Paddy Jenkins: I never imagined I'd become an actor... now I'm about to give my 1,300th panto performance
Working behind the scenes, Paddy Jenkins longed for his chance in the spotlight. Little did he realise he would not only achieve that dream, but would go on to become a veteran of stage and screen
The autograph that pantomime veteran May McFettridge gave Paddy Jenkins 25 years ago included a strangely prophetic message.
May's alter ego John Linehan wrote in a panto programme that he thought he and Paddy, then an amateur actor who was working behind the scenes at the Grand Opera House in Belfast, might one day share the stage of the theatre.
Roll the clock forward to this year, and Paddy and John will share that very same stage for a remarkable 1,300th time in panto.
"I still have that programme," says Paddy. "I never imagined, however, that what John scribbled on it would come true."
This year's production of Peter Pan, which also features soap star Claire King, is Paddy's 16th Grand Opera House pantomime - and that would be a record-breaking tally if May McFettridge hadn't been in pantoland for so long before him and clocked up an astonishing 28 productions.
Paddy, who will appear in his 1,300th Opera House panto performance on Boxing Day, says ex-Coronation Street actress King, who plays the Mermaid in Peter Pan, is an extra special star.
He adds: "She is a real team player, a true professional who gives 100% to every show.
"She likes to come out with us all after the shows and she never turns down any requests for a picture or an autograph.
"Claire has also been asking us for tips about the best places to see on her days off and she says she can't wait to visit the north coast."
But there's more to Paddy than slapstick and sing-alongs with wide-eyed kids.
Indeed he's a man of so many parts that it's impossible to pigeonhole him. For the versatile west Belfast man has also memorably starred in a musical as Alex Higgins; in a movie as a cold-blooded IRA assassin, and in a TV series as a hardline loyalist with a lisp.
However, his most challenging role was that of a sex abuse victim's father in a powerful story about paedophile priest Fr Brendan Smyth.
And Paddy has also made a range of other serious parts in theatrical productions his own, but comedy is his forte.
His most recent hilarious creation has been Pastor Begbie, who has become a popular fixture in the Hole In The Wall Gang's Give My Head Peace series. "I was only supposed to be in one episode with a single line but thankfully it went down well and the Pastor is now a regular and will be in three episodes after the show comes back to the TV screens," says Paddy, who also made an instant impression as that IRA gunman in a chilling scene-stealer in director Steve McQueen's award winning film Hunger about the Maze hunger strikes.
"I had to shoot a prison official in front of his ill mother and after the first take it was thought we would film it again, but the director said he didn't think we could improve on the way I'd done the scene. And that was that."
Paddy's equally memorable Hurricane Higgins portrayal was in the George Best musical Dancing Shoes at the Opera House.
"But what was awful about that was the fact Alex died only a short distance away on one of the nights of the show," says Paddy.
"And he was a hero of mine - and of my father."
Dancing Shoes wasn't, however, Paddy's only song and dance act in a major homegrown musical. For he also caught the eye in the Ulster-Scots musical On Eagle's Wing and toured Holland with the show.
Yet it's his annual outing in the Opera House panto that brings him his most satisfaction.
And part of the fun is teaming up with his friend Linehan. He says: "John and I are great pals. We spend a lot of time together off stage and on it. We have our wee routines that we follow before and between shows.
"We eat our Marks & Spencer meals after the matinees before saying goodnight and going for a sleep in our dressing rooms.
"John has had a few well-documented health issues but he is a consummate professional. He has never missed a show or a cue. He is the lynchpin of the whole production. I have learnt loads from him down the years and I am in awe of the man.
"He still has the ability to make me laugh, but Heaven help any actor who forgets a line or arrives late on stage. John will let everyone in the audience know."
Paddy says John is also the glue that holds the panto casts together. He adds: "John always goes out of his way to make sure that everyone enjoys their time in Belfast, especially the visitors.
"All the young English dancers, for example, love him and he's one of the reasons why they keep coming back to the Opera House."
For Paddy the magic of the pantomime has lost none of its sparkle. He says: "I consider it a privilege to act in such a wonderful theatre. But pantos are special everywhere."
His first taste of a professional panto came at the old Arts Theatre in Belfast in 1994. Several years later at the Botanic Avenue venue the panto featured a then unknown English actress called Suranne Jones in the cast under the direction of the late Peter Quigley. Suranne is now the award-winning star of the acclaimed TV series Doctor Foster.
Paddy stayed at the Arts Theatre for four pantos but he was eventually headhunted by the Grand Opera House for its productions.
"I was thrilled. I remember when I was working backstage there that I used to stand in the wings and say to myself that I wanted to be out front in the spotlight," he says.
Paddy's first Opera House panto was also Peter Pan, and he was in the show again 10 years ago when the title role was played by Ashton Merrygold, 10 months before he found fame with the boy band JLS who came to a panto years later during a concert visit to Belfast.
Tickets for the 2017 Peter Pan have - aptly enough - 'flown' out the door. Paddy says: "It's apparently the fastest ever selling panto at the Opera House. Nearly half the 75,000 seats had been booked by Easter."
He insists that while pantos are enjoyable, they are also hard work. "But I love panto season," he says.
"We have two shows every day and by the time January comes around it's even tougher. However, I never tire of seeing the audiences laughing at all the daft things we get up to, especially the children."
His own four kids have grown up with the pantos and with seeing their dad in a starring role. Paddy and wife Geraldine are about to become grandparents for the first time, opening up the possibility of a whole new audience for the pantos of the future.
As yet none of his children have followed in his acting footsteps, but he's thankful that his parents encouraged him to go on stage at just eight years old when the family were on holiday in Bray in Co Wicklow.
Paddy sang a song - Mother Of Mine by Neil Reid - with a hotel band and his folks were told their son had talent and timing.
Paddy then learnt a James Young monologue which became his party piece and led him into a talent contest, which he won.
He later took part in youth club shows and pantos in Andersonstown before the natural progression into productions by St Agnes' Choral Society.
He was in South Pacific with Downtown Radio star Candy Devine but he quit the stage for six years as he and Geraldine started a family before deciding to make a comeback after offers of parts from a number of amateur companies.
His transition to the professional ranks came a few years later with those Arts Theatre pantos, but it was in a television advert that Paddy caused a sensation.
His commercials for the Fairhill complex - "a big shopping centre in Ballymena, hey" - were so popular that Paddy had to fly to New York to record follow-up ads.
"People still talk to me about Fairhill two decades on," says Paddy. "But I take that as a compliment, and to film the wee Ballymena man in the Big Apple was surreal."
Paddy, who has starred in a national children's TV series called Bel's Boys, takes nothing for granted in his career. "Acting can be a feast or a famine, but I think I have been fortunate that I have been so busy," he says.
He recently worked on the US TV series Into The Badlands in Dublin and he also filmed a scene for Game Of Thrones up north, but it never saw the light of day.
"Even though it was cut I can still say that I got to work with Michelle MacLaren, who directed the magnificent cult series Breaking Bad."
Paddy has also acted with a galaxy of stars in panto including Lionel Blair, Gareth Gates and Lorraine Chase. But his favourite co-star was Britt Ekland (left), who was once married to his idol Rod Stewart.
However, during all their chats Paddy never mentioned his admiration for the superstar singer to his ex-wife. He says: "I didn't think it was the right thing to do but on the last night of the panto Geraldine told Britt I was a huge Rod fan."
The only downside of Paddy's panto years was the death of his father during one of the runs.
He adds: "I pulled out of shows over three days but the Opera House were very understanding. I find it hard to believe it was over 10 years ago.
"I was with my dad when he died and he told me 'life is just a blip', and it is so, so true.
"Which is why I try to enjoy every minute that I have."
Peter Pan, Grand Opera House, Belfast, www.goh.co.uk