- 12 Mar 01
Well, so would you be if you had to wear all that hideous make-up. Barry Glendenning meets FRANK KELLY, the long-established actor and comedian who now finds himself in the curious position of being best-known for shouting 'Feck!', 'Drink!', 'Girls!' and 'Arse!' fr. Jack hackett, this is your other life . . . Black & White Pix: CATHAL DAWSON
Being, as I am, the man who accepted it in good faith when Eddie Izzard told me that his sitcom Cows would make for "great TV", I've been aware of late that, when it comes to asking the hard questions, I'm more Darcy than Day - Blackboard Jungle's Ray that is, as opposed to Question Time's Sir Robin.
Similarly, the man who once appeared on Top Of The Pops under the unfortunate moniker of Gubnet O'Lunacy, must be equally aware that no Van The Man he. And yet, while the full Morrison monty - i.e. yours truly sprinting down the street, a la Liam Fay with His Portliness in hot pursuit - was never going to arise, at no point during my interview with Frank Kelly did I feel entirely at ease. He's a qualified barrister, you see, a right hardy man.
It's not that Frank is even remotely as obnoxious as Fr. Jack, the grotesque character he portrays in the obscenely successful Father Ted. On the contrary, the well-spoken gentleman who politely clears and wipes a space on the coffee table for my walkman is the antithesis of the wildest padre this side of Ferns. However, throughout our chat the impression is conveyed that he doesn't suffer fools gladly. In fact, the impression is conveyed that he doesn't suffer them at all.
Particularly when I make bold to ask him if he is religious.
"Well, that is such a multi-faceted question and it begs so many definitions," he retorts, munching on a chicken sandwich. "What do people perceive as religious? Is your religion about incense, hymns, ceremony or reverence towards personnel? Is it about wanting to be seen going into a church and having that kind of persona, that kind of image, or is it about what it should be about, which is fate, to which all these things are just accidentals? So when you ask me am I religious, you're asking me a lot of questions, the answers to which could be very lengthy and very boring."
Why stop now?
"Have I faith? Yes. Am I a Catholic? Yes. That's really all I'm prepared to say to you in answer to that question because after that, I know that you haven't really thought out the full implications of asking someone if they're a religious person."
A moot point. Some might say that life's too short to go all Kantian over such a seemingly innocuous query. I'd only asked because I was curious to learn if the father of seven had suffered any moral qualms before accepting the role of Father Jack Hackett, Craggy Island's bloated and discoloured resident sot.
"Yes, and having considered the qualms I came down on the side of doing it rather than not doing it," he reveals. "I make moral choices every day. I'm not on auto pilot, I'm a thinking human being. I have to decide whether it's right to do something or wrong to do it."
Scriptwriters Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews spared no expense when they were casting Father Jack. The obvious choice for the character in question - a wretched clergyman with a fondness for gargle - could probably have been hand-picked on the cheap from any parish in the land. However, our intrepid scriptwriters opted for an accomplished pro., a highly respected treader of the timber boards. What's intriguing, though, is how they managed to pitch such a seemingly frightful role at an actor of Frank Kelly's calibre and experience.
"Well, I was contacted by a casting agency, Hubbard Casting, and told to go in and see them," he explains. "When I went in, it became pretty apparent that I was the person they wanted if I was prepared to do it. They wanted me to shout various words, which have since become rather well known, and the minute I started to shout these words as they required them, they looked at each other, then at me and said 'OK, will you do it?' I'd just lost a movie because the dates clashed with my daughters wedding and I'd lost something else because dates also clashed, so here I was, free and being offered a job. I told them that I was available, that I'd read the script and if I liked it I'd do it."
And what was the initial reaction on seeing the script?
"Bewilderment, really," he laughs. "If you see 'Feck!', 'Drink!' and 'Arse!' written on the middle of a page with lots of camera directions it doesn't look like a lot.
"I got my wife to read it because she has a very good eye. She directs and runs the drama course in the VEC in Inchicore. She thought it was rather good so I took her word for it because she's very good at reading scripts. I have to say that I've never enjoyed anything so much in my life; it's been great fun as you can begin to imagine."
But surely Frank must have had initial reservations and perhaps considered that the role might be beneath him?
"Oh no," he replies. "Definitely not, and having met Graham and Arthur you'd soon know whether they were chancing their arm or not. But no, I never thought it was beneath me at all, I have no reason to have such notions because I'm a jobbing actor. I'm not somebody who's above things."
Of course, somewhat predictably, certain critics have, of late, been sharpening their knives, each of them eager to be the first to get the Father Ted backlash started in earnest. One such scribe, Sunday Independent writer Brendan O'Connor, went so far as to describe the Christmas special as "an embarrassment to all concerned."
Is this a view with which Frank concurs?
"Well, I certainly wasn't embarrassed by it," he expounds. "I thought it was very cleverly constructed with a lot of sub-plots. But then, when anything reaches a certain curve in its popularity somebody is always going to attack. I do think remarks like that are very offensive to the writers. The articles I've read in that vein have generally been quite gratuitous and haven't been very well reasoned.
"Who is to decide arbitrarily that Father Ted has had its day? Who is this referee? Is he saying to the young people of Ireland that they're not to laugh at Father Ted any more, that it's not funny, that no more programmes are to be made?"
"Well, if so, would you concede that he's right to do that? I wouldn't. Hitler was very good at that sort of thing and so was Mussolini. Mind you, I don't know this Brendan O'Connor and I don't know anything about him. You're asking me to comment on him and he could be anybody. There's something very surreal about that. He may be a very nice man, I don't know because I've never had the chance to find out.
I know that the lads want to do another series, but that they also want a rest because the Christmas show was a marathon one to write. With all the sub-plots and themes it took tremendous work. I think that if people don't like it, perhaps they should actually suggest how they would like it to be done. Personally speaking, I've yet to hear any good structural criticisms of the show."
Unsurprisingly, there have been other whinges, moans and gristles. No-mate types who consider Marion Finucane and Chris Barry their closest friends have been only too eager to call the whine-lines in order to vent their collective spleen against the burghers of Craggy Island and their ilk. Accusations of blasphemy were levelled at RTE for their audacity in daring to broadcast the Christmas special on, em, Christmas Day, while a number of priests have also complained because . . . well, that's their job. Frank is ambivalent towards such grumblings.
"Well, the scheduling of programmes is entirely outside our control and the people who do those things should always be made answerable to them," he avers. "My comments on that are irrelevant though. I'm constantly being asked why RTE does things and doesn't do things. I'm not on the staff of RTE, I'm not made privy to any of their decisions. I don't even hear the gossip anymore because I'm not around to do so. Why doesn't the public make RTE explain and get the answers to these questions to which it urgently needs answers. I'm not in power to answer them. I think RTE should certainly be made answerable to their consumer lobby but I also think that I shouldn't have to fend off these questions."
And what of the ecclesiastical sorties which have been launched against Father Ted - have they rankled?
"Not very much, because not very many priests have attacked it," comes the reply. "It's not to do with religion very much, it's surreal. Someone said to me that there aren't really many priests like that, so I asked them what they were bothered about then. If everyone knows that, do you think they're going to believe that all priests are like that because they see this series? They're not, demonstrably they're not. Father Ted has echoes of reality in it, surreal things always will, along with echoes of satire."
Not to mention of course, the foulest, ugliest, most putrid priest in Christendom.
"Yes, there is the fact that people tend to find you physically repulsive, and justifiably so," Frank chuckles. "The result is that you tend to eat on your own and not many people want to talk to you, especially when the false teeth are in. My make up is a mixture of colourants and latex and very homely ingredients like soda bread flour and Vaseline on which they paint other colours to give me dribbles from the corner of my mouth and my ears and even my nose sometimes. It generally depends on the mood of the make-up artist and how cruel she intends to be.
"I also have to have a blind eye, so I have this opaque lens that I can't see through for the day. It's in my left eye and is very stressful, so I wear a proper contact lens in the other eye to compensate. On top of that, then, there's the padding which is extensive and very hot to wear, so it's a rather ageing part to play."
And the part that Frank is most likely to be remembered for, considering that Father Jack has become something of a cult hero both at home and in The British Isles. Public adoration is all very well, but having to endure endless hordes of complete strangers regularly bawling "Durrrrink!", "Feck!" and "Gerls!" in your ear must become a bit tedious?
"Well, if I hadn't done this I think the only thing I'd be remembered for is 'The 12 Days Of Christmas', so it's a slight improvement," he smiles. "Everyone likes to be taken seriously now and again. It's when people look at you and burst out laughing that you get a bit disconcerted. It doesn't bother me how I'm remembered, it only bothers me on how it affects the quality of my life when I'm alive.
"Of course I do get people running up to me shouting 'the words', but it's not unpleasant. You never develop as an artist unless you remember how ordinary everybody is. Whatever genius you have is in your ability to be original and interpret things originally. When you stop being good at that you go back to being totally ordinary like anybody else. If you lose sight of that you won't progress, you really will become an unspeakably smug bore. You've got to look at all the adoration with a slightly jaundiced eye and not believe that it is all justified.
"The cult hero thing is more personal here in Ireland because I'm very well known here for other things that I've done. People don't necessarily associate my appearance with Father Jack's, thanks be to God, but they still know that I'm playing the part so they'll approach me and talk about it. That's fine, because they're very pleasant about it. In England it comes by a more circuitous route because you do get alleged celebrity spotters over there.
This, incidentally, doesn't mean I think that I'm a celebrity, although in so far as I'm celebrated I suppose I am. But I don't see myself as such. You will get a lot of attention in England because there's such a big population. There's 57 million there which makes for a fair few spotters. As well as that, there's a lot of people in England who live their entire lives through television.
"One thing I have noticed about the whole phenomenon though," he continues, "is that people are terribly pleased - and this is a great credit to Graham and Arthur - to have comedy around, to have something to laugh at. They're hungry for it and really delighted to have it. I would wonder, because of this positive reaction from all the young people of Ireland, what's been going wrong. Why haven't they been getting their diet of comedy to which they are entitled?"
The blame for this comedy of errors, of course, lies buried somewhere in the Montrose X-Files, a fact which Frank has heretofore seemed unwilling to discuss.
"RTE has put a series out called Upwardly Mobile," he responds. "I've only seen one episode of it, I saw it very early on and it wouldn't be fair to comment on it. I've been in England most of the time so I haven't seen any more of it but the public doesn't seem to have received it with wild enthusiasm. However, there are a lot of very good people who I know and admire in it who are very good performers. Obviously, given a good script, they would be excellent."
During the filming of the second series of Father Ted, rumour had it that Frank Kelly was becoming increasingly disillusioned with his character's general lack of involvement in the cosmic scheme of all things Craggy, and was consequently throwing classic thespian tantrums because of this alleged dissatisfaction. These are rumours Frank is quick to deny. "That never arose at any stage," he states categorically.
My own suggestion that there's generally no smoke without ire is promptly dismissed out of hand. "No, as I said, that's completely untrue, it simply never arose."
Case closed and to be honest, it's hardly surprising that friction is absent on the parochial set as, with the possible exception of the extras in EastEnders' Queen Vic, Frank has what some would consider to be the plummest job in showbiz. How difficult can it be to lie comatose in an armchair, stirring only occasionally to demand libation?
"Oh no, it's not really an easy role at all because all the time you're doing it you're acting," he opines, eager to dispel notions that he doesn't earn his corn. "Even if you're apparently inactive in the background you are actually quite active indeed. You must concentrate if you've very little to say in a play or a film or on television. It's important that you concentrate fiercely to make sure you acquit yourself very properly when that moment comes. You've got to make the part count, it's up to the public to judge whether or not I made the part count or not."
And while gushing outbursts like the above might be deemed worthy of inclusion in the 'Luvvies' column in Private Eye, it cannot be denied that Joe Public has indeed lovingly embraced the fetid Father Jack. Of course the prodigal piss artist does leave his armchair from time to time, invariably displaying an instinct for survival keener than any Southampton player. He has defied certain death twice, the first time when he was already dead, the second, when, wheelchair bound, he free-wheeled over a cliff. Such feats have earned him the ultimate tribute, his own personal shroud of Turin.
"Yes, I think my eldest son summed it up best when he said 'Listen Dad, you've made it when you're a t-shirt'. That's amusing but it's not true of course, you've only made it with the bank manager."
Of course, prior to the t-shirts, the Top Of The Pops appearance and the myriad theatre and film roles, Frank Kelly was best known for his invaluable contributions to Hall's Pictorial Weekly, the late Frank Hall's revered satire which many claim was directly responsible for the humiliating defeat of Cosgrave's Fine Gael/Labour coalition at the polls in 1977. Needless to say, it is an era Frank Kelly remembers fondly.
"That was pretty radical, you know, pretty hard-hitting in its time because it was right on the political edge and Frank Hall was very good at keeping that on the ball," he recalls. "We probably enjoyed our highest profile when there was a very eccentric inter-party government with a lot of very eccentric people in it. I mean, Garret Fitzgerald appeared at a function wearing odd shoes! Then you had Conor Cruise O'Brien and various other ministers literally contradicting themselves in the press every second day. They made good targets and they were pretty identifiable to caricature. If you got a few salient points you could look pretty like the person."
When the coalition was eventually torn asunder by the electorate - much to Fianna Fail's glee - Conor Cruise O'Brien held the Hall's Pictorial Weekly team responsible for the Government's demise, claiming that the show was the single biggest factor in the landslide defeat.
"That was also said of Beyond The Fringe and the Harold Macmillan Government," avers Kelly. "I don't know whether that's coincidence or whether something tweaks the public perception just at the last moment and sways it one way or the other. I think humour should always be near the edge and I think that kind of thing certainly could happen. Certainly it was stated categorically at the time that it did happen, but I would find it very hard to believe that a humorous television programme would bring down a government. The manner in which people vote is a bit more rooted in tradition than that."
And would Frank agree that there's pleasure to be had in knowing that, through the lampooning of sacred cows, a show in which he played a central role may have utterly changed the course of Irish history?
"Of course you take a measured pleasure in the amount of attention a programme is attracting, but no, not really. I always set myself against believing that the programme had brought a Government down because you can slip into the mode of feeling a bit God-like. That's a very dangerous pitfall."
And why did the show end?
"Frank decided that he was tired writing it," he expounds, confounding my preconceived notion that RTE had binned it on the grounds that it was entertaining. "It was a terrific commitment, you know. He did 15 or 20 shows a year and had to write half an hour's television a week. The deadline was terrifying because news stories were breaking all the time. Frank had done it for 12 years and I think he felt pretty burnt out at the time. He just opted not to do it.
"There was a story put about that RTE had pulled the programme," he continues, warming to his theme, "that it had been subverted in some way, but I don't think that ever would have been fully true. Certainly there would have been a body of opinion which wouldn't have been in favour of the programme, but then there would always be a body of opinion which wouldn't be in favour of any satire.
"I think a lot of the reason that Hall's Pictorial went on for so long was to do with Frank's huge persona, his great energy and his ability to argue his case. The contract he had gave him full editorial control of the programme, I very much doubt if that kind of contract has been written since. But Frank could literally have the director he wanted, the producer he wanted, anything he wanted. He had great autonomy.
"RTE doesn't seem to have a high output of comedy and I think it's a pity that Hall's Pictorial wasn't replaced by a similar type of programme which could have been done by people other then us. There was another generation coming up and I don't see why they shouldn't have had their chance."
Currently flying solo, Frank has just taken his one man show, Frank Kelly Strikes Back, on the road for a month-long nationwide tour. Music and chat are the order of the day, including blues, swing, Irish airs on the fiddle, all interspersed with Frank sitting on a high stool telling stories which he "sincerely hopes people will enjoy." Not for Mr. Kelly, however, the surreal stream of consciousness humour practised by many of today's top young comics.
"I would hope people wouldn't go to my show expecting completely alternative comedy, because they're not going to get it," he makes clear. "I would be more in the mould of telling jokes, although I won't be doing ones about 'This giraffe walks into a bar,' or anything like that because giraffes don't walk into bars and I don't think there's anything particularly funny about that. It's a bit gratuitous, like beginning a limerick with 'There was a young fellow called Trollocks . . .' Nobody was ever called Trollocks."
Would this be an indication, perhaps, that Frank was less than impressed with the many comedy whippersnappers he must have encountered while filming Father Ted?
"Oh no, I'm in awe of them," he protests. "They've got such tremendous courage. They'll try out so much untried stuff and then take the accompanying flak if it doesn't work. That really takes guts. I prefer to play it a little safer and use what I'm sure will work. Fashions in comedy change all the time, I don't think there's a brand new formula."
Is Frank nervous about his first one-man tour?
"You better believe I'm nervous," he sighs. "But if I can get enough rehearsal in and enough practice on the fiddle the thing will become automatic and I'll feel a lot less nervous, with the result that I'll enjoy doing it more. I don't mind the actual comedy because I'm fairly used to doing cabaret work, I've done it for a long time. But I've never presented myself as a one-man package before and that's a bit daunting. I don't want people to expect too much from my show, I just want them to be able to enjoy themselves and have a fun evening. It's not aimed at a very young or very old audience, it's just me largely as me."
At this point, our interview ends, and Frank prepares for the next in an afternoon's worth of promotional tete-a-tetes. As I gather together my journalistic bits and bobs, a giraffe ambles through the bar, places a tape recorder on the table and opens a notebook. Leaving, I hear the elegant beast exchange pleasantries.
"Hello Mr. Kelly, my name is Trollocks . . ."
Stranger things have happened, but only on Craggy Island. n
* Frank Kelly plays the Olympia Theatre, Dublin on Sunday Feb 16th. Details of his one-man-show tour, Frank Kelly Strikes Back, can be found in this issue's Heineken National Rhythm Guide.