The late, great Sir Terry Wogan was once asked by the Queen how long he had worked at the BBC, to which he replied, ‘Your Majesty, I’ve never worked here’.
Matthew Kelly takes a similar view of his career, cheerfully admitting he hasn’t done a proper day’s work in more than four decades as an actor and TV presenter (ask him for evidence, and he’ll show you ‘hands like silk’).
‘To me, work is working in a bakery for 14 hours, or digging roads or going down the mines,’ says the 65-year-old. ‘Playing in a dressing-up box is not the same, really. Particularly if you love what you do.’
At the moment, Kelly **is** working in a bakery, after a fashion, leading an ensemble cast in a touring production of Toast, the debut play by One Man, Two Guvners writer Richard Bean. Based on the 18 months Bean spent in a mass production bread plant in Hull in the 1970s, it portrays a group of workers who dream of being somewhere, anywhere else – until a crisis threatens the factory with closure, and they realise they risk losing a lot more than just their livelihoods.
‘It’s a very funny play, but also very moving’, says Kelly, who has returned to the production, along with most of the original cast, following an acclaimed West End run in 2014. ‘It’s a window into the lives of these men who have very little else: few opportunities, few aspirations. You know that if this bakery falls apart, so will their lives.’
Aspiration was not something lacking in the young David Allan Kelly. Born in Urmston, Lancashire, in 1950, he ‘only ever wanted to do one thing’, and trained as an actor in Manchester before joining Liverpool’s Everyman Theatre during an extraordinarily fertile period when his contemporaries included Julie Walters, Billy Nighy, Pete Postlethwaite and Jonathan Pryce.
With a successful stage career already established, Kelly moved into television in the early 1980s, initially as an actor, before gradually making the shift towards presenting and light entertainment. He became a household name as one of the presenters of ITV’s Saturday night sensation Game For A Laugh, fronted his own sketch comedy series, Kelly’s Eye, and took over from Bruce Forsyth has the host of challenge show You Bet! Then, in 1993, he stepped in to cover a series of karaoke extravaganza Stars in Their Eyes after presenter Leslie Crowther suffered head injuries in a car crash on the M5. He ended up staying for 11 years.
‘I only took over as a caretaker, and I said to Leslie, “Come back any time you like, it’s your show”,’ he recalls. ‘But he told me he wouldn’t be able to handle the live finals. When we started doing those, it just kind of took off.’
Unlike Brucie and co, Kelly didn’t have a background in variety or stand-up comedy. ‘I’ve never been able to be on my own, really,’ he admits. ‘If you notice, all the shows that I did – Game for a Laugh, You Bet!, Stars in Their Eyes, and a few others that sank without trace, they were all shows in which other people were doing all the work and I was getting all the money!’
The most iconic moment of Stars in their Eyes was when the contestants revealed ‘Tonight, Mathew, I’m going to be….’ – shortly before emerging from the dry ice dressed as Chris de Burgh or Freddie Mercury. For years, Kelly would have the catchphrase quoted at him on a daily basis, but it’s less common these days, he says with a chuckle, since ‘people haven’t a clue who I am any more’.
For the past decade or so, Kelly – who is married to Sarah, the mother of his son and daughter, though they have lived apart for many years – has concentrated largely on theatre work. He never gave up the stage, even at the height of his Saturday night, shiny floor show popularity, when the head of LWT comedy memorably described him ‘coach party trade’. But compared to TV audiences of up to 20 million people, he likens theatre to ‘practising my art in the dark’.
In the early 80s, his sitcom co-star Peter Davison warned him that moving into light entertainment would kill his career as an actor, and Kelly admits the transfer back to being ‘a respectable actor’ can be ‘tricky’. But he’s managed it with aplomb, winning rave reviews from the critics (The Telegraph’s Charles Spencer called his performance in Toast ‘mesmerising’) threatening to steal the show from Sir Ian McKellen in Waiting for Godot and winning an Olivier Award for his role as Lennie in Of Mice and Men. On TV, meanwhile, he’s played everything from Mr Turveydrop in Bleak House to a serial killer in the ITV drama, Cold Blood. So is there **any** part of him that misses the Saturday night razzmatazz?
‘Not one bit!’ he booms. ‘Absolutely not. No, there’s far too much laughing and clapping for my liking. I couldn’t go back to that, it’s a young man’s game. Leave it to Ant and Dec. I wouldn’t, I couldn’t. And no-one’s asked me!
‘I enjoyed the limelight,’ he adds. ‘It was brilliant. You get loads of money and people are nice to you. But given the choice between being famous and anonymous, I’d probably choose the latter.’
The dark side of celebrity intruded on Kelly in the cruellest manner when, in 2003, he was arrested as part of a police investigation into child sex abuse. He was subsequently cleared of all charges (though he did receive a caution after cocaine was found in his home) – but not until officers had made a very public show of arresting him following a performance of Peter Pan in Birmingham. He received vocal support from friends and colleagues including Julie Walters, Robert Lindsay and the late Alan Rickman, was welcomed back to Stars in their Eyes as soon as his name had been cleared and, on his return to the stage a few weeks later, was greeted with a standing ovation. Clearly, he’s well loved by colleagues and audiences alike.
Weekend asks if he’s comfortable talking about the incident? ‘No,’ he says politely, almost apologetically. ‘Thank you.’
Back to happier times, then: Kelly says he’s looking forward to getting out on tour with Toast which, following its lap around the UK, will transfer for a limited run in New York. Has he worked there much before?
‘Yeah, I’m very big in the Big Apple,’ he deadpans. ‘Behave yourself. I’ve toured Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, but never America. It’s part of the Brits Off Broadway festival,’ he adds. ‘It will probably be so far off Broadway it’s in ***ing Canada!’
Still beats working for a living, though.
Published in Waitrose Weekend, February 25, 2016
(c) Waitrose Weekend