Big interview: Matthew Kelly on swapping TV for the stage

Matthew Kelly plays W H Auden in Habit of Art, at the Theatre Royal, York, later this month.
Matthew Kelly plays W H Auden in Habit of Art, at the Theatre Royal, York, later this month.
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Matthew Kelly was a prime time TV star who left that behind to work in the theatre and, as he tells Phil Penfold, he’s loving it.

Here’s a bit of good advice from Matthew Kelly. Always listen to what your doctor tells you. He points ruefully at a stout cane that he’s using at the moment. “That’s what happens when you don’t heed what they say”, he says, and for a moment the normally twinkling Kelly looks rather glum.

Then he explains that he had a hip operation a month ago. “Everything went well so after four weeks I went and did the stupidest thing ever and toddled off to my gym, did a lot of exercises and a workout and overdid the whole thing and now I’m back to square one. I should have heard what the doc told me and taken it easy. But that’s me – I’m always right. Until (as is usually the case) I am proved spectacularly wrong”.

Kelly has just celebrated his 68th birthday and stars in a UK-wide tour of Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art which opens at the Theatre Royal in York later this month. “I will definitely be fighting fit, and this stick will be a thing of the past, by the time that we get to York. I’m absolutely determined about that,” he says.

He plays poet WH Auden opposite David Yelland’s Benjamin Britten, and Bennett imagines a rather spikey meeting of the two men in the writer’s rooms in Oxford, the first time that they have encountered each other since the messy and acrimonious failure of their only joint project, the opera Paul Bunyan. The play – a huge hit at the National a few years ago – is being directed by Philip Franks, once one of the cast of Heartbeat, and sees Kelly back on stage.

Theatre, rather than TV, is his focus these days, though this wasn’t always the case. For over 15 years, Kelly was one of the stalwarts of peak-time television, as host of shows like Game for a Laugh, You Bet! and Stars in their Eyes. “We were pulling in over 20 million viewers every week”, he says. “That’s a lot of people. You’d have to be in a live theatre show playing constantly for half a century to even maybe be seen by a few hundred thousand. Why did I pack it in? I’d just had enough. I get bored pretty easily, I think, and I just wasn’t getting the right ‘buzz’ any more. They asked me if I’d go on for another series, and I said yes, but I immediately regretted my decision,” he sighs at the memory.

“So when that finished I thought to myself ‘enough is enough, I owe it to myself to do something else’, and off I went. Any regrets? Not one.” But, given his enormous popularity, does he still get recognised as he travels around? He roars with laughter at the suggestion. “Hardly ever. Someone might occasionally come up and say to me ‘Tonight, Matthew, I’m going to be….’, which is the old line from Stars in their Eyes, but it gets more and more rare with the passage of time. Listen, anyone under the age of 20 hasn’t got a clue about who I am… I’m just another old geezer with white hair. And at the moment I’m an old geezer with a new hip and a stick to lean on.”

In the past two decades, Matthew (who is never without a roguish sparkle in his eyes) has devoted himself almost entirely to working on stage, with the occasional TV appearance in selected drama productions such as Bleak House and Cold Blood, where he played completely against ‘type’ and was a chilling serial killer.

In the theatre he has won an Olivier Award (for playing Lennie in a revival of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men in the West End), been an Ugly Sister in pantomime, and was part of the acting team in the acclaimed production of Waiting For Godot, alongside Sir Ian McKellen. He has been George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Salieri in Amadeus, and Frank in Educating Rita. And this is not the first time that he has been in a Bennett play.

“We did one of his, Kafka’s Dick, at the Royal in York a few years back, and, given that he lives not so far away when he’s in Yorkshire I had hoped – probably this was vanity kicking in – that he might pop in and see us. Not so. He never turned up. Anyway, a few months later I was at Heathrow Airport and I spotted him. I was astonished when he came over and said ‘hello’ and then he gave me this fulsome apology for not seeing the play. You could have knocked me down with a feather.”

It wasn’t their last encounter. “When I did his play again I not only got a very sweet little card from him he also sent a bottle of Champagne! And the same thing happened when I later played the Richard Griffith part in The History Boys. He’s a remarkable man, Mr Bennett. He’s so very kind and a great observer of things and people. I wish that I had that gift – I’m curious, but everything I do on stage comes out of what I’m told to do by the director, and what the writer has offered me on the page. When it’s Alan Bennett, you are in the hands of a master.”

Kelly started out as a deputy stage manager, standing in the wings every night.

“I was so lucky when I was learning my trade, because in the same repertory company we had the much-missed Pete Postlethwaite and the lovely Julie Walters. Pete was unique. He knew his own mind and could tell when something was rubbish. One night, in the middle of the play The Ghost Train, he turned to me as the audience were watching, and just said ‘this is a load of b*******’, and he turned on his heel and walked out of the theatre! We carried on for the rest of the act, covering his lines, but when it came to Act III his part had to explain the twist in the plot, and there was no way that we could continue.

“We had to bring the curtain down. I’ve never ever done anything like that, of course, but I had to hand it to Pete, he had enough, and for him, that was it.”

What about reviews, does he read what the critics write? “No. I don’t find them useful at all. I know for a fact that a lot of people don’t heed what they say – I did Desire Under the Elms at the Crucible in Sheffield, and it was a big critical success, I was told, but nobody came. You just get on with it and do your best.”

Kelly sums up his theatre career as “having a great deal of pleasure playing with a dressing up box and a lot of chums. I cannot sing, I cannot dance. I just get on with learning the lines and saying them the best I can.”

And retirement, he says, is “not even remotely on the cards”. So given the sheer variety of his work is there one role that he would love to tackle? “King Lear”, he says, without hesitation. “I’m now the right age to give it a go. But it would have to be somewhere like the Studio at the Crucible. So that only a handful would have the chance of seeing me (maybe) make a total fool of myself! Who knows, it might be a critical success – and the punters can stay away in their droves. All over again.”

The Habit of Art, Theatre Royal, York, August 30 – September 8. 
Box office on 01904 623568 
boxoffice@yorktheatreroyal.co.uk