faint hint of Hall’s Pictorial Weekly to the gross rural caricatures. But the act had a fizzing, improvised energy that was all its own. The live shows were big. The videos (among them D’Video) were even bigger. Oh, ’twas all about Pat and Jon in the 1990s.
“There was an unmistakable Irishness to it,” he says. “There was a daftness. This is the way Irish people behave. It was what we called the ‘acceptable level of madness’ in Ireland. We were always trying to portray that: people chatting at the back of the church and so on. We were just messing and this all came out.”
There is a sort of link here to themes and resonances in Life’s a Breeze. Daly’s film stars Fionnula Flanagan as a grand matriarch who discovers that her largely useless family have thrown out a mattress stuffed with money. Shortt plays her mildly idiotic, but inherently decent, son. Very much concerned with recessionary pressures, the film seems to hark back to the grim years – the late 1980s – when Shortt and Kenny were constructing their lunatic troupe. How has the country changed?
“It’s hard to know. I think it went through a bad period during the Celtic tiger period,” he says. “I think we’re a bit nicer now. It’s funny. I am in London at the moment and one of the guys on the crew is Irish. He left when the Celtic Tiger kicked off. He’d no time for it. People became intolerant. People became ruder. Now we are all in the shit and everyone is a bit more forgiving. It’s hard to know what’s going on.”
So are we now allowed to be nostalgic about earlier recessions?
“I have very fond memories of growing up in the 1980s,” he ponders. “It was a bleak time when we left school. But from a creative perspective that’s no bad thing. You may as well be creative because you’ll be making as much money doing that as you would doing anything else. Then the Celtic tiger came along. But now we see people doing creative things again. People are writing their own stuff, producing it themselves. That’s good.”
In 2000, Jon Kenny was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease. Obviously, Pat’s first concern was for the health of his friend (Kenny has since recovered). But he also had to face up to certain professional difficulties. To this point, he had done little without his comic partner. While Jon was receiving treatment, Pat was forced to think hard about the direction of his career. He knocked together some solo material and he began contemplating acting work.
Throughout our conversation, he frequently returns to his experiences making Garage. He feels this was where he proved something to the public about his abilities as a straight actor. Directors took note too. He is now in a very happy position: he is respected and he is also (in Ireland anyway) a box-office draw. A hit at the recent Galway Film Fleadh, Life’s a Breeze shows his talent to good advantage.
“It reminds me of the Roddy Doyle comedies that came out of another recession. Everybody is scraping around,” he says. “People are losing their jobs – that kind of vibe. We are looking for the lotto ticket that will solve everyone’s problem. But it’s also about the relationship between a grandmother and her granddaughter.”
Shortt seems to have a busy emotional and professional hinterland. He has a pub in Co Cork which – shooting schedules permitting – he visits once a week. Solidly married, he now lives in the picturesque town of Castleconnell, not far from Limerick City. I imagine the family keep his feet on the ground.
“Oh they do of course,” he says with a mighty chortle. “I have very good friends there. I am not a celebrity when I walk into the pub. I am a local. Maybe if I was living in Dublin it would be different. I drop the kids into school and pick them up from GAA like any other parent. It just becomes the norm.”
I think we have to call him a National Treasure. Don’t you?