Wednesday 22 November 2017

The real McCoy

The storyline captivated and divided the country. Fair City's Kay McCoy was pregnant with a severely handicapped baby. She wanted a termination, her h

The storyline captivated and divided the country. Fair City's Kay McCoy was pregnant with a severely handicapped baby. She wanted a termination, her husband, Malachy, was adamantly opposed to it. Sheila McWade is the Belfast-born actress who has brought a considered sensitivity to this difficult role; and yet she nearly became a lawyer. And in her other life she has campaigned for Weight Watchers and the SDLP. Patricia Deevy met her

EVEN if you like a soapy half-hour, isn't it creepy the number of magazine covers featuring the soaps' overwrought stories and their airbrushed stars, and odd that plot twists are now news events? Isn't the telly enough? Don't people know that it's all made up?

The answer to these questions is usually by way of complicated academic work which we don't have time for here. Let's just say that, like the correlation between chocolate bars and bottoms, soaps are fun in moderation but addiction will leave your brain flabby. It will also leave you unable to separate the wheat from the chaff, and it would be a pity not to give Fair City's current storyline on abortion the distinction it merits.

Kay and Malachy are having a second chance she after a bad first marriage, he after many years as a priest. Kay is in her early 40s. Unexpectedly, she becomes pregnant. Against Malachy's will, she has an amniocentesis. It reveals a condition, trisomy-13, which means that their baby will have severe mental and physical handicaps and probably will not survive long after birth. She feels she cannot go through with the pregnancy. He cannot contemplate her doing otherwise. She decides to have an abortion. He turns his face against it and against her.

Early last spring, Sheila McWade (Kay) first heard of the abortion. By the summer, she was following it up, wanting to prepare herself. One producer casually announced: "'Oh yes, the child has Down's Syndrome', or something like that, or spina bifida that was it 'and she's going to get rid of it.'

"For about 30 seconds, I freaked. And for the first time ever, and, I hope, the last time ever, I said: 'I'm sorry, if that's the circumstances in which she decides to, I'm afraid I am not doing this."' Series producer Niall Matthews calmed her by explaining the extent and severity of trisomy-13.

You might say that linking the willingness to abort and to play one who aborts to the severity of the handicap, is a philosophical cop-out; but it seems realistic for Kay. "This is a terrible bereavement to her before the child is even born. If that child were brought into the world she would be oscillating between feelings of extreme anger and love and compassion and resentment. She'd probably fall apart, and I would say that's probably her prime motivating reason for her decision to abort the child. These are all the feelings that are going through my head as I'm playing the character."

There was a time when any serious discussion about Fair City was impossible. In its early days, to say that it was wooden was high praise. McWade had been a jobbing actress for three years before she was asked to replace Ruth McCabe as Kay McCoy in 1990. "At that time, I thought, 'I don't know if I want to do this or not,' because it's reputation was so ... " she giggles and searches for a diplomatic word "not good."

"You'd walk through town shielding yourself, not looking anyone in the eye for fear of you getting abuse heaped upon you. All I know is, from a foot-soldier point of view, there was this determination that we were going to pull together and make this thing work. We'd go from year to year wondering: 'Are we going to be back?' I think a lot of our success can be put down to the fact that we take nothing for granted.

"There's this snobbish attitude that because it's something that the masses view, it's lowest-common-denominator stuff. I think that's rubbish. It's either good or it's bad. I happen to think that now it is very,very good, and it's certainly the jewel in RTE's crown."

To keep a soap dynamic, actors like McWade and Gerry Byrne (Malachy) need work as complex as this so that their characters develop. McWade has been building up to this for months. "It's been very exhausting. But controversial and heart-breaking as it is, it's also been a great pleasure to come into work and see everybody there at seven o'clock in the morning, pulling together, saying: 'We're going to make this work."'

McWade came to acting as an escape from the law. Well, that's how she tells it: having described a background of great stability and happiness, I ask if she went in for any kind of rebellion. "I became an actress in my mid-20s," she says.

After St Dominic's High School on the Falls Road, and a year doing a journalism course, McWade read law at Queen's University and was supposed to become a lawyer.

"Coming out of third year I wanted to rebel. I really wanted to rebel but I was also quite mature in the sense that I didn't want to rebel for the sake of rebelling. I didn't want to hurt anybody, especially my parents."

After graduating from Queen's (it was, as she says, a "considered" rebellion) and completing her Guildhall Diploma in speech and drama teaching, she moved to Dublin where she knew no-one and enrolled in Joe Dowling's revived Gaiety School of Acting. Four years later, she was on television.

Growing up, McWade's life was full of music (she studied clarinet for six years) and reading and sport and craft and activity, both at home and in her extended family. In the background, there are lots of teachers, including both maternal grandparents. When her grandmother had to stop teaching, she set up a poultry farm. McWade's father, James, is a bookie. Her mother, Caitlin, is a primary schoolteacher. She grew up on the Stewartstown Road in west Belfast, in a family that was part of the North's solid Catholic middle-class.

So happy are her memories of her parents and grandparents, I wonder why she is so, as she describes herself, "fiercely independent". She thinks it comes from a grandmother who was stopped from continuing with her first love, teaching, and a mother who continued only after resisting pressure from outside the family to stop. "My mother was one of two women on our road who had a career and a lot of the other mothers resented that. My mother had her own car. My mother had her own money."

McWade does not talk about her personal life but she says a pattern was set at an early age. "I was in a relationship when I was 17, 18, 19 with a fellow who was much older than me, who was in a career and had money and had a car and all that sort of thing. He was about nine years older. And I felt very constricted and I felt I was being minded all the time and I was being brought everywhere; and if I wasn't seeing him he was phoning me all the time and I just couldn't bear it. And I think that has coloured a lot of my attitude, subsequently.

"I think an awful lot of store is put on relationships. Sometimes people say to me: 'Wouldn't it be nice to have somebody?' And I sort of go: 'Yeah, if that's what you want.' I just do what is right for me. Which doesn't mean to say that there haven't been people down through the years."

In general, McWade thinks people consider her stern. "It's partly my fault, because I'd be so intent on work or doing something right that maybe the vibe is one of intimidation. So be it. And also women are supposed to be cuddly submissive sort of things as well; and I don't buy into that, really."

She doesn't seem stern to me and her way is good-humoured. But she is very definite in her way of expressing herself, so perhaps the image comes from a Southern aversion to an imagined Northern stridency. Growing up in Seventies Belfast toughened people up.

"We wanted for nothing except a normal life. They [parents] had to bring us everywhere, simply because they couldn't let you out on your own. You'd walk into bomb scares, you'd walk into shootings, you'd walk into protests, you'd walk into mayhem and upheaval." Early on, Caitlin had bought a holiday home in north Antrim near her own parents. In the early Seventies, the family got out of the city every weekend and every summer.

"So, a lot of my time was spent away from the trouble. But you bitterly resented it as you became a teenager, the constriction and the sense of menace that was Belfast at that time. You end up with a love-hate relationship with a city like that."

At Queen's, McWade was involved in student politics rather than drama. "Never extreme. Moderate nationalism. I joined the SDLP when I was at Queen's. I'm a card-carrying member of the SDLP. At one stage, it was mooted to me, 'Would you not stand?,' towards the end of college, and I thought: 'Naaaah.'

"I have done my hoofing around for the SDLP; and I, along with anyone else who has done it, culminating in John Hume, have been utterly vindicated. It was very hard at times to maintain a pacifist line when you lived in west Belfast in the 1970s, but we did. I did. And again, 25 years later, you do feel vindicated. We were right. Hume is my hero. I think he's brilliant."

And no doubts about his talking to Sinn Fein?

"None whatsoever. I trusted Hume completely and I said there has to be a reason for him doing this beyond that fact that somebody's got to start talking to somebody.,THAT McWade is canny is clear from her ability to obscure her own position on abortion. She says from doing Fair City she has learned that it's "not a black and white issue". "Maybe at some stage I would have said it was. To me, now, it is not, and the last thing I will do to any woman, any parent, in this situation, is judge them."

Of critics who feel that by having a woman go for an amniocentesis, or by allowing a sympathetic character to go ahead with an abortion, Fair City is promoting one side of a debate, McWade asks for patience.

"Simply because of the time issues involved in a terrible crisis like this, and because of the way the body works and nature evolves, the decision has to be made quickly. So, that's why we're getting all of that emphasis at the moment. What I would say to people is, wait for the other side to be put. Let's see this thing in its totality. The whole context hasn't been seen yet. People have to be patient." She says the most powerful stuff is yet to come.

When she was asked to become a public representative, McWade could hardly have imagined that she would achieve a sort of public profile as a successful dieter and become a Weight Watchers spokeswoman. "It's a great privilege when you meet people who say, 'You're up on my fridge' and 'We think of you' and 'I'm watching you', and I'm going: 'Jesus, you know, for losing a bit of weight."' She does promotional work for the organisation since she dropped that "bit of weight" (over five stone) a few years ago.

She has kept the weight off by continual self-discipline. Discipline which is on display within minutes, as she stops herself dipping into the bowl of nibbles in front of us.

"I've just realised, I don't want to eat any more of them. I've rationed myself to three."

Still counting points?

"Oh yeah." (Weight Watchers works by giving dieters a daily point allowance and assigning all foods and drinks a point value. You diet by sticking to your allowance.) With a sigh, I tell her I have been that soldier.

"It's always there for you, Patricia, to go back to. It's always there," she says to me, with the sincerity of a true believer.

In fact, Weight Watchers offers a sensible way to slim, but sometimes it is aggravating. Say, for instance, when 10 minutes of the weekly meeting is a discussion about a biscuit: surely our lives (and it's mainly women's lives) should be about more than this?

McWade sees the bigger picture: "The thing about food is, if you don't get your attitude to food sorted out you're going to kill yourself eventually, one way or the other. So what Weight Watchers tries to do is to reinforce the healthy approach, the slow approach. You've got to learn to make the healthy choices; so 10 minutes on a biscuit, if that helps to sort out one person's head, so be it. Brilliant."

As long as she's involved in Weight Watchers, McWade will never want for company, because people are always glad to discuss weight. In fact, we finished with an enthusiastic half hour on the subject, but I'll spare you the details. It was that sort of down and dirty fat-talk which involved a dissection of other people's flab as well as our own. We agreed that we'd hate to look like Courtney Cox.

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