Matthew Kelly - Oration
Honourable Pro-Chancellor, I have pleasure in presenting Matthew Kelly for the award of an Honorary Fellowship from Liverpool John Moores University.
The transformation of Matthew Kelly from light-entertainment presenter to accomplished actor has been hugely impressive. As one critic observed, “Who'd have thought that the man who used to present You Bet! would one day win an Olivier Award?” He has demonstrated his acting ability again and again, whether as a spine-tingling serial killer in ITV's Cold Blood, or alongside his son Matt Rixon in the Liverpool Everyman's production of Samuel Beckett's Endgame, no one would dispute Dominic Cavendish’s view that “Matthew is the master of hidden depths, an acting chameleon who stands comparison with the best in the business.”
Born David Allan Kelly in 1950 in Urmston, to Ron a printer and Olive, a social services worker, Matthew first became interested in the theatre when he saw a pantomime at the age of 6 at the Ardwick Empire in Manchester. He recalls that the theatre was ‘warm, magical, and exciting’.
Thereafter, he took every opportunity to attend the Urmston Musical Theatre – where, in 1963, he experienced his first notable role as Louis in an acclaimed production of The King and I. By this time, Matthew was at Urmston Grammar School where he had to balance the academic demands with his passion for acting.
On leaving school, after a brief spell as a bingo caller and some television work, including making custard pies for Mr Pastry, he enrolled at the Manchester Polytechnic School of Theatre. There he met and married Sarah Grey – he describes Sarah, a teacher of disabled children, and their two children; Matt an actor and Ruth an archaeologist, as the great rocks in his life.
Following graduation, his professional debut was at the Pavilion Theatre in Rhyl, afterwards appearing regularly in the 1970s at Liverpool's Everyman Theatre alongside the so-called “Northern Mafia”, a group which included Julie Walters, Bill Nighy and Pete Postlethwaite.
Matthew's first major TV appearances were in the early 1980s as a panellist in the game show Punchlines and in the sitcom Holding The Fort, but his real TV breakthrough was when he became part of the original team on Game for a Laugh alongside Jeremy Beadle, Henry Kelly and Sarah Kennedy.
In 1990, by then a household name but deeply in debt, his career took off again when he succeeded Bruce Forsyth as the presenter of You Bet! This heralded an extended period working in light entertainment shows: next came Granada’s Stars in Their Eyes which he took over from Leslie Crowther and hosted for the following 12 years with great success. Described by one writer as the show where melodies and reputations are slaughtered onstage each week, Matthew was widely admired for his genuine enthusiasm for the contestants, his warmth and his sincerity, his belief that every act that ever appeared on the show was fantastic.
Despite his highly successful light entertainment career on TV, Matthew continued to take occasional acting roles during the 1990s, for example in Channel 4’s comedy, Relative Strangers, and in the theatre production of The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari. He also made time to complete an Open University degree in Psychology.
For the past few years, he has returned to acting full time. He has appeared in several films, and on television he was Mr Turveydrop in the BBC’s Bleak House, a policeman in Last of the Summer Wine, a serial killer in Cold Blood, the explorer Giovanni Belzoni in BBC One's Egypt: the Pharaoh and the Snowman and The Temple of the Sands, and earlier this year, a psychiatrist in Casualty.
Matthew received widespread praise for his performance as Lennie in the 2003 touring production of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. At Liverpool Playhouse he received a standing ovation for a performance that critic Charles Spencer said "touched greatness". This performance won him the 2004 Best Actor Olivier Award over a distinguished nominee list which included Kenneth Branagh and Michael Sheen.
Since then he has frequently received excellent reviews for his stage appearances in plays, including Mirandolina, Twelfth Night, Forgotten Voices, Troilus and Cressida, Waiting for Godot and Amadeus where he played a highly acclaimed Antonio Salieri. For one critic, his performance as George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at Trafalgar Studios in 2009 proved beyond all doubt that he had matured into an actor of significant stature. Currently he is appearing at the Gielgud Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue in Lend me a Tenner: The Musical.
Matthew has received wide recognition for his work. In addition to the aforementioned Oliver Best Actor Award, he won a silver medal at the New York International Programming Awards in 2007, and a Royal Television Society Award for Best Performer in Drama in 2008, both for Cold Blood. And last year, he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Chester for his outstanding contribution to television, drama, and the performing arts.
Matthew is President of the Urmston Musical Theatre where it all began and away from the theatre, he is President of the NeuroMuscular centre in Winsford, a charity co-founded 20 years ago by his wife Sarah. Each year the charity hosts a Spirit of Christmas Carol Service in Chester Cathedral, which Matthew leads.
In 1981, fellow actor Peter Davison counselled Matthew against presenting Game for a Laugh, saying, “You’ll never work as an actor again.” How wrong he was. Matthew Kelly found fame as a great presenter of light entertainment on TV but in recent years has established himself firmly as an actor to be reckoned with, an actor of hidden depths, an actor who touches greatness. He continues to make an outstanding contribution to the performing arts, and we are delighted to honour him today.
Thus I have great pleasure in presenting Matthew Kelly, this most distinguished son of our region, for admission to our highest honour of Fellow of Liverpool John Moores University.
Professor Frank Sanderson
Monday 11 July 2011