Saturday 21 July 2018

Francis finally gets his kicks on Route 66

Popular TV personality Francis Brennan returns from his travels with a tan and a spring in his step, writes Sarah Caden

Adventure: Francis Brennan toured Route 66. Picture by Don MacMonagle
Adventure: Francis Brennan toured Route 66. Picture by Don MacMonagle

Sarah Caden

Francis Brennan has a lovely tan. It's not that he's been baking himself in the Mediterranean heat of Ireland this week, but this is a tan acquired on his travels this year, which, by anyone's estimation have been extensive.

He's barely back in the country from a three-week tour of America's Route 66, and before that he was in South Africa with the fourth series of his Grand Tour for RTE. He looks well on it, I comment. He feels well, he says.

"I love it and it's not just the being busy," Francis says. "I love the buzz. I've always loved the buzz. I'm never going to get old, you know?"

If anything, Francis Brennan is an ad for the rejuvenating powers of a second, let's say late-summer chapter in a person's life.

Having been a grocer with his father in Dublin for the first decades of his life, he then gave 30 years to the hotel business, significantly as owner of the Park Hotel Kenmare, before finding himself on television 10 years ago, with his brother John, on At Your Service.

And the TV career has gone from strength to strength, a turn of events that still tickles Francis.

We meet in the South Great George's Street headquarters of Dunnes Stores, where he's showcasing his autumn/winter Francis Brennan collection for the store. Incongruously, the sun beats down outside and Francis is resplendently sun-tanned as we admire Christmas cards, remote-controlled illuminated baubles and soft cashmere throws.

Francis is characteristically Francis as he talks me through the collection for the colder seasons. "We'll get to that in a minute," he corrects me if my eyes dare stray ahead of his walk-through, in the manner that is now familiar to most of the country from his TV shows.

Bossy, but not in a way that would get your back up.

The last time I met Francis Brennan he had just appeared on The Ray D'Arcy Show, having been voted by viewers the person they'd most like to meet. He takes it all in his stride, is tickled by it, even, but almost no one recognised him on his most recent travels.

There were a few Irish youngsters - "I can spot the Irish abroad a million miles off," he says, "all mixed-up colours on them; what are we like?" - who wanted selfies, but not too many.

"Sure no one would have recognised me half the time," Francis says of his road trip, which took most of June. "At home, I'm always the same. I'm always smart. I shave every day. I always wear a tie. But when I was in the RV last week obviously I wasn't."

You mean a camper van? Francis Brennan?

He laughs at my shock that he'd be around America in an RV.

"And I was in shorts and T-shirts the whole time!" he exclaims, in the manner of someone telling you they had taken to nudism on their holidays.

Was it liberating, I ask?

"I didn't find the van a trouble," Francis answers, "it was so out of my comfort zone, but I loved that."

Last November, Francis signed a contract with Gill for his next book, which will be called "something like" 'A Gentleman Abroad'. It will be tales of his travels over the years, infused with his professional insight and personal perfectionism.

He was already writing it last Christmas, when his nieces and nephews presented him with a mysterious box by way of a gift.

"On the 24th of December I opened one box," he explains, "and in the box was a fly swat and ant spray, an overnight bag, a stress ball, 2kg of porridge and some small pots and pans.

"So there was this box, then a card, then another box. The card was from all my nieces and nephews and the second box was a voucher for an RV trip from Chicago to Santa Monica, along Route 66, starting on the 1st of June, everything organised, and Frankie Dowling, my old school friend, was available to go with me."

In recalling this, if I'm not mistaken, Francis's voice cracks more than once. As everyone who has watched him on TV knows, the commands may be clipped, but fundamentally Francis Brennan is the epitome of kindness. And the Route 66 trip was a reward for that kindness, you could say.

"All my nieces and nephews, when they're 21 they get a round the world trip from me," Francis says. "There are 11 of them. I've done it with all of them; only two to go. I want them to see the world and they'd never give themselves the opportunity."

He rattles off the travel itinerary of Rachel, the niece who is heading off on her Francis trip this year.

Does he interfere in their itineraries, I ask.

"No, I leave them off, although I did get her a week in a lovely place in Cancun," he says with a laugh.

Francis loved the surprise trip being sprung on him.

It didn't cause him a minute's stress over schedules or other commitments, because his brother John was in on the surprise and had managed the diary and made sure it fit.

"Route 66 is something I have always wanted to do," he says, "but I wouldn't have booked it for myself in a fit. I've never even taken three weeks off before.

"But I was blown away by them getting me that. I was like a two-year-old. And it was incredible. We camped for the 21 nights. We didn't stay in a hotel a single night. And I'd do it all again. That's all I can say."

Needless to mention, that trip will make up a section all unto itself in his next book.

After we met last week, Francis was off to Carrick-on-Shannon, where he was filming At Your Service with John. It's non-stop and that's how he likes it. John is more hands-on than him at The Park now, but Kerry is still home.

I mention to Francis that he looks younger now than he did 10 years ago, when his second career began, and it's not just the tan.

"I feel younger and I believe that's because life is exciting," Francis says. "I've lost a bit of weight, too," he adds. "I was diagnosed with diabetes two years ago and I totally changed my eating habits. I never had a sweet tooth, but I eat about half what I ate before and I feel great for it. I love it."

The exercise he can't get into though. For a long time, there was never the time and now, perhaps, there isn't the inclination.

"Just to go on a walk for the sake of it? No," Francis says. You'd go on a walk if there was a job that needed doing properly at the end of it, I suggest.

"That's probably true," says Francis with a smile. The smile of a man who's happy with where he's at and has no intention of changing a thing.

Sunday Independent

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