Memories of the past, ideas for the future

Haughey and the herbaceous border

'Fortycoats and Co.' was a spin-off in the 1980s from 'Wanderly Wagon'. It featured the adventures of the title character - played by Fran Dempsey - and his companions Sofar Sogood, a prim, goody two-shoes, and Slightly Bonkers, a naive schoolgirl. They occupied the Flying Tuck Shop and battled against the evil Whilomena, the Whirligig Witch, and the equally evil Pickarooney. But while kids knew him for his catchphrase “Be me forty coats and me fifty pockets”, Dempsey was donning different guises for 'Candid Camera' on ‘The Live Mike’ with Mike Murphy, Dermot Morgan and Twink. Here he writes about his years in front of the camera.

For the past number of years now I have been Head of Music at John Scottus Secondary School in Donnybrook, Dublin 4 – a most interesting and fulfilling job. Students often ask about my ‘television days’ and it always gives me great enjoyment as I recall my time ‘back in the day’.

My ‘audition’ for ‘The Live Mike’ was posed in a single question. John Keogh, the show’s producer, simply said: ‘You do Ian Paisley, don’t you?’ The thought had not actually crossed my mind to that point but in the well-worn tradition of actors who are asked ‘do you ride a horse?’ the answer came immediately to my lips: ‘Of course!’ A small number of weeks later I was ‘doing’ Ian Paisley in a song-and-dance routine, live to the nation. Scary stuff.

However, we had a good crew and it was great fun working ‘live’ with Mike, Dermot Morgan and Twink. [I have] fond memories of Dermot and I portraying the four characters (using a split screen) of Michael O’Leary and Garret Fitzgerald (played by Dermot) and meself playing Charles Haughey and Jim Kemmy, in a make-believe band called ‘Budgettelle’, singing one of the many political parodies we did. Haughey’s character sang: ‘I remember those bummers in Dublin...!’

I met the late Jim Kemmy afterwards [when] he was canvassing in my part of the world. In the interests of comedy I used to play him ‘falling out of shot’ every time. He was seated as I approached him and as I was being introduced by one of his entourage, Jim caught me by the end of my tie and pulled me downwards towards him. ‘If you ever make me fall over again,’ he said, ‘I’ll give ye a box!’ All in jest, of course.

I met Charles Haughey too, only the once. I had turned into the studio corridor in the company of Derek Davis when suddenly out from Studio One came Mr Haughey surrounded by several minders. I was struck immediately by his small stature, something I had not perceived before. We had a polite chat, about ‘this and that’ as he would have said himself and then, as Derek and I made our way further down the corridor, Charles J, the Taoiseach of the nation, shouted after me in a loud but familiar voice: ‘Keep ‘er goin’ Patsy!’ There’s one for the books.

[There was] more fun to come when I began working with Mike on a new series of ‘Candid Camera’ or ‘Home Movies’ as he liked to call them and I have many fond and happy memories of some of the gags we got up to – both on and off screen.

I was standing at the top of Grafton Street one day filming, dressed in the uniform of a Traffic Warden (I was amazed at the ‘bull’s looks’ I got, even from pedestrians!) when my heart went out to the driver of a large truck as he pulled his two nearside wheels up on to the footpath. You see, I had recognised the name of the haulage company – in leaner times I had been that soldier, driving for Matt Fitzsimons, Licensed Haulier, in between acting jobs. I knew instinctively that the driver was headed for Dunnes Stores at the top of Grafton Street and that the only place he could park was on the footpath. However, I was, at least for that day, a Traffic Warden with my sworn duty to fulfil.

The driver approached me with a friendly smile, having removed a large cardboard box from the back of the truck. ‘I’ll only be a minute!’ he chirped, indicating the direction of Grafton Street (I was right!). In my best Kerry accent, having first consulted my watch, I replied: ‘Alright so, sixty seconds, starting now!’ The poor man trotted off in the direction of Dunnes and as the minutes ticked by I decided to have a little fun with him upon his return.

As he took the second cardboard box from the rear of the truck I called him over. ‘As you see,’ I began, ‘I’m impeccably dressed – except for these socks which (I raised the bottoms of my trousers) are non-regulation blue. When you go back to Dunnes Stores will you please ask for Noel and ask him for a pair of light-brown socks, size eleven. Have you got that?’ The driver nodded, then disappeared, mumbling my instructions under his breath as he headed off to make his second delivery. It seems that somewhere along the way he decided to join in the fun because upon his return he simply smiled at me as he passed by and said: ‘It was yer man’s day off!’ Fair play.

In a garden centre I presented a new member of the herbaceous border family to the unsuspecting public, which I called a ‘Hyperbole’. It was, in fact, a bunch of buttercups stuffed into a small pot with some green foliage around the edge. For one, I got an uncontrollable fit of the giggles (or ‘corpses’ as they are known in the business) when someone asked me the simple question: ‘How much is it?’ People who approached after I had recovered were treated to the bargain of their lives when the same plant plummeted from a staggering (‘that’s way beyond our budget’) fourteen pounds to a much more reasonable twenty pence.

When I finally went for ‘bargain of the week’ with one lady who seemed keenly interested in purchasing the Hyperbole, I looked around to see if anyone was eavesdropping then boldly announced: ‘seeing as it’s yourself, I’ll let you have it for ten pence!’ The lady smiled as she rummaged in her purse for coins. ‘Ah! No, I’ll give ye the twenty!’ she said. Needless to say she won the prize, but then became totally disarmed as I informed her I was in cahoots with Mike Murphy!

Later on, and never broadcast because the camera wasn’t running, I stuck long-stemmed plastic flowers into a large potted plant and drew people’s attention to them. One man, on feeling the protruding flowers said: ‘they feel exactly like plastic, how do they do that?’

Seeming to call on my encyclopaedic knowledge of the entire plant world I answered, with authority and without hesitation: ‘I believe they put Latex in the fertiliser!’ I just about managed to brush a smile from the corner of my mouth as the man’s curiosity continued. ‘And what’s it called?’ My mind went into a spin and then I heard the following emerge from my lips: ‘It’s called a Vobiscum. This is the larger of the species and it’s called the Dominus!’ I could barely stifle my chuckles as the man moved on, satisfied with the answers he had received from the ‘expert’ in the brown coat. (Those of you who don’t remember the Latin Mass might have difficulty with that one!) (Ed: Dominus vobiscum, is a Latin phrase meaning "The Lord be with you")

‘Fortycoats & Co’ was the wonderful conception of my good friend Joe O’Donnell who wrote most of the scripts and directed most of the episodes and it ran from 1982 to 1987. [It was] great fun to do and [we had] the artistic freedom to make a suggestion or two as we rehearsed in studio. ‘Can I try this..?’ I’d say as my creative juices began to flow. ‘Go ahead’ would come the word from the control room, followed by either laughter from the floor-manager’s earphones as the crew upstairs got the idea or a polite ‘no, that doesn’t work’ which one accepted gracefully as we moved on! Ah! Halcyon days.

Nowadays I work with music, having attained my teaching Diploma in Harmony and Counterpoint at the Royal Irish Academy of Music. I write arrangements for the various choirs and school orchestra and I encourage children to participate in music-making. It is very satisfying and rewarding (especially as you often witness the results of your endeavours) and I regard myself as being privileged to be a part of the teaching staff of this amazing school, John Scottus.

Fran Dempsey's garden centre sketch features on the DVD 'I'm Mike Murphy from RTÉ, which can be bought here.