Talented actor who turned his back on the Abbey for the bright lights of London to great success, writes Emer O'Kelly
Published 20/02/2011 | 05:00
Not too many years ago, TP McKenna atten-ded a large theatrical reception in Dublin, probably the launch of the Dublin Theatre Festival for that year, where every "theatrical" struts their stuff. You can recognise the eminent ones by more than their faces: they're the ones who are quiet, chatting away to friends, and leaving the shrieking attempts to catch a photographic eye to the desperate and perennially unemployed. Home only briefly, TP was catching up with old friends, cruising happily to renew old acquaintanceships, chortling, offering and receiving bear hugs. And as he moved round the ballroom of the Shelbourne Hotel, he was followed doggedly by a small grey presence: as soon as he greeted a woman, the presence insinuated herself almost under his arm and announced firmly "I'm his wife". They were both well into their seventies, but May clearly thou-ght her husband irresistible, and was taking no chances on his succumbing to any passing siren song. Watching it was rather like witnessing smouldering embers about to burst into flame.
The watchful wife taking no chances on her famous and distinguished husband was a long way from his youth as a bank clerk in Cavan, and hers in the family hotel in Durrow, Co Laois; a long way and a lifetime of theatrical experience. It was also fairly far from my being asked, at around the age of nine, if I didn't think TP was very handsome. With the devastating clarity of childhood, I replied, "No. But he's very curly". I'd been watching him playing the Prince in the Irish language pantomime which was a grimly enforced feature of the Abbey Theatre under Ernest Blythe ... it had nothing to do with fun, or entertaining children, merely with being the cultural arm of the Civil Service. TP had a curly mouth (he himself later referred to it as "twisted", rather less flatteringly); he had curly hair, curly eyebrows, and in tights his legs were also curly: not very long, slightly bowed, with strong calves, reinforcing the "in and out" overall impression. I remember the incident because of the effect my words had: I was in serious trouble over them.
But Ernest Blythe, cordially (and sometimes not so cordially) detested by almost every actor who suffered under his Philistinic rule, had a lot to do with TP McKenna's later success in Britain as well as in Ireland. The Abbey of TP's day and even later is revered in a kind of soft-focus memory as having produced and nurtured some of our greatest theatrical export talents, such as Ray McAnally, TP and later Donal McCann. The actors saw it differently: they felt stultified, repressed and unappreciated, expected to wait in line of seniority behind older actors, sometimes of far less talent and often descending into incompetent alcoholism, but protected by the civil service structure of the "permanent company".
The younger men and women were limited to a repetitive, unchallenging repertoire, a lot of it of indifferent standard after O'Casey imposed his ban on any of his plays being performed by professional companies in Ireland. Effectively, that meant the Abbey. The ban was imposed after the farcical obeisance to Archbishop John Charles McQuaid when he refused to "bless" the Dublin Theatre Festival of 1958, being offended by the inclusion of The Drums of Father Ned (in addition to a Joyce piece.) To O'Casey's outrage, the civic authorities had rushed to withdraw his work.
In such an atmosphere within and outside the Abbey, there was little for actors with a sense of artistic integrity to achieve in Ireland. So McKenna turned his back on Blythe's Abbey, along with several others of his generation that included Norman Rodway and Donal Donnelly as well as Pauline Delaney and slightly later Jim Norton (happily still very much with us). They put their packs on their backs and tried the very much wider world of London. The theatrical worlds of Ireland and Britain were far less intertwined in the Sixties than they are now, and it was certainly not a question of the National or the Royal Shakespeare calling, although all of them were to play pre-eminently with both in later years.
But in their early years they took their chances with the commercial theatre. TP in particular already had a few small film roles under his belt which stood him in good stead. Soon TP McKenna was a familiar name on billboards in the West End, and increasingly, on television. His mobile face and narrowed, intense eyes made him perfect material for the small screen, his rich voice adapting smoothly to any accent required of him.
He was one of the earliest of Irish actors to make the breakthrough from ethnic Irish parts into mainstream playing, and in later years, indeed, seemed to specialise in "privileged" roles. Even when playing an Irishman, it was usually a posh one, as I recall in an episode of the long-running Minder when his character was described by Denis Waterman as "a geezer with a kind of posh Irish accent". The "geezer" was a con man who had enrolled his daughter in Benenden (the school attended by Princess Anne), but who "forgot" to pay the fees.
Later still, he was delighted "finally," as he said himself, to make it to Inspector Morse when in the final episode he played Sir Lionel Phelps, talented member of an amateur choir specialising in Gregorian chant, and privately interested in extremely kinky rumpy-pumpy. A nasty class of a character altogether; TP was good at playing nasty characters: it was the eyes, which always seemed to glitter with contempt.
One of his earliest stage successes was in David Storey's The Contractor during which he, Jim Norton and the rest of the cast built a marquee on stage each night, from scratch. It had a long run and they were fit men at the end of it. It wasn't the last collaboration between McKenna and the prolific, multi-talented Storey, and they may well have chuckled together at where they'd ended up. Storey came from a colliery family in Leeds, and had played Rugby League: he could have been a good forward, the manager had said, if he hadn't been so bothered with writing. Just as TP was deeply regretted by his bosses in the Ulster Bank: he could have gone far, they said in disapproval, if he hadn't thrown it all up for "the acting lark".
And now TP McKenna, doyen of the acting lark which served him so well and gave us so much pleasure, is dead in London at the age of 81. A long way from Mullagh, Co. Cavan, in more ways than one.