Monday 16 December 2019

60 years making Ireland laugh and incurring the wrath of the establishment

Frank Kelly playing His Lordship The Bishop in John B Keane’s ‘Moll’ in 2014. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Frank Kelly playing His Lordship The Bishop in John B Keane’s ‘Moll’ in 2014. Photo: Steve Humphreys

John Boland

Long before he became famous throughout the world as foul-mouthed Jack Hackett in 'Father Ted', Frank Kelly had been making Irish people laugh, especially in RTÉ's long-running political satire, 'Hall's Pictorial Weekly'.

In that weekly series, which ran from 1971 until 1980, he played a myriad of roles, from culchie councillor Parnell Mooney to pipe-smoking Taoiseach Jack Lynch - though it should be noted that his glee in lampooning establishment figures wasn't licked off a stone.

The comedian's father was Charles E Kelly, whose prestigious day jobs included director of Radio Éireann broadcasting and of the Post Office Savings Bank, but whose real passion was for the satirical magazine, 'Dublin Opinion', which he co-founded in 1922 and edited until its demise in 1968.

In its heyday, 'Dublin Opinion' sold up to 60,000 copies per issue, and, under the initials CEK, Charles Kelly was also one of the magazine's most distinctive cartoonists.

He loved taking potshots at Eamon de Valera and other political luminaries, much as his son later did in his 'Hall's Pictorial' roles - indeed, both of them occasionally incurred the wrath of the country's governing masters.

Indeed, while both the father's magazine and the son's television impersonations may seem somewhat quaint and toothless by today's standards, in their day they had a real edge - the Frank Hall show (which was mainly scripted by Hall himself) even being blamed for bringing down the 1973-77 coalition that was presided over by "Minister for Hardship" Liam Cosgrave and finance minister "Richie Ruin".

"I have a great fondness for it," Frank Kelly said recently of 'Hall's Pictorial Weekly'.

"It was an extraordinarily strong piece of satire. It was taken off by RTÉ and we don't know why."

Although at the time of its axing, political pressure from Charles J Haughey's unsmiling administration was suggested as the likely reason.

And in a 60-year career, Frank Kelly otherwise played mostly non-political roles, though he was arrestingly good as British Labour leader John Smith in Peter Morgan's outstanding 2003 television drama 'The Deal', which dealt with the doomed pact that had been agreed between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown as they ascended to power.

Kelly's earlier RTÉ career had entailed a long-running stint on the 'Wanderly Wagon' children's show, in which he played various characters and for which he wrote many of the scripts.

He is also remembered for his role as resident culchie Gobnait O'Lunasa on the 'Glen Abbey' radio show - many older listeners will recall the surreal telephone calls which began "Hello! Guess who? Is that you, Nuala?"

But he was first seen on screen in the 1969 cult movie caper 'The Italian Job', his unlisted appearance occurring in the opening scene as he escorts the felonious Charlie Croker, played by Michael Caine, out of prison.

He was in other films, too, including the tear-jerking 'Evelyn' (2002), in which he played the father of Pierce Brosnan's character. And he also latterly featured in ITV soap 'Emmerdale', though he left it after five months as it was keeping him away from home and family for too long.

Anyway, he was always busily employed in Ireland, whether in comic roles or doing voice-overs.

And he even got into the Irish and UK pop charts with his 1983 rendition of 'A Christmas Countdown', which was a very funny skit on 'The Twelve Days of Christmas' with lyrics by Hugh Leonard.

But, of course, it's for his role in 'Father Ted' that he'll always be recalled.

The sitcom itself only ran from 1995 to 1998 but it is endlessly repeated on various comedy channels and is everywhere on YouTube, which means that devotees throughout the world are constantly chanting Father Jack's imperishable refrain of "Feck! Arse! Drink! Girls!"

Irish Independent

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