AS THE mad haired Ballymagash town councillor, the beleaguered Gobnait O’Lunacy, and the outrageous Fr Jack Hackett, Frank Kelly has played three of the most iconic and memorable characters in Irish comedy, and this month he is bringing one of them to Galway.
Frank Kelly is coming to the Galway Comedy Festival to host Stand Up Comedy From The Characters Of Fr Ted in the Town Hall Theatre on Thursday October 22 and Friday 23 at 8pm.
On the night, Frank will be in character as Fr Jack Hackett to present performances by Joe Rooney (Fr Damo ), Patrick McDonnell (Eoin McLove ), and Michael Redmond (Fr Stone ).
“I’m excited about doing this,” Frank tells me during our Tuesday morning interview. “As Fr Jack I will be introducing the comedians. It will be mad. I’m arriving into another generation’s comedy and going in at the deep end but that’s what I like. I will not resign and never retire. I hope to be like Tommy Cooper and die in the middle of a TV show. It will be fun and Fr Jack is very dangerous if you cross him. If they do they will be wiped out.”
Frank was born in Dublin in 1938, the son of the cartoonist Charles E Kelly, whose witty cartoons were a hallmark of the Dublin Opinion magazine. Charles’s sense of humour and satirical outlook were an important influence on his son.
Growing up in a house where there was that satirical atmosphere was bound to affect your development,” says Frank. “I think I was subsuming it all.”
Frank is one of Irish comedy’s most iconic figures, one with whom each generation can identify, whether it be through Fr Ted, Hall’s Pictorial Weekly, or Wanderly Wagon. As well as television he has also enjoyed a long career in the theatre, having worked at the Gate with Hilton Edwards and Micheál MacLiammóir and starring in Hugh Leonard’s Da and The Patrick Pearse Motel. He also appeared in films such as Yu Ming Is Ainm Dom (2003 ), Evelyn (2002 ), War of the Buttons (1994 ), Hear My Song (1991 ), Ryan’s Daughter (1970 ), and The Italian Job (1969 ).
“In The Italian Job I was a warder and it was I who released Michael Caine out of prison and led him into Nöel Coward,” says Frank. “I was in Ryan’s Daughter as the ‘silent corporal’, the ‘lanky corporal’s friend. I brought my wife and my babies down to Dingle while we were filming and we stayed there for quite some time. I had a car and inherited a driver and was driven all over Kerry at the expense of the film company. I had a great time...while I had it.”
Hall’s Pictorial Weekly
It was through Hall’s Pictorial Weekly that Frank became a household name. Presented by journalist and broadcaster Frank Hall, and starring Frank Kelly, Eamon Morrissey, Paul Murphy, and Pat Daly, the show ran from 1970 to 1982. Highly satirical, it pointedly and hilariously ridiculed the political establishment, particularly the 1973-77 Fine Gael/Labour Government.
“It was a very disparate government,” recalls Frank, “made up of very different characters like Conor Cruise O’Brien and Garret FitzGerald who wore odd socks, or was it shoes? That was wonderful material. You can go to town on that. That doesn’t mean Garret was stupid but boy was he a good target.”
FitzGerald may have been a good target but Hall’s reserved its most savage satire for the then Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave and the deeply disliked Minister for Finance Richie Ryan - what made them such attractive targets?
“It was an eccentric government whose members tended to work against each other and contradict each other,” says Frank. “Richie Ryan was radical and brought in things like DIRT tax which had never been heard of before. He was considered someone to run from if you saw him coming down the street. He was a very contentious minister. Eamon Morrissey did a terrifying take of him and Liam Cosgrave in a string vest and bowler hat, plucking bats out of the air and eating them.”
Hall’s is widely regarded as having played an important role in undermining the credibility of that coalition.
“We are credited with doing that but I think it’s a matter of faith,” says Frank. “The show went to the jugular vein hard and did contribute to a slide in the Government’s fortunes. What satire does is to show the obverse side of how government operates and satire is purgative, otherwise we’d all tow the one line.”
The FG/Labour coalition lost power following Fianna Fáil’s 1977 landslide victory which saw Jack Lynch become taoiseach for the second time. Frank’s take on Lynch’s avuncular persona, best seen in his “I’m happy, you’re happy, we’re all happy” routine for Hall’s captured the state of government as the economy headed toward recession and industrial unrest rose sharply.
“I enjoyed doing the Jack Lynch character and received a Jacob’s TV Award for it,” recalls Frank. “On the awards night the guest of honour was Jack Lynch! Afterwards he and I drank an entire bottle of Paddy whiskey. His wife Maureen was in toilet refusing to come out because I was there and my wife was with her pleading for her to come and join us. He was a charming gentleman I must say.”
During this time Frank also hosted his own radio comedy programme The Glenabbey Show. It produced Frank’s most memorable character (until Fr Jack ) in the form of the flat cap, brown coated, and trouserless Gobnait O’Lunacy, who would eventually give us the immortally funny ‘Christmas Countdown’ (the 12 days of Christmas ). It earned Frank an appearance on Top Of The Pops in 1982 and a letter from England’s Queen Elizabeth II.
“I think a handmaid wrote it,” says Frank, “but it said ‘her majesty got great pleasure from your song’ and so forth. I have it
Frank was kept busy in the early 1990s with film roles before comedy writers Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews approached him with the idea of playing the part of an irascible priest called Fr Jack Hackett for a new show called Fr Ted.
“In Hall’s Pictorial Weekly I used to play this crazy town councillor with his hair standing in a point at the top of his head and this is who Graham and Arthur had in mind when they were creating Jack,” says Frank. “They wanted to have three generations of priests represented by three generations of Irish comedy - so they had me, Dermot, and Ardal.”
Fr Jack’s character - drunk, obscene, unpredictable, and seemingly possessing only four words; “Drink! Feic! Arse! Girls!” - turned him into one of the most memorable TV comedy characters of all time.
“I think he was so utterly irreverent that he was beyond effrontery,” says Frank. “He also lit things up when things were getting out of hand.”
Yet Father Ted itself is iconic. It has had such an impact on Irish viewers that many people have never got over the series. It was such a turning point in their lives that a little bit of them will always be in 1995-1998, quoting lines and watching repeats again and again. What accounts for this phenomenon?
“You have to look to the writing,” says Frank. “They cast it suitably. The characters are memorable. You can judge it on different levels. For the young there is The Beano comic element of outrageous events which children can tap into it. Older viewers see the satire of the Church they have known.
“The programme also came at a time when the old John Charles McQuaid Church was disappearing and the scandals were emerging. It allowed Catholics to laugh at themselves rather than only laughing at Jews and Protestants. Ireland is becoming more secular but I don’t think the Church is going away. I think it will mutate into something more democratic, involving the laity, hopefully.”
Tickets for the Fr Ted show are available from the Town Hall on 091 - 569777 and from Ticketmaster. See also www.galwaycomedyfestival.com