Saturday 25 November 2017

Waking hours with actor Des Keogh: 'I'm thrilled to be asked to work, but I've never waited'

Des Keogh (80) is an actor who has also presented radio shows and done stand-up comedy. Born in Birr, Co Offaly, he lives in Dublin with his wife, the violinist Geraldine O'Grady. They have one daughter, Oonagh, who is also a violinist

Birr native actor Des Keogh has done everything from stand-up to radio shows. Photo: Tony Gavin
Birr native actor Des Keogh has done everything from stand-up to radio shows. Photo: Tony Gavin

Ciara Dwyer

The time I get up depends greatly on what I might be doing. Recently, I've been getting up very early, because I was doing a BBC television series for children called Little Roy.

He is a cartoon character, and all the others are real-life actors. I play his neighbour, an eccentric old man who spends a lot of time inventing things in his shed. The film companies are very good, and they collect you in the mornings. Some days my pick-up time was 6.45am. I'm not a morning person. I'm grumpy and I growl. But my wife, Geraldine, is terrific. God love her, but she insists on getting up with me. So, she goes out to the kitchen to make me tea and toast. I'm not sure that I'd do the same for her.

We had our 50th wedding anniversary last year. I think our relationship works so well because we both had our careers. She had a very long career as a violinist - her professional name is Geraldine O'Grady. She used to do a lot of touring, and she played with major orchestras. She doesn't do as much now, but she's still very dedicated. She was always doing her thing and I was doing mine. We were both away a lot for work, so we'd always enjoy meeting up again.

If I'm not filming, I might be working on a play. At the moment, I'm in The Importance of Being Earnest at the Gate. I play Merriman, the butler in the country house. It's a lovely little part. I have a long history with the Gate Theatre, going back to Hilton Edwards and Micheal Mac Liammoir. They were both wonderful men, larger-than-life characters. I was in my 20s when I first appeared on the Gate stage, in a play directed by Hilton. He was a terrific director, an old-school sort; there was no talk about what the character's motivation was for doing something.

I always think that I've been more associated with comedy than anything else, and that was partly because of the many musical revues I did with Rosaleen Linehan. But in recent years, I have been playing more straight roles. I did quite a lot of work in America over the years, and at one time I nearly settled there, because I wasn't happy with the parts I was getting in Ireland. Over there, they didn't see me as a comedy actor, and they just took me at face value. I started The Love-Hungry Farmer over there. It was a one-man show based on John B Keane's book, which I adapted for the stage. I toured with it for 15 years.

I would go bananas if I wasn't doing something, and, in a lot of cases, I have made my own opportunities by coming up with ideas for myself. I'm thrilled to be asked to work, but I have never waited to be asked. I'm always working on something. Recently, I came up with another one-man show, all about George Bernard Shaw and the women in his life. It is called My Fair Ladies. For that, I spent a lot of time going through research books. In February, I'll be back in Bewley's Cafe Theatre for a second run of The Quiet Land with Derry Power.

I've been very fortunate in that there nearly always has been something going on in my life. I was involved in several different forms of entertainment. For example, for 35 years I presented a radio programme on RTE - Music for Middlebrows - so even if there was nothing on in the theatre, I still had that. I even did some stand-up comedy in America with my late brother-in-the law, the tenor Frank Patterson. We ended up playing in some incredible venues like Carnegie Hall and Radio City Music Hall. Stand-up comedy was the most difficult thing I ever did. It's a terrifying thing to go out on stage, particularly for the first time in a new role. When I was doing my Shaw show, I almost felt like running away. I kept asking myself, 'Why am I doing this?' The actress Maureen Potter once said that I was the only person in the business she knew who got more nervous than she did.

On the day of a performance, I have a substantial meal at lunchtime, and then at 4pm, I go up to bed for an hour. I've been doing this all my life. I find that it's great. Then I get up, have a shower and eat something light. I might have a cup of tea and an egg. After that, I head into the theatre for about 6.30pm. I don't like too many distractions beforehand, but it depends on the role.

I do some vocal exercises and I pace up and down beforehand. The feeling of standing in the wings before going out on stage is quite terrifying. You are thinking about how the audience is going to react. If you are doing comedy, it's extraordinary how audiences will vary. Some lines which you think are your best will fall flat, and then later, you say to yourself, 'Ah, they got that'.

In my recent shows, I've been fortunate with good audience attendance, but nevertheless, I do worry. If I am involved in the finances of the show, you are dependent on a certain number of people attending in order to get a decent night's wage. Mobile phones can go off. A couple of times I haven't ignored them. I paused, glared, and if it's the sort of play that you can make a remark, I have occasionally said something, which invariably gets a round of applause. When the performance is over, if I'm not driving, I'll go to the bar. It's nice to have a pint and a chat with the cast afterwards. But if I'm driving, I'll go off home and have a quiet drink there. Geraldine is still up, working. She practises all the time, and she enjoys it. I might watch a bit of television and then I go to bed.

I'm very thankful for my good health. In 2001, I had open-heart surgery, but it's like a new part in a car. I've been in great health ever since. I play tennis every week, and I walk every day. I never had any problem learning lines, and I still have that ability. I thank God for that all the time. Sometimes I drift off to sleep with lines in my head.

'The Importance of Being Earnest' by Oscar Wilde is showing until January 30 at the Gate Theatre, tel: (01) 874-4045, or see

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