Actor Adrian Dunbar won the hearts of a capacity audience at University of Ulster’s Magee campus with an evening rich in stories and quips that marked him out as a masterly raconteur and pitch perfect traditional singer of note.
He arrived at Magee to take part in the campus’s Life Stories guest talk series straight from a day in rehearsal for Brendan at the Chelsea, which will open the new studio theatre at the new Lyric Theatre in Belfast.
For 75 minutes with all the ease of a storyteller who had captivated his audience, he sketched some of the colourful personalities and landmark events in a career that has established him as one of Northern Ireland’s best-known actors, with striking success also in screenwriting and directing.
He began with memories of his “halcyon” childhood in Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh, and, to loud applause, rounded off the night in a neighbouring county, with a very fine airing of the folk song, County Leitrim Queen.
Life Stories is a series of public interviews in which Professor Paul Moore, Head of the School of Creative Arts at Magee, interviews distinguished University of Ulster honorary graduates. Adrian Dunbar received the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters (DLitt) in 2009 for services to acting.
He has had numerous stage, film and television credits. Drama enthusiasts, members and officials of arts and cultural groups, academics and other admirers of his diverse career filled the hall and were treated to a memorable demonstration of the personality that underpins the celebrity.
Gently directed by Professor Moore, he took the audience on a lively jaunt, from the his happy Fermanagh boyhood, to the family’s move to Portadown in 1968, a spell in a touring cabaret band, early involvement in amateur dramatics and how mentors and friends encouraged him to apply to drama school.
He won a place at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. “I headed not just to London, but the City of London. The City is an absolutely fabulous place if you are a history nut like me.”
It was a relief to move away from the seemingly intractable troubles of Northern Ireland, even to a new abode on the 19th floor of a housing block in the Isle of Dogs.
In London he had the opportunity to go to theatre and watch and learn from “edgy actors” such as Anthony Hopkins, Ian McKellan and Judi Dench. And as he walked through the City, he would imagine the Derry dramatist George Farquhar stepping along the same alleys when his plays took 17th century London by storm.
He spoke of his good fortune in coming to acting at a time of great creativity among Northern Ireland playwrights such as Graham Reid, Marie Jones and Stewart Parker, and he praised, too, the vibrancy of the visual arts in that era.
Among various celebrities, he vividly recounted meetings with Josef Locke, the popular Irish tenor of the 1940s-50s, in the lead-up to Hear My Song, a fictional film comedy-love story loosely based on events in the life of the entertainer. Dunbar co-wrote and starred in the film, and received a BAFTA nomination for it.
Other films in which he has had roles include My Left Foot, The Crying Game, The General and The Last Confession of Alexander Pearce.
In a wide-ranging stage career, Adrian Dunbar has acted in Shakespeare and other classics as well as the contemporary British and Irish repertoire. He recently performed in Joyce’s Exiles at the National Theatre in London and in the West End farce Boeing Boeing.
His many television roles include parts in A Touch of Frost, Inspector Morse, Ashes to Ashes. He starred as First Minister David Trimble in the TV film drama Mo.