Kin maker: ‘There’s nobody in this that bears any resemblance to the Kinahans’

Writer Peter McKenna’s gangland drama ‘must be successful in the US’ or be axed

Emmett J Scanlan and Aiden Gillen in Kin

Emmett J Scanlan and Aiden Gillen in Kin

 

Peter McKenna, the creator and writer of RTÉ’s new crime drama, Kin, may have a big hit on his hands. But the past few weeks have been “torture” as public and critical reaction have unfolded. McKenna says the show has already “exceeded my expectations”. Commentary has (mostly) been kind. Furthermore, about 500,000 people tuned in to watch each of the first three episodes, on RTÉ 1’s prime-time Sunday slot of 9.30pm.

“I just find this period stressful and incredibly anxious,” he says. “I suppose you feel very exposed. You’ve done something, you put it out, and everybody gives their opinion. Some people are very, very good. And some people are very bad.”

First things first: the 55-year-old father of two from Kilkenny – now living in Kilkenny city – says the show is not based on the Kinahan cartel. “There’s nobody in this that bears any resemblance to any of the Kinahans or any of the Hutches.”

At the head of the Kinsella crime family are middle-aged siblings Frank (Aiden Gillen), Bridget “Birdy” (Maria Doyle Kennedy) and Bren (Francis Magee), the last of whom is absent from our screens thus far as he is incarcerated.

The next tier of the gang is comprised of Bren’s sons, Jimmy Kinsella (Emmett J Scanlan) and Michael Kinsella (Charlie Cox), as well as Frank’s embarrassing son Eric “Viking” Kinsella (Sam Keeley). They are all supplied with their drugs by frenemy gangland kingpin Eamon Cunningham (Ciarán Hinds) but are now at war with him, having shot dead one of his young heavies, Caolan Moore (Lloyd Cooney).

For some viewers (the ones on Twitter at least) the characters are too well dressed and their homes too big and nicely decorated to be taken for gangland criminals. According to the armchair critics, only northsiders with a penchant for pink sofas – working class, tracksuit-clad, council estate-dwellers one and all, apparently – have any involvement in crime in Dublin.

The Kinsellas, McKenna says, “are a made-up family in a made-up world”. He drew his research from “papers, books, spoke to journalists, police officers, photographers”. He also “got dug into” podcasts and online gangland discussion forums, and followed some criminals on social media.

Peter McKenna, who wrote Kin, in Dublin. Photograph: Alan Betson
Peter McKenna, who wrote Kin, in Dublin. Photograph: Alan Betson

But he says the research was “only to get a sense of that world”, and “99 per cent of what I read I didn’t use”. He adds that the emphasis of the show is on creating compelling characters who viewers will want to follow over time, and not reproducing Dublin’s gangland on screen.

American dream

Although Kin is being broadcast on RTÉ, and the Irish national broadcaster has been involved from the start, it is very much a Bron Studios creation. The Canadian movie studio is now branching into television, and Kin is one of its first projects for the small screen. It has been produced with one main goal in mind; to be successful in the US. And for that to happen it must look as good as big successful American shows, hence the “prestige TV” aesthetic rather than grimier backdrops. Bron has already sold Kin in the US, with episodes now being released by streaming service AMC+.

“It could end up on BBC, on Sky, Netflix in the UK; it could end up anywhere,” says McKenna. But the first series must be successful in the US if it is to be recommissioned, he adds. Success in Ireland won’t deliver enough money to keep it going.

Charlie Cox and Ciarán Hinds in Kin. Photograph: RTÉ
Charlie Cox and Ciarán Hinds in Kin. Photograph: RTÉ

McKenna always wanted to be a writer, even when he was a young boy at boarding school, which he attended from the age of seven – first Our Lady’s Bower in Co Kildare, followed by Castleknock College in Dublin.

His father, a pilot, moved to Algeria in the 1970s to train pilots there. McKenna moved with his family to the capital, Algiers, as a young boy but he did not settle in school, “wandering the streets” instead, and so was sent back to Ireland to board. He says of Castleknock: “I did not thrive. It just didn’t suit me.”

He left after the Inter Cert (the precursor to the Junior Cert) and spent his last few years in the education system in St Fintan’s High School in Sutton, north Dublin, which he loved.

He went on to study business in college despite having no intention of pursuing a business career. Aged 23, he opened The Rubicon art gallery in Dublin city centre with a female friend. He lived in Temple Bar at the time, “going to openings and having a few pints”. Then one day, the woman he ran the gallery with told him she had arranged for him to take every Tuesday off. She said if he did not realise his dream of becoming a writer, he could never say he hadn’t been given the chance. And so, aged 30, he took Tuesdays off and began to write in secret.

Early jobs

His first paid writing job, two decades ago, was On Home Ground, an RTÉ drama series based around the fortunes of the fictitious Kildoran GAA Club. The show did not last long.

“I was mouthy, I was difficult and I wasn’t good enough,” he says of those early days. A producer friend, Vicki Madden, proved an important mentor when he needed it most. She brought him into the RTÉ TV series The Clinic in 2003, providing much-needed work and another chance to hone his skills.

“She made me the lead writer and gave me loads of responsibility. She said to me at one stage, this frank-speaking Aussie: ‘Listen Peter, you can either be difficult or mediocre but you can’t be both; if you want to be as difficult as you are, you need to get better.’ It was a real lesson.”

By the time The Clinic ended, as well as being head writer he was also working on the production side of the series. He was in his late 30s then, and the show had “paid me well but made me lazy”. When it stopped, as the recession was hitting, he was faced with having to reinvent himself. He went to Britain, where he was unknown, because so little TV was being made in Ireland.

His agent organised a series of meetings with decision-makers in UK shows, but nothing much came of it. His wife – Helen Carroll, presenter of RTÉ’s farming series Ear to the Ground – was very supportive, urging him to “make a list of five things you want to do this year”. One of the items on his list was to apply to the BBC Studios Writers’ Academy, where he secured a place.

“That changed my career,” he said of a new life beginning at 40. “You train [to be a writer] in the BBC for three months. They brought me over, put me up in an apartment in London, and I went to class every day. And then at the end of it you get to write an episode of Eastenders, Holby and Casualty. So you have a year’s work … That’s a proper start.”

Red Rock

Through contacts he was making in Britain – “producers and editors bring you with them” – he went on to a one-series BBC nursing drama called Frankie in 2012. That led to The Musketeers, a BBC period drama, which first aired in 2014. He was up and away.

At that point British TV producer John Yorke – who ran the BBC Studios Writers’ Academy – asked McKenna to put together an idea for a soap opera for what was then TV3 in Ireland. The idea was accepted, and Red Rock was born, based around a Garda station in the fictional seaside town of the title. McKenna set up the series and began writing it. But he stayed for just one year, as he did not want to be “forgotten” in the UK, where he then continued to work as a writer on dramas and soaps. Red Rock went on to run for five years, clocking up almost 200 episodes.

Kin began life about three years after a development process involving McKenna, Bron Studios and Irish director Ciaran Donnelly, with whom McKenna shares a co-creator credit on the series.

McKenna says the remainder of the series will feature plenty of gangland fare. But it will also explore the consequences of violence, and the trauma many gangland criminals have endured within families steeped in for-profit crime and violence. The character he seems most interested in is that of Amanda (Clare Dunne), whose teenage son was shot dead in a botched gangland gun attack.

Clare Dunne in Kin
Clare Dunne in Kin

“She has the furthest journey to go. There’s more runway with her to tell a story,” he says of the outsider who marries into gangland rather than being brought up in it. “Amanda is not even in the family meetings in episode one; she’s told what to do. But as the show goes on, she’s more involved. And because she has [not grown up in a crime family] she brings a different perspective; suggesting things other people may not think of. Kin will reward you if you stick with it.”