Friday 22 November 2019

Difference between character and being 'a character'

We tend to revere the 'gas character' regardless of whether he is any good at what he does, writes Declan Lynch

HE WAS a "character", was Jimmy Savile. In fact he was such a "character", he set the bar at a new height for "characters" everywhere. He was the "character" that all the other "characters" called The Guvnor.

And usually, when people are talking about "characters", they are talking fondly about them, as if it is self-evidently a good thing to be a gas ticket, a larger than-life figure, a colourful type, always the first to start banging the drum and leading the conga.

But of course, it is not self-evidently a good thing to be a "character". Some of us believe that it may even be a bad thing. Which is not the most popular point of view -- though it means that when, say, Jimmy Savile, "character" supreme, is found to have had a dark side, it is not exactly Breaking News.

While others would see only this madcap disc jockey presenting Top of the Pops, and would warm to him automatically, some of us would hear him slipping in a line about Scott Walker being the only artist on the show tonight who can actually sing, and we would know that Savile probably hated most of this pop music. That he was in it for other things. That he was a deeply cynical man.

Still it is rare to encounter much opposition to the "character", in any walk of life, though there are some notable voices of dissent. I have recently had the honour of working with John Giles on his forthcoming book The Great and the Good, and as he recalls the great players and the great teams and the great managers -- and the good ones -- there is this recurring theme. They all tend to be different, their genius unique. But if there is a common thread, it is that they tend not to be "characters".

Giles himself was never a "character", which, at certain stages of his career as a player and a manager, was a particular drawback in this country. We tend to revere the "character", in particular the "gas character", regardless of whether he is much good at what he does. We can take anything as long as there's a bit of gas in it.

Not that the great players, or great people of any kind, are lacking in character, the sort that comes without the inverted commas -- in fact they are usually people of the most outstanding character, which is quite a different thing. They mightn't be the first to put their hands up when the time comes to put a bucket of water on top of the door as a practical joke, but if you're actually depending on them to do something that matters, when it matters, they will be there. And the "characters" will be somewhere else.

On this question of character, and its true meaning, there was another important contribution recently from Eoghan Harris. In the course of a movie masterclass on the Moncrieff Show on Newstalk, he addressed one of the problems with the film The Guard -- he explained that the main character, essentially, is a "character". And he recalled his time in RTE, when he would often be told of some great "character" that someone had run into down the country, maybe in Clare, such a "character" there should be a whole programme made about him, that could somehow encapsulate what a gas man he was. And then, as Harris recalled, you'd go down to meet this great "character" and find him something of a disappointment -- if not a complete bore.

Maybe when that initial assessment was made, everyone was just drunk.

Again we see that people of abundant "character" tend to be somewhat lacking in character in the true sense, and as such, not very interesting. So the guard in the movie may be a gas man in various ways, but as it always tends to do, that gas starts to run out after about 20 minutes.

I should note that it lasted a lot longer for most of the Irish audience than it did for Eoghan Harris or for me, proving again this nation's hopeless devotion to the "character". And of course to his close personal friend and sometime alter ego, the eejit.

And there is no doubt that the "character" can be a powerful and a mesmerising figure. Fr Michael Cleary was a "character", not unlike Jimmy Savile in that a fuller version of his life story emerged after he died -- "when he was no longer around to defend himself", as his supporters claimed. As if he would have relished that opportunity.

Cleary's secret life, unlike that of Savile, may not have been illegal, but it was twisted in its own way. And there were also the distractions of his work for charidee. But the most striking similarity was that so many people knew something about it at the time.

That's the way with these big "characters" who hide in plain sight -- everybody knows it's not quite right, but nobody thinks it is up to them to do anything about it. They think that the matter is somehow "in hand", and that it will emerge eventually. But when you have a neck like Jimmy Savile, or Michael Cleary, you might just get away with it.

In fact, they did.

They'll be up there now in heaven having the crack about it. Gas, gas men.

Sunday Independent

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