Pat's last laugh: Pat Shortt shines a light on the pain of rural Ireland
Best known for his rib-tickling antics, Pat Shortt's serious turn as a struggling farmer in upcoming drama Smalltown will surprise viewers. He tells our reporter why showing the realities of rural Ireland has always been at the heart of his work.
Published 21/08/2016 | 02:30
It's Pat Shortt - but like you've never seen him before. He is the star of a new three-part drama to be screened on TV3 next month and his performance is far more likely to coax tears than belly-laughs.
Smalltown takes a sobering look at some of the big themes of the day: emigration, the decline of rural Ireland, generational divides. Shortt plays a married farmer with two sons and he has to cope with his wife's serious illness and the fact that his oldest child has had to emigrate - and then, suddenly, return home again.
"These kind of opportunities don't come around too often," he says, relaxing after our photoshoot in a Dublin studio, "and the writing and character really reached out to me because it's a world I know well, or at least think I know well. It was one of those things that I just couldn't turn down."
With its deliberately slow pace, painterly cinematography and careful attention to dialogue, Smalltown feels like a significant piece of work, not least because Shortt's stunning performance is matched by a supporting cast of largely unknown actors, many of whom are making their screen debuts.
The series' writer and director Gerard Barrett says Shortt immediately got what he was after and he marvels that the actor could arrive for five days of a brisk 17-day shoot and nail the character so perfectly in such a short time.
Barrett is a 28-year-old Kerryman who's going places fast. Acclaimed as one of the best of the new breed of Irish film-makers, he won praise for his compelling debut, Pilgrim Hill, while the equally applauded follow-up, Glassland - which featured rising Irish star Jack Reynor and the respected Australian actress Toni Collette - earned the director plaudits overseas.
While both films were rooted in a sense of realism, Smalltown is utterly true to an Ireland that may feel as though it is being left behind by the rising economic tide. It's set in a place where Fine Gael's pre-election motto, "Let's keep the recovery going", must feel like a cruel joke. What recovery?
"It's a love letter to my parents," Barrett says. "It's a world that they know well, as do thousands of others like them. We showed 'rough cuts' to farmers and they could really empathise with the story and with Pat."
For those accustomed to seeing the Tipperary native in rib-tickling mood, the change will come as quite a shock. His performance is the beating heart of Smalltown and he is utterly believable as a farmer struggling to keep his emotions in check as the foundations of his life crumble around him.
"My hope for it," Shortt says, "was for people from small farms, or living in towns where there's been no recovery, to be able to recognise their world, where every aspect of it feels utterly authentic to what they know."
Some of those weaned on a diet of big-budget home-grown TV dramas like Love/Hate may struggle to enter Smalltown's world, but Barrett says it's an unflinching document to a certain experience in the Ireland of 2016. "Any parent from any walk of life who has watched a child emigrate will be able to relate," he says. "And we've had an awful lot of emigration since 2008.
"Often, the talk is just focused on those who go, but what about the families and friends that are left behind? Their stories are compelling too."
It's a theme that Shortt warms to. "There's an awful lot of pain throughout Ireland," he says, "and not just when it comes to emigration, but also when a family tries to cope with serious illness. That's something that all of us experience at one stage or another."
Of course, it's not the first time this man - one of the country's best known comedians - has played it straight. In 2007, he was praised at home and abroad for his portrayal of down-on-his-luck rural resident Josie in Garage, which was directed by Lenny Abrahamson, the Dubliner behind the Oscar-winning Room.
"Lenny described Garage as a western," Shortt recalls. "He wanted that slow feel to it, the sense of space, of emptiness, if you like. And there's an element of that in Smalltown too. It moves slowly and I think modern audiences are used to that thanks to box-sets."
For those who just saw Shortt as a comedian, Garage was a bolt from the blue. He brought extraordinary pathos to a socially awkward character with learning difficulties and few who saw the movie would have been surprised when he subsequently won an IFTA award for best actor.
"It was funny when people used to say to me: 'Jeez, so you're doing a bit of acting now?'" He bursts out laughing, that distinctly infectious laughter that has almost become a trademark by now. "But acting is what I've always been doing. This was just a different role."
He says it good-naturedly - he's one of the most affable people you could ever hope to meet - and doesn't appear to be irked by those who might look down on his brand of comedy. "I realise it's not for everyone," he says. "I suppose it's a more gentle type of comedy than some would like, and that's OK."
For some viewers - and urbane critics - Shortt's work on the likes of Killinaskully can be ranked alongside Brendan O'Carroll's Mrs Brown's Boys as hugely popular fare that lacks the sophistication of the Dylan Moran or Tommy Tiernans of this world. But Shortt does not seem troubled by the barbs.
He says he has to be true to himself, especially as a stand-up, and a shift to an aggressive, confrontational routine, for instance, would not be believable to an audience or acceptable to him. "Early on, I worked out pretty fast what type of comedy I wanted to do," he says. "I think you have to stay true to that or otherwise you're just not being yourself. I just wouldn't have it in my bones to do nasty stuff."
He says he has never really felt part of the Irish comedy scene although he says he helped give fledgling comedians a leg up by having them open for his stand-up shows. He's critical of anyone who might exploit a young comedian by putting them on bill, and not pay them. "At the end of the day," he says, "everyone has to make a living no matter what they do."
Shortt first came to national prominence in the 1980s. Alongside Jon Kenny, whom he had met at college in Limerick, they tore up the rule book as the irrepressible D'Unbelievables. The pair were among the hardest working Irish comedians of the 1990s, taking their madcap show to virtually every venue in the country and becoming stars of the small screen too.
Their show was unashamedly rural in reach and for every city slicker who turned their nose up at it, there was another who recognised that the characters Shortt and Kenny created were simply heightened versions of 'types' they would see in the pub, or the cattle-mart, or the church, as were those created by Shortt for Killinaskully and follow-up series, Mattie.
"Oh, those characters are out there, all right," he says. "A lot of what we did in Killinaskully actually happened, especially the daft stuff. I remember one story about Jacksie and a condom machine that was broken into. And the priest comes in and says, 'You can't have that' and Jacksie says, 'It's OK, Father - it's empty!'
"That actually happened, although we obviously exaggerated it a bit. Generally speaking, you do play on your memory a lot, stuff you'd hear in the pub or something your dad might have told you."
While an early career in stand-up introduced him to the concept of acting, it was appearing in Father Ted as a violent village idiot that helped school him in how to act when the cameras were on. It was an experience he poured into several D'Unbelievables videos too - and they sold in huge quantities.
But even when the royalties were coming in, was he worried about being typecast? "I don't think I consciously set out to shake it off," he says, after a moment's thought. "There was always the fear with D'Unbelievables that it would suddenly not become current, or that you might suddenly have enough of it but, truthfully, it never entered my head whether I was stereotyping myself or not. The partnership came to an end in 2000 when Kenny was diagnosed with Hodgkin's Disease, although both had begun to look at other avenues by then. "I didn't realise it at the time - and I don't think anyone does when they're really close to something - but some of the stuff Jon and I did was great. I can look back on it and think, 'Yeah, we did some very good work there.'"
As it happens, both Shortt and Kenny live in Co Limerick, but Shortt says they don't see a huge amount of each other now. Life, work, parenthood and all of that simply gets in the way - just as it does, Shortt reasons, between any old friends who are busy juggling the family-work thing.
He says he enjoys living in rural Ireland with wife Caroline, daughters Fay and Lily Rose, and son Ludaigh. "It's where I get to stare out at the fields and nothing happens," he deadpans.
There's little, he confides, that he enjoys more than meeting a couple of friends for a pint in a quiet rural pub or spending an easy afternoon with the paper. "It's kind of perfect after the manic energy of playing to 500 people the night before."
Now 48, Shortt likes to think that his best years are still ahead of him. He has a wildly varied CV, and a surprisingly large number of films to his name, including recent Irish success The Guard and Calvary, and he's especially proud to have been in John Boorman's Queen & Country, a sequel to his popular '80s movie, Hope & Glory.
There have been keenly received theatre productions too, and he stood out as town gossip JohnnyPateenMike in the Broadway version of Martin McDonagh's The Cripple of Inishmaan back in 2014. He was praised for his performance alongside Daniel 'Harry Potter' Radcliffe.
"That was special," he says, "you get up in the morning and you get to work with [Tony-winning] Michael Grandage, who's one of the best directors in the world."
More recently, Irish viewers would have seen him front Pat Shortt's Music from d'Telly - a title to suggest that RTÉ's entertainment department were keen to cash in on the lasting memory of D'Unbelievables.
Shortt loves music and is a highly accomplished saxophonist. He always wanted to be in a band, but comedy came calling and he focused on that.
For a man so attuned to the ways of rural life it is, perhaps, surprising that he hasn't been courted by political parties. He looks horrified by the thought. "Politics doesn't interest me in any shape or form," he says. "My brother [Tom] is a councillor in Limerick and a good guy. He had a falling out with Labour but will probably run again, but when I think of the sort of stuff he has to put up with…
"The fact that I'm popular in entertainment and well known, but I don't necessarily think it would translate to politics."
He mentions a well-known entertainer who stood, unsuccessfully, for election some time ago and says it was a classic example of a public figure being selected for no reason other than the fact that they're famous.
Shortt has a healthy disregard for the Irish way of doing politics too. "Take the Healy-Raes," he says. "They do great work for Co Kerry, but what do they do for the country as a whole? And I could say the same for lots of them in the Dáil right now."
Shortt has lived in Limerick for years, but is proof you can take the man out of Tipperary but not Tipperary out of the man. He meets Weekend days before the county's shock-win over Galway in the All Ireland Football Quarter Final and he expresses genuine belief they can win. "I was talking to [RTÉ GAA correspondent] Marty Morrissey about it and he said they've a great chance. I do too."
He will sure be in Croke Park tomorrow for Tipp's semi-final against perennial bridesmaids Mayo. But as a native of Thurles, it was hurling that ruled the roost.
The local club, Sarsfields, is one of Ireland's most decorated, but some of Shortt's GAA memories are not rose-tinted. "I remember when the Centenary Hurling Final [in 1984] was held at Semple [Stadium, Thurles] and the talk around town was that [Tipperary hurling legend] Jimmy Doyle couldn't get a ticket to the match. Here was a giant of the game with, what was it? Six All Ireland medals - and he couldn't get in. I thought, 'Why aren't the GAA looking after people like that?'"
Another of his Thurles memories would feed into his comedy. "It's a town that was full of priests and nuns and you'd have those May Day processions" - properly titled May Devotions to the Blessed Virgin Mary - "and you'd have these local fellas who'd be acting as stewards for the day and they'd be wearing a sash and that little bit of power would go to their heads. I draw on that sort of stuff still."
The madcap nature of the live shows is, he believes, returning more and more to the sort of fare he started doing with Kenny more than quarter of a century ago. "It's especially the case in the audience participation bit."
He enjoys bringing the show abroad and refuses to soften the intrinsically Irishness of what he does for international audiences. "When I went to America doing shows, I'd never tone it down," he says. "My attitude was always if the Bolshoi Ballet came to Ireland, I wouldn't want them to do Riverdance, I'd want them to do Russian ballet.
"I remember playing Boston and a woman shouted out at me, 'Can't you slow down for us Americans?' I said, 'Can't you catch up with me?' And I didn't slow down - I knew they'd get the rhythm of it eventually. To change the characters, or slow them down, would simply lose the essence of them and I couldn't do that."
There will be no fear that audiences anywhere will fail to understand what Shortt's character in Smalltown is saying. "I'm very hopeful for it," he says. "I think it will reach into the hearts of anyone who gives it a chance."
'Smalltown' begins on TV3 on Thursday, September 1 at 10pm
Photography by Mark Nixon