Published 19/02/2012 | 05:00
Best remembered as 'Rashers' Tierney, this homegrown talent was gracious and kind to all, writes Emer O'Kelly
He looked rather like a humanised canary: perky and cheery, eyes darting, exuding fascination with the world around him. And the impression was intensified by his always-bright choice of dress, frequently a yellow that conjured up thoughts of instant sunshine.
And David Kelly was just that: a bringer of sunshine in all weathers; his lugubrious voice with its stamp of the true Dubliner belying the mischief in what he was saying. And he was kind: he was so kind. David never forgot the people he had met and worked with. In a world where the "darling" of an actor's greeting is something that disappears when the set is struck and the run ends, David Kelly remembered his fellow actors with kindness, with courtesy and with affection.
And there were a lot of them to remember -- as an actor, Kelly's career had long since celebrated its Diamond Jubilee when he slipped away last Sunday at the age of 82. But half a century ago, he was the working hack and his wife Laurie Morton was the "star" -- she played the daughter of the family in RTE's first-ever television soap, Tolka Row. Ireland was single-channel land, and the impact of a homegrown television actor was almost unimaginable. But Laurie gave up acting and her husband went on to become a household name even outside Ireland.
It amused him (quietly, as so many things did) that his most famous performance from 1975 would never be allowed in today's repressive and politically correct world of television. As O'Reilly (Orilly) the incompetent Irish builder in Fawlty Towers, David was gem-like. Today, the League Against Any Stereotypes that are Recognisably True would be screaming "racism", and the memorable Orilly would be on the cutting-room floor. And indeed, that few minutes of television established something that Kelly shared with Prunella Scales, who played Sybil Fawlty; they were both playing way beyond their years -- Scales was only 32, and Kelly was 45.
That pattern would continue. Five years later, he was to play his most memorable serious role, that of 'Rashers' Tierney in James Plunkett's Strumpet City. The homeless Dublin drunk and layabout, warming himself with gut-destroying Red Biddy as he lay in entry-ways in the bitter winter of 1913, stole the series against some serious competition that included Cyril Cusack, as the nation wept for poor Rashers, discovered dead, his body gnawed by rats, his old dog sitting guard over him. The derelict Rashers was in his 70s, David was 50.
David's quality of sincerity and decency was perhaps his strongest ally in an acting career that may not have brought stardom but was rock-steady through most of his life, threatened only briefly by the alcoholism that he conquered many years ago.
Analysing his performances, you can see that there was huge similarity, even to a level where he could have been accused of being a one-performance man. But the integrity of his methodology made him able to tailor that one performance into smooth perfection in the right role -- and there were many of them.
Stripped of his elegant and always-colourful clothes, David Kelly looked like something out of Beckett, and he played in Beckett to great acclaim, most notably in Krapp's Last Tape, and in the celebratory series Beckett on Film, brain-child of the Gate Theatre's Michael Colgan.
If I'm not mistaken, his last stage role (the stage was his great love, as with so many actors) in Ireland was at the Abbey, in Brian Friel's Give Me Your Answer Do in which he played an elegant, unhappy, ineffectual husband of a high-achieving wife.
And then, of course, there was the 1998 film Waking Ned. Everyone chuckles when it's mentioned.
Nobody ever chuckled louder than David, in that rich gurgle of delighted self-knowledge, as he claimed to have become a sex symbol when he was hitting 70, with the unforgettable, ridiculous scene in which his skinny frame, pale to the point of luminosity, was seen naked on a motor bike.
And if that's to be his epitaph, somehow I think he'd revel in it.