For over 20 years, Pat Ingoldsby was a fixture of Dublin’s streetlife, selling books of his poetry around Westmoreland Street and other areas.
Ingoldsby had been a successful DJ with Radio Éireann in the 1970s, and in the 1980s he had been a star of children’s television on Pat’s Hat, Pat’s Pals and then Pat’s Chat.
If this pattern continued an alternative title for Seamus Murphy’s probing documentary on Ingoldsby could have been Pat’s Head.
Through direct interviews with Ingoldbsy and those closest to him, observation of the writer’s daily life and adaptation of his work, Murphy attempts to bring us into Ingoldsby’s world. We are taken through the snakes and ladders trajectory of this singular life and career.
The Peculiar Sensation of Being Pat Ingoldsby begins with the writer’s childhood, and in a way, the narrative never leaves childhood behind.
Ingoldsby has vivid, lasting memories that he recounts with a storyteller’s sense for standout details. His hometown of Malahide played a major role in his young life.
The young Pat Ingoldsby suffered with polio and spent a lot of his childhood on the family sofa looking out at Malahide Green. There, he would see the circus come to town, watch his peers play day-long games of football and stare out at the boats and birds bobbing in the bay.
These early accounts of Ingoldsby’s boyhood feature interviews with members of his family. Pat’s brother Michael, a mechanic and hobbyist model builder, brings the period to life with highly-detailed scale models of the area. Michael also collects Irish circus memorabilia and recalls late nights staring out of the upstairs window with Pat at the crowds and commotion.
Murphy’s approach to profiling Pat Ingoldsby differs from other documentaries. He uses a small pool of interviewees, giving the sense that the people interviewed mean something to Ingoldsby as much as he means something to them.
There’s none of the praise-by-numbers-style soundbites that often pop up in films like this. We don’t get a parade of talking heads telling us “There was no one like Pat Ingoldsby.” And if someone does offer up words to this effect they feel borne out of genuine experience rather than received wisdom.
Murphy also frames the interviewees differently to his subject. Pat is generally filmed in close-ups and long takes. We are able to see him think through his answers as the camera rolls.
Other interview sequences feature more frequent cutting and wider angles. These scenes play as more conventional when set against Pat’s at times stream-of-consciousness address to camera.
The contrast between these styles works in building a portrait of Ingoldsby in his own words, one that’s complemented by the limited number of near and dear interviewees.
Pat Ingoldsby is a forthcoming subject. His face is as expressive as a Looney Tunes caricature, stretching and squashing with the flow of memory.
He recalls with a gleam in his eye his father carrying him down the narrow steps of their home, taking care to stoop down low to keep Pat’s head from banging against the ceiling. Leaning towards the camera, Pat talks about a marathon goalkeeping session on Malahide Green, still pleased with a compliment he received from a neighbour all these years on.
And just as these memories stay with Pat and move him, the pain of the past is there too, written in his face and especially in his eyes. They dart around when he talks about the pressure he felt as a child to give a “good confession” at church. The weight of these formative trials still haunts Pat. As he speaks his eyes look like a wounded animal’s.
Pat speaks of carrying that same weight he felt in the church confessional to his working life. He rose early and returned home late working with an insurance firm in Dublin. Wanting to be a writer but feeling that it wasn’t allowed or expected.
Later, he moved to England, where he lived a quasi-nomadic existence riding the rails in between jobs. He says at one point: “I didn’t know where I was going so if I never got there it was fine.”
Pat’s partner, Vivienne, describes his early life as “lawless”. In some respects, the Pat Ingoldsby that we see in Murphy’s documentary is still a lawless man, answering only to himself.
And answer he does. Early in the film, Ingoldsby talks about the staged nature of his family’s photos. How his father would be clattering them around the head moments before a smiling snapshot. All he wanted to do was scream – he pantomimes a screaming face to camera – but all the camera captured back then was a smile.
Murphy’s rolling camera today captures more than Pat’s mother’s photographs ever could. We see Pat work through a range of emotions, sometimes in the space of one recollection.
The exaggerated expressiveness that at one point in time made Ingoldsby a mainstay of children’s television, is now living proof of a troubled life. His poems often read like autobiography and make art out of the same memories that he explores with Murphy.
Murphy, in turn, adapts Pat’s words into set pieces, many smaller films nestled in his documentary. These sequences are lyrical and witty. They take off with flourishes to match Ingoldsby’s prose.
In one sequence, Murphy films a nudist walking across an island from above. Meanwhile, Ingoldsby recalls a nudist offering him a mint, which he declined. Pat ends the poem by wondering where the naked man keeps the mints. It’s a humorous moment, underlined by the grandeur of Murphy’s visual treatment.
Pat Ingoldsby is a man who has worked very hard at understanding himself. Seamus Murphy has worked at doing justice to Pat’s life and his art. Ingoldsby struggled to find his metier and himself, but in doing so makes Murphy’s job a little easier.
Pat is a pleasure to listen to and to be around. Even as the artist himself dismisses this fact in the film’s closing sting, it’s the truth, for Murphy and the audience.