JACK of all trades

 

PUBS and restaurants have become infested with folk who think roaring "drink!" a la Father Jack Hackett is hilarious altogether. Tiresome it may be, but it is an indication of how instantly recognisable an icon the hairy, hoary old priest has become. You don't need to explain that he is a character in an anarchic, surreal, award winning Channel Four comedy series called Father Ted.

And if we find it repetitive, think how actor Frank Kelly must feel having "Drink! Feck! Girls!" yelled at him.

It has been quite a startling turn in the career of the veteran funny man who seems to have been with us always, or at least since the days of Ballymagash and Hall's Pictorial Weekly and Gobnait O'Lunacy, progressing through a varied entertainment career in this country - straight actor, comedian, writer, occasional fiddle player and singer. But he has been suddenly catapulted, in his late 50s, into celebrity in Britain as well as Ireland, and immediate street credibility with a whole new generation.

Even if at times fame is intrusive, this new found cult status has been rewarding: "I find it 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 - they're often infinitely more intelligent than some of the adults that talk to me. You see, kids cut through all the equivocation, they say it if it's to be said."

He's in the process of capitalising on that success at the moment, and starts a tour of the country tonight with a new one man show. He calls it stand up, but as well as gags it will include some songs he has written (he plays fiddle, and Prof Peter O'Brien accompanies him on piano), stream of consciousness material, and adlibbing; the detail he will not divulge, and he reckons the show will develop as it goes along. It will not, needless to say, be a Father Jack show - the character belongs to the production company, Hat Trick. Besides, it would presumably be monosyllabic as a solo character. He's up to high doh, but beyond abject terror now, having had a trial run in front of friends, which he was happy with, and he is now looking forward to the experience.

But of course Father Ted has changed more for him than just making a national tour on this scale possible. For a freelance actor who has reared seven children it must be a rock of financial stability, and he has spoken about past hardships before. All the same, he plays down the focus on his near rags to financial stability, and the tough times he went through during the 1980s: "Much has been made of the lows lately in some interviews. People tend to dramatise those things - there is nobody who doesn't go through periods of financial stress. Anyone who has a home or kids or a mortgage or anything, we've all been down there. It's just if one has a higher profile it's of more interest to people that you also can be down there. But it's very often the case that you can't get a cheque out of a big firm that owes you money - they've had a council of war to see who they'd pay that week before they go to the wall... I don't have a marble reception area with a yukka plant and a little gift doing her nails saying I'm at a meeting." He laughs. "And I could be sitting in the loo with very bad diarrhoea because of my inability to pay my bills! That's very common.

He agrees acting is a particularly precarious profession, but "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."

He is a man with very healthy attitudes; you sense a full and fulfilling life that he has enjoyed despite its stresses, and a definite contentment now. "Life would be unbearable if you knew where you would be in five years' time. Life would be unlivable 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.

"There was a time whey you couldn't get a worthwhile loan as a freelance actor, or comprehensive car insurance, or whatever, but now those same people who refused you those loans will boast that their daughter has got a walk on part in a play somewhere. Because everything nowadays is an opportunity for employment, and the arts have become extraordinarily respectable in the last few years.

FRANK Kelly's roles in Irish life have varied over the years. His father was CEK, the cartoonist and Dublin Opinion founder; after Blackrock College (he still lives in Blackrock with his family) Kelly studied law, but abandoned wigs for costumes of another kind, having spent much of his time in UCD with the drama society. As a young, out of work actor in the early 1960s he was offered some casual journalism work in the Irish Press, and he took it. There followed a move to the Independent, and then to the RTE Guide. They were wonderful days, he recalls, and he loved it, but one day he realised: "I'm permanent and pensionable and I've a wife and kids and I'll never get out if I don't resign, because I want to be an actor, and so I did, and I was glad."

There was work in Old Time Music Hall at the Eblana with Cecil Sheridan, four years as Jack Cruise's "feed", work with Jimmy O'Dea, panto, summer revues, tours, straight acting in between. Gradually television - a medium he loves - played a greater part in his career, first with Newsbeat (a news/satirical magazine programme), then Hall's Pictorial Weekly, which ran for 12 amazing years from 1970 (it is interesting, and not surprising, to note it is one of the most often chosen programmes for the RTE Raiders of the Lost Archive series). It is from this period, and the Glen Abbey Radio Show, that many of his early creations emerged his Jack Lynch, Gobnait O'Lunacy (who later released the Comedy Countdown single, which made it to Top of the Pops, and still gets an airing at Christmas), and the one sided phone conversations - "lisssen ... guess who?" They were more innocent days ...

He has performed consistently on stage (from Educating Rita to Da), radio (lots of drama, Only Slaggin', numerous voiceovers and adverts), with the occasional film and TV role thrown in, as well as a comic novel, The Annals of Ballykilferret.

A longstanding performer of the old school, he is versatility personified - straight, comic, a bit of a song, a whoop. And these days he is redefining himself again, for a new generation.

In person he could not be further from Father Jack. Urbane, articulate, thoughtful, fit (he swims and hikes), charming company, full of stories, and quit serious, though his conversation is punctuated by the occasional burst of laughter - he is reputably a great slagger with colleagues, and is very well liked. But it would be a mistake to dismiss him as a genial showbiz "luvvie". "I've never represented myself as a comedian because it's not a role I like to arrogate to myself because I wouldn't like to be considered the life and soul of every party, because people like that bore the face off me.

"I like humour - but I'm very suspicious of people who laugh all the time, because they never listen to what you're saying, they always - have another agenda and they generally have no sense of humour. The most untrustworthy body language I know is that of the person who laughs all the time. That terrifies me.

"People with no sense or a very limited sense of humour I am very wary of too, because it's not a sign of great intelligence to be without a sense of humour. If you've no sense of irony you haven't a great decision making capacity because you must see the possibilities of the downside of any decision. Without perspective you can't have any wisdom, so it frightens me when I meet captains of industry or whatever who have virtually no sense of humour. That's the kind of person I find dismaying.

"It has to be remembered the first people to be shot after any revolution are the comedians, because they're going to say the unsayable about people who take themselves very seriously.

The Father Ted script was something very different. "I'm very bad at reading and evaluating scripts and always have been, but my wife is particularly literate in drama." Bairbre Kelly is co ordinator of the third level VEC drama course in Inchicore. "I generally run things by her she certainly would be able to spot if "there's anything there. With Father Ted - it's so minimalist, the script, and at that stage there was so little camera direction - my wife saw more than I saw initially, but I wanted to do the job anyway because I wanted to play the role of this ballistic, alcoholic priest."

Which reminds him of some of the criticism the series has come in for, including from a couple of priests. He mentions how one phoned a radio programme saying how he liked Father Ted, but that his perspective changed after a parishioner had a Christmas of unbridled horror because of alcoholism in the house, and he thought the portrayal of Father Jack's alcoholism was in bad taste. Kelly is emphatic: "He had lost his sense of perspective in saying that, because I know, we know, the writers know, there's nothing funny about alcoholism - there's nothing funny about anything that's one dimensional. It is the context in which you put things that creates the ironies or the possibility of embarrassment or farce. And for anyone to single out one aspect of something like that and say there's nothing funny about alcoholism, well, I couldn't agree with them more, but you couldn't write a comedy series about alcoholism alone. It's the juxtaposition of one thing that's unlikely against another which creates irony, which creates humour."

The series has been hugely popular, but because the central characters are three most odd priests - and their even more odd housekeeper, some people have taken offence. "I feel there are a lot of people who adopt the role of being vulnerable and shockable and being hurt," says Kelly. "If you get on with your life, try and do some good and say a few prayers, you won't get too many shocks!

"I don't believe for a moment that Christ came on Earth to form a little hand of very shockable people. I think his cronies were very tough, hardy, outgoing, charitable people, and I'm quite sure they weren't sitting sucking their thumbs waiting to be shocked. They were fishermen!"

He is a Catholic, but isn't keen to linger on something that is not too extraordinary. "I've had to say that [that he's a Catholic] too often lately. It sounds like one is flaunting the fact that one is a Catholic, which I think one should never do. What one ought to do is not deny one's faith. You're selling out if you deny it, but you shouldn't parade it. You die on your own. Nobody can do it for you, it's you and your maker in the end." And he laughs, his big laugh. "The spontaneous acceptance of the show by so many people from middle age to young children has really blown the would be prudes out of the water."

SHOOTING the studio scenes of Father Ted in London has meant he has spent about eight months living there over the past couple of years, including one four month stint. It has been hard at times, especially on his wife, he says. Travelling back at weekends doesn't work too well; Bairbre has joined him at times, as has one of his sons - and the other lived in London part of the time he was there.

But all the same, it's a tough existence. "The loneliness in London is something you can literally reach out and touch because people are so afraid of each other and stare at the ground and walk past each other. You come back to Dublin and it's like being at a party to walk down the street, everybody says `howya', and looks at you, and you can look at people and they don't feel threatened."

None of their grown up children - four girls and two boys (they also have a beloved 16 year old "afterthought" daughter, still at school in Muckross) - has followed him into showbiz. "They might instinctively not want the stressfulness of the existence from time to time; they might want a more guaranteed remuneration ... but then, I can't say the business has been unkind to me - we have a lovely home, and I've been able to rear my family and send them to college. And things are going well for me now at this age, and if I mind my Ps and Qs, who knows, I might come out winning.

"When I'm rid of my mortgage, that will make a great difference to the quality of my life." The mortgage will be paid off sometime this year, and that night "I shall go out and get very drunk".