The importance of being funny
Dillie Keane could have been forgiven if she had turned out tough and unemotional. After all, that's how she was treated by her mother. Gladly, the actress, now playing Lady Bracknell in the Oscar Wilde classic, refuses to be bitter. She talks to Ciara Dwyer
Published 24/02/2008 | 00:00
'As I get older I find I'm playing terrible old trouts," says actress Dillie Keane. She is currently playing Lady Bracknell in Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest on a nationwide tour. When I ask how she is going to do the famous line from the play, Dillie says that she thinks it would be a shame to ignore the legacy of Edith Evans' performance of the role; so, yes, she is going for a big performance -- "A handbag?" she shrieks in a resonant voice that covers almost an octave in one word.
When I say that Bracknell is a pretty strong woman, she baulks at my understatement.
"She's the f**king rock of Gibraltar."
Dillie is no shrinking violet herself. Within seconds of meeting her, you realise that she is a strong woman. You can see it in her walk and in her demeanour. Strength was something she had to develop, if she was going to survive her childhood.
"My mother was a dragon," she says. "I had a very, very tough mother and you had to be tough to cope with Mum."
Frankly, Dillie didn't have to go to the moon to do her research for Lady Bracknell. It sounds like she was reared by her.
Most people know Dillie Keane as one of the original members of the highly successful musical trio Fascinating Aida. For 25 years, she and various female singing partners wrote and performed their satirical shows. These women specialised in entertaining the masses with clever songs that tapped into the zeitgeist, turning popular opinion on its head.
When there was a backlash against free love, they sang The Herpes Tango. As jogging took over the world, they wrote a song about giving it up. And when the last pope died and the Vatican was busy choosing a new one, Fascinating Aida dreamt up a ditty about the search for a possible pope. As if the pressure to come up with constantly relevant songs wasn't hard enough, this group did it in rhyme and in harmony. They've been described as "Absolutely Fabulous meets Noel Coward, as sung by the Andrew Sisters."
Dillie says they are "resuscitating" Fascinating Aida later this year. Good laughs are hard to find, so no doubt the audiences will flock to the show. But Dillie does serious, too.
This straight actress and talented songwriter brings tears to the eyes with one of her most powerful songs, Look Mummy, no hands. (Many Irish audiences will know Camille O'Sullivan's powerful rendition of it.) The song is about a young girl in a hurry to grow up, wanting to be free, while her loving mother is fussing and worrying about her. Then, when she finally becomes self-sufficient, her mother is no longer around.
"I wrote it as a wish fulfilment," Dillie says. "I didn't have a great relationship with my mother and that song was written while she was still alive."
How did her mother react to the song?
Dillie puts on a clipped, unemotional English accent: "'That was quite nice. That's a sweet song.' My mother never cried and never showed any emotions, apart from anger."
Rather refreshingly, Keane does not go down the route of blaming her mother for the rest of her life, or holding a grudge. Instead, Dillie has taken time to understand her mother's ways. She explains her character and how she came to be so tough and unmaternal.
"You see, her mother died when she was terribly young -- when she was one, I think. So, for the first few years of her life she was brought up by maids; hard, country women who would tell her to shut up when she woke up crying. As she grew up, she was deeply unloved and had absolutely no idea how to love. She was a very sad bunny."
Miriam Slattery, Dillie's mother, came from Tralee and one night at the Richmond Hospital ball, she met a young Mayo doctor called Frank Keane. They married and went to live in Portsmouth.
"There was much about Mum to like and to be amused by, but she could only operate on one level, which was that everything had to be correct; if it wasn't there was hell. My mother was deeply insecure and when she went to England she was treated by some people as if she had literally stepped out of a bog. 'Do you have gowns, my dear?' and that sort of thing. It made her quite defensive and insecure.
"When they had a cocktail party, I even had to tidy my sock drawer. There was a woman called Patsy who was always found rooting around people's drawers. I suggested to my mother that we put notes in the drawers saying 'Bugger off Patsy' but my mother said that that would have been insulting. She knew Patsy was wrong but in her eyes, I was even more wrong."
Dillie had two older sisters and a brother but they all towed the line.
"Mummy was absolutely terrifying but there was just something in my genetic make-up which made me answer back. It was a gene that said stick your head up and get shot again."
As she speaks, it sounds like Dillie brought shame on her mother by simply existing. She could do no right. One time in a friend's house, Dillie's parents called her downstairs, as they were about to leave. Dillie said that she just needed to go to the loo before they left. All the way home, the 15-year-old was lambasted by her mother. How could she have disgraced the family by asking to go to the toilet? She should have waited until they'd got home, she was told.
"Bodily functions shouldn't have happened. I remember thinking everything you have to tell me about my body is wrong, absolute nonsense."
Not that Mrs Keane had told poor, wondering Dillie very much.
"One day my mother came into my room and told me that there was a thing that happened to girls and I needed a special towel. I said, 'It's all right, Mum, I know all about it.' I didn't know anything about it. We had a maid called Margaret who told me the facts of life and poor Margaret didn't know anything. She told me that there was a hairy drop of blood that fell once a month. I imagined it sort of tear-shaped with fur on it. When I went to boarding school, I didn't know what a period was because I was wearing the navy-est blue navy blue knickers. If you mentioned it in school, you'd have been accused of being a lesbian. I just didn't understand what was happening.
"I always wonder why people talk about guilt in the Catholic Church. It's shame. Women are taught shame. Guilt is a long way after shame. You can't be guilty unless you have something to be ashamed of. I grappled with shame for a bit and then I thought 'I don't think I do feel ashamed'. I've never felt a day's guilt in my life. I don't feel guilty about anything, which a lot of people do."
Dillie's time in boarding school with the nuns was not a pleasant experience. Evidently a bright girl who shone at English, she was forbidden to do A-level English. All pupils were expected to be submissive to the nuns. Far from blossoming, Dillie felt she was educationally stunted during her time there. Eventually, she was expelled for going to London to meet boys, when she wrongly thought she had permission. By that stage, she was the disruptive one in the class.
"Looking back, I'm glad I was bolshie and I'm glad I gave them a hard time. Years later, I did an interview about my time in school and the headmistress, who was a nun -- and still is a nun -- wrote to me, said that she'd read the piece and that it was all absolutely true. That was huge for me. She apologised for her part in it. It took a lot for her to do that and it meant a lot to me."
When she left England to come to Dublin to study music at Trinity, Dillie found happiness. Away from her mother, she was free to do as she pleased. She plunged into an acting life at Players.
"I played one ingenue and then after that I went straight for character parts. They were more interesting. It was a fantastic time. People like Michael Colgan, Paul McGuinness, Susan Fitzgerald and Derek Chapman were there. My finest hour was in a play called We've all Maid Marian -- I was Maid Marian. It was written by Paolo Tullio and Michael Colgan, who also directed it. To this day, it was the funniest thing I've done. Roly Saul, the restaurateur, was Friar Tuck and Chris De Burgh came on and sang his own song and Michael kept saying 'Your own songs are very nice but would you ever do a few Beatles songs? That's the way to go.'"
After Trinity, Dillie went to London to study drama, much to her mother's horror. (She believed that all actresses were prostitutes.) To make ends meet, Dillie worked in a bar, sold junk on a stall on the Portobello Road and posed as a life model.
"It was the one rest I got in the week. No, I wasn't cold, they had a blow-in heater.
"I remember running and bicycling everywhere. It was the most exciting time of my life, living your most fullest and astonishing life and acting school was everything I wanted it to be. It couldn't have been better."
Dillie went on to enjoy a successful acting career. She has fond memories of Noel Pearson's production of The Pirates of Penzance at the Olympia and other favourites include Dancing at Lughnasa and Juno and the Paycock.
For many years Dillie lived with a man but they went their separate ways. "We wanted different things and he couldn't keep his trousers zipped up," she explains. She suffered two miscarriages while with him, but when she was 40 people told her to have a baby on her own. "I didn't want a baby, I wanted a family," she says. There are moments when she is rueful about her miscarried babies.
"I wrote a song about it called Little Shadows because I think they are like little shadows. I would have had a 15-year-old and a 13-year-old. But there is life beyond barrenness, really there is. I've got five god-children and I really love them. I think families need spinster aunts and bachelor uncles because who else is there to listen and to be on your side?"
"I'm actually deeply relieved that I don't have children because if I'd had children, it would have been much harder to get a life together with John."
The man she speaks of is her partner, with whom she lives in Oxfordshire, and quite clearly the love of her life. She met John O'Neill, a horse-breeder, at an Irish Youth Foundation charity lunch and quiz in London.
"A friend of mine wanted to introduce me to this man. He tapped him on the shoulders. The shoulders were up to his ears. He really didn't want to be there. He turned around with a face like a boiled lobster on him, beatle-eyed. He mumbled something, actually it was more of a growl, and I said how do you do. F**k off, were the first two intelligible words he said to me. Then he sat down at our table. I didn't fancy him or anything but I was amused."
After Dillie won her verbal duel with him -- as she had the correct answer for the sports table quiz -- his ex-wife came over and said to Dillie "He comes with my full recommendation." After the meal, John pointed to Dillie and said, "You ... you're coming to the bar with me."
"I just thought oooh , hair ... cave. He was my caveman," she swoons. "John is from Tipperary. Of course, why didn't I look for an Irishman before? The Irish are generally classless. He's extremely strong, he's definitely the boss but he's like a lot of Irishmen in that he would rather have his eyes boiled than live with a simpering yes-woman. I was with somebody for a very long time before that, but it took me 47 years to find somebody I could feel really, really comfortable with. He's lovely."
And he sounds it. He goes to all her shows and brings bus-loads with him, as he's proud as punch of his Dillie. He sends her flowers and never forgets Valentine's Day and her birthday -- even if he gets his daughter to organise the flowers. He makes her laugh and he laughs at her. He calls her an eejit.
"We love each other's company," she says. Suddenly fifty-something Dillie Keane has gone all girlie and sounds as soft as a kitten.
Her mobile phone bleeps with a new message. "It's my Lord and Master," she gushes.
City Theatre Dublin presents 'The Importance of Being Earnest' by Oscar Wilde at The Royal Theatre, Castlebar, Co Mayo, Tuesday, 11am, 8pm; Wednesday at Mullingar Arts Centre, Westmeath, 2.30pm, 8pm. Thursday and Friday, The Venue Theatre, Ratoath, Meath, 11am, 8pm; March 3-8, Civic Theatre, Tallaght, 8pm (matinee performances also available); March 11-12, Cork Opera House, 11am, 8pm; March 13-14, The Source Arts Centre, Thurles, 8pm