The many faces of TP McKenna

Sat, Feb 19, 2011, 00:00

IT IS NOT every actor who has his obituary published in the London Timesand on Doctor Who Online, but TP McKenna was a big enough personality to embrace contradiction. In his last months in the Royal Free Hospital in north London, he objected to being in hospital while at the same time charming all the nurses. “He was always one for the ladies,” says his son, Breffni McKenna. “Big time.”

For a traditionalist he was very modern. His death was announced on his excellent website, which was designed by the youngest of his four sons, Stephen.

The career of TP McKenna – even his wife called him TP – was defined by the huge social changes taking place during his lifetime, at first chiefly in Britain. The regionalisation of British theatre in the 1960s allowed actors from the provinces – Albert Finney, Tom Courtenay, Nicol Williamson, Rita Tushingham – to take centre stage in London, replacing the formal actors of the previous generation. It was the birth of the Angry Young Man and of the kitchen-sink drama.

“He arrived in London at the right time,” says Breffni. “When those guys were taking over from what he called the Lordies.” So it was that McKenna played Cassius in Lindsay Anderson’s 1964 production of Julius Caesarat the Royal Court, which starred first Nicol Williamson and then Ian Bannen as Brutus, and featured the young Anthony Hopkins in a minor role.

McKenna’s move to Britain coincided with the birth of television, which was also reaching out beyond London. Even before he left Ireland he had appeared with his friend Donal Donnelly in a Tom Murphy television play, The Fly Sham, on the BBC in May 1963. The first of his three appearances on The Avengers, also in 1964, came about at two days’ notice, probably because the director of that particular episode, Laurence Bourne, had once worked, like McKenna, at the Globe Theatre in Dublin.

McKenna became one of the people who were making British television the best in the world, and he popped up at every stage of the development of the television drama. In 1972 he appeared in three episodes of the gritty spy series Callan, which starred Edward Woodward, as a disillusioned Russian spy (everyone in Callan was disillusioned). One episode, “Call Me Enemy”, was really a 50-minute two-hander between himself and Woodward and was so good that it was repeated in 1994 on Channel 4 as an example of the high standards of the past.

He appeared in everything from Dr Finlay’s Casebookin the 1960s to T he Sweeneyin the 1970s to Minderin 1984. He was so much a part of the unofficial television repertory that his Minder character was written with McKenna in mind – the character’s initials in the original script were TP. He was also delighted to appear in the final episode of Inspector Morsewith John Thaw, who he admired and had worked with on The Sweeney. His character, Sir Lionel Phelps, was the last suspect Morse interviewed before his own death.

In the early days, McKenna and his friend Norman Rodway went drinking in Gerry’s Club in Soho, and a young television journalist called Michael Parkinson became a good friend. Breffni McKenna remembers being brought to Gerry’s Club when he was about 10 years old. “They did a good burger and chips.” He also remembers actors as family friends from his childhood: “Peter Bowles, Niall Buggy. He mentored Jim Norton. But the parties were not exclusively actors. There were journalists and doctors as well.”

The raciness of The Avengers, a 1964 press clipping from McKenna’s files of that time explains, had become almost respectable, and actors who would have shunned the television series in the past were now quite willing to take part in it. In fact TP McKenna seems to have been always a couple of developmental steps ahead of the Dublin newspapers, who regarded him in his early London days with a combination of admiration and disbelief. When his wife May went to join him on the set of The Charge of the Light Brigade, which Tony Richardson was shooting in Turkey, the trip was exotic enough to attract press attention in Dublin.

For nine years it was May who lived with their family of five children – Rafael, Killian, Breffni, Stephen and Sally – in Sandymount while TP commuted from London. She also ran her own interpreting business.

“She was from a family of achievers from Laois,” Pat Laffan says.

“She was a very lovely lady, a very clever lady with a tremendous application,” says Gerry Larchet, who used to go out a lot with the McKennas and his own wife, Nancy, who had been at college with May.

May and TP managed to rear five children on the salaries of two freelance workers, although, as Breffni remembers, “It was a bit nip-and-tuck at times.”

His father was never a house-husband. “He was exactly of his generation,” says Breffni. “He didn’t know one end of an iron from the other. He could just about grill a steak.”

The family’s final move to London in the early 1970s took a bit of adjustment. “It was the fag end of the swinging Sixties and it was just a bit too large and racy for a boy from Sandymount,” says Breffni, who was 12 at the time. His father went from being a visitor from London to being an actor at home with his children. “He wasn’t a martinet, he was blustery,” says Breffni. “He was a very loveable man and also very family orientated. His main interest was his wife and his children.”

McKenna was a big rugby fan, supporting his home province of Ulster and going to matches with Breffni, as well as attending Twickenham and Cardiff Arms Park with a rugby friend. In earlier times, Gerry Larchet remembers, he had been great friends with Andy Mulligan, who played both for Cambridge and for Ireland. He was also interested in politics. He was a member of the Finchley branch of the British Labour Party. “He paid his sub, he wasn’t an activist,” says Breffni. The actress Ingrid Craigie remembers McKenna flying to London with other cast members of a production of The Cherry Orchardat the Gate to cast their vote for Neil Kinnock in the 1992 general election (it was Kinnock’s second defeat).

McKenna continued to work in Ireland throughout his career. He and May kept a flat in Sandymount: he regretted selling their house there. He was in The Kennedys Of Castlerosse, As well as Chekhov at the Gate he took part in the detective drama Making The Cut/DDU.

One of his last appearances in Ireland was on the soap opera Fair Cityin 2004, and again in 2005. He played Fr Tom Mitchell, a priest who is tortured by guilt that he did not report a fellow priest’s sexual abuse of children and who tries to make amends by forcing the Church authorities to act against the perpetrator. Fr Mitchell fails. Fifty years before, McKenna had started his career at the Pike, amongst other theatres, where, according to himself, he imitated Patrick Kavanagh and Lennox Robinson.

Perhaps TP could play Fr Mitchell so sympathetically, not just because he was a good actor – “A joy to work with,” according to Hilary Reynolds, who wrote those Fair Cityepisodes. “A real privilege, and great fun” – but because he had warm memories of a priest who was, he said, “unquestionably the biggest influence in my life”. This was Fr Vincent Kennedy, who kept “a Bechstein piano and a nice library” in his room at St Patrick’s College in Cavan town, when McKenna boarded there in the 1940s. Favoured boys listened to the Proms in Kennedy’s room and learned to follow a score. He put McKenna into the school’s productions of Gilbert and Sullivan and by the time he brought the boys backstage to meet Anew McMaster when he came to Cavan with his touring company, the young TP was already stage struck.

So McKenna, as well as playing in the GAA All-Ireland College Football Final at Croke Park in 1948 – “He played at full back, and so did I later on,” says Breffni – was inspired artistically at school. The eldest of his sisters, Annette, became a nun.

His brother-in-law, Thomas White, has been papal nuncio to Bogota, Switzerland and Taiwan. Breffni hopes White will assist at the funeral service this week in Mullagh, Co Cavan. “Later on I hope we’ll have a memorial service at St Peter’s Church in Covent Garden. It’s the actors’ church.”

The roots of this career lay also in the Abbey, at a time in its history which could have been written by Myles na gCopaleen. It was exasperation with the Abbey as much as anything else that sent McKenna to work permanently in London. “My father was contracted to the Abbey,” says Breffni, who is also an actor. “Ernest Blythe refused him leave of absence.”

McKenna was, as Pat Laffan pointed out on Morning Irelandon Tuesday, part of a generation of actors who changed the Abbey. One of their demands, according to Laffan, was to have their names rendered on the programme in English so people would know who they were. This was the group of actors who went to England looking for the director Frank Dermody, whose directorial career had not worked out there and who was then employed in British Rail as a clerk. “Mr Blythe approved of Frank Dermody because he spoke Irish,” says Laffan. “He was from Tourmakeady and had come up through the Taibhdhearc.” Dermody directed the 1962 production of Long Day’s Journey Into Night in which TP McKenna played young James Tyrone, and which was so inspirational to younger actors such as Laffan.

Maura Boylan, as she then was, knew TP in the Dublin of the 1950s. “He quite often used to come to supper on a Sunday night,” she says. “Himself and Sticks O’Herlihy, who was a brother of Daniel O’Herlihy, and became quite an important director. TP was working in the bank then and he told me that he would love to become an actor but felt it was so unsafe.”

It was at this time Gerry Larchet first noticed McKenna, who was appearing with the Rathmines and Rathgar musical society in his beloved Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. Larchet, later an engineer, was then a young horn player and was in the orchestra pit when McKenna appeared in the musical The Green Valleyat the Olympia for two weeks. Larchet believes this to have been McKenna’s first professional appearance.

My own mother remembers going to Mitchell’s cafe on Grafton Street with her friend Maura Boylan on a Saturday morning and the waitress getting them a table much faster if McKenna was with them. He was becoming known. It was probably no coincidence that TP was having coffee with them: my mother and Maura Boylan were pretty girls. They in their turn thought him very well turned out. McKenna was always well dressed. “He had standards,” Laffan says. “He never wore a pair of jeans in his life,” says his son Breffni.

This Dublin was a strange place. Larchet remembers going for a drink in O’Neill’s pub in Pearse Street after a show in the Abbey, which was temporarily housed in the Queen’s theatre on that street after the catastrophic fire in 1951. The party began singing and in one song there was a fairly innocuous mention of the Knights of Columbanus, at which point the proprietor of the pub came out from behind the bar to stop to it.

Last year Breffni took his father back to Mullagh. “He knew it was his last time,” he says. TP had never got over May’s death five years ago, and Breffni thinks he was ready to go. His father’s happiest times professionally, he thinks, were working at the National Theatre, and at the RSC, and probably at the Abbey. “He just liked a huge community of actors.”

TP was known as a loyal friend. It is moving to see Donal Donnelly at the edge of TP and May’s wedding photo in 1955 – he is standing with Milo O’Shea – and to know that TP was his friend and helpful to him until Donnelly’s death in January of last year. “TP was sociable, once inviting the poet Patrick Kavanagh to stay in Sandymount. I know May said it was her or Patrick Kavanagh,” remembers Gerry Larchet.

He was famously emotional and a good crier as well as a good singer. “There was a warmth about him,” says Pat Laffan. “He was a man’s man. He was a sporty type. Very fond of the jar. And he loved women. I stayed in touch with him. We all did.”