Being the month of August I should not, perhaps, have been surprised to find myself in august company on the judging panel of the Charlie Chaplin Comedy Film Festival. Joining me in the deliberations for Best Irish Comedy Short, Best International Comedy Short and Best Social Commentary Short were Jason O’Mahoney of Kerry Film Festival fame, Raelene Casey of Cork Film Festival and the Irish Film Institute and genuine Hollywood royalty in the person of Jack Garfein. Jack has rubbed shoulders with so many legends of the film industry that I’m surprised his jacket isn’t hanging in the Newbridge Silver Hollywood Memorabilia collection. When I found myself in the Fossets Circus Big Top for the Gala Award Ceremony with my three fellow judges and a glamorous gathering of Waterville, Kerry’s ‘who’s who’, I was keen to maintain a dignified aspect. I was to announce the winner of the Social Commentary award and was determined to do so without recourse to notes. I had drafted and rehearsed a little speech until I was pretty sure I could deliver it with the right balance of confidence and gravity, tinged with a smidgeon of humour. I had selected a semi formal jacket of a sombre grey with a grey shirt over a decent pair of jeans in order to give the impression, to paraphrase Kipling, that I cared – but not too much. I had been summoned a half hour before I thought I would be so I’d only managed to iron the front of my shirt and, in doing so, I’d noticed a 10cm gap where the seam had come unstitched at the side. However, being far from warm in West Kerry, I had no intention of taking my jacket off so the hole and the wrinkled shirt-back and sleeves were not an issue.
RTE’s Eileen Dunne filled the role of host and, between pauses for music and various Charlie Chaplin impersonators, the serious business of announcing the award recipients got underway. I was secretly pleased to see my fellow award announcers resorting to notes. I was going over my carefully rehearsed lines.
It came my turn to announce the Social Commentary Award recipient and, on Eileen Dunne’s introduction I stepped up and walked across the Big Top Circus ring to the podium. Under the glare of dozens of spotlights, I delivered my speech with pace and decorum. To the applause the followed I stepped back across the ring and rejoined the other judges, smiling in return to the nods of approval from all and sundry.
Some short time later, another break for entertainment came in the form of another Charlie Chaplin impersonator. He approached the crowd and a tension descended on the front rows. He was looking for a volunteer. He singled out a young man near the front who protested vigorously and, I thought, unsportingly.
“It’s only a bit of craic,” I whispered to one of my fellow judges, secure in the knowledge that we judges were immune to being singled out for ridicule. Unfortunately, someone had, apparently, forgotten to tell Charlie Chaplin that. Giving up on the protesting young man he moved in our direction. My first thought was to avoid eye contact but, believing myself untouchable, I scorned at such a sign of weakness. Seconds later I was being dragged out into the ring, aware of the hypocrisy a refusal would signify. As the initial shock wore off I assumed a purposeful stride – like one of those heroic rebel leaders walking to their doom and casting aside the blindfold. I was still desperately trying to cling on to my carefully established dignity. The very first command from Chaplin put paid to that notion. He took off his jacket and signalled that I should do the same. I protested feebly but quickly realised that a refusal would make me look like an even bigger fool so, moments later, 1000 highly amused people were taking in the sight of my wrinkled and torn shirt. That was nothing compared with what was to come.
Over the next ten minutes the Chaplin lookalike had me performing tumbles, hand stands and assuming awkward positions while he and a young woman plucked from the audience to share my shame like Simon of Cyrene helping Jesus to shoulder the cross, sat on me, stood on me and generally used me like a hobby-horse. By the time he released me from my misery and I was able to rejoin the judges I had been the highlight of the show. Not, however, in the sense of the master chef but in the sense of the roast, stuffed pork he has served up for the amusement of all. The words that my mother had drummed into my siblings and I were recalled to mind: “Pride comes before a fall”.