Monday 18 November 2019

Waking hours with actor Mark McGann

Mark McGann (53) is an actor, songwriter and he also runs screen-acting training seminars. Born in Liverpool, he and his brothers have all acted together. He lives in Frome, Somerset with his wife, Caroline Guinness

Actor Mark McGann.
Actor Mark McGann.

Ciara Dwyer

I live in a place called Frome, in Somerset. It's a real hotbed of sparky, creative people. We've been here eight years and we're very happy here. I usually try and get up before the alarm because the alarm that my wife has is so appalling. It has the worst rendition of You Are My Sunshine, in digital form. Unfortunately, she has to start the day by taking a few pills, and this is the only alarm suitable for waking her up.

My wife is Caroline Guinness, one of the Guinness family. She was raised in Cape Town and came across to the UK in 1973, when she was fleeing apartheid. She had been involved in running a safe house over there. We've been married for 15 years now. We met in London. She used to make music videos for Duran Duran, and worked in management with The Who. We have a healthy start to the day. Caroline makes the most amazing breakfast - porridge with coconut milk and bananas. We have a 20-minute powwow in the morning where we talk newspapers - usually The Guardian headlines - and we try to put the world to rights. Caroline was very much an activist at one point, but she's in semi-retirement now; although that doesn't stop her carrying on in the same vein on Facebook with her activist friends.

After my shower, I'm in my office. I work a lot from home these days. I do a lot of editing of stuff that I'm filming. I have a company called Drama Direct Ltd, and part of it includes running private workshops for professional actors for stage and screen. If I'm not doing that sort of thing, I could be out on the road.

For 30 years or so, I pursued an acting career alone. But when I started out, at the age of 15, I knew that I had other things that I wanted to express artistically. I was a musician when I began acting. I already had my own bands. I played the role of John Lennon up until the age of 26. The show, which was called Lennon, became quite successful.

It started out in the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool and went on to the West End and Broadway. But then I didn't want to be typecast, so I didn't touch the part for another 10 years. Then, in 2008, I was asked to narrate a show for the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. Lennon's music is synonymous with the electric driving-rhythm section, and I was sceptical as to how the orchestra was going to be able to do arrangements that did it justice. But they were the most extraordinary arrangements. I've been asked to do that show on a regular basis ever since. Soon, I'll be performing it in Dublin with the RTE Concert Orchestra. To feel an orchestra behind you when you are singing, is the greatest thrill of all. In the show, I play the narrator, and also John Lennon.

For somebody who is quite calm, I can get quite twitchy before a performance. I stay in the dressing room for the final half hour. I look at myself in the mirror, take a couple of deep breaths, and then I walk out there. I never tire of the feeling of a live audience that has a collective bated breath. The tension in the air becomes dissipated and turns into something magical.

Billy Connolly has said that the minute he walks out on stage, he feels like he is coming home. That's what happens to me. When it comes to playing the part of John Lennon, I feel like I have a natural association with his character. It's not just our background of both being from Liverpool. I was never one of those people destined to stay. I was always looking out, and wanted different experiences. I think he was the same. His restlessness fascinates me. He struggled with his flaws, and that makes him accessible to so many people.

Adrenaline is a real phenomenon, and it becomes more difficult to deal with as you get older. When you're a 20-year-old actor working in the West End, invariably you end up drinking until two in the morning until you calm down enough to go to bed. But when you're doing one-off shows like this, decades later, it's different. I talk incessantly and then I go to bed with a smile on my face.

Caroline doesn't come to all my shows, but she'll be coming to Dublin. It's no secret that she is my inspiration, and my big love story. We've been in love since the moment we met, and we continue to be as in love and devoted to each other.

The fact that she is HIV-positive is neither here nor there. The regime which she has to take is nothing as punitive as it used to be. A lot of things that she's taking now are a direct result of the drugs she was taking earlier on. It's the toxicity of those drugs that has caused most of the problem. With the exception of that, we live a normal life. We don't really converse about these things in the way that we used to. It just doesn't come up as an issue any more.

My wife is a big survivor. She was one of the co-founders of a team called Positively Women, the first organisation for HIV-positive women in England. There were 600 members and she is only one of two still around. She is a real survivor. We are very aware that her internal organs are probably 15 years older than they should be. If you are diagnosed these days, it's a completely different story, and you can pretty much have a normal life span, but with Caroline's generation, you're talking about losing 20 years of your life.

Caroline helps me enormously with putting a true perspective on things. She is somebody who has really taught me to discern between being in the moment and listening to the voices in my head. She is a constant reminder that time is precious. Rather than being a weight around our necks, her condition has been one of the greatest gifts I have ever known. I continue to be grateful for that.

Mark McGann sings in and narrates 'The John Lennon Songbook' with vocalists Claire Martin and Charlie Wood, and the RTE Concert Orchestra, conductor John Wilson; Thursday, April 30, 8pm at the National Concert Hall. Tickets: €15-€39.50 (concession €13-€36.50), tel: (01) 417-0000, or see

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