ONCE upon a time, Matthew Kelly was perceived as light entertainment’s fairy godmother, waving his wand over a receptionist from Tring, so she could be transformed into Cher. However, in recent months it has been Kelly who has been transformed before our eyes from the buffoonish presenter of Stars In Their Eyes into a man of hidden depths and striking contradictions.
The catalyst, of course, has been an investigation of a historic paedophile case which began for Kelly when police visited his dressing room when he was playing Captain Hook in the pantomime Peter Pan, and arrested him.
Five weeks later, the actor was cleared after an intensive inquiry failed to find any evidence against him. His only criminal activity earned him a caution for a small amount of cocaine found in his flat.
Now Kelly begins the painful process of rebuilding his life in public. It seems unlikely he will take legal action against the police for the damage done to his career – he has already signalled that he has detested the public scrutiny he has been subjected to – but he must now realise that the easy, breezy persona he once had no longer fits. There have been too many innuendo-laced revelations about his remote marriage, and a home in Sri Lanka, managed by a houseboy.
But beyond the sleaze, a rather intriguing man has emerged. Kelly may have seemed content to play the amiable fool, yet he has had his share of personal demons, admitting that “I’ve tried every type of therapy going”, and when he was approaching 40, he enrolled at the Open University where he gained a degree in psychology.
He admits to being vain, with an ego to match his 6ft 5in size, yet can’t look at himself fully in the mirror when he shaves, preferring to focus only the part he is applying the razor to. And he was once a member of the Workers’ Revolutionary Party, and still retains strong republican sympathy and an ambivalent view of the substantial presenter fees he commands.
Despite his undeniably camp presenting style – and regular rumours about his sexuality – he has been married to Sarah, a teacher of disabled children, for 33 years. The couple met at college, married in their teens, and have two children, Ruth, a 29-year-old archaeologist, and Matt, a 31-year-old actor.
Kelly is close to his children and, on his 50th birthday had the same Celtic cross which they both wear tattooed on his bottom.
Yet he and his wife Sarah have spent most of their life together apart, her in Cheshire and him in West London, and have considered separating in the past. Sarah Kelly once said: “It’s foul being the other half of somebody who is well-known. I had no self-esteem, really, and all I could talk about was nappies and children and the things that were my life at that stage.” Now she runs a centre for young people with a progressive disability, of which Matthew is president. But while the couple holiday together, they have no plans to change their domestic arrangements despite the speculation about Kelly’s sexuality, especially when, in the Eighties, he shared a house in Bournemouth with a drag queen called Dave Lyn.
“My wife and children are the great rocks in my life,” Kelly has said. “But I’ve lived on my own for a long time and I prefer it that way. I try to be as honest about my life as I can be, but the details of it are entirely mine. If other people want to question whether I’m gay or straight, that’s up to them.”
Before becoming a camp commandant, he trained as an actor. In the Seventies, he began acting in repertory, progressing to the Liverpool Everyman at the same time as established performers such as Julie Walters, Pete Postlethwaite, Bernard Hill and Kevin Lloyd; “We were the post-Finney generation so we didn’t want anything to do with received pronunciation, thank you very much. We were a northern mafia looking down on those snobby old poofs in London.”
A clutch of acting roles and some sitcom work followed but never in sufficient quantity to make a decent living.
Then in 1981, Kelly became a household name – but as part of the hugely successful practical joke show Game For A Laugh – as one of ITV light entertainment’s Gang of Four. At first he dithered about auditioning. His sitcom at the time, Holding the Fort, was clearly failing to hold up an audience, but his co-star Peter Davison still counselled against moving into presentation. Recalls Kelly: “He said ‘you’ll never work as an actor again’ and I said ‘that’s all very well, but I’m not working as an actor now’.”
Jeremy Beadle was the ringleader on some of the cruellest pranks, while Henry Kelly epitomised the smoothie confidence trickster. More appealing were the headgirlish Sarah Kennedy and Matthew Kelly whose gung-ho attitude to daredevil stunts endeared him to the production team, although it eventually resulted in a broken leg and a season presenting the show in a wheelchair. After three years, he finally left the show. He was now famous but also virtually unemployable and deeply in debt
“I”d spent it all. When you get paid 1,000 you don’t go ‘Oh good, I’ve got 400 after I have paid everything off, let’s have a party’. You go ‘I’ve got 1,000 let’s have a party’ spend 1,200 and find yourself stuffed by the taxman.”
As a result he had to sell the family home. His wife and children moved into a bungalow while he sold his London flat and moved to Bournemouth where he stayed for the next 10 years.
His career finally took off again when he took over from Bruce Forsyth as the presenter of ITV’s You Bet in 1990 and joined Stars in Their Eyes in 1993 after original host Leslie Crowther was seriously injured in a car crash and later died.
Who knows what drives people to go on Stars in Their Eyes pretending to be, to put it bluntly, Runrig? Or, at the other end of the plectrum, why does Esther Rantzen think that tonight, or any night, she could be Edith Piaf? Yet week after week, Kelly manages to appear genuinely enthused by a pair of dentists from Pidding Hoe who emerge from the dry ice as Peters and Lee. This is the show where melodies and reputations are slaughtered onstage each week, while presumably the real Errol Brown or George Michael sit at home, surrounded by lots of good friends and six litres of vodka.
Still, it is Kelly’s non-ironic celebration of performances that are often indifferent to vocal likeness that makes you cheer. One overall winner, a Neil Diamond, was physically sick before the final, and when a faux star bursts into tears, it is Kelly who coaxes them through the rest of the interview. His jokes may be refugees from Christmas crackers but Kelly’s warmth is sincere. Offstage, he makes a point of joining the contestants for meals on the recording day and provides one-to-one pep talks and chocolates in his rest room, a nook on set that is nicknamed Rose Cottage, decorated with glitterballs, beaded curtains and leopardskin cushions.
He is often asked who he would like to be if he was a contestant on Stars in Their Eyes. “Nobody – I don’t want to be anybody else. Besides I couldn’t do what they do. I am on the Rolls-Royce of Saturday evening shows. When I leave I won’t do another presenting job because I know I’ll never get a show as good as this.”
While filming the show in Manchester he lives with his parents who, he readily admits, still treat him like a little boy – making him boiled eggs and soldiers and doing his washing.
The son of a printer and social services worker, his passion for theatre was ignited at the age of six when he was taken to see a pantomime at the Ardwick Empire in his home city of Manchester. His childhood was blighted by a lack of confidence partly due to his towering height, although he learned to deal with bullies by playing the clown. His parents, he said, accepted his decision to be an actor.
He still thinks of the theatre as his spiritual home, and regards Stars In Their Eyes as the day job which subsidises his work there; “What I find bizarre is that I get given shed loads of money being on telly when I would probably do it for nothing. After all, everybody wants to be famous. Everyone wants to play dress-up and be the centre of attention.”
Ironically, the past few months could bring a fresh appreciation and attention to Kelly’s thespian abilities. Critics once doubted his ability to tackle darker roles such as Captain Hook, or tragic figures like Lennie in Of Mice and Men.
Now he has been revealed as a personally complex man rather than just the jocular Den Mother of a spangly Saturday night karaoke. How on earth has he managed to hide all this for so long? Perhaps there is more to Matthew Kelly’s acting skills than meets the eye.