Wednesday 24 April 2019

Peter McKenna's gold

'Red Rock' originator Peter McKenna overcame a lifetime of self-doubt to establish his name as one of the best TV writers in the business, and, as he tells Donal Lynch, sometimes his art imitates life

Peter McKenna
Peter McKenna
Peter McKenna
Peter McKenna's wife, RTE 'Ear to the Ground' presenter Helen Carroll and their daughter Katie.
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

All told, it's a good time to be a TV writer. "The really, truly creative people want to write for television now, not for Hollywood", Kevin Spacey said recently; and just as Alfred Hitchcock invented the notion of a director's film, so the public is just now beginning to absorb the concept of a TV series driven as much by its writers as by its actors. Stuart Carolan and Vince Gilligan got as much praise for Love/Hate and Breaking Bad respectively, as the casts of those shows did, and as Red Rock, TV3's much hyped new soap was launched recently, there was as much buzz about involvement of the talented Peter McKenna, who is the show's creator, writer and producer, as any of its stars.

McKenna, a veteran of series like Casualty and EastEnders, got the show up and running in just eight months - unheard of speed for a soap opera - and as we settle in for tea at the Westbury, he tells me that he's been "overwhelmed" by the positive response to the gritty crime drama. Viewing figures may have dropped somewhat from the impressive 323,000 that watched the opening episode, but as Jeff Ford, TV3's departing director of content pointed out, these things traditionally follow the so-called 'J curve', an initial drop off followed by a slow gain in traction - and McKenna's tangled web of brilliant one-liners, stealthy sub-plots and ferocious confrontations has already won rave reviews.

"We felt from the beginning that Irish people want to watch Irish stories", Peter says. "When we were creating it, the whistleblower thing and the Alan Shatter thing was happening but we didn't want to make it about penalty points because that would have been very dry. Looking at things that are happening in Irish society and smuggling them into our story lines - that's how we'll do it. We'll deal with the water charges thing without making it too specific."

Because of the huge amount of "character and incident" in the programme, McKenna has drawn, more than usually perhaps, on his own life and times. The show takes its name, for instance, from a little place near Howth where he grew up. Katie Kiely, one of the central characters, is named after his daughter and other issues from adult life also provided fodder for his writing.

"Emotional truths, I take those from what I've gone through", he tells me. "So I draw on things from my life and have them motivate characters. I have a 13-year-old and a three-year-old son called Luke. I waited ten years to have a second child so issues about fertility interest me too."

Writing and fiction have always been a valve for McKenna to work out the harsher truths of life. "I went to boarding school when I was seven", he explains. "We always had different holidays than the other kids in the area. There were times when I was the only kid in the neighbourhood and I'd watch television and just go into that world on the screen." McKenna's father was a pilot with Aer Lingus and he had a peripatetic childhood, living in Algiers for a time as a child. "I missed time at school and never seemed to catch up again. I was terrible academically. When other kids were studying and doing things they should have been, I was reading books because it was easier to escape through that."

He always wanted to be a writer but went and did a degree in marketing and design after school. After that he set up a gallery with Josephine Kelleher, an old friend who is now the godmother of one of his children. They sold contemporary art and he remembers it as a bohemian time right before the Celtic Tiger sucked a lot of the vagabond charm from the city.

He harboured vague notions of writing professionally but never did anything about it until one day Josephine set him a challenge. "She said to me, 'Listen I've arranged it you are taking every Tuesday off. You can stay in bed all day, you can go to the cinema, you can do what you like. But I never again want to hear you say that you never had the chance to become a writer.' I was going out with my wife, at the time she was my girlfriend, (Ear To The Ground presenter Helen Carroll) I told her I was doing the accounts. I was embarrassed that I would think of myself as a writer."

During his writing Tuesdays he put together a screenplay on the Hungarian composer Franz Liszt, who had visited Ireland in the 1800s. His advent sadly unheralded by the local press, nobody showed up to the concert in Clonmel, and McKenna based his screenplay around a private show that Liszt put on for a lone fan who had travelled from London and happened to bump into him in a cafe. He submitted the story to The Film Board who gave him money to develop it and that in turn enabled him to bring it to a writer's workshop in Italy where the other participants tore it to shreds, leaving him quite down in the mouth about the whole thing.

Still, he decided he would try to make a go of it as a writer. "It was such a long shot. It was based on nothing but hope", he says. "I wasn't living with my wife and we had no money so we moved in together. She was working on RTE at the time and she said, 'I can't tell if you're good or bad, so there's no point in asking me but I do think you should try to make a go of it. If in two years time you've made no progress whatsoever you're going to have to get a job, and if I come home and you're watching telly or sleeping then you'll also have to get a job.' My problem was that I'm incredibly lazy. Now I work 13 hours a day, week in week out, but if you let me, I'd do nothing."

Unluckily for McKenna, the recession was just starting to kick in and money was scarce on the ground. "So I went to the UK to peddle my wares", he says. "And it was shockingly difficult. People were like, 'Who cares what you've done in Ireland?'

While he tried to make a name for himself, Helen kept everything going back home. "She was incredibly supportive through good times and bad, even when I was making no money. I'd go through this process every few years of saying "I hate writing, I can't do it" and she'd say 'fine, let's figure out what else you can do.' And she supported me financially. And even now in the good times, I'm paid quite well but I can be away a lot, so she's been incredible about that as well." How does he pay her back? He laughs: "Well I think being away Monday to Friday gives her quite a nice break from me."

The very first show he worked on was On Home Ground, RTE's ill-fated 2001 drama, which fizzled out amid bad reviews. "It was dying and at the read-through of the script the actors just revolted", he recalls, shaking his head ruefully. "I'd been employed for the second series before the first series went to air and we knew it was dead and everyone was just fulfilling their contractual obligations."

He went in the next day convinced he was about to be fired. When he arrived in the producers called him in for a meeting. "They said 'As you can tell, the read-through didn't go very well. We're going to need lots of rewrites,' and they said, 'you'll have to do it in the office.' And they had a person to do the rewrites with me. After a while the penny dropped with me what they were trying to do. I said, 'Listen, if you want to fire me you're going to have to fire me, I won't resign.' They said, 'Give us a minute.' In the end, the script was taken from me and it was 80pc rewritten. I thought I'd never work again."

In the end, it turned out to be a professional boon for him, spurring on his work ethic and he would go on to earn a formidable reputation in the UK, writing acclaimed episodes of Casualty, Frankie and The Musketeers.

The move back to Ireland was something he welcomed, however. He lives with Carroll and their two children in Kilkenny. When he escapes for a while from the 13-hour days and reflects on how far he's come, he's amazed. "When I look at myself I think, you make a living making up stories up for telly. If you'd held out the possibility of me doing that when I was growing up, I wouldn't have just jumped at the chance I would have taken your arm off for it."


'Red Rock' airs every Wednesday and Thursday at 8.30pm on TV3.

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