With Fr Ted and myriad of other roles, Frank Kelly has had an incredible career. At age 76 and battling Parkinson’s, he’s as busy as ever, writes Noel Baker.
FRANK KELLY is back on the road — and no, this is not a metaphor. The much-loved actor was recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, some 20 years after he first noticed a tremor in his right hand. As it happens, it didn’t matter much then and it doesn’t matter much now. Here’s how.
“They take you off the road when you get my diagnosis,” he explains. “But I was working ahead on this and applied to my local driving instructor who deals with this, and he took me out today and I passed on all fronts.”
He takes an understandable delight in flicking two-fingers to a condition which would bring many of us crashing down to earth.
“It will be wonderful,” he says of getting back behind the wheel, adding that he first has to lodge the results with his doctor and his insurers. “I will be off the road for a couple of weeks but we can manage all that. It’s a very bewildering thing to be told you can’t drive your car - it’s like being told you have no balls, you know.”
And we’re off. Kelly, now 76 and, despite his recent diagnosis, in grand health, certainly knows how to put a smile on your face. A master of the anecdote, he is both insightful and amusing, often at his own expense. It is the kind of charm that has placed him firmly in the ‘national treasure’ bracket, much and all as he might shy away from praise and bouquets.
His new book The Next Gig is a case in point. The title is a nod towards his appetite for work, but anyone reading it this winter will not be drowning in what Kelly calls “an exposé of the agonies of my soul”; no, he says, “there is too much blood in the sand” for all that.
“I wanted to find interesting, quirky episodes,” he continues. “I wanted to avoid any self indulgence.”
He certainly has plenty of material. An actor since his student days, he also found himself at the vanguard of a new type of comedy when performing as a young man — prime experience for the rollercoaster success of Hall’s Pictorial Weekly later in life, when the satirical show raised laughs and the hackles of those in power in equal measure. He has shared screen time with Michael Caine and Pierce Brosnan, scared the bejaysus out of many of us in Wanderly Wagon (the voice of Sneaky Snake, anyone?), and of course, he was the immortal Fr Jack Hackett in Father Ted. And that’s just half of it.
Listening to him talk about the wending way of his career, it seems likely that, for a good couple of decades, he must have been Ireland’s busiest man. “I had a large family to feed,” he offers by explanation. Kelly and his wife Baibre have seven children. “I had six different jobs at one stage.”
He jokes that he could knock out voiceovers during his lunch hour, but his work schedule must have been gruelling. He recalls one family meal during which he received, and accepted, two different offers of work. It meant starting work at RTÉ at 9am in the morning, writing sketches until lunchtime, getting into his car and driving to Cork — and in a later period, Limerick — where he would be on stage at 7.55pm for a show, before driving back to Dublin and back into RTÉ the next morning. It was less ‘luvvie’, more ‘God love ye’.
Crucially, however, the rewards were there. Maybe not always in financial terms — “I’d be driving to Cork for a tenner” — but in terms of connecting with people.
His self-penned Glen Abbey Show sketch series for radio ran for seven years, resulting in six comedy albums and one million listeners — “I am very proud of that,” he says, not unreasonably. He remembers stopping his car on Westmoreland St one afternoon while the show was being broadcast and, stepping out to check what was holding up the traffic, suddenly being assailed by car horns as all the motorists began to recognise him and started beeping in his direction.
Working with Frank Hall on Hall’s Pictorial Weekly meant Kelly was a vital cog in what is still viewed as a seminal television programme. Hall, he says, “gave great leeway” in how some sketches were delivered, such as Kelly and Eamon Morrissey being allowed to substitute a Wicklow accent for the original Mourne Mountains version in one sketch.
The show was a phenomenon. Several TDs criticised it, with one telling Kelly that it was “bringing the country into disrepute” — “I felt very honoured,” he laughs. “I wasn’t upset at all.”
The viewing public, on the other hand, gobbled it up. “I remember once driving down to Cork, and I went for some reason into a pub to get something, probably tobacco or something. It was a big pub, I can’t remember the town, and it was seven o’clock and on came Hall’s Pictorial Weekly. I never saw anything like it. You could hear a pin drop. Not a till rang, not a person spoke, for half an hour. It was quite unbelievable.”
And Frank? True to form, instead of basking in it, he tiptoed out.
Even children’s telly managed to become a cult hit once Kelly was involved. Take Wanderly Wagon, in which Kelly played a string of characters, including arch-villain Dr Astro. Years later he was walking home having renewed his driving licence when he was physically accosted by a burly man who said he had a bone to pick with him. Kelly says he expected the biggest thumping he’d ever had in his life, only for the youth to declaim: “You frightened the shite out of me on Wanderly Wagon.”
“I nearly fainted with relief,” he says.
And then there’s Father Ted. In recent weeks stories have appeared that highlight how Kelly, who was in his 50s when the show was being filmed, felt lonely and isolated while in London. These reports are “extraordinarily exaggerated” he says, adding: “I did have a riotous time doing it — the contrast was the silence in the room on my own and the hectic conditions of work and and the company of the work.”
Referring to the “extraordinary cross-section of people” involved, he says of life on set: “I never heard laughter like it in my life.”
What began with creators Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews handing Kelly a sheet of paper with expletives written on it led to some subtle characterisation and no little graft. Did you, for example, pick up on the fact that Fr Jack has a Co Laois accent?
“It’s a great general accent for Ireland,” Kelly explains. Or that he donned an inflatable suit under his clerical clothing, from his neck almost to his ankles? “It was very uncomfortable to go to the toilet,” he says.
“I loved it. I loved the smell of success, I knew how funny it was. All the people in the audience, they were falling into the aisles laughing, I’d never seen anything like it.”
And arguably, we haven’t seen anything like it since. Frank Kelly gives the impression that his habit of saying yes to almost everything that came his way may have closed off some avenues, but for those of us watching him make all those characters come alive, we wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. And just in case you’re wondering, he’s still available.
“ I am available for the next gig,” he confirms. “I am always available for the next gig.”
The Next Gig is published in hardback by Currach Press
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