John Linehan: My amazing out-of-body experience and the night I nearly died in a bomb
As a dressing room door at the Grand Opera House in Belfast is named after him today, John Linehan talks to Una Brankin about life, love and his long career as May McFettridge
John Linehan screeching the Bond theme Skyfall will always be one of the highlights of 2013 for me and the many others he left helpless with laughter at Belfast's Grand Opera House pantomime. Dressed up as Adele, he plodded flat-footed through his dance routine and proved a terrible burden for the nimble male cast members struggling to hold him aloft for the climax of the song.
It was John's alter ego May McFettridge's 24th consecutive panto performance, a run which has included veteran presenter Gerry Kelly getting up on the famous Great Victoria Street stage to honour May's 2,000th appearance in the wildly popular annual show. If the occasion had fallen during the 2012 season, the tribute might have passed the much-loved Belfast star in a blur.
He admits he was "drugged up to the eyeballs" on pain medication for severe pain in his knee at the time and had to have a complete knee replacement just over a year ago at the Knightsbridge Clinic in Balmoral.
"It's more severe than the hip, you know, and trickier to do," he tells me, sounding exactly like the guttural May. "I was bedridden for five days. The pain was unbelievable and I had to have continuous physio, but the new knee made such a difference for the panto this time round. I can get up and down the stairs far better now, too."
Despite his health problems – which include a painful neurological disorder – the comic actor has never missed a single panto performance in those 24 years.
When we meet in Belfast's 10 Square hotel bar, he's fresh-faced, with a full head of thick grey hair and the most dazzling petrol-blue eyes I've ever seen. He enhances them with splodges of lurid clashing eye-shadow for May, and pretends to take offence when I ask him where he got the awful stuff.
"Whaaa?" he scoffs, eyebrows raised. "Wait 'til I tell ye, I was doin' Kelly with Kylie Minogue and she asked me if she could borrow it, and next time I saw her she had it on, in that 'oul video with the gold knickers. So there."
He seems chuffed, however, to hear he's much younger-looking than his 62 years. He's about the height of Tom Cruise, with coat-hanger shoulders and a bit of a paunch, but with very smooth skin (he uses Nivea for Men to take off May's make-up).
There's no sign on his handsome face of the pain he suffers with Syringmelia Disease, a rare condition which leaves the nerves raw at the top of the spine and causes muscle wastage down the left side of body. He has had to see a neurologist twice a year, for a full spinal MRI, since he first had surgery on his spine at 33.
Four days after the operation he contracted meningitis and was given 36 hours to live. Within that critical time he went through an out-of-body experience he'll never forget.
"My brother Michael came in with a bit of drink on him and the doctor said I was very ill," he recalls. "He said the next 36 hours were crucial and asked him 'Do you love your brother?' – then told him to come back sober.
"Well, I thought my head was going to explode, like it was in a vice. It was like a balloon, full of infected fluid; desperate pressure on the brain. So they gave me a dose of morphine but I could feel it wearing off after 20 minutes and my head exploding again. It was at night and there was no one about, just the night nurse outside, and I had no strength to call for anybody. I thought 'Oh God, not like this'.
"So one minute I was in the bed, the next I was up at the ceiling, directly over the bed, all very nonchalant. For 20 minutes I was in no pain. I was up at the level of the ceiling – not floating; I was just there, looking down.
"It was very matter-of-fact, not surreal at all.
"I was just looking down at myself lying there, and the other fellas in the beds, and the male nurse came in, and I noticed he was going thin at the back. I had never noticed that before because I'd been lying on my back. There were no lights or tunnels: I just felt quite happy. I didn't want the pain back but exactly 20 minutes later, by the clock, I was back in my body in agony."
Typically, John was soon making wisecracks again.
"I liked taking the hand out of the nurses," he smiles, "and when my wife Brenda came in with my mate Pat McGuigan, he was asking if he could have my golf clubs, seeing I was so bad, and saying 'Don't be worrying about Brenda, I'll take good care of her if anything happens to you', wink, wink.
"Well, I put out my finger and beckoned him down to me, and said 'If you touch my effing golf clubs ...'"
He has me and the 10 Square staff – who evidently love him – in stitches laughing at such one-liners, but I also get a glimpse into his serious side on occasions.
He's a man of faith and strong political convictions, with no illusions about stardom and the longevity of his career.
"I had a Catholic upbringing – I say my prayers at night and I believe there's a God out there somewhere, or some sort of supreme being, and that if you're a good person and don't do any harm and think of others, there'll be a place for you in heaven.
"I was thinking maybe I was sent back that time in hospital to do the charity work I do in Africa, and to try to help people and raise more money to build things. Either that or God didn't want me and the Devil was afraid of me ..."
Along with Brenda, John had another lucky escape from death when they had to be pulled out of the rubble of The Hole in The Wall bar, their local pub on the Antrim Road, when it was bombed in 1973.
John was 20 and working as a motor mechanic in Donegall Street at time, Brenda as an assistant in Anderson and McAuley's store. The couple had been courting since they met by the jukebox in a nearby cafe, and had decided to call in to The Hole In The Wall for a drink that night.
"The blast blew my trousers clean off and I had 27 stitches in my face but Brenda was hurt far more seriously than I was," says John, bright blue eyes far away for a moment. "Brenda had a breakdown after it and had to take nine weeks off, so Anderson and McAuley sacked her. We're still waiting on the compo."
Shortly afterwards the couple fled Belfast for Dublin. They had their wedding reception in the old Airport Hotel there in 1975 and their daughter Donna was born in the city in 1977.
Living in a one-bed gaffe near Croke Park, John worked as a mechanic and played football for the local Cabra team, as well as learning karate. Like many who left these shores (myself included) to work in the Republic in the past, he was peeved by the anti-northern attitude he encountered in some quarters there.
"When I got gyp like that I'd be quick to answer them in Irish and tell them that it was was them that left us in a effing mess after 1921," he says, smarting. "I could speak better Gaelic than the most of them. I still take classes in it; I'd love to be fluent. That and French and sports were all I was good at at school. I was a total messer."
After his return to Belfast and his old job some four years later, Brenda's first cousin, Eamonn Holmes, asked John to ring into his summertime Downtown radio show for a four-minute live spoof chat.
May McFettridge was born there and then, and from having only £12 to his name at Christmas 1983, some much-needed income started to trickle in from appearances in pubs, venues, warm-up gigs on the Kelly Show on UTV and the annual panto at the Grand Opera House.
A quarter century on, the star dressing room at the historic venue is being dedicated today to its slapstick superstar, who will return in November as Widow Twankey in Aladdin. John's pleased but realistic about all the fuss.
"Nothing lasts for ever," he shrugs.
"You're never safe in this job, whether it's on TV or on the stage. It will happen without me, there's nothing surer. Once you have it straight in your head that you're not indispensable, then you have your mind prepared for anything.
"I'm very appreciative, though, of people having the faith in me to do this every year, for 25 years. I love it to death."
Shining a light on his fellow stars
John on his famous panto co-stars:
Jimmy Cricket: "There are givers and takers. He's a giver."
Dana: "Just a darlin'."
Ray Meagher (Alf in Home & Away): "A total gentleman and a friend."
Leslie Grantham: "Nice man; got on great with him despite what people say."
Britt Ekland: "A real lady; lovely."
Lorraine Chase: "Generous to a fault; just full of love."
Paddy Jenkins (long-running panto co-star): "My right arm."
Sue Pollard: "Barkin'!"