Why William gives May McFettridge a run for her money

Stand-up comedian William Caulfield chats to Joanne Savage about his deep admiration for Jimmy Young, the sheer joy of starring in panto at the Millennium Forum and keeping it lively on cruise ships

Friday, 10th December 2021, 9:26 pm
William Caulfield plays the nanny in this year's production of Sleeping Beauty at Londonderry's Millennium Forum

“John is brilliant, but I’m not bad either - we’re different. Really he dominates panto in Belfast and I’ve taken the North West as my domain in response. But although I won’t tell you my best lines in case he steals them, I will admit I’ve even worked in a few bits on Brexit - I mean I tell the beauty we can’t have pigs in blankets for tea because the shelves are empty because of the protocol. It’s hard to escape the issue of Brexit at the minute, since it’s everywhere right now, so I just had to work that in.
“John and I actually go back a long way. There was a time, now over 15 years ago, when we actually did panto together at the Grand Opera House. Those were fun times.”

Caulfield is now 62, but quick fires: “I don’t look it though now, do I? And that’s because like Dorian Gray I have a picture in the attic”.

He grew up in Lurgan and began his career as an entertainer out of a deep love of Jimmy Young, the late great Northern Irish comic who made everyone laugh about Ulster fishwives with varicose veins and innumerable other topics.

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The Lurgan-born comic, 62, was led into show business through his avowed love of Jimmy Young

He remains best known as a comedian for his ‘Our Jimmy’ shows completed for BBC Northern Ireland. But for now it’s all about panto (oh yes it is!)

“My panto dame is a mixture of some of the comedy characters I created that were inspired by Jimmy Young such as Lily O’Condriac (she was a wee Belfast housewife who was dour and acerbic) and my panto character is really her with a lot of make-up on her and outrageously colourful and flamboyant dresses.

“This is my 16th year doing panto and it’s just magical and I love it, not only because it’s so intrinsic to Christmas, a time of the year  that I love the most, but also because as a stand-up comedian I spend a lot of the year on my own, performing on cruise ships, which is solitary, whereas with panto it’s this great ensemble of people working together and so it’s great fun, brilliant craic and often hard to deliver your lines without falling about laughing. And I love panto because it’s about pure joy for children, isn’t it? It’s always such an uplifting thing to be involved in. And with theatres having been closed because of the pandemic, it’s amazing to be treading the boards again.”

Caulfield is razor sharp, a brilliant raconteur and although he has done a lot of TV work and stand-up performances in theatres across Ulster, he is now committed to making people laugh on the aforementioned cruise ships on which he performs to an older demographic from all over the world.

Before going into comedy, Caulfield gave serious consideration to becoming a police officer

The Donaghadee based performer adds: “That means I can’t be lazy and stick to Northern Irish comedy which is all about Catholics and Protestants and flags and stuff, whereas on the ships I have people from the US, Australia, New Zealand and all over which means I have to stick to material that is more broadly accessible.

“I mean I can’t get into politics really because say you have a lot of Americans and half of them are Republicans and the other half are Democrats and so you are constrained because you don’t want to offend people, so I have to keep it general and I tend to do comedy based around universal themes like the absurdity of life and the manifold challenges of getting older, medical problems, seeing doctors, relationships and struggling to get up the stairs.

“But I love appealing to this more middle-aged demographic because a lot of the time in their zeal to be provocative and edgy and cool, comedians tend to focus on younger audiences. Of course you still want to be a bit provocative, because comedy is pretty much based on rebellion in a lot of ways, but I go for a gentler style of humour and more silly stuff than anything else and that’s what keeps people happy as the cruise ships keep moving.”

Caulfield grew up in an evangelically Christian household where he wasn’t allowed to watch TV.

William as a cherubic faced two-year-old in fetching cardigan

“It was frowned upon. I mean, my family were and are good, God-fearing people. When I was growing up the swings in the park were tied up on a Sunday and on a Sunday I wasn’t allowed to go out on my bicycle. That’s the way it was, I accepted it, and I don’t think it did me the slightest bit of harm. If I had to go back I wouldn’t change my childhood for the world.

“So no TV, but my brother had recorded a James Young programme onto a reel to reel tape recorder. I was listening to that and I was hearing this great man making people laugh and cry as he did his bit on stage and changing between all these different and very astutely observed characters, men and women alike, of the kind you could have met throughout Northern Ireland; they were like the wee woman down the street, or the man around the corner. 

“There are actually to this day recordings of me somewhere, aged approximately ten or 11, impersonating the late and great James Young.”

Love for Our Jimmy Young led him to a life in comedy, a career he enjoys so much that he feels “I haven’t done a day’s work since I was about 30 and that’s what happens when you do something you love. I am very privileged.”

‘NO BETTER FEELING THAN MAKING PEOPLE LAUGH’

As a youngster William dreamt not of comedy and treading the boards, but of one day being able to zoom about on a motorbike with the wind in his hair, and then becoming a cop.

”When I did seriously consider becoming a policeman it was at the height of the Troubles and my mother more or less told me that she would really prefer it if I did not go down that route and so I didn’t. “And if I hadn’t listened to my mother I would either be dead by now probably or instead retired by now on a huge pension which is certainly a source of regret.”

Instead of law enforcement William swerved into stand-up comedy and entertainment instead.

“I don’t regret my decision because I really love what I do. There is no better feeling than being able to make people laugh.

“When you tell a story or deliver a gag or a punch line and it goes down well and the room is filled with laughter, as a performer there is no better feeling or higher reward, although obviously the money helps too.“

‘YOU ALWAYS NEED SOMEONE IN LIFE WHEN TO TELL YOU TO CATCH YOURSELF ON’

Like many of us, the pandemic was particularly difficult for William as a performer. Across Britain, as theatres closed, entertainers like him were left unable to do what they love most, and Caulfield’s calendar was turned upside down.

“Initially I was certain this pandemic would be over in a month and I felt relaxed about it, and thought I would just sit there and read the paper and then maybe go for a walk like Boris was telling me and everyone else to do,” he recalls.

“But as time went on my phone was pinging constantly with cancellations. But at least I knew that it wasn’t my fault and that all entertainers were in the same boat. That was how I dealt with it mentally.

“Then I decided to do the couch to 5k challenge. At the start of it I could barely run even for one minute. Eventually, two days ahead of schedule I ran the 5k.

“To this present day I will go out for a three or four kilometre run at least once a week.

Then also to distract myself in lockdown I bought a scooter and then a motorbike and I am doing lessons in order to get my motorbike licence. When I was 16 or 17 all I wanted to do was go really fast down road and now here I am finally about to do it while close to retirement age. Isn’t life strange?”

He is philosophical about the hugely difficult situation the pandemic has plunged us all into though and very much feels we must press on and have a return to normality as soon as possible

“At my age I have the wisdom to look at the situation and realise that this too shall pass.

“We’ve got to live with Covid now and that is the reality that we need to face up to.

“We can’t shut everything down again because it would be far too detrimental to the economy and the Northern Ireland Executive cannot afford to shut everything down again because they don’t have the money to put me and others like me on furlough again nor do they have the money to pay self-employment grants.”

William is passionate about his faith - “my relationship between myself and God comes first”, confides that his grandchildren make him laugh the most, has too many best friends to list (“because if I leave anyone out and they read this they’ll be onto me saying, hey, I thought we were best friends?) and firmly believes that even while he has enjoyed an amount of fame as an entertainer that you always need someone “when to tell you to really catch yourself on. My friends keep me grounded.”

Q&A: ‘I’D HAVE MARTIN LUTHER KING AND MARGARET THATCHER TO TEA’

Tell us some of your earliest memories?

I remember being in a cot and spotting a spider which terrified me and I remember my mother coming in and putting that out.

Then another memory that for some reason really stands out is that when I was about six, one day I was the first in the classroom and it had this big black imposing clock with Roman numerals that was ticking in this imposing way, and it scared me for some reason, the sound of it ticking unstoppably as I stood there on my own. Maybe I was having some sort of existential crisis? And so I left the classroom and walked a full two miles home on my own through a busy urban area. Few questions were asked about how I managed that distance on my own.

Can you describe yourself in three words?

A nice fella.

Tell us about your school days?

I went to King’s Park Primary in Lurgan, then Lurgan Boys Junior High School and then Lurgan College. The subjects I excelled in were English language and literature, but in particular the former. At one stage I even thought about becoming an English teacher such was my deep love for and devotion to the subject.

Your ideal way to spend a day off?

I would get a few friends together and have a coffee, then a meal, and I would end the day lying there on the sofa in front of the fire with my arms around my two dogs ideally watching a Netflix documentary.

If you could have a dream dinner party to which you could invite anyone from history who would you bring?. 

Martin Luther King, Margaret Thatcher and Joseph from the book of Genesis. 

What would you make them to eat and drink?

A nice carrot and coriander soup to begin with, then my signature meatloaf dish with potatoes and vegetables and my favourite home-made lemon drizzle cake which I rate very highly. They can have a selection of red or white wine but I’ll stick to lemonade as I am teetotal.

Tell us your favourite film?

Dead Poets’ Society.

Your favourite book?

The Bible.

What kind of music do you most enjoy?

Country and western. My favourite artists are Johnny Cash and Charlie Pride. I actually had the pleasure of meeting him and working with him at the BBC.

If you had a magic wand and could change anything at all about Northern Ireland overnight what would it be?

Bring back direct rule! No, I would create an official opposition in Stormont.

Finish the sentence. Love is...A many splendoured thing.

The meaning of life is...To prepare for eternity.

Sleeping Beauty starring William Caulfield runs at the Millennium Forum in Londonderry until January 2.