Obituary: Frank Hall
Friday 22 September 1995
His fans claim that Frank Hall had the distinction of single-handedly capsizing the stern-faced Irish government of Liam Cosgrave in 1977.
As creator of the weekly television comedy Hall's Pictorial Weekly, shown on RTE from 1969 to 1981, Hall gave Irish viewers their first taste of home-grown satire in a country just emerging from the stolid virtues of Eamon de Valera's isolationism. Hall's forte was a gently surreal depiction of the nation's leaders that explored and inflated popular suspicions. The Taoiseach Cosgrave, for example, was shown being taken into night- clubs and instructed in how to enjoy himself.
With his weekly lecture from "the Minister for Hardship", Hall neatly caught the national mood that Cosgrave and Co belonged somewhere in a Dickens novel. Styling the former prime minister Jack Lynch "the real Taoiseach", he nurtured (and perhaps helped realise) the impression that Cosgrave would only be a temporary incumbent.
Earnest ministers who had never had to face such lampoonery little realised the political damage it did. "There was an elegant line of satire running through the programme," Hall's close collaborator the comic actor Eamonn Morrissey commented admiringly. That said, Fianna Fail's 1977 runaway electoral success was also fuelled by its extravagant promise to end domestic rates.
Hall's social mirror could also hold a rowdy and boisterous image. Drawing heavily on a cast of fearsome ogres encountered during his childhood in Newry, Co Down, Hall included a comic but all-too-recognisable weekly vignette of every seething backwoods prejudice in his mythical "Ballymagash".
Ballymagash characters included Fr Romulus Todd, the parish priest, whose intemperate outbursts were inspired by a Tyrone cleric whose sermon, 60 years before Eamon Casey, once referred to Queen Elizabeth I: "She used to be called the Virgin Queen, but she was no more a virgin than I am." Hall carried the character into real life, sporting an enormous clerical hat in wet weather.
Another favourite was Councillor Parnell Mooney, whose only mode of speech was shouting. The archetypal local politician, he denounced Dublin and television itself as conspiracies to undermine good Catholic morals, echoing a real-life opinion famously caught in a remark, "There was no sex in Ireland until RTE", made by the Papal knight and Fine Gael politician Oliver J. Flanagan. Mooney was based on a Newry man whose foul-mouthed council speeches prompted reporters into prudent evasion: "At this stage Cllr X's remarks were inaudible at the press table . . ."
Brought up with a financially insecure background, his unreliable father absent and wandering the world, Hall left school before he was 13 and was driven by the need to work and earn a crust. "Steady employment is a wonderful thing," he would say. He wrote all the scripts for his Pictorial Weekly. Most were penned at night, which perhaps encouraged his more fanciful dream-sequence send-ups of the powerful.
At first, after small earnings as a double-bass player in a dance band, he attempted an ill-fated retail venture (selling army-surplus after the Second World War miscalculated public demand). He ended up in newspapers, as an art editor then columnist on the Dublin Evening Herald. This led to RTE, when Irish television arrived at the end of 1961.
Hall had moved to comedy from television news reporting. Some of his news reports verged on parody. In a celebrated interview with a steeplejack, the vertigo-gripped reporter's clothing was seen flapping in gale-force winds. It was filmed just four feet off the ground.
With satire's days looking numbered, Hall in 1978 turned gamekeeper and found alternative employment as Ireland's film censor, a return to the cinema he had inhabited more or less continuously as a child in Newry. He denied he was doomed to spend all day viewing "dirty films". The hardest part, he said was watching endless streams of dodgy sequels.
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