Saturday 24 August 2019

Farewell Charlie: the much-loved heart of Fair City

Carrigstown’s patriarch will be sorely missed on the RTE soap, writes Sheena McGinley

‘Man of magic’: Tom Jordan as Charlie Kelly, with his screen wife Mags played by Joan Brosnan Walsh in ‘Fair City’
‘Man of magic’: Tom Jordan as Charlie Kelly, with his screen wife Mags played by Joan Brosnan Walsh in ‘Fair City’

Sheena McGinley

It’s hard to believe, but Fair City is fast approaching its 30th anniversary.

One of the soap’s most familiar faces passed away at his home in Roscommon over the weekend, leaving Tony Tormey (Paul Brennan) to shoulder the mantle of the soap’s longest-serving cast member alone.

Proving just how sewn into the fabric of Carrigstown Tom Jordan was, he uttered the second lines spoken in the soap’s hour-long pilot episode back in September 1989.

‘Charlie Kelly’ was one of four pivotal families based in the houses of ‘Ragnall Place’, which residents of Drumcondra will know as Barron Place. All the exterior shots were filmed in the area until 1992 when the fictitious hub of Carrigstown (ironically) transported itself to Dublin 4 and the very SoCoDu confines of Montrose where RTE resides.

EARLY YEARS

As well as becoming ingrained in RTE’s flagship show, Marino-born Jordan had embodied different guises on stage and screen — both big and small. His varying fields of onscreen expertise included an IRA commandant in Lost Belongings, a demolition expert in Cry of the Innocent, a psychiatrist in Remington Steele, well before Pierce Brosnan became Bond.

He’s also been credited as Jimmy Cagney in Inside, Gerry Glynn in Strange But True, Paddy in The Anarchic Hand Affair, Farrell in Strumpet City, Seamus Doherty in The Manions, and he even appeared in Jim Sheridan’s The Field.

CHARLIE’S FIRST SCENES

Speaking of auditioning for the RTE pilot in the late ’80s, Jordan told reporters: “I went along to the audition thinking it was going to be a waste of time, another one of these bloody things going nowhere. There had been so many of these things where you do a pilot and then it’s scrapped. Anyway, I was called back and to my surprise, they offered me the part of Charlie Kelly.

“I still didn’t think it was going to last any length of time, but then when the pilot went out, it received tremendous notices, people were talking about how funny, how fast it was, and it became a great success.”

Jordan made his initial appearance within the first few seconds of the pilot. Sporting his trademark thatch of white hair and bushy black brows, he was seen hoofing on a cigarette at his kitchen table, giving out about wife Mag’s picture in the paper alongside Barry O’Hanlon.

He was the second person to ever deliver lines in the soap, after onscreen daughter Bernie (played by actress Ger Ryan, who also appeared in The Van). Charlie’s first words? “Embarrassing. I can hear the slaggin’ already...”

This Charlie Kelly hadn’t yet become the upstanding pillar of the community, the moral spine supporting a changing Dublin. This Charlie was a ‘chancer’ who loved ‘the bewkies’ and swilling pints in McCoys.

Speaking of pints, it seems strangely poignant that in the final frames of that pilot episode, Charlie launched a pint all over fellow longest-serving cast member Brennan after Tony dumped Bernie for her friend.

In the early ’90s, around the time the soap externally moved to Montrose, three new families took up residence: the Phelans, the Doyles and the Molloys.

Carrigstown was changing, both physically and thematically, but he of the bushy black brows was a consistent anchor for viewers.

HIS LOVES

Charlie may have been fond of the pints in those early episodes, but a lot changed for him over the years. He lost two wives and a son. Losses like that will either ‘stand to you’ or send you over the edge altogether.

After 20 years of marriage, his on-screen wife Mags died. Actress Joan Brosnan Walsh had left the show in January of 2009 after being diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease. She passed away that same year.

Speaking on The Late, Late Show around the time Joan was raising awareness for MND, Jordan pointed out that Charlie and Mags are the only couple in any soap that stayed together for 20 years — never having an affair or remarrying.

Speaking at the time, Jordan said: “I have lasted 20 years on the show because of Joan.

“She has a great sense of humour; we never had an argument or fell out. I’m a difficult person to get on with; so that is down to her. If anyone had any problems she would be the first to help. I am going to miss her terribly.”

Three years later, Charlie did find love again, this time in the form of resident busybody Esther Roche.

They were married in June 2012, and broke another soap record — it was the first wedding in soapland history to go off without a hitch.

During their stint as a couple, Charlie was every inch the model husband, hardly grumbling when his inherited grandson, TJ, landed on their doorstep one Christmas, armed with a newborn baby.

Charlie and Esther also survived the usual cause of a couple’s breakdown — deep-seated secrets...

There was a time when he believed Esther was having an affair, due to her constantly killing calls from England and hiding mysterious letters.

It turns out, Charlie’s friend Cass came to his aid by pilfering Esther’s precious letter, revealing she had a long-lost son — thalidomide survivor David, played by actor Mat Fraser.

THE THREE AMIGOS

And who could forget the moments of hilarity the pairing brought us, mostly thanks to Esther’s love of, eh, ‘foreign language films.’ That scene showing Bela, Charlie and Cass being forced to watch an adult movie, much to Esther’s embarrassment, should go down in soap history.

Sadly, Charlie and Esther’s union was short-lived as actress Eileen Colgan died aged 80 in March 2014. Following her departure, Cass, Bela and Charlie became the Three Amigos, banging the world to rights and hanging around his beloved community centre, which bears his first wife’s name.

CHARLIE’S FAREWELL

Some years ago, Tom Jordan moved from the family home in Beaumont to Tullyvrane, Lanesborough, Co Roscommon. The then 78-year-old put the reason for this move down to the ever-changing face of Dublin city.

Given his age and the logistics, his filming schedule decreased to 10 weeks a year, but he still remained the backbone of the community.

Viewers saw what could be Charlie’s final scenes in May. Fittingly, those scenes depicted him fiercely defending his enduring friend Bela from Lee Collins, who Charlie believed was taking advantage of his mate.

Charlie may have been mistaken (Lee was actually doing Bela a favour after being taken advantage of by phone scammers), but he was quick to apologise to the young fella for the misunderstanding.

As ever, ‘Charlie’ wasn’t just the lifeblood and moral barometer of Carrigstown, he was the much loved ‘heart’ of Fair City.

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