3 November 2010 The Guardian
EVERYONE loved the mop of black hair, the half-length trousers, the bright Dr Martens and the cry of "Hiya pals", but you could spend hours figuring out exactly what made Gerard Kelly such a physically funny pantomime star. It was something to do with the knobbly knees, the way one leg would drag coyly behind the other, and the impression of Kelly having feet that headed in opposite directions. The actor Karen Dunbar, who appeared alongside him in three Christmas shows at the King's theatre in Glasgow, has her own theory. "I think it came from his hips," she said. "He used his whole body."
Whatever his secret, Kelly – who has died aged 51 after a brain aneurysm – was a consummate performer who reigned supreme at the King's theatres in Glasgow and Edinburgh for 20 years. To do this for a dozen performances a week required formidable energy. A fortnight into Sleeping Beauty, at the King's, Glasgow, in 2007, he began suffering from sciatica and amazed his colleagues by carrying on regardless of the pain.
Typically, Kelly played the Buttons-type character, a lovable clown who never got the girl but endeared himself to the audience with his rascally grin, gift for comedy and unerring democratic instinct. His generosity of spirit was addictive. Kelly could keep everyone, from children to pensioners, on side. "He knew exactly how to play the audience," said the director Tony Cownie, who staged several of the pantos. "You couldn't direct him. The minute Gerard walked on to the floor, I just sat back. You can't tamper with genius."
A private man who kept a low media profile, Kelly was a team player and commanded tremendous affection. Born Paul Kelly (he changed his name when he got his Equity card), he was brought up in a family of five children in working-class Cranhill, in the east end of Glasgow. His father, Charlie, ran a chip shop, and his mother, Rose, was a hotel waitress. A teacher at St Gregory's secondary school in Glasgow encouraged him to act. From the age of 12, he landed parts with the help of the agent Winifred "Freddie" Young. He appeared in adverts and the TV adventure The Camerons (1974), for the Children's Film Foundation.
Kelly built an accomplished television career, with early work including a part as a teenager with learning difficulties in Donal and Sally, written by James Duthie, which was broadcast in the Play for Today strand on BBC1 in 1978. That year he auditioned for The Slab Boys, John Byrne's celebrated carpet-factory comedy, at the Traverse theatre in Edinburgh, but was considered too young for the part. He was, however, cast as the designer Spanky Farrell in the Play for Today adaptation of The Slab Boys in 1979. He returned to the role at the Traverse in 1982 in all three instalments of what had become a trilogy (with Cuttin' a Rug and Still Life). That production transferred to the Royal Court in London and was a major success.
In Scotland, Kelly is fondly remembered for his leading role as Willie Melvin, a bank-teller with literary pretensions and dodgy friends, in the 80s sitcom City Lights, set in Glasgow. He made many guest appearances in programmes such as Rab C Nesbitt, Victoria Wood: As Seen On TV, The Comic Strip Presents and Juliet Bravo, and was a regular on the sketch show Scotch and Wry, starring Rikki Fulton. In 2006, Kelly teamed up with Tony Roper in Rikki and Me, a stage tribute to Fulton. After bad-boy parts in EastEnders, as the violent Jimmy in 1994, and in Brookside, as gangster Callum Finnegan from 1997 to 2000, Kelly turned in a viciously funny performance as Ian "Bunny" Bunton, a camp panto director, in Ricky Gervais's Extras (2005). His other stage appearances included Neil Simon's The Odd Couple in 1994 (revived in 2002) for the touring Borderline theatre and Iain Heggie's A Wholly Healthy GlasgowA Wholly Healthy Glasgow in a production that opened at the Royal Exchange in Manchester in 1987 before transferring to the Edinburgh festival and the Royal Court.
Intelligent and politically engaged, Kelly ran the radical 7:84 theatre company in Scotland with David Hayman for three years in the late 80s. He directed Hector McMillan's sectarian drama The Sash (1989); Raymond Briggs's When the Wind Blows (1989), about a nuclear attack; and an anti-poll tax farce, Revolting Peasants (1991), for the company, whose name derives from a statistic that 7% of the population of the UK owns 84% of the wealth. He also appeared in Labour party election broadcasts.
He had been due to revive his role as the narrator in The Rocky Horror Show at the King's in Glasgow. The part will now be taken by his friend and City Lights co-star Andy Gray. "He knew what worked," said Gray of Kelly's pantomime work. "I don't think 'Hiya pals' will ever be said again. He did it year in, year out, but 'Hiya pals' worked every time because he did it with such gusto and conviction." He is survived by his sister, Liz, and his brothers Stephen and Neil. Another brother, Charles, predeceased him.
Gerard (Paul) Kelly, actor, born 27 May 1959; died 28 October 2010
© Mark Fisher 2010
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