Thursday 20 June 2019

Imagine: A life in Lennon's shoes

Playing the role of the legendary Beatle has defined the career of actor Mark McGann, writes Evan Fanning

Evan Fanning

MARK McGANN has been becoming John Winston Lennon for almost as long as he can remember. In fact, he's been giving performances as his Liverpudlian compatriot in public performances for nearly the same amount of time as Lennon was on stage, having first played the working-class hero back when he was just 18.

Now 48, McGann admits he was "just a snotty-nosed backstreet kid from Liverpool" when he first donned the Lennon wig and trademark round glasses -- a role he now jokingly refers to as his "pension fund" -- but as he prepares to perform the great man's songbook at the National Concert Hall in Dublin, he's in a position to take a contemplative look at Lennon's life. "It's more acceptable to be reflective when I'm doing him now," he says. "I'd have to be, because I'm now seven years older than he was when he died."

It's easy to spot McGann when he arrives for lunch at River Cottage in the picturesque city of Bath in south-west England. The McGann clan are instantly recognisable. If he wasn't familiar from his portrayals of Lennon on stage or screen, or his role in The Hanging Gale (the BBC drama series he also produced centred around the Irish Famine) or as explorer Tom Crean alongside Kenneth Branagh's Ernest Shackleton in the film about the fearless explorer, then you are bound to come across one of his near-identical looking brothers, Paul, Joe or Stephen, who are also professional actors.

While Paul will forever be known for his performance in Withnail and I, Mark has made Lennon something of his trademark. "If it's a case of being born to play a role and this is the role I was born to play, then I'd much rather that than Alfie Bass or de Valera or someone like that," McGann explains. "It's a genuine joy [to play him] and I've never felt that I've done it so much that I've ever tired of doing it or that it was a strain."

McGann's journey as Lennon has brought him around the world several times over, and into contact with those inherently intertwined in the Beatles story. While filming the movie John and Yoko -- A Love Story for American television, he had his first encounter with Lennon's second wife.

"I'm filming a sequence outside the Dakota building in New York and we were going to do the scene where he got shot. The next thing that happens is that Sean, who's about 10 at the time, and Yoko appeared in front of me. Sean takes one look at me and freaks out and starts crying. Yoko got really embarrassed and said she'd call me in the hotel later on."

She invited him to come and visit her in the seventh-floor apartment where she lived with Lennon. "I go up there and it was spooky," he explains. "This was five years after he died. His cat is roaming around -- she said it hadn't been the same since he died -- the white piano is there in the room where he wrote Imagine with the Elizabeth Browning prints he bought for her.

"Then we started to talk and she said, 'OK, what do you want to know?' I can remember saying to her what was it like on the first night they spent together.

"She said, 'I won't go into the gory details', but it was all happening at John's house in Surrey. Cynthia [Lennon's first wife] was away with Julian at the time. She said they'd played music all night and done all this kind of stuff and on the Sunday morning John went out to get the papers. When John came back, he put them across the coffee table, but when Yoko reached out to take one of the papers he slapped her hand."

McGann asked her if he was joking and she said that he meant it: "[John] looked at me and he said, 'I read them first'.''

"So I asked her what did she do and she said, 'That was the first thing I sorted out'. The reason it was so poignant and revealing to me was that I don't think anyone else in his life up to that point was able to cope with him. I think she was. I think she was much-maligned and it was outrageous what happened to her."

Growing up in Liverpool in the Sixties and Seventies as four local boys changed the face of music, it was inevitable that impressionable teenagers would find themselves with a guitar in their hand, and Mark was no different, although he insists that it is not only the influence of the Beatles that inspired his creative side.

"When leaving Liverpool for the first time, aged 16, and moving to London and then going back for a little while to finish studies, you become incredibly aware that your whole social experience of growing up where we grew up -- that very close kin, familial thing -- is closer to the Irish experience than anything else. I suppose it's no surprise when you think of the effects of the Diaspora -- a doubling in the population of Liverpool practically overnight in the mid-1800s. It's a very Irish place.

"It didn't make sense fully until I visited Ireland for the first time and found myself surrounded not only by people who looked more like us than people from outside of Liverpool, but who also had a similar sensibility. Liverpool, as far as the arts were concerned, is the only northern working-class city where it wasn't frowned upon to consider becoming an actor. If you came from Manchester or Leeds, there must have been something effeminate about contemplating it but we always had a massive tradition of it, and I think that's Irish. It's the same with the music."

While the McGanns are an acting and musical dynasty of their own, Mark is married into an even more famous family name. His wife is Caroline Guinness, daughter of Jacqueline Brink and Howard Guinness, who was from a South African branch of the family.

He was instantly smitten, having seen her at a party held by Jackie and Bill Curbishley, former manager of The Who. "I said to this bloke, 'Who is that woman?' She had this amazing energy about her like it was this light. And also I realised it was the first time I had truly fallen in love."

What he didn't know at that point was that Caroline was HIV-positive, a result of a one- off sexual encounter in the mid-Eighties. The two became friends for a year, with Caroline unaware that Mark had learned of her condition and had met consultants alone to learn about the disease. "I set about finding out as much as I could to save both our anxieties," he explains.

"One day she talked to my brother Joe and said to him, 'There's something I have to tell you. I really like Mark.' He said: 'You two should get together. You'd be perfect for each other.' So she said to him, 'I've actually got a confession to make. I'm HIV positive.' He said: 'Caroline, we all know that.'"

Away from her courtship with Mark, Caroline had been campaigning for awareness and funding for what was then a relatively new illness. "She was so courageous; she stood up in the House of Commons in the Eighties and spoke about it. She helped start a charity called Positively Women because there was nothing out there for heterosexual women, it was all only for gay men."

The two have been married since 2000 and together work towards greater awareness of the illness and safe-sex methods. "She's an extraordinary woman," McGann says. "I can live with the risks. I take bigger risks every time I get into my car. There's no point in living life in denial of anything. Acceptance is the only way forward, but it doesn't define who we are.

"If it wasn't for the challenges that go hand-in-hand with Caroline's condition we wouldn't have the depth and extra dimensions to our relationship that I suspect other married couples don't have. We are incredibly devoted to each other."

Mark McGann, Curtis Stigers and Claire Martin join the RTE Concert Orchestra for the John Lennon Songbook on Friday, August 21 at the National Concert Hall. See www.rte.ie/ performinggroups for more information. For bookings phone (01) 417-0000 or visit www.nch.ie

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