Noel PURCELL (1900-1985)
Purcell began his show business career at the age of 12 in Dublin’s Gaiety Theatre. Later, he toured Ireland in a vaudeville act with Jimmy O’Dea.
Stage-trained in the classics in Dublin, he moved into films in 1934; becoming well known for his huge white beard and cheery Irish brogue.
In his biography of Purcell, writer Philip Bryan gives an account of Noel’s appearance on This Is Your Life...
In February 1958, Eileen Purcell received a phone call purporting to come from a woman’s weekly magazine explaining that they were planning a series of articles on the wives of well-known people. Eileen was reticent, and she said she would think about it if they would ring her back. She discussed the matter with Noel, who encouraged her to go ahead, so she made an arrangement to receive these people in her home. On the appointed morning the door-bell rang and standing on the door step were Kathleen Andrews (Eamonn Andrews' sister) and Fred O’Donovan. They seemed to be aware that Noel was not at home and revealed that they were representing This Is Your Life and asked for Eileen’s assistance in surprising Noel. Now only that morning Eileen happened to be lighting the fire with old newspapers, and one headline that caught her eye was: “Anna Neagle cries all through This Is Your Life!”
“Oh my God,” said Eileen. “Noel is an extremely soft hearted and sentimental man and I wouldn’t put him through anything like that.” They assured her that on the contrary, as the show was planned for a St Patrick’s Night, it would be a carefree happy affair, starting off, for instance, with Lily Comerford’s Irish dancers. Eileen explained the difficulty in getting Noel to London at all: he’d only visit it strictly on business. So the researchers got Noel’s agent to ring him and talk him into going over to London to appear on Eamonn’s other programme, a panel game called What’s My Line, emphasising that it would be excellent publicity for the forthcoming release of his film Rooney, which he made in Dublin with Barry Fitzgerald, John Gregson and Eddie Byrne.
Soon, the BBC producer of This Is Your Life, Leslie Jackson, was on the phone to Eileen.
“Is Noel in?”
“Yes, but he’s going out shortly.”
“Right. We can see his car from where we are down the road. Expect us when he leaves.”
A bemused Eileen thought the whole business had all the ingredients of a French farce but she cooperated fully with Leslie Jackson and followed his very detailed instructions. The result was that she, as was normal, drove Noel to the airport on Friday 14 March, where she assured him that she would see him again on the following Tuesday morning, the eighteenth. Eileen dashed home and got three of the boys ready, informing them amidst great excitement what was going to happen. Victor, being too young to travel, was left in the care of Granny Marmion, an omission which he resents to this day. When Noel arrived in London, George Brown, the producer of Rooney, told him that Eamonn was willing to give the film a plug on This Is Your Life on the following Monday, St Patrick’s Day, but that he would like Noel and John Gregson to be in the audience. Noel was agreeable and it was only in retrospect that he realised he was being brought to the most unusual places – lunch in rustic pubs and other locations generally outside London. He stayed at the Irish Club in Eaton Square, a secluded area of London.
Fate works in extraordinary ways. This Is Your Life, of which Noel would be the star, was transmitted from the old Shepherd’s Bush Empire, now a BBC television centre, where twenty-eight years previously he had made his first London appearance supporting the great Jimmy O’Dea in Irish Smiles, in which his future wife, Eileen Marmion, was next in importance on the bill to O’Dea himself. Eileen and her boys were kept far away from the centre of London just in case they should accidentally meet Noel and, when the big night arrived, all the participants in the show were accommodated in a large dressing room at the top of the building with instructions to stay quiet. Eileen remembers telling Harry O’Donovan not to cough as Noel would certainly recognise Harry’s distinctive expectant habit.
Meanwhile Eamonn was telling Noel “confidentially” what was about to happen: Noel would be in the audience with Johnny Gregson, the show would open with the Irish dancers, and then Eamonn would say: “If there is anybody who is Irish in the audience, come on up on the stage and we’ll have a bit of fun.” Of course, everybody but Noel knew all about these arrangements, and when Irish people like Barbara Mullen and Lily Comerford were joined by John Gregson and George Brown, Eamonn did give a plug to the film Rooney and pointed out John and Noel as two of the stars.
Previously in the dressing room Noel has asked Eamonn who the subject was to be that night and Eamonn, swearing him to secrecy, said, “It’s Barry Fitzgerald. Now for God’s sake don’t breathe a word of it to anyone.”
“Oh, never fear, Eamonn,” replied Noel conspiratorially. “There’ll come a moment,” Eamonn continued, “when I’ll talk to you about Rooney, then I’ll say to you, ‘Who’s that leprechaun behind you?’ – and you’ll turn and say ‘It’s Barry Fitzgerald!’”
“Fair enough,” said Noel, “everything is jake, me auld brown son.”
Everything went according to plan: the dancers opened the show, the Irish were invited on stage, Eamonn spoke about Rooney, and then said suddenly to Noel, “Who’s that leprechaun behind you?” and as Noel turned to look, Eamonn said, “Noel Purcell, this is your life.”
“Oh Christ, no!” said Noel. “It’s Barry Fitzgerald.”
Unfortunately, the show is not on tape as it went out in the days of live broadcasts.
One of Noel’s old school teachers, Professor Caffrey, was introduced and he remembered Noel as “a good boy” (how else could he remember him on a night like that?). Harry Morrison, the lighting man from the Gaiety, who had advised Noel to train for another job so that he would always have a trade to fall back on, recalled Noel’s youthful days as a call-boy and as his assistant. There was Eddie Byrne and Pauline Forbes, his old colleagues from the Royal days; Harry O’Donovan, his best man and godfather to his eldest son; and Bernadette O’Farrell, the rising young Irish star; to crown the evening, a transatlantic phone call from Danny Kaye in Hollywood, who was delighted to greet his old friend the “Dublin Rabbi.” Shamrock for St Patrick’s Day was presented to Noel by Mary Ryan, a little belatedly perhaps, considering the time of the evening. Of course, Eileen and the boys, Patrick, Michael and Glynn were proud to witness the popular acclaim being bestowed on Noel.
There was the usual party afterwards and Gilbert Harding, who made a career out of being professionally irritable, rang in to say it was the best This Is Your Life he had ever seen
The press appeared to have enjoyed it too:
It was up to Eamonn Andrews if no one else to make Monday night with This Is Your Life an Irish night on BBC television. And, sure enough, he brought us a pillar of the Irish race – all six and a half feet of bearded actor-comedian, Noel Purcell. Even that was not enough. They also brought Noel’s wife and three strapping sons. Any more and it would have amounted to an invasion. A message came across the Atlantic from Danny Kaye with whom Noel Purcell has lately completed a film.
One might have guessed that Eamonn Andrews would not allow St Patrick’s Day to pass without a link with This Is Your Life. There could not have been a happier choice than that genial Irish giant, Noel Purcell.
Yorkshire Evening Post (Leeds)
The strains of the fiddle and the steps of the Irish jog heralded in This Is Your Life with Eamonn Andrews really at home among a broth of a crowd of boys from the Emerald Isle on the evening of St Patrick’s Day. The Irishman to whom tribute was paid was the comedian and actor, Noel Purcell, but one felt that the London atmosphere rather damped the devilment which might have lighted some of the Irish eyes had the programme come from Dublin.
Bradford Telegraph and Argus
Noel Purcell told me yesterday how he was “foxed” into appearing in Eamonn Andrews' This Is Your Life television programme on Monday. He believed that actor Barry Fitzgerald, was to be the subject of the programme. Until Eamonn’s introductory words “Noel Purcell, this is your life,” he was thoroughly enjoying the fun. Following his initial surprise, however, he reconciled himself to having his life unfolded before the eyes of an estimated ten million viewers.
These excerpts, merely a selection, are an indication of Noel’s widespread fame and popularity in Britain.
In March 1985, following Noel’s death, a Sunday Tribune tribute stated: You know the great secrecy surrounding This Is Your Life? Well Harry O’Donovan (who used to write the scripts for Jimmy O’Dea) was so immersed in theatre that he never watched television. While we were in Waterford on tour, Harry announced to Jimmy and Noel that “I’m just going away to do this thing for Noel Purcell, This Is Your Life,” and spoilt the whole thing!
The interviewer’s memory, after a lapse of thirty years, must have been playing tricks. Eileen Purcell is adamant that her husband had no advance knowledge that he was to be the subject of the programme.
Noel eventually received a copy of the famous Big Red Book which is filled with many still photographs taken as the show was being transmitted.
on the guest list...