Friday 20 April 2018

The family business: the next generation of the McAnally acting dynasty

The writer and star of a podcast for the Dublin Fringe Festival, seven-year-old Cadhla McAnally is the latest in a long line of talent. Here, our reporter meets the family for whom hard work and a sense of professionalism has led to four generations making a splash in showbusiness. Photography by Fran Veale

The family enjoy working together. Photo: ©Fran Veale.
The family enjoy working together. Photo: ©Fran Veale.
Aonghus McAnally with his son Aonghus Og and granddaughter Cadhla (7). Photo: ©Fran Veale.
Cadhla McAnally (7) on Portmarnock beach. Photograph: ©Fran Veale.
The late Ray McAnally in The Mission
Liz Fitzgibbon and Aonghus Óg McAnally in the Abbey Theatre's production of Major Barbara by Bernard Shaw in 2013. Pic Ros Kavanagh.
Aonghus hosting the 1990s Lyrics Board with Ronnie Drew, Kevin Hough and Michelle Rocca
Ed Power

Ed Power

Over mugs of tea and mounds of biscuits, three generations of an Irish show business dynasty have gathered to laugh, cry and reminisce. Aonghus McAnally has worn many hats through a near 40-year career: children's television presenter, radio producer and DJ, musician. His son, Aonghus Óg, is the comparative straight man. A successful stage actor (he has appeared in Abbey productions of The Plough and the Stars and Romeo and Juliet and in London with The Cúchulainn Cycle) is thoughtful where his father is outgoing, contained where Aonghus senior is a tall-haired jack-in-the-box.

The trio is completed by seven-year-old Cadhla, Aonghus Óg's daughter and co-creator, with her dad, of a new fantasy saga debuting at the Dublin Fringe Festival. In the modest suburban kitchen of Aonghus Óg's Portmarnock home (Aonghus senior lives around the corner) the topic of discussion is the McAnallys' passion for performance - a love affair that began with Aonghus' late father, Irish screen giant Ray McAnally (The Mission, My Left Foot).

"When I was about 15, I visited my father on the set of a film," says Aonghus. "They'd just completed shooting and were removing all the props. He turned to me and said, 'The magic is gone, I'm fired, now I'm on to my next job… isn't that exciting?' I have the same philosophy. Some people can't bear not knowing what they are doing next. I love it. We had a great phrase in our family - 'We've never starved a winter yet.'"

As host of early '80s children's series Anything Goes, McAnally (62) has carved a place in the Irish broadcasting annals. But music was his first love. He started as a guitar player and largely stumbled into television. His son, by contrast, always knew he wanted to be on screen and, by his Junior Cert, was appearing alongside major Hollywood stars.

The family enjoy working together. Photo: ©Fran Veale.
The family enjoy working together. Photo: ©Fran Veale.

"Growing up in the house, you are surrounded by show business. You just don't know any different," says Aonghus Óg (36). "I'd go from acting opposite Pierce Brosnan to handing in my homework. As I've gotten older, I've come to appreciate what my dad does. You think it's an easy gig. But he's like a duck. He's floating on top. Underneath, he's kicking away madly."

Received wisdom cautions against working with family. However, the McAnallys ignored this advice and last year collaborated on a tribute to the late Christie Hennessy, with father performing the troubadour's songbook and son overseeing the tour through his Rise Productions company. They'll be doing it all over again this winter, with a nationwide trek starting in October at Cork Opera House and culminating in a date at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre in Dublin in December.

"It was a very professional relationship," says Aonghus (whose other duties include producing Joe Duffy's Liveline). "When we stopped for a cup of tea we would chat as normal. But when we were working, we were working."

"If you are doing something properly, it's never about personalities," nods Aonghus Óg. "If something's not quite happening, we try to find a way to fix it."

Aonghus Óg in many ways takes after his grandfather rather than his dad. Despite having had roles in the likes of P.S. I Love You, Penny Dreadful, Ella Enchanted and The Clinic, alongside his plentiful stage and radio work, he is somewhat reserved compared to Aonghus senior - more comfortable performing from a script than being 'himself' on stage.

"You are naturally more of an extrovert," he tells his father. "I'm no shrinking violet but I am more comfortable putting on a mask."

Cadhla McAnally (7) on Portmarnock beach. Photograph: ©Fran Veale.
Cadhla McAnally (7) on Portmarnock beach. Photograph: ©Fran Veale.

With a chuckle, McAnally senior recalls attending a play at which there was a last-minute hitch. "I told them, 'Let me go on - I'll do a few bits.' They were like, 'How long do you need to prepare?' And I was like, 'It's all right, I'll go on now.' I'd imagine that would be terrifying to an actor."

Ray McAnally supported Aonghus' show business ambitions - and Aonghus likewise approved of his own son's desire to act.

"My dad would say, 'I don't care about what you want to do - but what I do care is that you are the best you can be at whatever you want. You owe it to yourself," he recalls. "'If you were really clever but didn't study, I would be disappointed. If you are incredibly stupid but study hard to be the best you can be, I'll admire you for it.' It's about making the most of your abilities… at the end of the day, I always thought that if I ended up selling programmes for rock concerts outside the Aviva, I'd still be in show business. I remember in the early days giving out roses in a disco for a very small fee in order to have money.

"With Aonghus Óg, I always had the same advice and the same caveat: just do it properly. My dad used to have a phrase, 'God protect me from enthusiastic amateurs.' Meaning don't mess about - do everything to the best of your ability…You need luck and timing - but also a core ability of being good at what you do…To see your offspring carry the same gene, and to have the same work ethic, makes me inordinately proud."

The children of famous people often grow up in their parent's shadow. But because music rather than acting was his passion, Aonghus McAnally never felt in competition with Ray (his only screen role of note early in his career was playing a snake charmer on Wanderly Wagon). "I was a guitar player so I was in no way up against him." Still, he feels he learned a great deal from his father. Ray McAnally wasn't precious about acting. He regarded it as a calling - but also as a trade and a pay cheque. His believed in going on set, nailing his lines and then moving to the next scene.

"A few years ago I made a documentary talking to some of the people who had worked with him. One of them was Robert De Niro. My dad would do a take a few times to make sure they had it - and then he'd say, 'Are we done?' Whereas De Niro, the method actor, wanted to run through it maybe 28 times. My father's attitude was, 'Let's just act.'"

The late Ray McAnally in The Mission
The late Ray McAnally in The Mission

At drama school Aonghus Óg was a classmate of future Oscar nominee Ruth Negga. But he branched into podcasting several years ago with a popular series about Irish theatre (which duly topped the iTunes charts).

He now applies these skills to the realm of heroic fantasy with Cobra's Quest, a podcast based on a story by Cadhla, to be recorded live each day next week as part of the Fringe Festival (Cadhla plays the eponymous Cobra) and available for immediate download.

"It's been fun," says Cadhla, who skips around the kitchen as the grown-ups converse. "What's been the best bit of it? Everything!"

She's a bubbly seven-year-old, with a wide smile. "She's a bright kid - she loves stories," says her father (he and his wife, Louise, are also parents to one-year-old Emer). "She said to me, 'Dad, I really like doing Cobra's Quest with you." I asked why and she said it was because she liked spending time with me. For me, that meant we were striking the right balance between getting the work done and having fun."

Does he hope she will follow in the McAnallys' show business tradition? "I was never forced into it," says Aonghus Óg. "People go, 'Oh, she's going to be the fourth generation.' And in sense, because we are doing this, she is the fourth generation. By the same token, my missus is a fifth-generation primary school teacher. If Cadhla goes down that route, she'll a sixth-generation primary school teacher. So I'm certainly not pressurising her."

"Cobra's Quest is The Wizard of Oz meets Harry Potter meets The Lord of the Rings, but in a radio-play format so you don't need Peter Jackson's budget," he continues "It's written by a seven-year-old; it stars a seven-year-old. It's very seldom you get female leads in these things.

"There's a reason Joanne Rowling had to go as 'JK Rowling'. And it's why Harry is the hero, not Hermione. So we thought, 'If there aren't role models there, let's make them.'"

The plot is 100pc the work of his daughter. Aonghus Óg sees himself as a facilitator rather than a collaborator. "It is written by a seven-year-old. I need to keep it authentic - make sure it is her voice, while at the same time having a level of quality control. Every single line of it is hers."

Before we finish I have to ask McAnally senior what it's like to have been part of an entire generation's childhood? Anything Goes was one of RTÉ's first forays into programming for young people. In the early '80s, it had the field virtually to itself.

"It's fantastic," he says. "And coming home to roost now in a way that is really lovely. There was nothing else on television in that time slot back then so we were superstars. Every so often, I'll do an event and end up talking to a bank manager or some other middle-aged person in a suit.

"Afterwards, they'll turn to me and say, 'I used to tune into you every Saturday.' And it hits you that this person was once a kid who watched me for three-and-a-half hours each weekend. I find that lovely. It gave a lot of parents a break. In fact, we were probably responsible for a baby boom in the early '80s!"

'Cobra's Quest' will be broadcast from September 18-22 as part of the Dublin Fringe Festival, see

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