Patrick Kielty says that there are three ages in a comedian’s life. ‘He starts off as the young Turk who is angry about the state of the world and wants to put it right. Then comes the age of hypocrisy — when he is still quite angry and still quite young, but quietly goes home after the show is over and puts his feet up at his nice pad in Chelsea. Then there is the final age when he is well into middle-age and making jokes about the goo-goo noises his children make. That is when he should, if he has any sense at all, give it all up.’
At 36, the man who hosted the BBC’s Fame Academy and ITV’s Celebrity Love Island admits that he is halfway there. He is talking to me in a fashionable club in Chelsea just around the corner from his home. For all his protestations that it is at the ‘wrong end of the King’s Road’, he has clearly done very well for himself.
There have been rumours of a French girlfriend, but he describes his present status to me as single. That is not, however, the only reason why he may be able to stave off for a while yet the third unhappy age of a comedian’s life. Following in the footsteps of Eddie Izzard, Johnny Vegas and Billy Connolly, Kielty is about to try his hand as an actor. He opens this week at the Trafalgar Studios in Whitehall in a comedy called A Night in November by the Olivier award-winning writer Marie Jones.
He is ambitiously playing not one, but all 12 parts in the play, which recounts the adventures of a man from Belfast who, at the time of the Shankill bombing, leaves his country for the first time to watch Northern Ireland play the Republic at a game of football. The only serious actor that Kielty knows is John Standing, who, when told what Kielty planned to do, exclaimed, ‘Darling boy, are you f—ing mad?’
Kielty is nothing if not stubborn, and, having learnt his lines by playing them over and over again on his iPod, he has been deemed to be up to the job after a trial run in Ireland. ‘There is this mystique about acting that has been created by actors to keep people like me out. Of course I was nervous, but I took a bit of advice my father once gave me and, when I was up on stage, I just leant on the leg that was shaking the most.’
With his boyish good looks, gentle Irish brogue and quick wittedness, Kielty had seemed born for prime-time television. There had been a long relationship with Amanda Byram, the former Big Breakfast presenter, and the two of them had been dubbed ‘the Posh and Becks of Northern Ireland’. For all the smiling pictures in the feelgood magazines, he was conscious of the fact that, even then, he was simply acting a part.
At Queen’s University in Belfast, Kielty studied psychology and supplemented his grant by performing a one-man comedy show. Encouraged by a schoolteacher, he realised, once he had started sounding off in the comedy clubs, that he had found a natural milieu. He could push the boundaries, which is what he believes genuine comedy should be all about.
‘If you have grown up in Northern Ireland, if you have lost a parent in the Troubles, if you have grown up around people who have all lost someone, then there isn’t a topic where there isn’t a laugh to be had, there isn’t a place that you cannot go.’ When he was 16, Kielty’s father, Jack, was shot six times by the loyalist Ulster Freedom Fighters. His three murderers have since been released under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement and one lives in Dundrum, County Down, the village in which Kielty was raised and where his mother, Mary, still lives.
Kielty is adamant that he harbours no sense of bitterness, and that anger has never informed his humour. ‘It’s a nice idea, isn’t it, that when your father is murdered you can just put on a comedy Batman cape and start fighting evil with humour? I don’t believe anger makes for great jokes. Cynicism might, to an extent, but not anger.
‘My father was killed in a blatant sectarian attack based on the fact he was a Catholic and that he ran a business which employed people from both sides of the community. I have –— with my mother and two brothers — dealt with what happened. It’d have been a lot harder if he had been implicated in terrorism in any way, but happily he wasn’t.’
He says that, in terms of making jokes about the Troubles, which he did in the early days of his career, his father had effectively given him ‘a Get Out of Jail Free card’. A number of recent headlines demonstrate, however, that that waiver does not extend to any of the other traditional no-go areas in comedy.
Of the furore that ensued when he employed the word ‘gayer’ as an adjective to describe a contestant on Fame Academy, he is unrepentant. He said he got a letter from an organisation called Gay People for Integration into Mainstream Society. ‘They told me it was actually helpful to their cause when the word gay was used in a harmless context like that. I think you don’t help to integrate any group of people when you ban even gentle references to them.’
As for the McCanns, he insists he never joked about them — as the newspapers claimed — but about the Pope. ‘It was about his double standards in deciding to meet a couple whose child had possibly been taken by a paedophile when he presides over a Church that is full of them. I am a Catholic myself and I think it is acceptable to make jokes about figureheads and big organisations, but not, of course, individuals such as Mr and Mrs McCann.’ The irony that a comedian can make jokes about the Pope but not about the McCanns is lost on Kielty.
Then there is that other word — Islam — which comedians are not supposed to utter. He says he never makes jokes about Muslims, only Muslim terrorists. Al-Qa’eda, he says, holds no terrors for him. ‘Since 9/11 there have been two bombs. One in London and one in Madrid. That’s two bombs in six years. Coming from where I have, I can tell you that’s not a campaign. It’s a hobby. When I grew up, terrorism was a career. It was like being a member of a 1970s rock band. You started when you were 17, went to England to make a name for yourself and then to America to make your money, and then, if the work dried up, there was always politics. These new terrorists are like X Factor winners. They have one big hit and then you never hear from them again.’
Tim Walker is the Sunday Telegraph’s Mandrake editor and theatre critic.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated October 27, 2007