Friday 20 September 2019

Brother Joe McCann's ready to sail with Sting's the 'Last Ship' crew

Actor Joe McGann has the kind of deep social conscience that has previously led him to depression and drinking. Now, finally happy with who he is, he is appearing in Sting's 'The Last Ship', set in exactly the kind of working-class community he grew up in. Emily Hourican met him

Actor Joe McGann photographed by Mark Condren
Actor Joe McGann photographed by Mark Condren

Interviewing actor Joe McGann having previously interviewed his brother Paul, also an actor, means that there is, for me, a strange feeling of familiarity with someone I've never previously met. Joe and Paul - the elder two of the four McGann brothers, all successful actors - look alike, but more than that, they sound alike; deep voices, still-discernible Liverpudlian accents (Joe more than Paul), and a considered way of explaining themselves. They don't rush it, or fudge it. They are careful in what they say.

"We're very close in age, me and Paul," Joe says. "There's only seven years between the five of us" (there is also a sister, Clare, the youngest, not an actor). So did he blaze a trail for the rest of them? "I can't really take that responsibility," he laughs. "Because we never discussed it. The fact of the matter is, it was a local youth theatre club that we went to, so we all went along in our own time."

It was, he says, pretty much in the blood anyway. "As kids, at parties, everyone had their party piece. The uncles and aunts would sing or recite, we'd be sitting on the stairs listening. As kids, growing up in the 1960s, I remember going to a cousin's wedding and we were all dressed as The Beatles, the four of us. We'd be singing their songs - that was the time in Liverpool we grew up. Everyone in the world knew where our city was, and it was all about singing and music. We were very proud of that."

He first went to the theatre as a reward for passing his 11-plus exams; "It was The Ghost Train by Arnold Ridley. And I remember thinking - people actually do this for a living! That's when I decided I wanted to be an actor. The week after, I joined the youth theatre." Because of the acting, and even more because of the book Flesh and Blood, published by his brother Stephen McGann (star of Call The Midwife) last year, a brilliant piece of genetic detective work that gives a remarkable portrait of the evolution of a family through several generations, we are starting to get an increasingly solid mosaic-image of the McGanns, a kind of four-sided memory box to which Joe will add his store as we speak.

He's in Dublin for The Last Ship, the musical written by Sting featuring original songs as well as material from the 1991 album The Soul Cages, and inspired by his childhood and his experiences of the shipbuilding industry that surrounded him in Newcastle.

This is the story of the painful decline of a once-great tradition, and the devastating impact on the lives of those people who counted on it.

Joe plays Jackie White, foreman of a shipping yard, and it's immediately obvious that he identifies closely with the themes and storyline.

"I think Sting felt he was living in the world of the international superstar and the way he tells it himself is that he felt a debt to his community, to the people who made him. Not just his family, but the people around him and the place he's from. Not to put too fine a point on it, it's a love letter to his community."

The community Sting recreates in The Last Ship seems to be not a million miles from the way Joe grew up in Liverpool. "It's not," he agrees. "I'm of the left, and very, very particular about how the working-class are portrayed. My family, my stock, these were intelligent people, dignified people. Self-taught for the most part, who got themselves up out of the slums with a great deal of dignity. This play is not just about the ship yard - it's about dignity, pride, humanity."

It is also, he believes, "timely".

"Every now and again, such unfairness happens that the people cough up the poison of the politicians, and say 'enough'." This, he reckons, is one of those times, "because of Brexit, various other things that are happening. The people are being considered, in that horrible phrase - one of the coldest phrases in the English language - 'collateral damage'."

Does he still identify as working-class? "Oh yes. It's where I come from. I'm from the inner city, I'm self-taught, my job has been my education. Where I am now is very different, but that's where I'm from.

"I was a Labour-voting, working-class kid. The stuff that's happening in this play - the breaking of the unions, the breaking of the miners - that was very much our fight. I went and helped the miners. I remember making food parcels for them and stuff like that. I was young."

At the time Joe started his career, being a working-class kid was almost an advantage. "There was that narrow window of opportunity in the late 1970s," he says. "People like me were drafted in to be authentic. Which I don't mind, because it got me jobs. It pissed me off from time to time… you know, you feel like you're a touchstone of some kind, for authenticity - 'Look! An actual, real working-class person' and I used to have rows with directors from time to time, but I think their hearts were in the right place."

Gradually though, the "narrow window of opportunity" closed, and Joe was devastated. "I believed at the beginning of the 1980s that there would be a kind of revolution. Not a violent revolution, but one of fairness; a velvet revolution. And then by the end of the 1980s, you've got the rise of Essex man, and it's all about loads-a-money and all of that, and I was in a flat spin of depression by then."

When he says that, he doesn't mean it metaphorically, nor is he exaggerating for effect. "It was genuine," he says. "I had a propensity to depression anyway, for one reason or another, but that is what fed it; the fact that people just didn't care. I started the decade with hope and all of a sudden that was dashed on the rocks and it became a 'me generation', it was about money. The windows closed, the doors closed for people like myself. I touched lucky at the end of the 1980s, I started getting TV jobs and what have you, but it didn't mean that I wasn't bereft for humanity. That fed some kind of dark thing in me. The two working together. That's when my drinking became a problem."

Does he consider that he is more sensitive than most, that he was so badly affected by the things around him? "I don't know. That's a difficult question to answer. There's a condition called inherited melancholia, and depression has affected all my family, through Dad" - he has previously described "As a kid, I always knew my father was in one of his black moods because you could feel it in the air as soon as you came through the front door".

Now, he says, "It's a chicken and egg situation as to which came first… but certainly, losing hope politically - it gave a narrative to my depression, is an accurate way of saying it."

He talks very well about depression, a subject that is more often avoided. "If I was in the civil service, I'd keep quiet about it, but for a flighty auld actor, I'm allowed to do those things," he says, then adding carefully, "I am aware that it might not be the same for everybody. If I turn round and say 'oh, you can get better'; and somebody doesn't, that's a horrible thing for them. So I don't, but what I can do is tell my story."

And, along the way, he says something so illuminating that it is almost shocking: "One of the things about depression is that it's not all black. If it was all black you'd be able to deal with it. The problem is the little bits of you inside going, 'I'm not like this…' That's where the front line is. I'm an optimist. That's where the pain comes - you never lose sight of what you could be."

These days Joe lives well away from the inner city, on a farm in South Wales. His wife, Tamzin, is a naturopath, and the life Joe leads now - hill-walking, teetotal, with juices made from nettles, wheatgrass, barelygrass - is one that clearly suits him. But what were the turning points? "The realisation that things could be different. Cognitive behavioral therapy was very good. I took anti-depressants for a couple of years, and I stopped drinking. I haven't drunk for a long time now. Alcohol is a depressant - I'm not saying it's wrong for everyone, but it's wrong for me. I am better without it. As I'm fond of saying - I'm allergic to alcohol, it brings me out in handcuffs!"

And "I haven't had what I would call a depressive episode for over 10 years now." Has he reached the stage where he can trust that this will continue? "Yeah, pretty much. The one way that I could stymie that is by drinking. That would send me down the rabbit-hole again. I have a pretty balanced life now, not to say that I'm happy-clappy, but nor am I - I don't get that thing where I'm unable to get out of bed." It was that bad? "Yeah, at times, I would just go to bed and stay there. I'd just duvet-dive, because I couldn't face anything."

He was, he says, "well into my 50s before I got anything like a balanced sense of self and learned a healthy self-respect. Before, I would have told you I was shit, not worth anything, most of the time. What people call brave - 'how can you get up on stage?' - I would say, it's not brave, it's reckless. Because I had nothing to lose. Actually, in a perverse way, that helped me to do what I do. Now though, I'm happy to be alone, I've learned to respect the good and bad in myself, to be happy with who I am."

For all that he acknowledges his father's black moods, and the effect these had on the family, Joe has sympathy for him too - "going back to The Last Ship again," he says, "he was from that generation, who came back from the war and believed that there were jobs for life. He did shift work in the metals industry, and in 30 years, he never took a day off. I remember him walking in, eight miles, in the snow. Then, when he got ill, they made him redundant".

Joe's disgust at this is palpable. "That was the late 1970s/ early 1980s, and he wasn't alive long after that. He died in 1984, after by-pass surgery. He had bits of complications, he probably could have recovered, but he'd had enough. He checked out."

However, the true "heroine" of his life is his mother. "She is fit and well, and I speak to her every day," he says with a smile. "It's a privilege." Growing up, Joe, despite being the eldest, always knew that he wasn't the first child. Or even the second. There were twins who died before he was born. "I knew I wasn't the first Joseph," he says. And yet, it was only as his mother moved away from the Catholic Church - "she was a protofeminist; after Vatican II she was waiting and waiting and waiting for them to change, and they didn't" - that they really spoke of it.

"At home a few years ago, we were talking about these things and someone read something out about how important it is to mourn your babies, and all of a sudden this thing grew inside her. Stephen, myself, Paul and Clare, we were all there in Liverpool, and we said, 'come on, let's find them'. We knew my dad had buried the twins on his birthday, May 25, while my mother was still laid up in hospital, so that's how we knew where to look." He will, he says, never forget, "my mum, looking through the long grass of the graveyard" for the scantily-marked graves. "We marked them properly and got a headstone made. I was there a few weeks ago, to check that everything was all right."

Joe will be 60 this year (his daughter Lottie, "the apple of my eye", will be 30 - "we're going to have a joint party, down on the farm. She doesn't know whether to call it Lot-stock or Joe-chella…"). In six months, he will be older than his father ever was. "It feels strange. But it's just a fact. I think of what 60 looked like then, and what it feels like now - it's worlds apart. I'm fit and well, active enough to do eight shows of this a week. I'm not planning to go anywhere for quite some time. I enjoy very good health, and I give thanks, often, to the teenage boy I was who joined the youth theatre and started to dream."

Because those dreams have taken him far. There is an energy to him that is born of curiosity, determination, and perhaps the realisation that he has, after all, stood the test of time: "I've learned that for all the mistakes I've made, they've brought me to a place where I'm lucky enough to be standing here, on a beautiful day, talking to you, and doing a job that I love, doing a show that I love. So I've done some right things, and I can let myself have that now. I'm not snatching defeat from the jaws of victory any more."

'The Last Ship' is on at the Bord Gais Energy Theatre, Dublin, from June 4-9. Tickets: www.bordgaisenergytheatre.ie

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