In a way it is fitting that two of the biggest stars that Ireland has produced over the past half-century or so, should pass away within a month of each other. After all, Terry Wogan and Frank Kelly‘s careers mirrored each other, both enjoying modest success domestically in the early stages, only to catapult to stardom when they began working for British broadcasting outlets. In Wogan’s case, he became one of the dominant voices and personalities across both radio and television for the behemoth that is the BBC. Meanwhile, Frank Kelly is forever embedded in our minds for his iconic portrayal of ‘Father Jack Hackett‘ in Father Ted, commissioned by Channel 4. Simply put, both men had a gift when it came to making people laugh and the world will be a slightly drearier place without them.
Interestingly, both men dabbled in careers completely different from what they would ultimately become famous for. Kelly studied law and then set out to be a journalist before eventually finding his way into acting through Dublin’s Eblanna theatre. Wogan had been working in a bank until he spotted a newspaper advertisement for RTÉ encouraging applicants for the roles of newsreader and announcer. Kelly established himself as a jack of all trades, breaking into the fields of film, pantomime and most notably television, which he began doing with RTÉ in the late 1960s. His comedic talents really came to the fore with his expanded role on Hall’s Pictorial Weekly during the 1970s. Meanwhile, Wogan’s cheerful manner and ability to make those around him feel relaxed and at ease led to him being transferred from more hard-hitting documentary content to light entertainment within his first two years with our national broadcaster. When he experienced a major setback with the cancellation of his television quiz show, Jackpot in 1972, he refused to become disheartened and even set his sights on bigger and better things by applying for jobs in the BBC. He managed to get one presenting the Light Show in 1966, and both men were on their way.
For Kelly, his fame found new heights when he took on the role of a lifetime in ‘Father Jack Hackett’ in ‘Father Ted’. Although there have always been rumours that creators Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews originally offered it to RTÉ, both have clarified in recent years that it was in fact, made solely for Channel 4 through the financial backing of Hat Trick Productions. Any Irish person reading this , however, does not need me to tell them that it would go on, go on(not a typo, trying out a ‘Mrs. Doyle‘ reference for the craic) to enjoy massive popularity here as well as in Britain. The previously taboo subject of the Catholic Church was wonderfully lampooned. Aside from all of the laughs, this signified a new era in Ireland where people were not afraid to criticise the previously untouchable religion of the day. I have included one of my own favourite clips from the show below because a) it briefly showcases everything you need to know about Father Jack, b) it’s hilarious no matter how many times I have seen it and c) it’s just about the only clip of him I could find that does not involve swearing (have to keep it clean for the college website). For context for anyone who doesn’t know, this scene takes place after Jack has earlier accidentally wandered into a meeting for recovering alcoholics. One of the men he meets then sees him in a pub and tries to intervene…
Wogan on the other hand, was famous for keeping cool and calm in any situation. This attracted flocks of listeners to his hugely popular morning radio show on BBC 1 where he enjoyed a daily listenership of approximately 8 million people at the peak of his powers. He also became synonymous with the Eurovision with which he famously provided a very witty and often brutally honest commentary on all of the contestants. He did this first in 1973 and then again in 1978, before doing it every year between 1980 and 2008. So where Kelly’s style was to play a bit of a buffoon of a character whose antics we could all laugh at, Wogan preferred the role of put-down artist, known for being able to poke fun at just about anyone or thing. He was always capable of handling the spotlight no matter the context as evidenced by this classic moment at a televised golf tournament where he sank what was at the time, the longest putt ever broadcast live on television.
Both men had an innate talent to make just about anything funny and that is something that can translate across any country or cultural divide. For that, their memories will live long in the hearts and minds of people whether they’re from Ireland, Britain or beyond. Sadly though, as Terry Wogan once said himself, ‘Time flies like an arrow, but fruit flies like a banana’. Even when reflecting on his own mortality, he couldn’t help but make you smile.