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John Linehan: It was very tough when dad died in New Zealand aged just 56

 

Seasoned entertainer: John Linehan is in his 30th year of pantomime
Seasoned entertainer: John Linehan is in his 30th year of pantomime
John with daughter Kerry on her wedding day
Friends and family: John Linehan with wife Brenda and fellow comedian Frank Carson and his wife Ruth
Stage star: John Linehan as May McFettridge along with (from left) Paddy Jenkins, who plays Mr Potts, Georgia Lennon, who plays Belle, and Ben Richards, who plays the Beast, in this year’s Beauty and the Beast at the Grand Opera House in Belfast
Rachel Dean

By Rachel Dean

In this week's interview Rachel Dean talks to John Linehan (67), famous for his legendary May McFettridge character. John lives in Belfast with wife Brenda, with whom he has two daughters, Donna and Kerry, and three grandchildren, Johnny, Eve and Paul.

Q. Tell us about your childhood

A. My childhood was me, my ma, my da, my sisters Eileen - who had Down's syndrome - and Julie, and my brothers Jimmy and Michael.

My father Johnny was a Cork man and my mother Sarah came from west Belfast, but they met in London. I think my ma was in a hotel and saw my da and that was it.

My mother was a Civil Service waitress and my father worked in a tool company. He got injured on one of the machines, so he came out and worked in hotels. He worked in the Midland, the International, the Europa and the old Grand Central.

We grew up on the Oldpark Road in Belfast and I went to Sacred Heart Primary School.

Then we moved over to the Cavehill Road and it was great - I remember teachers asking where we were moving to and I'd say "Marsden Gardens" and they'd go "Ooh".

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We were a very close family. We were kids in the Fifties and there was no hassle. Everyone played together in the streets, playing football and everything was great. When we moved to the Cavehill Road, we played football in the Waterworks.

We used to go down to Cork and stay with my granda. He lived in a wee town just outside Mallow. The time down there were great - all the big horses and running through the fields.

We had an uncle who worked in one of the Rowntree's factories and he would get us a big bag of raw chocolate.

Q. What are you most proud of?

A. I'm proud of what I've done as an entertainer as May McFettridge and I'm really proud of my family - the wife, the kids and my grandkids.

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John with daughter Kerry on her wedding day

My grandson Johnny, the eldest one, he's at Queen's University doing European studies and he's fluent in Spanish.

Then I have two wee ones. My granddaughter Eve has just started nursery school and my grandson Paul has just started walking - he's the baby.

We get Paul a couple of days a week and he's a total gift, a lovely child.

Q. The one regret you wish you could amend?

A. Peter Kay asked me to give him a ring one time because he was starting a television show, Peter Kay's Phoenix Nights, which he wanted me to appear on. I just forgot about it. It was a super show too. Other than that, I don't tear my hair out about anything. If it's for you, it'll not go by you.

Q. And what about phobias? Do you have any?

A. Phobias? No. I remember doing a lot of things when I did the Kelly show. I got on the back of a motorbike at the North West 200 - Joey Dunlop was driving it - and we went around at an excessive speed. I've been wing walking and I've abseiled down buildings for the show too. I wouldn't be afraid of anything. I'll always take a chance and try new things.

Q. The temptation you cannot resist?

A. Tesco's chocolate ginger biscuits. I say to myself that I'm not going to eat them, then Brenda buys them and I have to.

Q. Your number one prized possession?

A. My family. I wouldn't be a materialistic person. However, I received an MBE in 2006 and I'm proud enough of that. I got it for all the charity work I've done over the last 30 years.

I've done a lot of work for Children of the Crossfire and I've been to Africa six or seven times. It's great being able to help raise a lot of money, to keep a lot of people from starvation and to put kids into mainstream education. I'm very proud of all that.

Q. The book that's most impacted your life?

A. I don't get much time to read, but I like autobiographies and all those American thrillers. I loved The Da Vinci Code - it's a great book.

Q. If you had the power or the authority, what would you do?

A. I would tell the MLAs to get back up to Stormont, get it up and running again and get this place back to a bit of sanity. And if you don't fill Stormont, we'll fill it with people who are homeless and need a roof over their heads.

Q. What makes your blood boil every time without fail?

A. Listening to politicians not fulfilling their jobs. I'm talking about politics worldwide, from Russia to America to the UK. The world's gone nuts.

Q. Who has most influenced you in life?

A. My parents. They taught me the value of money, what to do with money when you get it and to keep some safe for a rainy day. They taught me to not spend everything - that you have to have something left to rely on. To buy once and buy right.

Q. Your top three dinner party guests, dead or alive and why?

A. I would bring my da because there's a lot of questions I should have asked him.

Then, Big Paddy Griffin, who was a mate of mine who died when he was just 39. I'd love to catch up with him.

And then, George Best because he was great craic any time I met him. I remember playing a football match alongside him, but he had to go off at half-time because he was exhausted.

Q. The best piece of advice you ever received?

A. Always think things through. If something seems too good to be true, it probably is. That's something my ma and da told me.

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Friends and family: John Linehan with wife Brenda and fellow comedian Frank Carson and his wife Ruth

Q. The unlikely interest or hobby that you love?

A. I love football and I love watching football. But, you know, I'm a man of 67, and you think you can still play football (and I've played for decades), so you see players making mistakes and you go "Awk, you should have hit that", then you'll try to get up off the chair to get a cup of tea and you're creaking and cracking. I think you end up looking at sport through 25-year-old eyes.

I love golf too and I can't play it at the minute because my wrist is injured. It's an old injury - a couple of the bones in my wrist were wired and one of the clips came out when I was clapping my hands with my grandson. I clapped too hard and one of the clips hit a nerve and a shock went straight up to the back of my head. I thought I'd taken a heart attack, to be honest.

I had to have an operation to get the clips out, which I've had, so it's just physiotherapy for now. But I have to go in a few months, after we've finished the panto, to get my wrist fused, which is another operation. So, golf is on hold for the next six months or so.

Q. The poem that touches your heart?

A. "There was a wee man from Dundee/Who fell off the side of a boat/Along came a shark and bit off his leg/Hickory dickory dock."

I don't know if it's even a poem, but it's so daft that it makes me laugh.

Q. The happiest moments of your life?

A. When I got married. When my daughters Donna and Kerry were born. And when the grandkids were born.

I've done so much charity for children who needed hospital treatment. To think that I have had two kids and three grandchildren and they're all healthy... I just feel so lucky and privileged. I'm just a happy-go-lucky guy.

Q. And the saddest moment of your life?

A. Obviously when you lose your parents, you lose your friends or even a pet, it's sad.

My mother was 83 when she died - her heart just gave up eventually. They (his parents) had moved to New Zealand in the mid-Seventies and my father died there. It was tough because they were out there and he was only 56.

He was taken into hospital because they thought he had cancer and they were going to check his lungs. He was dead before they got him into the operating theatre.

My mother had to identify his body and his head was all bruised, so she asked what had happened to him and they told her it was just something that sometimes happened to dead bodies.

My mother said something along the lines of "I've been to the wakes of too many people, so I know that's not true. Did someone drop my husband off the trolley?".

They had no answer for her, but the government gave my mother as much money as my father would have earned until he was 65.

He has two death certificates and they're different from each other, for some strange reason.

To be honest, I think that they dropped him from the trolley. They did an autopsy and he had a boil on his lung which would have gone away in four weeks with antibiotics.

My mother was very religious and told us that if God wanted our daddy, then that's the way it was.

We had a wee Westie who we lost about three years ago and it was just horrendous. It's an unconditional love. When they go, you still miss them years later. We were going to get another dog, but I told Brenda I wouldn't put her or myself through it again.

Q. The one event that made a difference in your life?

A. The first time I went on television was a big thing. I thought I would have been a lot more nervous than I was, but I wasn't nervous and I think that's why I took to it so well. It showed me that I wouldn't freeze in front of cameras, so any time I was on TV after that I felt pretty comfortable. It was just like being on stage.

Some people think it's more frightening on stage, especially in places like the Grand Opera House, where there's around 1,000 people watching you, but I made this wee documentary for The Open with Sky Sports during the summer and it was watched by 600 million. To think that it was watched worldwide, I'm very proud of that.

I mentioned my own golf club, which I'm the captain of this year, so 600 million have heard about Fortwilliam Golf Club. I was so proud of that.

Q. What's the ambition that keeps driving you onwards?

A. If you wake up in the morning, push your elbows out and there's no wood - happy days!

I just want to do what I love doing for as long as possible. Me and Brenda would choke each other if we were at home all day every day.

Q. What's the philosophy you live by?

A. If you can tie your laces, get to your work. You have to go to your work. As long as you can do that, any dreams you have of buying or doing anything are possible.

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Stage star: John Linehan as May McFettridge along with (from left) Paddy Jenkins, who plays Mr Potts, Georgia Lennon, who plays Belle, and Ben Richards, who plays the Beast, in this year’s Beauty and the Beast at the Grand Opera House in Belfast

Q. How do you want to be remembered?

A. First and foremost, I want to be remembered by my family as a good father, grandfather and husband.

And as an entertainer, as someone who entertained everybody.

I know May McFettridge isn't everyone's cup of tea, but I just hope that with most of the people I try to entertain, I did a good job.

For his 30th season of panto, John is taking on the role of Mrs Potts in Beauty and the Beast, sharing the Grand Opera House stage with former Hollyoaks and Footballers' Wives star Ben Richards and panto favourites Paddy Jenkins and Georgia Lennon. The show will run from November 30 until January 12. For tickets, visit www.goh.co.uk/ whats-on/beauty-and-the-beast

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