Belfast Telegraph

Why our moneyed A-listers are worth their mega-bucks

By Gail Walker

So now we know how Jimmy Nesbitt is doing on the cash front. And Christine Bleakley. And Paddy Kielty. And Colin Murray. And Sir Ken Branagh. And Liam Neeson. And, inevitably, Stephen Nolan.

I know that many people are finding it hard to make ends meet here, what with spending cuts and the recession, but does anyone really feel much better for knowing the fiscal minutiae of our homegrown celebrities? For getting the chance to gawp at their balance sheets?

I mean, do I seriously resent Nesbitt, Bleakley, Kielty, Murray, Branagh, Neeson or Nolan's earning power? Er, no. Not least because I couldn't do what they do to earn a crust. I won't be fronting a Hollywood blockbuster, presenting a national daytime live TV show or anchoring a phone-in radio or TV show any time soon. People wouldn't pay good money to hear me crack jokes or direct a Disney blockbuster.

At worst, I reckon most of us probably look at what these stars earn, shrug and mutter, "Lucky them", and I suspect we also have the grace and humility to say that we just don't have their gifts.

Which makes the oddly censorious and shock expose tone that always seems to accompany reports about celebs and their cash all the more off-key and baffling. It's as if our celebs were engaged in something a bit shifty.

Except they're not. On the contrary, they're a credit to this place, demonstrating yet again that we punch above our weight when it comes to entertaining the world (or, in Nolan's case, entertaining 'Outraged of Finaghy').

We should be proud that we have people commanding top dollar in their chosen fields. More than that, we should be thankful because success breeds success. Without Neeson and Nesbitt, would we now be watching Richard Dormer in Fortitude or slipping into multiplexes to watch Jamie Dornan portraying the modern Don Juan, Christian Grey?

I doubt it - and that's not to downplay the efforts of NI Screen and other arts groups in developing talent - but it's a simple fact that people are inspired by people, not government grants, not discussion papers, not even the building of a studio. Without dreams, it's all just bricks and paper. When someone from here becomes a big star, suddenly it all becomes more tangible, within grasp, worth reaching out for.

We've such a strange attitude here when it comes to success; it's almost as if people who make it are immediately regarded to have got above themselves. It's like the L'Oreal ad in reverse: "Because you're not worth it". Witness the sneering at the financial struggles of George Best and Alex Higgins. Yes, they squandered their money (despite the apocryphal Besty witticisms) but they also lived full lives and achieved the sort of sublime triumphs that most of us wouldn't even have the nerve to dream about.

Besides, thanks to our oddly paradoxical attitude to success here, our stars can't really win anyway. Make money and keep your pile and you're mean. Spend it like a sailor and you're a fool. Any chance we could make our mind up?

Let's be frank - in most cases becoming a success involves years of hard graft. Stephen Nolan works like a dog. He's on Radio Ulster by 9am and at least three days a week on Five Live until 1am. Then there's the TV shows.

Neeson and Nesbitt started in provincial theatre here - hardly a feather-bedded existence - before taking their chances and moving to London and the States and (yes, I know it's a cliché) re-inventing themselves. Neeson went from being a thoughtful, cerebral actor in films like Lamb to the action hero of the Taken films, Nesbitt from the essentially comedic actor of Cold Feet to his compelling turn in The Missing. Who could forget the pair of them in the mesmerising Five Minutes of Heaven, about a loyalist killer and his victim's family?

And all of the stars whose earnings were scrutinised come from what we like to call rather ordinary backgrounds - working-class or lower middle class. Nolan is from the Ballygomartin Road in Belfast. Christine, who grew up in Newtownards, didn't have a relative working in TV who could put in a good word. Neither Neeson nor Nesbitt had luvvie family names to trade on.

No, nothing was handed to these people. They are all self-made, making the most of their remarkable talents and working tirelessly to get their lucky breaks. Do we seriously expect them to turn down the money? To say, "Thanks, but honest I don't deserve it, give it to Jeremy Clarkson, Brad Pitt, Amanda Holden?" I wouldn't. Would you? Honestly? They are all paid the going rate for their talents. We may or may not rate those talents but somebody does and is willing to pay top dollar.

They should be an inspiration to us. We in Northern Ireland sometimes display a rather cautious, conservative mindset - what was good enough for our mothers and fathers is good enough for us. But is it really?

Do we not need dreamers, risk takers and damned hard workers to show us what is possible.

  • Follow me on Twitter @GWalker9

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