First Published August 2013
MERRY-MAKER, RISK-TAKER, DREAM-CHASER
A fact about Brendan of which many may not be aware, is just how close he was to actually becoming a Guard. Having passed the Kilroy’s College entrance exam for the force, it was another remarkable intervention of fate in his life when a motorcycle accident stopped him from ending up ‘on the beat’ as opposed to rousing audiences to their feet in riotous applause. Had things turned out differently, however, I asked Brendan if he thought he would have enjoyed life as a member of an Garda Siochana?
“I don’t think so, no, to be honest. If I had become a Guard I probably would have retired and eventually got back into this [comedy] somehow. I think you’re meant to be whatever you’re going to be in the end. And I was always meant to be a comedian and that’s it. But I’m doing this 40 odd years now, some of them very odd years! But God knows it’s going well and please God it will continue for a few more years too.”
Although he never donned the uniform himself, the Garda Siochana have a very special place in Brendan’s past. Not only because he came so close to being a member himself, but also because one of the big influences on him in his younger days was a local Guard called Jim Brannigan and the late Jerry McCabe was also someone Brendan counted as a close friend. So I couldn’t help but wonder what were Brendan’s views as an Irishman living abroad, but more importantly just as an Irishman, on the current government’s decisions to close so many stations all across the country?
“I think it’s disgraceful. Absolutely disgraceful, that’s what it is. As well as the inconvenience caused to people and the unemployment side of it as well, I think it’s tragic for the country. The way the country has gone is tragic. And the fact that so many Garda stations have closed, I think is wrong. Police work is something that should be done by police. It needs to be. And administration work is something that should be done by administrators. And that’s the bottom line.”
In most peoples’ minds it’s as a comedian that Brendan is first and foremost known and loved, but of course it was his talent as a singer that first afforded him the opportunity to turn the handle on the door of opportunity when he found himself in front of it. But Brendan once said that he believes most comedians have an urge to ‘do something serious artistically’ as well. I asked him what exactly he meant when he said that.
“Well, when a comedian goes on stage, Anthony, he makes people laugh and people think he’s great fun. And that’s good, because that’s what you want to happen, God knows! But what it also makes him, the comedian, is want something more. It gives him the urge to want to do something a lot more serious than make people laugh. They say that every comedian wants to become Hamlet, ya know. That’s what they say about us. But i don’t know whether that’s true or not. All I know is that I’m happy doing what I do, and that’s making people laugh. But it does come out in some comedians, a need to be serious.”
Is it a case, I wondered, of people being ‘born funny’ as it were? Or can people almost learn to be funny, act it out as an actor would a role, perhaps?
“No, I don’t think so. I think you’ve got to be dedicated and you have to be genuinely funny in order to come across as funny. You could give an actor a brilliant line to go and read and they’ll do it, but when it comes to the part of a funny person, I don’t think it’s as easy as that. Roger Moore said to me once, ah it’s twenty odd years ago I suppose, but after he watched me do my comedy routine, funnily enough on the night of the Sinatra thing it was, but he said that he envied what I did. He said that some of his lines he could have to do one hundred times to get right. But when it comes to being a comedian, there has to be spontaneity to it for it to work.”
Brendan draws from two different wells of talent in that as well as being a proven comedy writer, he is also a songwriter of some note. Obviously there are quite a few who have access to one of those wells, but few enough with the know-how or depth to reach into both and come up with a full pale. Creatively speaking then, does Brendan consider them to be two different abilities? Or has he found a way to link them together that others might have missed?
“There’s only a few alright, that’s true to say, Anthony. And they’re two separate parts of me. Because comedy, for me anyway, well I mean I can take the same script and use it for years and it’s only by doing it each time that I’m honing it in. But you see a lot of comedians feel that they have to be right up to date with what’s going on around them in the world. I don’t. I feel that if I have to be up to date then I mightn’t have a piece for long enough to get it right. Because it takes a while to really get something right. That’s what I find, it takes me a while.”
In the context of the business side of showbiz, Brendan has often displayed a vision well beyond its time. For instance, years ago when the chance came up to buy the rights to the recordings of and backing tracks for his hit song ‘Cushy Butterfield’, he jumped at it. It was a risk, but he calculated that it was a risk worth taking when the notion of owning rights to a song was something often sadly lost on many artists. Likewise when going on tour to Australia with Paddy Reilly, Brendan, rather than pay a fortune to have his merchandise shipped halfway around the world to sell at his gigs, simply found a company ‘down under’ who could manufacture it there for a fraction of the cost. And, horrified that Paddy wasn’t bringing any of his own merchandise with him, Brendan, rather than see a friend lose out on such a great opportunity, simply helped Paddy make the same arrangement with the same company. It all sounds very simple now, common sense almost. But you know what they say about common sense: never that common!
So how did Brendan gain that insight? Was it just gut instinct on his part?
“It was called survival, Anthony. I put all that down to survival. If you have an idea that’s going to work, then why not do it? And that’s exactly what I told Paddy. I said look, Paddy, the mere fact that you haven’t got stuff to sell isn’t the end of the world. Just make stuff to sell. And so that’s exactly what he did. And I believe that you’ve got to look upon your life as a business. You’ve got to take it seriously. And take some risks. You absolutely have to take some risks too.”
What one of Brendan’s great strengths, not only as an entertainer but as a human being, seems to be his awareness of the people around him, especially his audience. Having revealed in the past that he’s always very conscious of what his audience may be going through in their personal lives; be it illness, job stress or money worries, I asked him if he thought enough artists keep that in mind in how they treat their audiences?
“Well I’m very conscious of each member of my audience with regard to the material I’m using. For instance, if there was a drowning tragedy in a town where I’m doing a gig within a week, I would not tell a gag that has anything to do with water or boats. And I try as best I can, whenever possible, to think about things like that in my act, Anthony. That’s very important to me.”
In Brendan’s fascinating autobiography, ‘Amusing Grace’, he speaks about his belief in reincarnation and how he’s convinced he’ll one day return as a robin, such as with been his affinity with these little winged fellows all of his life. I wondered what such a belief meant for Brendan’s sense of faith. Does he believe in a heaven? Are each incarnation linked?
“Well thank you for the compliment on the book. I have to say that a lady called Tara King did a fabulous job on that with me. She deserves a lot of credit. All the stories are true but she’s the lady who really got it all together just right. As for each incarnation, yeah, I think they are all linked together in some way. Now, if somebody came along and asked me if I believed in God, then I’d say yes. Without a shadow of a doubt. And when it comes to believing in my faith, I feel that you’re not going to be judged on the last day or by how many times you said Jesus or anything like that, sins that we were told about as youngsters. No, not at all. You’re going to be judged on your track record in this life. That’s what I believe.”
As our time drew to an end and having flown by all too fast, there was really only one question to finish up with. For a man who has seen so much and shared song, story and laughter with some of the most famous entertainers to have ever graced stages across the world, what advice would Brendan pass on to those who themselves dream of careers in the glow of the spotlight?
“I would say simply this: follow your dreams! Because if you don’t have a dream in your life, then you’ve really got no ambition. So follow your dreams, and follow them all the way. To wherever that might be. And whenever it looks like it’s not going to happen, follow it even more! It doesn’t work out for everyone, there’s no doubt about that. But that possibility can’t stop you. You have to follow your dream and if you do, you’re halfway there, Anthony. You’re halfway there.”