Sunday 18 February 2018

Meet the Quare Fellows

The Sheridan brothers - Jim and Peter - tell Barry Egan about the brilliance of Brendan Behan, Sean Penn's tears, the death of their brother, and wearing coats to bed

Jim & Peter Sheridan. Photo: Fergal Phillips
Jim & Peter Sheridan. Photo: Fergal Phillips

Peter Sheridan looks at his film director brother: "He was my mother's favourite - and I was my da's."

"My story is essentially Oedipal," says Jim. "And Peter's isn't that at all."

"We might as well as get it all out in the open," continues the eldest of the Sheridan siblings, Jim. "We were invited over to The White House to meet Bill Clinton."

Jim's wife Fran told him that as much as she liked Clinton, she didn't really want to go. "Bring your ma," she said. On the flight over to America, Jim said to his mother: 'Your mother died giving birth to you. Were you in terror when you were pregnant with me?' She said 'yeah'. That's all I needed to know."

How long in his life did Jim wait to ask his mother that question? "I was 40-something. You know? I knew the story that her mother had died giving birth to her, and I think she exorcised that guilt by having her first child, which was me," says Jim who was born February 6, 1947.

"So she did dote on me. It is almost like she loved herself. She got back to a stage of exorcising the guilt. She would come in at Christmas with a leg of turkey for me and say the dinner is not ready yet with them around and I had the turkey leg and the rest of them were given nothing. I was like Little Lord Fauntkeroy!"

"She did the same with my children," says Peter of his mother.

"She favoured my second boy, Fiachra, because he looked like Frankie, our kid brother who died. She would shower him with stuff. We would have to take the money off him and divide it out among all the kids."

Frankie Sheridan died from a brain tumour when he was ten in 1967. The death of their little brother was the biggest event of Jim and Peter's childhood. Their dad was "dreadful" over the accident, recalls Jim, before Peter, who is 64, adds that "dad took to the bed" after it all.

"Ma certainly held the family together at that time," Peter continues. "She was the one who knew how to deal with all that. She knew that we had to be looked after and we had to be minded. There was seven of us."

Jim: "It is a very seminal event, because it drives me crazy at the same time, because it is like a roundabout that you go back to. And you keep going round the roundabout and I was just wondering when you get off."

He adds that if you asked everyone in the house they all have a reason why they feel they were responsible for Frankie dying. I ask Jim what was his reason for his brother Frankie dying.

"Frankie jumped on the Emerald Dairy van," he begins. Jim, seeing his little brother on the back of the van, which was starting to pick up speed, ran after it, jumped on the back of it. "I stood on his hands to make him let go, because pretty soon it was going to be going so fast that he'd die. So he rolled in the pavement and I jumped off."

Did that kill Frankie?

"No. It didn't. But you do think: 'Did that kill him.' He fell down the stairs in a house opposite," Jim adds, talking of the actual incident that Frankie died from. "You know, whether falling down the stairs preceded the brain tumour or whether the brain tumour caused the fall, I don't know. Balance."

Entertainingly, Jim and Peter's memories of the same event are often different. "What happens with Jim and me a lot is, because we put them down - him in movies, me more in writing - our stories have become intertwined and intermeshed with each other."

So did Peter see Frankie jump onto the back of the van in 1967?

"My memory was that it was a horse and cart that he was on the back of and that he fell off."

Jim says, firmly: "It was a motorised vehicle."

"My memory of that so-called incident is different," says Peter. "But I remember clearly when he fell down the stairs, because his face was black and blue, that was really damaged from that accident."

Jim: "I was a bit jealous of him, getting so much attention. So when I came in, my mam was holding him like you'd hold the baby Jesus. I was like, 'What the fuck is going on here?' It was the first time I was excluded from total attention. It sounds funny, but it's not so funny."

"What Jim is talking about there, that memory of childhood, and Frankie and that injury, and him dying," says Peter," is interesting. . ."

"In the rehearsals of this play," Peter says, referring to Meet the Quare Fellow - directed by Peter; written by Peter and Jim - at Viking Theatre, "there is a point where Brendan is lying on the ground having been battered. I said to Gary Cooke [who plays Behan, and is, in this scene, hugging his younger self, played by Ryan Andrews]: 'You need to get down and hold him like The Pietà. You need to hold him like Jesus in your arms.' It is so moving to have a man hold an image of himself in that position and to make him feel okay about who he is about himself - and it goes back to those images that happened in our house" all those years ago.

Some 37 years ago, Jim played young Behan in Borstal Boy at the Gaiety Theatre; 30 years ago, Peter's adaptation of Brian Behan's book, Mother of All the Behans, was on at the Abbey Theatre. "This Behan play," says Peter, "has been the first time in quite a long time where there's been a great meeting of minds between the two of us, because the play is about somebody who is not us, but the issues at the heart of the Behan story are not unlike the issues at the heart of our own: you have the Republicanism, with our grandfather, and then our da, who was the opposite because he loved the English."

Their father Peter loved all things about England, bringing the family on holidays to Blackpool and Manchester. "He didn't have an anti-British bone in his body. We supported England in the 1966 World Cup final against Germany. We were the only family in our area that supported England. Everybody else was supporting Germany!"

Lest we forget, Jim and Peter came close to making a movie about Behan in the mid-1990s with Sean Penn. "Sean wanted to do it," says Peter. "I worked for two years on that project. I was to direct it." In fact, he and Sean drove across America together the day after the star finished shooting Dead Man Walking in 1995 in a Buick Grand National. They drove from New York to Los Angeles in seven days.

What was the conversation like?

"There wasn't a lot of conversation."

This was partly because Sean was "completely traumatised" by the experience of having played death row inmate Matthew Poncelet in Dead Man Walking. There was another reason for Sean's lack of chat. Just as they were leaving New York, Peter, who was driving, put on a tape in a misguided attempt to ease the tension. It became particularly misguided when Willie Nelson's Always On My Mind came on the car stereo. Willie had barely got the words 'Maybe I didn't love you. ..' out his mouth before Sean registered his opinion by starting to cry.

"Take that fucking tape off!" he told Peter.

"Sean was breaking up with Robin Wright at the time," Peter explains, "and he started crying."

The journey across America was ostensibly to talk about the proposed film project and fill Mr Penn in on Behan and his history. "It was seven days to talk about Brendan Behan," says Peter. "But we didn't talk a lot about Brendan Behan because he didn't want to talk about anything. He was so silent it was unreal. But it was the most amazing seven days."

I ask Jim why, in the end, the Behan film never got made. "It got complicated because someone wrote in a letter to the team producing it, New Line, meaning we couldn't get insurance," Jim says.

"Sean thought we'd never get the insurance but I got it off a fella who was part of the peace process."

Jim presented the insurance document to Sean in the Chateau Marmont on Sunset Boulevard in LA. "And Sean broke down crying saying he couldn't do it because he was breaking up with Robin and blah de blah di blah. And to be fair to him, a lot of money was put out but he gave me some money and so did New Line. They were very fair. So we didn't lose a huge amount on it but it was a pity it didn't happen because Sean would have been amazing as Behan."

I ask Jim (who has directed movies like My Left Foot, The Field and In The Name Of The Father) what his brother is like. "He's observational. Probably different emotionally to me. I'm more 'get stuck in and make a mess and then figure it out later'. I'd say he's more detached. Maybe detached is the wrong word. You better describe me now, Pete, or we're all fucked."

Peter doesn't agree with Jim's analysis."I am not detached," he says. "I would see my worst quality is that I am very organised. I have to know where I am in relation to everything. We are chalk and cheese on that level. His brilliance is that he is chaotic. But only he can fix it. He creates chaos and everybody is going fucking crazy and he is 'I can fix all the chaos'. And he can."

What's Jim like as a brother?

"Competitive. He has a great sense of competition going on and he doesn't want to lose, beneath the surface. It's a hard one because it can fluctuate.

"Obviously when he became really successful with those films, that was a kind of a difficult time for me, because people would be saying to me: 'Your brother is really famous.' Whereas for me, the films he was making were only an extension of the work that we had been doing in our childhood. So for me it was like a pain in the hole having to be known as somebody's brother," says Peter who is a respected novelist, playwright, screenwriter and director.

Jim remembers at the opening night of Mobile Homes in 1976, he was sitting behind his mum and dad. "The father in that movie was a bit of an arsehole," laughs Jim. "And my mam was hitting him, going: 'That's you!' So then when I did The Bull [The Field] in 1990 it was all about the mad father figure. So then I decided I better make a movie about a good dad to try and... you know?" laughs Jim.

"So I said to da in the pub up in Fairview one night: "I'm thinking of making a movie about a good father.' He was looking into his pint and he was totally fucking happy."

Jim loved saying it to his father so much that night, he recalls, that "I said it to him about eight times!"

Then on the opening night of In The Name Of Father in the Savoy in 1993, Jim's father was at the back with Daniel Day-Lewis when Jim gave his speech. He said his prototype for the woman in My Left Foot in 1989 was his mother and that his father was the prototype for the father in In The Name Of The Father.

Afterwards, Jim's father walked up to Jim. "And the whole audience stood up to clap and he hugged me. And in this ear" - Jim says pointing to his left ear - "away from the audience, he said: 'I love you.'"

Jim pushed his father back to look at his eyes. He died two weeks later. "I never saw him again after that night."

I ask the brothers what was their mother like. "My ma worked in the North Star Hotel in the bar," recalls Jim, "after she fed all the lodgers and us. We had loads of lodgers!"

Loads? There were seven in the family. Where were the lodgers put?

"They were all over the place!" laughs Jim. "They were in our room," laughs Peter. "There was me, Jim and Johnny in the double bed with the coats on us." The coats?

"Yeah. Coats instead of blankets."

Jim: "Ah, Peter, come on! We had blankets!"

Peter, not having it: "The coats were a huge part of it."

Jim: "They kept you warmer."

Peter: "No, no. They were coats!" Winter coats as bed linen notwithstanding, the three lodgers in the three single beds in the room with Jim et al were Mick Callaghan, Paddy Conaty and Fuck Me Pink.

I ask how the lodger with the particularly colourful name came to be called that. "He used to say 'Fuck me pink!' when he missed the pots on the snooker," laughs Peter. "He became known as Fuck Me Pink. My ma would say: 'Is Fuck Me Pink in for his dinner yet?'"

Jim: "They were amazing characters They loved my mother. She was a country woman who looked after people from the country. It was like there were two worlds. You had the world of the nuclear family and you had the world of the lodgers with a slide-y door and when you opened the slide-y door you went into the world of the lodgers which was gambling, dirty magazines, fellas robbing the pub to gamble with you, you taking the money off them... and then back into the house, which was a totally different place."

Peter: "There was a fella who used to play Walking Back To Happiness by Helen Shapiro with a knife and fork on the side plate. Mam would be in the kitchen going to us: 'If he breaks another plate, I'm putting him out!'"

Peter makes the sound of a plate smashing. "There goes the plate! He must have broken 12 or 14 plates. Paddy Sullivan, a Cavan man, would sing Don't Fence Me In. You wouldn't get two words out of him Monday to Friday, but as soon as he had a few drinks on Friday night..."

Meet the Quare Fellow opens at Viking Theatre on Friday May 6 and runs until May 21. (Nightly @ 8pm)

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