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Sunday 18 March 2018

Feck Fr Jack... it was 'Hall's Pictorial' where Kelly dazzled

Biting satire was in Frank Kelly's blood and it was where the late comic excelled

Doing it for Ballymagash: Frank Kelly in Hall's Pictorial Weekly from 1979
Doing it for Ballymagash: Frank Kelly in Hall's Pictorial Weekly from 1979
Frank Kelly as Fr Jack in Father Ted

Joe O'Shea

The tributes focused - as you might expect - on his most famous role, as the magnificently grotesque Father Jack in 25 episodes of the best Irish sitcom ever made in London.

But Frank Kelly's six-decade long career as a TV, stage and movie actor, satirist, unlikely pop-star, radio prankster and jobbing advertising voice-over man meant he was the consummate all-rounder, an entertainer who would tell fellow actors, with a wink: "I never say no to anything".

As his Fr Ted co-star Ardal O'Hanlon said on hearing of his death: "Frank was an all-round talent, an institution in Irish entertainment, a very determined professional and he'll be greatly missed by all who knew him".

It was an often precarious living, in one-channel Ireland in the 1960s and 1970s, Kelly had to turn his hand to whatever came along, be it pantomime, the kid's TV classic Wanderly Wagon, radio, TV or cabaret and variety shows. Later on, he would do a year on the rural soap Glenroe (and in 2010, five months on the ITV soap Emmerdale).

In the early 80s, he was recruited to teach Irish to the nation on the RTÉ show Anois is Arís (finishing each episode by slowly speaking Irish phrases into a telephone). Around the same time, he starred with ballad-group The Wolfe Tones in a musical based on the life of the 18th century Dublin bard Zozimus on the Dublin stage. Kelly loved traditional Irish music but couldn't help sending it up - his hit record 'Christmas Countdown' (an incredibly unlikely Top 30 hit in the UK and a song he performed on Top of The Pops) had on its b-side, a track by the 'Ayatollah Ceili Band'.

However, it was on the satirical show Hall's Pictorial Weekly that Kelly first became a household name in Ireland, lending his acting and comedic talents to an anarchic, sometimes surreal and surprisingly sharp-edged mix of sketches, satire and send-ups.

And through the 70s, he starred in long-running sketches on the hugely popular Glen Abbey Radio Show - usually as the unhinged culchie Gobnait O'Lúnasa (the sketches usually started with the sound of coins being put into an old telephone box followed by: "Hello! Guess who? Is that you Nuala? Listen…!" )

But for Kelly, political satire was in his blood. It was a family legacy dating back to the founding of the state.

His was very proud of his father, the cartoonist and satirist Charles E Kelly, co-founder of the influential and ground-breaking Dublin Opinion magazine.

First published on the eve of the Civil War, Dublin Opinion ran until 1968 and was often the only voice of political satire in Ireland, in times when poking fun at the church or our politicians was neither popular nor profitable.

At his home in Dublin, Frank had many of the original cartoons, famous ones such as 'The Night The Treaty Was Signed' (depicting a horde of Corkmen sprinting up the road to Dublin to secure civil service jobs).

His father's magazine had, as its motto, 'Humour Is The Safety Valve of the Nation' and Kelly believed passionately in the power of satire to prick the pomposity of politicians and say what often could (or would) not be said on the national airwaves.

When this writer talked to him about the health of Irish satire before the last general election in 2011, Kelly said he was hoping for "young men with a bit of fire" to come along.

"I would love to see a new Hall's Pictorial or a Scrap Saturday come through now, especially with the way things are going," Kelly said.

"There is a vacuum out there, a real dearth of focused, rich satire. You need a gang of young guys in their twenties with a bit of fire and you need a strong satirical hand on the tiller because it's all down to the writing."

Hall's Pictorial Weekly, the show which started out in black and white in September 71 and ran until 1980, defined Irish politics (and political satire) for a generation.

Set in a provincial newspaper office in the fictional town of Ballymagash, it gave us the term "Ballymagash-style politics", another way of damning the parish pump style, as epitomised by one of Kelly's best characters, local councillor Parnell Mooney, forever asking "what's in it for Ballymagash?".

Hall's Pictorial may have had the avuncular Frank Hall setting the tone and some of the sketches - viewed today - have a folksy parish hall or Tops Of The Town feel.

But it was admirably tough on the politicians of the day and pulled no punches when portraying the unpopular Fine Gael-Labour coalition of the mid-70s.

Finance Minister Richie Ryan, who introduced the viciously tough budget of 1976, was portrayed as 'Richie Ruin' while Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave was the 'Minister for Hardship', played by Eamon Morrissey as a dour, Dickensian undertaker, making grim austerity broadcasts to the nation (captioned; "In Black And White For Reasons of Economy").

In popular legend, Hall's Pictorial helped to bring down the FG-Labour coalition in 77. But modern-day satirist and comedic-actor Mario Rosenstock (who worked with Frank Kelly on Glenroe) says this may be over-estimating the power of satire.

"I've heard people say Hall's Pictorial brought down the coalition government - which I would completely disagree with. I just don't think satire or humour has that kind of power. Or that's its job. So many things get lost in history, people think Spitting Image brought down Thatcher, on the contrary, it just helped create this image of her as the tough Iron Lady."

Mario does have very fond memories of Kelly on Hall's Pictorial.

"I remember watching it as a kid in 78, 79, we were in one-channel land and it made a big impression on me, it was just totally different to everything else that was on," says Rosenstock.

"What I really remember is how surreal it was, the silliness and way over the top caricatures they brought into the political stuff was really interesting to me, and definitely an influence.

"But it's the Glen Abbey Radio Show that I really remember, my grandmother had it on all the time and she loved it, we would listen to Gobnait and he was absolutely brilliant.

"When we worked on Glenroe, I remembered him as a little bit of a hero from my youth. But we never talked about Hall's Pictorial. Frank was very much a professional, he was focused on the show he was on at the time."

Hall's Pictorial went off air in 1980. But even today, the generation who watched Irish TV in the 70s (or grew up watching it) can still quote lines and catch-phrases. Just as he did for those who grew up with "DRINK! FECK! ARSE! GIRLS!", in the 90s - Frank Kelly (and his father before him) created the most memorable Irish comedy characters - and satire - for the generations who came before.

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