Memories of Brian Behan / 22 October 2011
It’s now over ten years since the death of Brian Behan. Brendan Behan, the playwright, and Dominic Behan, the singer-songwriter, were his brothers. His mother, Kathleen, was the subject of his book, Mother Of All The Behans, which was turned into a stage show and ran on Broadway. I first met Brian when I asked him to be in the Brighton Fleadh, an Irish Festival I organised in 1995. His play, Hallelujah I’m A Bum, caused a bit of a stir that summer.
A journalist friend of his phoned up Conservative Central Office. Posing as a loyal Tory he asked them if they knew what was going on. Brian’s play opened with the PM and ‘Mr Portaloo’ in a compromising position over the PM’s desk. Whoever was on the other end of the phone went mad. ‘We’ll close him down, cut off his grant, prosecute him!’
Brian wasn’t in receipt of a grant and he was never prosecuted. But the journalist had his story, two columns in the Independent, and Brian was the hero of the Festival. We went on to devise Brian Behan, Live And Uncensored, and I was in his next play, The Begrudgers.
The theatre was in Brian’s blood, for his uncle, P.J. Rourke, managed the Queen’s Theatre in Dublin, and the Dubliner’s love of a good show was evident in all he did The Begrudgers was ostensibly about the Kavanagh libel case, but also had skits about Bishop Casey, growing up in the Georgian slums of Dublin, the Christian Brothers - 'they were neither Christian nor Brotherly' – and a few songs as well.
Brian had a trestle table at the back of the stage with a selection of hats scattered on it. If he needed to change characters he'd turn round and stick on a hat, just like that. It was like watching an Irish Tommy Cooper. If he dried he’s look out at the audience and say, 'What's the next f*cking line?' Pure music hall.
We played quite a few venues, including the Pavilion, Brighton; the Hammersmith and Fulham Irish Centre; and the Battersea Arts Centre. One night in Battersea I had to make a quick change in the wings. I needed to get into clerical gear fast – I had a home-made dog collar, black shirt, and a set of goofy teeth I got from a joke shop for the full Alistair Sim effect.
I nearly missed my cue but I stumbled on stage with everything half on and half off. A pal of ours starting honking in the front row and he set me off. I tried to stifle my mirth but I couldn’t hold it in. I gave a big laugh and watched in horror as the joke shop teeth shot across the stage. I dived after them and popped them back in, mugging away for all I was worth. It brought the house down.
Brian was always up to mischief. Brighton was advertising itself as ‘The Place To Be’. Brian launched his own campaign, highlighting the lack of public toilets in the town, ‘The Place To Pee’. Then he hit on ‘SID’, Shut It Down, a campaign to replace the Houses of Parliament with a ‘reasonably honest computer, the Swiss system, referenda for everything’. He also launched the Grey Party to mobilise Pensioner Power, and would have a made a great MP. That’s if he didn’t manage to close down the House of Commons first.
It’s been said of Brian that his politics owed as much to Groucho as they did to Karl Marx. He would be in his element sending up Nick Clegg, Liam Fox, and Oliver Letwin. Brian was great gas.