Willard Willis | The Forgotten Man of Irish Showbiz
I never thought that I would interview Willard Willis. He was a strange case, at the same time, an enigma, people not sure if he was dead or alive, yet internationally famous and renowned.
Beginning his career as a kitchen boy in the family hotel in Offaly, he soon joined a Mayo showband, the Ballyhaunis Volcanics but left the Volcanics before the band’s co-operation with the IRA was revealed. Talent-spotted by execs at RTÉ, he started his television career in 1965, hosting a short-lived music show, Music for the Young before hosting Escalado-themed betting game-show Win A Penny!, whilst building his name as a cabaret star. For fifteen years, he was the leading star on Irish television, but throughout these golden years, he had been haunted by failed attempts at breaking the pivotal UK market.
[perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”#F48A21″ class=”” size=””]Willis was offered work on the QE2. Initially believing this to be a cabaret stint, he found himself astonishingly appointed as deputy head-chef.[/perfectpullquote]
By 1980, he was consistently topping the ratings on his variety showcase Willis or Won’t He? but tiring of a restrictive RTÉ contract, went to the extremes of staging his own kidnapping in January 1981, while he was already in negotiations with ITV regions. RTÉ eventually agreed on terminating the contract – and Willis was finally allowed to leave for Britain.
But he had arrived at the wrong time, and after schlepping as an in-vision continuity announcer, representing LWT as a votes spokesperson on Search For A Star, and hosting a short-lived cooking show, Food for Friendly Sorts, sponsored by the Quakers. This would lead Willis to become a chef himself. He opened up a restaurant in London, and in 1984, was offered work on the QE2. Initially believing this to be a cabaret stint, he found himself astonishingly appointed as deputy head-chef. Within months, he was the renowned head chef of the QE2, serving royalty, Hollywood stars and dignitaries.
But in his native Ireland, Willis, less than five years earlier, the most famous man in the country was forgotten. The Irish News reported him as being homeless and begging on the streets of Bergerac, Montreal, while an Irish gossip rag mentioned him as having died of a drug overdose while performing in a nightclub in Duncan, Idaho. Whilst this tabloid speculation went on, Willis was being celebrated, having become chef at the Waldorf Hotel in New York, but soon the tabloids caught up with him, and he went mad. Still living in Manhattan, he continues working as a chef, but returns to Dublin every so often.
I met Willard at the Burlington hotel. He came in, dressed in a tweed suit and flat cap like a Culchie farmer done up for the Grand National, his chin hidden in an unfamiliar mass of beard growth, his eyes concealed behind shades. “So, shall we begin?” He proclaims in his grand, brown voice.
“Yes.” I add. “So, what was your early life like?”
“Well,” Willis begins, “I grew up in Offaly. My mother and father ran a quite popular little hotel, with something I suppose approximating a restaurant. And this was during the Emergency, so I’d go up a hill and listen on a little radio to the BBC, on a very bad signal, to Tudsbury’s War Reports and the Light Programme. That’s when I knew I wanted to be in showbusiness, but I also had to work in the kitchens. My father was insistent on that.”
“So, how did you get into the Ballyhaunis Volcanics?”
“I left school when I was fourteen. We all did then.” Willis chortles. “And obviously, I was working home, but a lad I knew at school named Dinny formed a band, called the Four Lads. And I was the comic relief, the joker but I played the piano as well, and we played Limerick, Leitrim, Cork, and we did go to Dublin, but a few years later, we were in Mayo. And we met Fergus Filletti, who was a Scottish-Italian who ran some fish and chip shops and ice cream parlours, and had been looking for a band.”
“Was he in Mayo?” I ask.
“Yes, his wife was from Ballyhaunis. And the showbands were going on. And he needed an act, a band to play a dance-hall he was running. And he was very cheap, was Fergus, so he thought, instead of having to get a band in, he’d essentially manufacture a band – the Ballyhaunis showband, and so he got me in as piano, but taught me to play the guitar. I was terrible at it, but he said to me, “Willy boy, you look good, the girlies will like you, you know. And this was 1962, so we were all into rock and roll.”
“Were the other lads friends?”
“No!” exclaims Willis. “Not at all. They were alright, I mean, at the beginning, we were quite friendly, but by the end, sure, you couldn’t find a band of more hateful bastards than that lot. Del Blade, or Seamus as he was, was a real go-boy.”
“What do you mean, Willard?” I ask.
“Well, he was a delinquent, I suppose.” Willis ruminates. “He came from a broken home. I think his father was a drinker, and that ran in the blood, shall we say? So, he was an aggressive little creep. Intimidating in many ways. And he thought he was the bee’s knees, but he saw himself as not a showband guy, but a sort of American rock and roller who just happened to be born and raised in Mayo. And he lied, he’d say his father was a Canadian, and tried to be real hip, real cool, but he wasn’t cool at all. The other lads, Gnorman O’Flearney and Dave Agnew were fine, but they were colourless, and apart from Del and myself, nobody wanted to be in showbusiness. It was a lark, but we made money. And that surprised us, because there were ten showbands per county at that stage. At least. You know, and it was…”
“Yes, you’d tour up and down, up and down, from Belfast to Cork to Leitrim to Armagh to Galway to Kilkenny. And these were not great places. No bathroom facilities, the bar would only serve mineral water and orange squash, if you were lucky. And nights spent pissing in fields while girls would ask for your autograph, it was hellish.”
“Were there creative differences?”
“Well, we were quite ambitious, more ambitious than say the other bands around at that time. We were very much a rock and roll band, hence the name. Fergus wanted to call us the Ballyhaunis Showband. Very on the nose, and since only one of us came from Ballyhaunis, we wanted a different name, and a different look. So, Del wanted to call us the Volcanics, because he wanted to be Gene Vincent, or someone like that, but Fergus said, “If you want to be the Volcanics, you gotta be the Ballyhaunis Volcanics.” So, we were. And Del wanted to write his own songs. But they were awful. No one else really wrote their own songs. We were cover bands, tributes almost, but not just to one group.”
[perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”#F48A21″ class=”” size=””]We did smuggle guns and stuff, but nothing major[/perfectpullquote]
“Why did you split?”
“Del was conflicted. His sister had been dating Diamond Joe Devlin, who was at the time one of the IRA’s leading men, but this was pre-69, so the IRA were not a going concern, and I became friends with Joe. We became quite close, closer than Del and I were…”
“Were you involved with the IRA?”
Willis admits, “We did smuggle guns and stuff, but nothing major. And by the Troubles, we were split. I left in 1964, the band split in January 1965, and Del formed his own group, “Del Blade and his Volcanics” shortly after, and Gnorm and Dave got some other failed showbanders at the same time and called themselves the Irish Volcanics, so there were two Volcanics at the time, and Del moved to Canada, and became a sort of Irish folk star under his real name. And the other lads just dropped out, became car salesmen or something.”
“So, what did you do after?” I ask.
“I went into cabaret, did some pantomime, and I was spotted by Gunnar Rugheimer, who was a big Swedish fella, at RTÉ. And they were looking for a music show host, and this was going to be something like Top of the Pops, but local bands would play, and I suppose I was recognisable at the time, so I got it, and enjoyed it, was six or seven weeks, then whatever was going on, they didn’t think it was a going concern, so I was told, the series was over, but would you like to host some other stuff. And I said, “Yes, anything.” I did continuity announcements, and eventually they had a gameshow called Win a Penny! which was a horse racing-themed series based on betting on a Scalextric track with model horses on it, and it was a terrible show, cheap, shoddy, but I got a name, and I began to do anything for RTÉ. And I became a star. And began to do cabaret, and more panto, and then I got a call.”
“Was this from London?”
“Yes, Borgen Strassen was a friend of Gunnar, he was an impresario, shall we say? Dog racing was his forte, and he’d done some erotic stage shows, but he wanted to do a West End musical, as a way of legitimising himself. And he wanted to do a musical of the works of James Joyce, and there was a new character he’d written especially for me called Eejit Michael, who was a sort of comic relief, I suppose, but I was invited, and RTÉ decided to put me on contract for six months, and the show was going to be on for those six months, and I begged to be let go, begged, but RTÉ ummed and aahed for a while, and by the time I was free, Borgen had fled England, he couldn’t stage the show in England cos of rights issues, so tried to do the show in New York.”
“Initially, I was told so, but it was off-Broadway, but then off-off-Broadway, and I don’t think it ever got a proper show, it fell apart, and Borgen died in Florida, in 1970, I think, his speedboat collided on a pier, and he was thrown off. But my big break never came.”
“Do you regret that?”
“Yes, but by the time the contract finished, I was offered to do cabaret in South Africa, which was very exotic. I’d gotten good notices in Dublin, and there was an Irish guy in Johannesburg, who ran a very popular cabaret night, because there was no television out there. So, I flew out there, and it was…”
“Apartheid had started.” Willis dryly replies. “But it wasn’t that. It was the atmosphere. I was flown out miles away, to the most remote place you could imagine. The South African airport was as dead as buildings got, a caravan outside the decaying Romanesque ruins of an “airline office” that to my eyes was nothing more than a coloured bordello, Indian maidens swanning themselves with fig leaves in the morning sun. Why I had ever journeyed to this small backwater hamlet on the other side of the world was a question that even I could not answer. All I knew truly was that a great man needs to die for thirty days in his life, and in those thirty days, he should open himself to new experiences and a few old ones too. I was told a man named Steyner would be meeting me at the “office”. By now, I had realised that Steyner was a mercenary hired to collect me, because the territory was filled with these aggressive African anti-white revolutionary guys, who would kill any white guy who’d pass through, and everyone out there was a racist arsehole, and I was supposed to be there for a month. Within a week, I felt sick and I told the Irish guy, who was so nice… and yet I didn’t like it out there, and he wanted me there, but he understood, and he paid me in full, wished me luck and I got out, flew to Germany, and spent the next three weeks touring Europe, as a tourist, but I got some jobs there as a singer, in clubs, just to kill time, and once I returned home, RTÉ were very obliging, and said, “We want to give you a twenty year contract.” Which had obviously been never done, and I was so sick from my experiences in South Africa, I said yes.”
Does he regret this?
“Yes, yes, I do. If it had been a ten year contract, yes, fine, but twenty years was very restrictive. I could do panto in the winter, but I was offered to do the BBC at one point, and I did think of getting out, but RTÉ paid me so much that I ignored that, and it wasn’t a big show, it was a children’s thing, Play School or one of those, but it would have broken me into the UK, and yet, RTÉ had these Live at the Gaiety shows and I was a good compere, and by that time I had met girls…”
Did Willis ever think of settling down?
“I was afraid of having a family, because I didn’t want to be strung down. I like new experiences. I have nephews and nieces, I like kids, but I didn’t want to have a home life and be restricted by family and I have a big enough family as it is, the youngest of nine kids, so I knew that a big family wasn’t the best.”
Flash-forward fifteen years later…
“Oh, that.” Willis sighs. “Right, so in 1977, they gave me Willis or Won’t He?, a very successful variety hour – with Spunk McClarty and myself, the still lovely Spunk McClarty. And we did sketches, we had guests, we interviewed people, and it was great, but by ’81, though we were beating Gaybo and that evil man…”
“Mike Murphy, I had the Live Mike first, that was my idea. It was Willis or Won’t He? but on a grander scale, and I wanted to go to ITV and I had pitched them Willis or Won’t He?, but I was drunk, told Mike in the bar, and the next year, we had to change our plans because the Live Mike was our show but different, and we became more different to stop being like Mike. And I gave up alcohol so nothing like that would happen again, and then as I tried to get ITV to do it, not only was my contract barring me, but then London Weekend Television did Game For A Laugh, and there were similarities, not big ones, but Jeremy Beadle and Matthew and Henry Kelly, whom I know vaguely, he interviewed me back in the day, they did it so well…”
“But you were getting sick of RTÉ?”
“Yes, our guests weren’t great. The Goombay Dance Band, and then we had a regular act – the McBurnitee Clan, an Irish-Canadian-Luxembourgish family, a sort of poor man’s Kelly Family who sang madrigals and rebel songs, headed by a dissident Republican and his wife, a former Jonestown associate. They never cut their hair, never washed, like a Bigfoot family reunion. Disgusting. But the eldest daughter had married an Irish traveller singer, born and raised in Liverpool named Frank Shorthampton, very good, like Joe Longthorne but with talent. And he was very talented, and almost hit it big, he won Search for A Star, and yet I think he was a homebird, and eventually quit, and now lives in Cork, but he joined us and he was the one who told me that I should quit. And I asked RTÉ, and they said that it was a twenty year contract, I could do another five years, and the contract would be up, but LWT were already interested in me, and I told Frank in the bar, “well, what should I do? Go missing?” and he said, “Yes.” So, we got a few drama school lads and rounded them up, pushed me in a van and drove me off and we filmed it as a joke for the show, so we wouldn’t be arrested, and I was in hiding for a week, in Portugal, and an Irishman saw me, and said, “they’re lookin’ for you back ‘ome!” and I said, “Who?” in an English accent, and he walked off, thought I was someone else. And then someone told RTÉ, and they decided to cancel it, without going to the press and saying it was deliberate, so we did one more series, and then I was off.”
So, what did Willis do next…
“I did the tallies on Search for A Star, LWT then got me in as a continuity man, which was great, especially when people in London would see you and say hello to you, very personal job, the thing is – I was always promised a big shiny floor light entertainment show, and I never got it. I would regret it, but then they knew I had a cooking background, so they asked would I host a food show, working with chefs on Food for Friendly Sorts. And I met various people there, and it reignited my love of cooking, so I decided to open a restaurant in London, as a lark, a good little café, and that did well, and then I was offered, out of the blue, the QE2, because I had become friends with the entertainments officer, Erno Sagar, and I thought it’d be a cabaret stint, but no, he had recommended me as a chef, and that was an experience, and I was there on the Atlantic route for two years, then the management of the Waldorf called, they’d tasted my Waldorf salad, but as soon as I joined the Waldorf hotel, I just felt sick, I went mad, I really did.”
“Anxiety, just nerves, I needed a rest. I’d worked non-stop for thirty years, and I was about to turn fifty, so I reluctantly had to give up, so I went to a mental hospital, and spent a few months there. And I then retired, officially, and then as you get older, you get bored, so I got a little job at Waldorf’s.”
“Not the Waldorf hotel, they don’t want me there anymore, but Waldorf’s Brothel. It’s part-time but I bring a real sense of legitimacy to the food, you know.”
It is nice to hear that Willis is happy, in his retirement. Does he like Ireland now?
“It’s moved on. It’s like New York in many ways, but I try to get back here every so often. I might move back, but New York possessed me, and it’s a real internationalia, you know. Though so is Dublin. Who knows? One day, I may get sick of the Big Apple and want to take a bite of shamrock instead.”