Monday 24 July 2017

The TP I remember -- the charm, the grumpiness and the brilliance

By Alan Stanford

It was the shock of white hair I will always remember. I swear TP McKenna must have come from the womb with that shock of white hair. It was almost his signature. I suspect you must be of considerable venerability to recall him without it.

And the voice. He had a voice of melodious baritone beauty. Authoritative, rich and tender, it was a voice that compelled attention. There was always something of gentle competence in everything he acted. A safeness for the viewer or the live audience to depend upon.

I have one abiding memory of working with Thomas Patrick, as I presumptuously called him. But it produced a deep and abiding affection for the man and the actor.

We appeared together in Chekov's Uncle Vanya at the Gate Theatre in 1987. It was a most eventful rehearsal period in that it produced not only the play but also new offspring for two of the actors. Bosco Hogan and myself both had roles in the play and wives in the Rotunda.

TP's concern and solicitations for us both, during what was a major preparation for a complex and challenging role, was the definition of friendship.

He was just so charming, a charm that was equally balanced with what his son has accurately described as irascibility. He was the very definition of the 'grumpy old man' but done with the most affable of charm. You couldn't but like him for it.

He might have a bad word for everybody but always with the best of manners and the charm of a gentleman. I learned a lot from him.

And it was always there in his work. Take another look (or a first if you haven't already) at his performance as Buck Mulligan in the film of Ulysses and you see the talent of TP. He bursts off the screen at you with a cascade of wicked charm and a smile that opened half his face.

He was one of the lost generation of Irish Theatre. After an aborted career in banking, he approached the manager of his branch and informed him in no uncertain terms that he was off to Dublin to be an actor.

He became an Abbey Actor, a distinction he spoke of to me with the deep pride that Ray MacAnally also felt. His generation was one of the most remarkable in our acting history. TP McKenna, Godfrey Quigley, Pauline Delaney, Norman Rodway, Jim Fitzgerald; these were magic names in the 1960s. And we lost them.

They went to London where their talents were far more appreciated and utilised than the narrow, underfunded and limited range of work that Irish theatre could then afford. Indeed, theatre talent was one of our saddest exports in the '60s

But they prospered, and TP more than most. There was hardly a series on UK TV that he did not appear in. From Dixon of Dock Green (you have to be very aged to remember that) to Doctor Who; from The Avengers to The Saint; from Father Brown to Miss Marple and in a vast range of films including Straw Dogs, Ulysses and The Charge of the Light Brigade.

He became, in some ways, the perfect example of the ideal actor. He could fit himself to any situation that acting required. So much so that he became integrated into the world of British cinema and television. He was one of them.

But never at the cost of his intrinsic Irishness. The soft deep lilt in the voice, the warmth in his characterisations indicated always his bond with his roots.

He was a natural raconteur. As he talked and told tales his eyes would sparkle and you knew in spite of your current location, in his mind he was back in Cavan, sitting perhaps in a bar telling tales with mates.

His confessions of his poor parenting skills were priceless, including the declaration (in exasperation) to a teenage son: "You will behave because you are a guest in my house." He regretted that one.

Like all of us he could be self-pitying. He often seemed to me to feel inadequate, unregarded, but that is the truth of so many in this most precarious and fleeting career. He was much loved and probably never really noticed it.

Back to that rehearsal of Uncle Vanya, I had been summoned to the Rotunda early in the morning of January 21 for the arrival of my second-born son. As agreed I had slipped from rehearsal early in the morning to witness the event.

Two days later, the aforementioned Bosco was looking decidedly fidgety in the rehearsal room. After several attempts to raise the matter with the director, TP burst out with the simple plea: "For god's sake let this man go. He wants to see his child coming out."

Rest well Thomas Patrick. It's sad you're not out there any more. You were one of our finest exports and we are at the loss of you.

TP McKenna, actor, was born on September 7, 1929. He died on February 13, 2011, aged 81. He is survived by four sons and one daughter.

See Dave Robbins, page 21

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