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Meet the man who drives home message of road safety

Ballymena’s Paul Kennedy admits that even he’s shocked by TV adverts he narrates

By Ivan Little

He’s the voice of what are among the most powerful, emotive and distressing TV advertisements ever used in road safety campaigns anywhere in the world, but Paul Kennedy still has the capacity to be shocked by the pictures which accompany his words.

For actor, writer, and film director Paul — whose middle name should be versatile — often doesn’t see the pictures of the simulated crashes which are designed to curtail the carnage on Northern Ireland’s roads until he watches the finished commercials in his own living room.

Indeed Paul had almost forgotten that he’d recorded the voice-over for the most controversial of the recent commercials until it came on the box.

That was the one which showed a runaway car on a country road hitting a wall, turning over and landing on top of a group of schoolchildren enjoying a field trip in a forest.

It was so graphic that it was banned from screening before the 9pm watershed and in his voice-over Paul said that 28 children — the equivalent of the primary school class in the film — had been killed by speeding cars in the last14 years. "Shame on you. You can never control the consequences if you speed," was his tag-line.

Paul (35) has been one of Ireland's most sought after voice-over artists for years now and he's regularly heard in a whole range of commercials, but the new direction in his career started more by accident than by design.

He says: "A studio was looking for new voices for their advertisements and I was sent along by my agent. A bloke who was there to record an ad the following day was walking past the booth where I was doing my bit and he heard me.

"The next thing I knew I was back in the studio the next morning and putting down the voice-over for the ad which was for the new licensing legislation for taxis in Northern Ireland. It was pretty high profile and things just kept going from then on."

Paul says he is immensely proud of the work he has done, especially in those shock tactic films which surveys show have played a significant part in reducing casualty figures on Northern Ireland's roads.

"I have been told that there is a direct correlation between the ads and the accident statistics, and that the studies have confirmed that when they are not on television, deaths on the roads go up.

"Whether or not it's on a conscious or subconscious level, the exposure those ads get and the hard-hitting nature of them - plus the high standard of the production - does have an impact.

"I don't always get to see the film in advance, though I always think that helps. But I often have to record the voice-over cold without a view of the images."

The school trip advert was a case in point. "I remember when it came on television, my voice at the end was a big surprise to me because I had done the recording long before the ad was filmed and it was a couple of months before it was actually screened.

"But the reaction was quite incredible. The ad went viral on the internet and it received over a million hits in just a short space of time."

As well as the voice-overs, Paul is rarely idle, busying himself with a number of artistic projects.

A couple of years back he wrote and directed his first movie called Made in Belfast. Which it was. With a talented cast from Northern Ireland.

In an era where Hollywood movies have a budget of millions, Paul's film cost just £50,000 to produce in a whirlwind three-week process.

He says: "I had to call in a lot of favours from friends in the business. But it has been well worth all the effort.

"It did get good reviews and it is still playing in festivals all over the world. As far as I am aware it will be available on i-Tunes shortly."

What has also given Paul a huge amount of satisfaction is that a number of the technicians who worked on Made in Belfast were making their debuts on movies and have now gone on to establish themselves in the industry, working on TV hits like Game of Thrones and The Fall.

"We had put an ad in a magazine looking for people to help us and we were inundated with applications," says Paul, who was born in Belfast but raised in Ballymena and who has completed another screenplay which he would also like to turn into a film here. "All I can say about the plot is that it's a thriller about a politician whose daughter goes missing."

Paul's list of acting credits on the small and silver screen is immense. Game of Thrones, The Fall, Saving the Titanic, Fifty Dead Men Walking, and Boogaloo and Graham are just a few of the better known productions with which he has been involved.

"I've never been a leading man," he says. "But I seem to pop up in the smaller roles which suits me perfectly because I love to get on set and see how different directors and crews do things. So I am learning all the time."

One of Paul's most illuminating experiences was his two weeks working on Five Minutes of Heaven, a movie focusing on a UVF murder in which the two main roles were played by James Nesbitt and Liam Neeson, who, of course, is another Ballymena man.

"I only had a tiny role in the film, but I got to watch two top actors in action and an amazing German director called Oliver Hirschbiegel."

Meeting Neeson was a real thrill for Paul, who says: "He was really cool. I was lucky enough to have a few conversations with him about folk we both know in Ballymena."

Paul's film roles also brought him into contact with another legend from a very different world - goalkeeper Pat Jennings.

"I was cast as Pat in Shooting for Socrates, the film about the 1986 World Cup exploits of Northern Ireland," says Paul, who was kitted out with a wig to match the iconic hairstyle of the former Spurs and Arsenal goalkeeper.

But Paul was anxious to get under the Newry man's skin and contacted the IFA and Tottenham Hotspur in a bid to speak to him as part of his research into his character.

"One day the phone rang and it was Pat - we talked for ages. He answered all my questions and during the shoot in Alicante, which was doubling up as Mexico, he called me back to see how we were getting on."

Paul, who had gone to the gym to prepare for the physical demands of the role, came face to face with his alter ego at the premiere of Shooting for Socrates in Belfast. "He didn't recognise me," says Paul. "But that was hardly surprising because I'm bald!"

Paul received specialist goalkeeping coaching, but it wasn't completely foreign to him because he played in nets for his primary school. He laughs: "I dived around like a mad thing during the filming of the football action for the movie. And the wig never budged. It was well glued on."

Paul says he's rarely happier than working in films as an actor, but even more so calling the shots as a director.

He adds: "I've always had this dream of directing my own movies and one day it dawned on me that no one was going to come along and ask me to do it. I knew I would have to take the initiative myself."

Paul actually set a deadline for directing his first movie and went to film school for a year to study cameras, sound, lights and how to compose the images.

He says: "Then I focused all my energies on Made in Belfast. I knew I had contacts in the industry and I knew I had a good script. So I gathered a lot of good actors around me and rationalised things by saying that all I had to do was point a camera at them to record their performances and get a great editor to put it all together.

"Making a film can be a very difficult and complicated process if you want it to be, but if you want it to be a very simple one that is also possible."

Paul's movie bug bit when he was ill in his teens. "I was off school for quite a long time and people would bring me videos. I would sit in the house all day and watch movie after movie after movie.

"I got to know the work of the great directors like Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese and John Huston, and the top actors like Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. I also started to read books about film-making."

Paul, who had been involved in drama at school, enrolled in a course at the University of Ulster, which enabled him to study acting, playwriting and directing.

After he graduated, he found himself an agent in Belfast and his first film job was a small part in Omagh, the Paul Greengrass movie about the horrific Real IRA bomb in the Co Tyrone town in August 1998. His first theatre work could scarcely have been a greater contrast - a pantomime at the Waterfront Hall in Belfast. And he has gone on to become a stalwart of the Northern Irish theatre scene.

His latest venture was a play he wrote called Lanciatore which was staged at the Circus School in Belfast as part of the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival.

And the venue was no coincidence because the play is about a circus juggler who tries to get rich quick by borrowing money to fund a card game but loses everything.

"I wrote it several years ago," says Paul.

"It was an allegorical piece about the state of the economy here and I set it in Italy in times past because I wanted to remove it from a modern context. The play sat in my drawer after we did a rehearsed reading five years ago in the Ulster Hall and I didn't think about it again until Martin McCurry of the Rawlife Theatre Company who had seen it said he would like to put it on."

The recent cuts in the arts budget in Northern Ireland gave the play a renewed relevance. "The two theatre companies who are most at risk, Kabosh and Tinderbox, have contributed a lot to paying my mortgage and putting food on my table for the past 10 years. I have done a lot of acting and writing for them.

"I don't think most people here realise how many people who live here now have livelihoods that are at risk.

"And they don't grasp the fact that for every pound which is put into the arts, another £6 goes back into the economy.

"The Government should be doubling their arts funding, not cutting it in half."

Paul knows all about the stresses and strains of trying to make ends meet with theatre companies.

He and one of his former university lecturers, South African Terence Zeeman, ran their own group called Jigsaw who toured Ireland with the classics like Shakespeare and original plays, and did have some success at festivals in Edinburgh and Dublin.

"We kept getting turned down for funding," says Paul. "And that just took the wind out of our sails so we folded."

Famous voices behind the ads

  •  Dervla Kirwan: The Dublin born actress, who rose to fame in Ballykissangel, was the seductive voice behind the Marks & Spencer’s “This is not just food...” advertising campaign. She also made a series of adverts for BT and provided the voice-overs for television and radio commercials for Clinique make-up, Irish multichannel television, and Pampers.
  • Joanna Lumley: Her plummy upper-crust vowels were heard in the advertising campaign for insurance company Privilege, purring the catchline: “You don’t have to be posh to be privileged.” Lumley, star of The New Avengers and Absolutely Fabulous, is also renowned as a voice-over queen, promoting products such as the Royal Bank of Scotland and Twinings Tea.
  • Ruby Wax: An instantly recognisable voice is one of the greatest assets in the voice-over market and there is no mistaking Wax’s Illinois twang. The zany comedienne has provided voice-overs for the Carphone Warehouse, Archers and Pepsi.
  • Morgan Freeman: Oscar-winning actor Morgan Freeman may be best known for his “voice of God” roles on the big screen, but he’s also used his melodious voice talents on a handful of ads for Visa and the NFL.
  •  Liam Neeson: His sexy voice was heard declaring the words “I have a very particular set of skills” in the blockbuster action film Taken and he provided the voice of Aslan in the Chronicles of Narnia movie. But the Northern Ireland Tourist Board scored a massive coup last year when they secured Ballymena superstar Liam Neeson to be the voice of its TV advertising campaign.

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