'Both can be very tough and fraught with challenges' - Ballykissangel star Gary Whelan on acting and the pub trade
Ballykissangel star Gary Whelan - the man behind one of Dublin's best-loved music venues - tells John Meagher about the similarities between being in the pub trade and acting, and how four months staying in Nice's poshest hotel allowed him buy his first house
It is a tricky business trying to pigeon-hole Gary Whelan. Sure, he's well known for his decades of acting, but his story is far richer than one merely celebrated for his work on small screen and stage.
He's an entrepreneur and a collector of fine art - and bric a brac. He's a publican and a restless entrepreneur. He's a visionary, too, especially when it comes to transforming the live music scene in his native Dublin. And that's as good a place as any to start with this renaissance man.
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Back in the late 1980s, on his return to Ireland from acting jobs in Britain on shows like The Bill, Whelan used to enjoy drinking in Bourke's pub on Wexford Street in the south-east inner city.
"I grew up right beside it and my father used to drink in there and my grandfather too," he recalls. "I used to think it would be a great place to put on live music." And it was his then girlfriend - now wife - Gabrielle who helped him fulfil his dream. "It had changed hands - it became the Longford House - and she got on well with the new owner, Rosemary, and had got a sense they might be interested in selling it if the price was right. So I had a conversation with Rosemary and her husband and they were interested. I thought it over that weekend and went in on the Monday with £5,000 in my pocket [to secure the sale]. We shook hands on it and although I probably paid more than it was worth, I'd really wanted it, so there were no regrets."
He put his own name on the pub, spent more money than sense on refurbishment and the venue, Whelan's, became an immediate hit. He sold the business two years later, but 30 years after it first opened it's going as strong as ever - and has hosted many of the world's finest musicians.
It's not over the top to describe it as one of Dublin's most treasured cultural locations.
"I couldn't be happier with what it's become," he says, beaming. "I thought it could do well, but not in my wildest dreams did I realise just how big a deal it would become." With the acting behind him for now, the 65-year-old is busy making a pair of Dublin pubs and restaurants work - as well as a pub he owns in London. First, he established The Dalkey Duck - which has proved popular in the des res coastal village.
And then he opened The Wild Duck in Temple Bar and it's here that we meet on a schizophrenic mid-week day - hot sun one moment, downpour the next. The venue is on Sycamore Street, just across the narrow cobbled lane-way from The Olympia, and it feels like a labour of love for Whelan.
It's decorated with art and artefacts he has picked up over the years - old film posters and photographs, including some of himself as a young actor. In the front bar, there's a photo of Gabrielle, taken when she was 50.
"She's from Dublin too, just around the corner from where I grew up." He attributes much of his success in business to her judgement. It was Gabrielle who instigated the move back to Ireland. She wanted their youngest child to grow up in Dublin. Their son is now coming to the end of his time at Blackrock College and hoping to make the senior rugby team there.
Whelan's upbringing was about as far removed from the prestigious rugby-playing school as you can get. He grew up on Camden Row, on the street where part of Whelan's faces on to today, although you would never know that from his accent. It's posh English.
"I was sent to England at 10 and you felt as though your accent had to change because there was discrimination if you were Irish," he says. "I remember really feeling it in school. A teacher used to say to me, 'I don't know where you've come from, boy, but in this country you keep your mouth shut until I say yes. You throw your hand in the air and you wait.' And I'd get rather deflated because I had the answer but he'd ask someone else. It was very hurtful to me because he knew I knew the answer. And I'd think why is he doing that to me?"
Whelan duly adopted an English accent - a chameleonic skill that would prove invaluable in his acting days. He was accepted to Rada, the world-renowned Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London. "They only take a tiny fraction of those that apply. I couldn't tell you what they saw in me. They say it's really hard to get in, and about 3,000 audition for about 20 places, but when you're there you wonder why it was so difficult."
Rada was the making of him. "It gives you great confidence," he says, "and you need a lot of confidence as an actor because there will be setbacks. I remember the first TV drama I ever did - I was really excited to see how I looked, but they only thing they showed were my shoes and my voice over it. They cut me completely.
Perhaps it's because he's tall and somewhat severe looking, but Whelan often found himself cast as an authority figure, above and below the law. He's played policemen (most famously as the quintessential hard-bitten Bobby in The Bill), headmasters (in Ballykissangel) and gangsters (any number of 1980s British dramas).
By his own admission, he's been lucky. And when he talks about his experience on The Pink Panther film while he was still in his early 20s, you sense just how lucky he is. "I got cast in the film and was put up in the Negresco Hotel in Nice with the rest of the cast. There was a good per diem [daily payment] and all expenses were looked after. I don't know, maybe eight or nine weeks go by and I'm still not called to do any filming so I get talking to the director Blake Edwards one evening in the hotel and say, 'I'm just wondering if you know when my part will be filmed?'
"He said, 'Are you're in the film?' He had thought I was someone staying in the hotel that had become friendly with the cast. I told him the part I was due to play and he asked for the script and when went, 'Oh, we've cut that part, but don't worry we're filming the next movie back-to-back so stay on and you'll be in it."
Whelan duly stayed on - 22 weeks in the French Rivera's most prestigious hotel - and was shot for a small part in the follow-up film. When he returned from the shoot, a cheque arrived for his services. It was enough money for him to buy a four-storey house in Islington, north London. "I couldn't believe it," he says, with a chuckle. "My father said to buy a house straightaway, so there I was at 22 or 23 with a house and no mortgage. It meant I didn't have to worry if there was a gap between acting jobs in the future."
As it turned out, there weren't many moments where he was down on his luck. Whelan was in demand for years but an entrepreneurial streak was always part of his make-up.
"I've always loved pubs and theatres and trying to create an environment where people can be sociable and have a great evening out. And I try to put a lot of myself into the venues because they're personal projects, you know?"
Nobody could accuse Whelan of doing a paint-by-numbers effort on The Wild Duck. The idiosyncrasies, of which there are many, are very much his. And he's no absentee owner. He happily admits to rolling his sleeves up and getting stuck in and mid-way through our conversation the venue manager hands him a baleful of receipts to be carefully logged. "It's a tough business - you can't not be hands on if you want it to work. And, to be honest, running pubs in Ireland is a lot tougher than in Britain. Insurance and fees are so expensive in this country. It's almost as though you're being kept in your place. If you start making money, it can feel as though you're always back at square one."
It's little wonder that he's had to place acting on the back burner for now. "You can't be an actor and give it the essentials it needs if you're doing other things. You can do menial other things - you can do simple things. But you can't take on what we've done here. It's 8,500 square feet [across three floors] and there are nine flats above."
He says there are similarities between the pub trade and acting. "Both can be very tough and fraught with challenges, but they can provide so much enjoyment. I've had endless nights of enjoyment either working in a pub or on the stage."
He says he is proud of his TV career and says the six-part 1986 BBC series Hideaway is a personal favourite. "It was really good TV and it had an excellent cast. But it was only shown once because audiences found it so violent."
He loved working on Ballykissangel - the Wicklow-set series beloved in Britain but considered twee in this country. "I really liked Brendan, the character I played. And he was set to be the central character the storyline for the new series would revolve around - and then it was cancelled by the BBC. It was very disappointing and completely out of the blue, especially when you consider how huge BallyK's audience was."
He worked with the late John Thaw on Kavanagh QC - "I knew him well, he was such a great actor" - and he said he would have loved to have been in Inspector Morse. "That and Bergerac. But it was a case of they'll call you, rather than you call them. But I got to work on shows like Prime Suspect so I feel fortunate."
And that's the way it is with Gary Whelan. There may have been setbacks, but he's always happy to accentuate the positives.
"I wouldn't change a thing," the father of six says. "I'm of pensionable age, but I'm getting to do something I love and to be with the people I love. What more could I want?"