Patrick Kielty: Seriously funny

With his own Friday-night chat show and a second series of Fame Academy under way, Patrick Kielty is a big deal on the small screen. But he hasn't forgotten his stand-up career - or the reasons why he wants us all to laugh By Ian Burrell
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The Independent Online

"There are quite a few clichés that people start to wheel out when you are talking about comedy performers," says Patrick Kielty. "The first one is that you were weedy or unpopular at school and had this comic defence mechanism. The other is that you were a needy person and had to be the focus of attention the whole time. I was neither of those things."

It's a surprising declaration, given the perennially cheery public demeanour of the stand-up comedian from Northern Ireland who has become the golden boy of BBC television. But then, it is difficult to reconcile Kielty's on-screen persona on his Almost Live chat show, and as the co-host of Fame Academy, with the defining, shattering event of his childhood in Ulster, when his father was murdered by loyalist paramilitary gunmen.

The suggestion that Kielty's vocation was shaped by a need to laugh through his pain is both simplistic and misleading. Nor can we attribute his life as a funnyman to that other launch pad for comedians, the need to keep the playground bullies at bay by making them laugh. Kielty is just not like that. Listen to him talk about his upbringing and you hear a story of a "rounded adolescence" that calls to mind David Watts, the mythical schoolboy antihero of Paul Weller, about whom The Jam's vocalist sang: "I wish I could have all he has got."

Like Watts, Kielty was the head boy at his school (a grammar school run by Catholic priests) and a star on the sports field. He has played in goal for Ireland schoolboys at Gaelic football in front of 70,000 people.

Kielty, 32, says he was "never the school joker" and his stage career only began when his sports teacher, Pat O'Hare, who unusually had a parallel interest in drama, heard of his ability to mimic the staff and pressured him into appearing in the school's Christmas show. "If that had gone badly I don't think you would have seen me on a stage again."

He grew up with his two brothers in the tiny coastal community of Dundrum, in rural County Down. The Kieltys were "a very stable family, quite middle class, and we had a Volvo," he says. "I wouldn't have described it as an idyllic childhood at the time. But looking back on it, we grew up in a country village and were always outside running around."

His father Jack was not only the boss of a successful building firm, but also the chairman of the Gaelic Athletic Association and a former music promoter who had brought the likes of Tom Jones and Roy Orbison to Belfast in the Sixties.

Then, when Patrick was 16, Jack Kielty was attacked by the Ulster Freedom Fighters and shot six times in the neck and head. The terrorists said he had been an officer in the IRA, a claim that was dismissed as nonsense by both Sinn Fein and the Royal Ulster Constabulary. At the funeral, Patrick carried the coffin with his brothers. The trauma of the murder would have been enough to stop the lives of most teenagers in their tracks. But Kielty, distraught as he was, continued to achieve, winning a place at Queen's University Belfast, where he studied psychology but was more interested in becoming a lawyer.

And his motive for entering a university talent competition and updating his school show act with topical gags about the Troubles (he won a keg of beer) was apparently nothing more than wanting to impress the female students.

"A lot of articles go for the easy thing. Because my dad was murdered when I was 16, the political thing came in after that. I find that quite lazy journalism," he says. "It was almost as if I'd decided to turn myself into some sort of comedy Batman - because something terrible had happened in my past, I had to put on the political comedy cape and take on these issues."

The real reason for the political slant grafted on to his schoolboy mimicry, he says, was simply his new highbrow environment. "If you are going to get on stage in front of your peers, you have to have something to say or you'll be laughed off."

His success in the talent show helped to inspire him to set up Belfast's first comedy club, The Empire Bar, after his graduation in 1991. "They queued round the corner," says Kielty, who became the club compère. "The news was politics, and that was what started to drive the writing. And, because of what happened to my dad, I had the ultimate 'out' clause. No one was ever going to tell me, 'You can't say that!'"

It's not that Kielty was unaffected by his father's death. He still feels a profound sense of loss and rejects the notion that time is a healer. But rather than undermining the "rounded adolescence" by instilling a craving for vengeance or a sense of self-pity, the tragedy has made Kielty even more grounded by turning him into a fatalist and allowing him to put his show-business career into perspective.

That career took off when the success of The Empire Bar helped to land him a television slot called PK Tonight, which became BBC Northern Ireland's most successful show ever and was required viewing every Friday night. His most famous gags were to impersonate Martin McGuinness as Art Garfunkel singing "Bridge Over Troubled Water" and a Christmas special in which he mimicked Reverend Ian Paisley (a bright light from the east turned out to be an Army spotlight on the Ulster Defence Association headquarters). Even hardliners loved the show. "You couldn't not laugh," said one Republican at the time. "In the end, it was a badge of pride if you made it on to PK Tonight."

The show helped Kielty to get into network television and, in 1998, he was picked to host the National Lottery Big Ticket with Anthea Turner. He has said that the show "didn't do me any favours", but it hasn't led to his job offers drying up. Fame Academy was possibly Kielty's biggest success to date. The first airing of the show last year began sluggishly and it was branded "Lame Academy" before recovering to justify a celebrity spin-off and now a second series, which started on BBC1 on Saturday night.

Speaking in the Victorian pile in north London that is the Fame Academy house, Kielty acknowledges the show's capacity for changing the lives of the contestants, but sees no particular star quality in his own role. "It's TV. It's just TV. That is one of the things that a lot of performers need to get real about. They ain't going to be one of the five remembered people born in the 20th century. Don't get me wrong, I have pride in my work. But let's not kid ourselves here."

Kielty highlights his work at the broadcasting of last month's Special Olympics in Dublin (attended by Nelson Mandela, Muhammad Ali and the band U2) as something of which he is especially proud. He continues to be heavily involved in Comic Relief, a cause he was promoting at his school on the day that he heard his father had been killed. But the comedian admits he has been "crowbarred" into a number of jobs that do not suit his talents, most notably the lottery show.

Among Kielty's many BBC projects is Stupid Punts, shown primarily on the digital channel BBC3 and once described by its host as "just a silly betting show". The programme has its critics, including one from Ulster who reminded viewers that Kielty "used to be very, very funny" but moaned that the boy from Dundrum had now become "so middle-of-the-road he could be a white line".

You get the impression that Kielty's extended honeymoon with the media - which drooled over his recently-ended showbiz relationship with the breakfast-television presenter Amanda Byram - might be coming to an end. "Not funny, can't interview," was the succinct verdict of Garry Bushell in The Sun on Kielty's chat show, which is in its sixth series and has a BBC1 slot on Friday nights. Filmed by his own production company, Green Inc, in Belfast to create a special atmosphere, Patrick Kielty Almost Live has attracted A-list guests such as Naomi Campbell (who asked for RUC protection but was refused) and Sir Alex Ferguson.

Some recent shows haven't always been so star-studded and entertaining. An appearance this month by Nick Hancock, who is no more than a fellow BBC host, was introduced rather desperately by Kielty as a "chat-show first". The They Think It's All Over presenter, who came on to plug the BBC's Comic Relief show, sat on the couch next to two other guests also from television, Fay Ripley of Cold Feet and Charlie Brooks of the BBC's EastEnders. Kielty peppered the show with current affairs-based gags that might have featured on a more anodyne version of Have I Got News for You - sort of Angus Deayton lite.

He did, however, risk taking a pop at George Best's drinking problem, saying that the Manchester United legend (and as such a hero of Kielty's) only went to the pub to keep out of the sun. A previous joke at Best's expense led to a death threat being made to Kielty from a Belfast phone box which has a history of such calls.

Paddy Kielty - his close friends back home call him that - is a very nice guy. He does not jape around in interviews, neither does he hit you with a stream of hilarious one-liners. Rather he is intelligent, self-deprecating and good company. Asked if he would like to do something more challenging than hosting talent contests and gambling shows, he counters with the comment that reality television is "the only ticket in town at the minute", and that "once you have a show with your name in the title, you should be happy with that".

Even so, as a realist and a fatalist he realises that his present BBC profile will not last for ever, and that some day he will go the way of such former small-screen stars as Mike Smith and Noel Edmonds. "Over the past few years, television has been very good to me. But you do have a window and a shelf life," he says. "Although I lead my day-to-day life in a reasonably optimistic way, I do carry with me a mixture of fatalism and realism - things can and do go pear-shaped."

Perhaps conscious that he needs to retain an edge, Kielty is planning to go on the road next year with his first UK comedy tour. It will be his first sustained period of stand-up work for three years.

"It's important, if you come from a comedy background, not to completely forget it," he says. "I wouldn't say that it's some sort of evangelical thing I have to do to get self-fulfilment, but I just think that if you're a comedian it's best to try to be funny at some stage."

Patrick Kielty hosts the second series of 'Fame Academy', scheduled to run for 12 weeks on BBC1 and BBC3. 'Patrick Kielty Almost Live' is on BBC1 on Fridays at 10.35pm