Monday 23 September 2019

Gay Byrne: 'We're two old broken-down codgers, and, as he says, forgotten but not gone'

Gay Byrne
Gay Byrne
Noel Purcell
Mike Murphy

Gay Byrne

Eileen Marmion died in August at the age of 100. She was the wife of Noel Purcell and was a stage performer from the age of 10. She performed all over Ireland and toured the UK on several occasions. She could dance, sing, play the piano, whistle and was a dab hand in comedy sketches.

She knew every inch of the stages in The Theatre Royal, The Olympia, The Gaiety and The Capitol.

Noel Purcell (below) was a big man, as well as being a big star - both onstage and in film. In later years he was distinguished by his great mop of white hair and a mighty beard, in which a small family of starlings could have nested comfortably without disturbing anyone.

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Noel Purcell

He was a towering Daddy Christmas. When I was first starting in showbiz (I can't remember when it was) I was wildly excited to be introduced to him, and he immediately referred to me as "me oul' brown son".

I took this as a specific form of endearment which he'd conferred on me, to emphasise my specialness. Much later I discovered that he referred to EVERYBODY he met as "me oul' brown son" simply because he couldn't remember their name.

Dublin showbiz lore has always had it that Noel and Eileen, in one of their many and regular Theatre Royal appearances, did a number in which she sat on his knee and he sang a lullaby to her. Or some such. And one night he simply told her that he loved her and intended to marry her and would wait for her. And he did.

That was part and parcel of the Dublin theatre history. You don't have to believe it if you don't want to. I believe it. And, according to her, they had a wonderful life together and produced four fine sons - who all ended up in showbiz in one form or another.

I knew one of the sons, Mike, quite well because he was a floor manager in Montrose and was well liked - he was tall and well built like his Da and had a great personal appeal about him.

He went on to be assistant director on The Bill for many years.

The other three brothers all ended up in television and the movies, on the technical end of things. I guess they decided early on that one performer in the family was more than enough.

I met Noel Pearson in Mount Juliet when he'd just returned from Eileen's funeral. He said it was a very small affair; but then, if you live to be 100, I guess all the people who have promised to be at your funeral have already been at their own. Sic transit... etc. But it reminded me of the special birthday tribute show which we did for Noel Purcell on The Late Late all those years ago.

He was a much loved star of show business and, although quintessentially The Dub, he had toured the nation and endeared himself nationally. At the time of the tribute show, the big-star movie parts had, to a great extent, rather dried up, and vaudeville was dead since 1962, when RTE had come on the air and The Theatre Royal had been demolished. The belief was that no one would ever go to the theatre again - why would they, with the magic of television at home? Financially, his situation would not have been robust.

There was a huge studio audience for Noel - and they could not have been more enthusiastic and loving. But people remember moments of shows, not complete productions, and the moment I remember is this: he had sung his Dublin Saunter - well nigh his signature tune - and then I introduced his old pal and associate of many years, Peggy Dell.

Peggy was an outstanding pianist and knew every number in the book. She also had the most distinctive deep dark brown baritone voice, and she and Noel had worked together many times through the years. And out of the blue, they went into a duet of a very old vaudeville number, beloved of concert parties and hoolies in the parlour. (Are there such things any more?) It's called Thank You Ma'm Says Dan.

Somewhere deep in the archives of Montrose...

But it was the ease, the relaxation, the gentleness of the way they went into the song and brought it off. And brought the house down.

Peggy told me that she got a five-year extension to her career out of that one show - at a time when she thought she was all washed up. Some great gigs - and well paid too!

And the people of Ireland formed a rejuvenation scheme for Mr Purcell too, and he went sauntering through Stephen's Green and had coffee at 11 in every town in Ireland, and I was very happy that we had done our special birthday tribute to a great man of Irish show business. Me oul' brown son. As they say in country parts: God be good to the two of them.

*******

Mike Murphy (below) came home from America in August and the day following his arrival, he tripped over the step of his own front door, fell, and broke his left shoulder. Of all the painful injuries one can get, it seems to be generally agreed that a broken shoulder is the most agonising of all. And all they can do is put your arm in a sling and let the thing get better in its own time. Like, six months to a year. Barring accidents.

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Mike Murphy

So he and Annie and Kathleen and I went for a little Chinese together in The Orchid on Pembroke Road - it's effectively Mike's local. And we were standing outside on the pavement after our meal, just before parting, and a most attractive young woman followed us out, just to shake our hands and to say how delighted she was to see us having a meal together. And then she went back in. It was as if she expected us to be fearsome enemies and deadly broadcasting rivals, and there we were, to her surprise, all chummy together. And she was genuinely happy to see us so.

And so there we stood, smiling, him with his left arm in a sling and hanging on to Annie with his right hand in case he might fall over, and looking about as useful as the proverbial one-armed paper-hanger in a strong wind; and me, holding on to Kathleen for stability and the other hand clutching a crutch (and try saying THAT after seven large brandies and a couple of pints).

Two old broken-down codgers, and, as he says himself: forgotten but not gone.

*******

It has long been the practice of our Donegal gang to organise a kitty on any of our outings.

I'm sure you're familiar with the idea: at the start of the excursion, one member is elected Kitty - a job nobody wants but somebody has to do. They're given a shedload of cash, out of which they pay all the expenses of the day - food, drink, fares, tips and so on. It cuts out all that nonsense of who always orders the most expensive item on the menu, who drinks doubles while you just take water, who orders food while no one else is hungry and all that claptrap and bloo-blah-blither. Generally speaking, it works.

So Kathleen and I were with two of our Donegal friends, Paud and Bernie, in The El Fuerte hotel in Marbella in September. It's an old family hotel where we stayed several times when Crona and Suzy were small, and we loved it.

On this occasion, Bernie was Kitty and she's very good at it. There were several Irish people at the hotel and we exchanged pleasantries with them from time to time. But we didn't know we were being WATCHED!

So help me, this is true. The following was overheard from an indignant Irish person. I report it as I got it: "Do you know I've been watching Gay Byrne and Kathleen Watkins all week and they've never put their hand in their pocket for anything. They've an unfortunate friend with them - the woman in the red dress - and she pays for everything.

"They've never paid for a single thing the entire week - they just sit there and take everything. NEVER PUT THEIR HAND IN THEIR POCKET THE WHOLE WEEK!"

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