Dillie Keane, 30 years with the irrepressibly irreverent Fascinating Aida, talks to Shelley Marsden
Talking to Dillie Keane is an entertainment in itself, our conversation punctuated with hoots of laughter, lashings of superlatives and some convincing Irish accents.
The 61 year old, also an award-winning comedienne and actress in her own right, is a founding member of Fascinating Aida, the comedy cabaret trio once described as “Absolutely Fabulous meets Noël Coward, as sung by the Andrew Sisters”.
The mezzo and her partners in wit, filth and fabulousness – bass Adele Anderson and soprano Liza Pulman – celebrate thirty years this year and are bringing their new show Charm Offensive, to Southbank Centre’s Queen Elizabeth Hall this Christmas.
“I’m excited!” says the chipper Dillie, “though excited is a hell of a big word for a seasoned old pro like me… We’ve dug out a couple of old songs for this run, written a couple of new ones, and… it’s charming and offensive!”
Included in the set-list is the freshly minted Ode to Oftsted, the first song written that was directly suggested by the public, which gained an incredible 100,000 hits within 7 days of posting on YouTube. For years, Dillie had teachers come up to her and enquire indignantly why she hadn’t written a song about them yet. So she did – but admits that writing about league tables didn’t come naturally.
“It was terribly hard, which is why we used a Gilbert and Sullivan tune, otherwise I wouldn’t have known how to do it. It didn’t spring into being, we were commissioned!”
Cheap Flights is probably Fascinating Aida’s most infamous and successful anthem to date, unsurprising given the boom of economy airlines and hordes of disgruntled travellers. Dillie (who said recently all she seems to do is “feckin’ travel – we’ve never been off the road, and we’re too old to retrain”) won’t comment, but the fiddly-dee Irish tune they sing it to must be a direct hit at one airline in particular.
Dillie’s mum Miriam, who she has called “a bit of a dragon”, was from Tralee and her dad Frank, a doctor, from Ballina. The singer, based in Oxfordshire, does brilliant Kerry and Mayo accents as she explains her roots, adding that she has also acquired quite a convincing Galway one because she had a house in Connemara (“that went with the ex – we’ll not talk about that!”).
Expelled from the Woldingham School (Sacred Heart) in Portsmouth where she grew up as a teenager, she went over to Dublin to study music at Trinity College, but quit the four-year course after three years, returning to London to study acting at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art.
Her Irish Catholic background has crept into her performance and personality in ways, she says, that aren’t immediately obvious – apart from an innate dislike of blasphemy and the fact that the group’s official mascot is a pure bred Irish setter, also called Dillie.
“I’m very uncomfortable with blasphemy, funnily enough. My Irish Catholicism has probably made me a bit of a boll***, to be honest. There’s a very strong patina of English to me; I was born and brought up here and this is where all my cultural references come from, but …”
There’s a bloody-mindedness about the Irish, she concludes, that she probably shares. Dillie remembers ‘pussy-footing’ around a town years ago on tour and the group were lost in a one-way system, unable to reach the theatre they could see at the end of the road. The English company manager was scratching his head when she grabbed the wheel and proudly pronounced that she was Irish – and didn’t mind breaking the law.
Says Dillie: “I would care about breaking serious laws hugely, but I didn’t care about breaking that law because it was quite clearly stupid. The Irish are very good at seeing stupidity and pointing it out, didn’t you find?” That very much depends on who you’re talking to, I would imagine, but yes, point received.
Dillie is a founding member of the group. She denies the old story that the group started out with the name Shame (as in ‘Shame we’ll never be a real group’), laughing at the memory but explaining it was just a drunken night in a wine bar, pre-Fascinating Aida (“so the shame never moved beyond the wine bar”).
Does she feel like a bit of an old veteran at all this now? “Jesus, Mary and Joseph do I”, she sighs heavily, “Thirty long, long years of my life that I’ll never get back. No, I enjoy it, really. Of course I do.”
For the full interview, see this week’s Irish World newspaper (issue 7 Dec 2013).
Fascinating Aida are at Southbank Centre’s Queen Elizabeth Hall from Dec 22 to Jan 10. To book call 0844 847 9910, or see www.southbankcentre.co.uk.