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Jackie and me: Conleth Hill on playing TV legend Jackie Fullerton

By Ivan Little

Published 21/04/2015

Double take: actor Conleth Hill as legendary football commentator Jackie Fullerton in the film Shooting for Socrates
Double take: actor Conleth Hill as legendary football commentator Jackie Fullerton in the film Shooting for Socrates
Legendary football commentator Jackie Fullerton
Playing the part: scenes from Shooting for Socrates, which includes John Hannah who plays Billy Bingham
Bronagh Gallagher, Art Parkinson and Richard Dormer in Shooting for Socrates
John Hannah as Billy Bingham in Shooting for Socrates

The bald head of his fictional Game of Thrones character is instantly recognised by millions of the TV epic's obsessional fans all over the world, but in his latest on-screen role Ballycastle actor Conleth Hill is playing a real-life star of a very different game who's famous for his luxuriant locks and carefully coiffured curls.

But there are other stark differences between Varys in Game of Thrones and Jackie Fullerton in the soon-to-be-premiered movie, Shooting for Socrates.

For Varys is a eunuch. While the BBC veteran and ex-footballer, who's been dubbed Jack the Lad in his time, well, he isn't. And he has three strapping sons to prove it.

Varys is also dubbed the Master of the Whispers. While the sometimes excitable Ballymena-born sports commentator, well, he isn't.

But Conleth's portrayal of Fullerton in Shooting for Socrates, which is about Northern Ireland's David and Goliath clash with Brazil in the 1986 World Cup Finals in Mexico, is so uncannily accurate that when Jackie first saw production shots from the movie, he thought they were pictures of himself.

And his wife Linda was also fooled by the photographs of Conleth, who like her husband is a Co Antrim man through and through.

Conleth admits that he jumped at the chance to portray the former Ballymena United, Glenavon and Crusaders winger turned TV football commentator.

"I was sent a script quite some time ago and when I read it, I was laughing out loud," says Conleth, who didn't have to do a lot of research into his character. "I'd only met Jackie once but everyone in Northern Ireland knows him and I read his autobiography just to find out a little bit more about him."

Getting the Fullerton look was easy because the make-up girl on the movie, Maria Moore, has also made up Jackie at the BBC.

"She got me the wig and the glasses and that was that," says Conleth, who not only resembles Jackie in the movie but also sounds remarkably like him, too

"I just treated the part of Jackie Fullerton as I would do with any other character. I didn't set out to impersonate him - I think I sound enough like him anyway because we're from the same neck of the woods.

"And besides there are plenty of mimics who can 'do' Jackie better than me. I was trying to play a real person rather than a caricature," says Conleth, whose father Patsy was one of Northern Ireland's top news cameramen, working a lifetime with the BBC before Jackie's "transfer" there from UTV.

Conleth is looking forward to his first viewing of the film at Friday night's premiere in Belfast, which will have most of Northern Ireland's Mexico squad in attendance along with the World Cup itself.

Jackie will host the screening and introduce the players and he's clearly excited at the prospect of reuniting with the 1986 squad and Conleth.

"I met him at the recording of a radio programme at which he was a somewhat reluctant guest years ago, but I can't wait to see how he plays me," he says. "I've seen little snippets of the trailer and he certainly looks and sounds the part."

Jackie was first approached about Shooting for Socrates four years ago by former Northern Ireland player David Campbell, who made his international debut in the game against Brazil, who won 3-0 in the searing heat of Guadalajara.

Jackie says: "David and the director James Erskine, who had come up with the idea for a movie, wanted to pick my brains, what's left of them, for my memories of Mexico and then 18 months later they told me that I was going to be in the film and that Conleth Hill would be playing me."

The Brazil squad included legends of football like Socrates, Careca, Edinho and Josimar and the game against them marked the end of an era for Northern Ireland with a number of seasoned pros including Pat Jennings and Sammy McIlroy making their last appearances for their country.

"I had a lump in my throat as I interviewed Big Pat in the dressing room after his last match," says Jackie, who admits that seeing the photos of Conleth as him was another eerie experience."

"When they were sent by Maria Moore I replied that she had made a mistake and they were actually

continued from page 25

 

because the make-up girl on the movie, Maria Moore, has also made up Jackie at the BBC.

"She got me the wig and the glasses and that was that," says Conleth, who not only resembles Jackie in the movie but also sounds remarkably like him, too

"I just treated the part of Jackie Fullerton as I would do with any other character. I didn't set out to impersonate him - I think I sound enough like him anyway because we're from the same neck of the woods.

"And besides there are plenty of mimics who can 'do' Jackie better than me. I was trying to play a real person rather than a caricature," says Conleth, whose father Patsy was one of Northern Ireland's top news cameramen, working a lifetime with the BBC before Jackie's "transfer" there from UTV.

Conleth is looking forward to his first viewing of the film at Friday night's premiere in Belfast, which will have most of Northern Ireland's Mexico squad in attendance along with the World Cup itself.

Jackie will host the screening and introduce the players and he's clearly excited at the prospect of reuniting with the 1986 squad and Conleth.

"I met him at the recording of a radio programme at which he was a somewhat reluctant guest years ago, but I can't wait to see how he plays me," he says. "I've seen little snippets of the trailer and he certainly looks and sounds the part."

Jackie was first approached about Shooting for Socrates four years ago by former Northern Ireland player David Campbell, who made his international debut in the game against Brazil, who won 3-0 in the searing heat of Guadalajara.

Jackie says: "David and the director James Erskine, who had come up with the idea for a movie, wanted to pick my brains, what's left of them, for my memories of Mexico and then 18 months later they told me that I was going to be in the film and that Conleth Hill would be playing me."

The Brazil squad included legends of football like Socrates, Careca, Edinho and Josimar and the game against them marked the end of an era for Northern Ireland with a number of seasoned pros including Pat Jennings and Sammy McIlroy making their last appearances for their country.

"I had a lump in my throat as I interviewed Big Pat in the dressing room after his last match," says Jackie, who admits that seeing the photos of Conleth as him was another eerie experience.

"When they were sent by Maria Moore I replied that she had made a mistake and they were actually pictures of me. She insisted that they were of Conleth and she told me that when some scenes were shot in Belfast, a number of people who know me also thought Conleth was me.

"And when I took the photographs home and let Linda see them she said they were good shots of me, among the best she'd seen.

"FIFA vice-president Jim Boyce has seen the movie and he told me that Conleth is magnificent and is my double."

Jackie's only quibble - and it won't come as a surprise to anyone who knows him - is about his hair.

"Conleth's Jackie wig is grey, but I didn't have grey hair in 1986," insists Jackie, who wasn't present for any of the filming of Shooting for Socrates, though he's proud to have been part of the World Cup set-up back in the day. Literally.

"I got to play in the training games when some of the boys were sidelined through injury. That was quite something for a wee former Irish League player like me," says Jackie, who hasn't seen Conleth - or anyone else - in Game of Thrones, though his family are fans and they were mightily impressed by the producers' choice of Conleth Hill to play their father. Jackie says: "They told me that Conleth is big stuff. And I know that's true now."

And big stuff is the perfect description of Conleth Hill for whom Shooting for Socrates is completing a nice little career circle.

For the screenplay has been co-written by Belfast's Marie Jones, who also penned the smash hit drama, Stones in his Pockets, that launched Conleth onto the international stage as an actor to be reckoned with.

He travelled the world with her award-winning comedy, which won him prestigious best actor awards in London and in New York and opened the door into the West End and Broadway productions.

Conleth's also set to re-visit Stones in a movie version alongside ex-Boyzone star Ronan Keating.

But it's in Game of Thrones that he has found stunning success as Varys, with legions of obsessional fans following his every twist and turn.

Even though he could easily settle in America or London, Conleth (50) still chooses to live in Ballycastle where local people barely give him a second look.

"I would need to be a hurler for anyone in Ballycastle to take any notice of me," says the ever-busy Conleth, who can scarcely believe his good fortune that Thrones is filmed on his own doorstep and that he can go back to his own bed after most shooting days.

He has also been involved in a number of other film projects close to home recently, one of them a short movie called the Good Word directed by another Northern Irish actor Stuart Graham.

The synopsis of the storyline, by local writer Stuart Neville, says that it is about a man called Ivan Cutler who spreads the good word throughout Ireland in the 1950s while hiding a sinister secret - his penchant for murder.

"You have to see it to believe it," says Conleth.

"But it was very enjoyable to do."

Conleth is also in A Patch of Fog, the debut feature film of Belfast director Michael Lennox, who won a BAFTA for Boogaloo and Graham, and which centres on the story of a security guard catching a TV celebrity shoplifting and blackmailing him.

Conleth has also been filming for The Truth Commissioner, the new political thriller set around the peace process here and which was adapted from the 2008 novel by David Park.

And as if all that didn't add up to a hectic enough schedule, another series of Game of Thrones is due to start shooting here later in the year.

The premiere of season five earlier this month shattered ratings records with an estimated eight million live and same-day viewers in America and one-and-a-half million in the UK, making it HBO's most watched original series ever.

The season four finale was seen by a total of 19 million people who either saw it live, via recordings or on demand and streaming services.

"Yes, it seems to have gone well," says Conleth, the master of the understatement, who has always been reluctant to talk about himself in interviews on television or in the newspapers, though all that is changing. Slowly.

Conleth was recently at Game of Thrones premieres in the Tower of London and then San Francisco which he says was fantastic.

"I'm more used to all the red carpet stuff now than I was originally. I hated it - but I know the interviews are part of the job and I am very grateful to have the job," he says.

"HBO really look after us. It wasn't a chore at all to go to San Francisco.

"And it was a nice chance to catch up with the other cast members that you don't see that often."

Conleth's rather distinctive look on the series requires him to shave his head for every new season. But there is one massive advantage. For his hair grows back and few people recognise him.

"It means I am pretty anonymous fortunately," says Conleth, who has defended his Game of Thrones colleague Kit Harington, who recently found himself at the centre of controversy over comments he made about Belfast.

The 28-year-old star, who plays Jon Snow, has lived in the city on and off for five years during the filming of the series but on an American chat show he poked fun at how Belfast boasted the world's most bombed hotel and the Titanic which sank on its maiden voyage.

He told his host Seth Myers that the city was a good place to visit for two or three days, adding with a wry smile that he had lived here for five years before cautioning himself that he had to be careful about what he said.

Harington later apologised if he had upset people in what he called his second home.

But Conleth says: "He was only joking. He has lived and worked here for five years - I think he's entitled to have a joke about the place.

"His tongue was firmly in his cheek. He loves being here. He made the observation that we seem to be very proud of things that didn't work. That's all.

"But he has no animosity towards Belfast or the people here."

Even though he's very much an actor in demand, Conleth is also eagerly awaiting the opportunity to revive another of his roles, as a director.

The hilarious David Ireland comedy Can't Forget About You, which Conleth directed for the Lyric Theatre in Belfast is being staged at the Tron Theatre in Glasgow in July.

"I really loved directing the show," says this archetypal man of many parts.

  • Shooting for Socrates has its gala premiere at the Belfast Film Festival this Friday, Waterfront Hall, 8pm. Tickets, £10. For further information go to www.belfastfilmfestival.org

Fullerton’s life in brief

  • Fullerton originally trained as an accountant before his footballing career took off, and has sung on stage and TV
  • A prolific Irish League footballer in the 1960s to the early 1970s, playing for Ballymena United, Glenavon and Crusaders, he also played cricket for Ballymena
  • His reporting and presenting career with UTV began in 1973. He was invited to work for the station after taking part in a penalty competition for the Sportscast programme
  • In a famous Good Evening Ulster interview with Giant Haystacks, the wrestler slammed him to the studio floor
  • A triple heart bypass operation in 2004 meant he could no longer introduce the sport during BBC Newsline, but he continued with his reporting and commentating duties
  • Fullerton revealed he had been in talks with Sky Sports when it obtained live broadcast rights to Northern Ireland's international matches in 2007. However, he said a rolling contract would keep him at the BBC

Belfast Telegraph

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