Frank Kelly the comedy and straight actor, writer, satirist, recording artist and gentleman, has been loved by several generations of Irish people. He died aged only 77, yet it seems like he's always been around.
He was the last living link between the era of music hall stars such as Jimmy O'Dea, Jack Cruise and Cecil Sheridan and a newer generation of comedy in the form of TV's Father Ted, where he played the drink- sodden, demented Father Jack Hackett ("drink, feck, girls!"). And in between those two pillars of a varied and successful career appeared his alter egos on Hall's Pictorial Weekly.
Kelly was born in 1938 in Blackrock, south Co Dublin, where he lived most of his life, to Cathleen and Charles Kelly (cartoonist and founder of the satirical magazine Dublin Opinion). He studied law, did a bit of journalism but moved to acting, working at the Dublin's Eblama with Sheridan, and as Cruise's feed, as well as in panto and reviews.
He performed in and wrote for the children’s TV show Wanderly Wagon for years, but it was Hall’s Pictorial Weekly (1970–1982; he won a Jacob’s Award in 1974) that really gained him national recognition, with his characters including a memorable Jack Lynch and backwoods councillor Parnell Mooney in Ballymagash.
His characters also featured in The Glen Abbey Radio Show, and one of his trademark routines in those more innocent days involved comedy phone calls by his character Gobnait O'Lunasa: "Lissen…. guess who? Is that you Nuala?" The Gobnait O'Lunasa single Christmas Countdown (based on the 12 Days of Christmas) reached number eight in the Irish charts in 1982, featured on Top of the Pops and peaked at 26 in the UK charts in 1984. It's still very funny, and is regularly played on radio at Christmas. Buckingham Palace wrote to Kelly to tell him the Queen was highly amused by the record; he treasured the letter.
In his late 50s, he found celebrity in Britain as well as Ireland, and immediate street credibility with a new generation, for his role in Father Ted (1995-98); writers Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews recalled his unhinged characters in Hall's Pictorial Weekly and suggested he might be perfect as Father Jack.
His makeup took two hours to apply (and apparently no one would sit with him for lunch if he was in costume). “They put a special lens in one eye,” he said, “and it was a very discommoding kind of thing. They used oatmeal and glue and rubber stuff on my face. They used Vaseline and something else to make these awful things for my mouth and my ears and so on. It was a very itchy part.”
In one episode, when three Bishops come for a visit, Father Ted Crilly teaches him how to say "yes" and "that would be an ecumenical matter" to prevent him from insulting them with crude answers.
While people accosting him roaring “drink! Feck! Arse! girls!” may have irked sometimes, he was gracious about it. He said Father Ted “has given me access to a young generation socially. People come up and in a very unselfconscious way they talk about the programme, very directly. And there is no generation gap. Ageism always exists, but that gap seems to be jumped by the kind of empathy created by this show. And I give them all my attention, because they’re very sweet to talk to and they’re often extremely intelligent.”
He was also a jobbing actor – from The Italian Job to Evelyn, to Glenroe to Mrs Brown's Boys D'Movie, to an appearance with Mr Tayto in a crisp ad – and had lean periods, which may have been difficult when raising seven children.
But, he said, “I think people are finding out that the world is a particularly precarious place. The Famine is a long time over and people have found that the good job is no longer the good job that it was.”
Frank Kelly was a versatile, talented and inventive actor. One of the ironies of this gracious, urbane, articulate, charming man is that he could not have been further removed from the personality of his most famous role, Fr Jack.
In an interview with him here in 1997 I described a man with very healthy attitudes; I sensed a full and fulfilling life that he enjoyed despite its stresses, and a definite contentment. "Life would be unbearable if you knew where you would be in five years' time. Life would be unliveable because there would be no surprises. And if there is a Hell, it's knowing exactly what life is going to be like in 55, or 105 years' time, or forever. The whole excitement about life is mortality, it's good to be alive . . . today."
Rest gently, Frank.
Frank Kelly is survived by his wife of over 50 years, Bairbre (Neldon), a drama teacher, their five daughters, two sons and 16 grandchildren.
Deirdre Falvey is author, with Stephen Dixon, of Gift of the Gag, The Explosion in Irish Comedy (Blackstaff Press).