One year on from his passing, Stephen McKenna, looks back on a thoroughly unique childhood with a most remarkable parent - the actor, TP McKenna.
I can’t remember a precise moment when our mother May might have broken the news to us, ‘Children, your father is not like other fathers. He’s an actor!’ I think it was a sort of assumed knowledge. An undeniable truth.
Our daddy sang Gilbert & Sullivan at full pitch as he strode down the street, he boomed at rugby matches in Lansdowne Road (our neighbourhood pals, called him ‘the shouty man’), and he’d bring us backstage at the Gaiety to meet Maureen Potter after one of her Gaels of Laughter spectaculars. Oh, and of course, he was on the telly. As they’d say in his native Cavan, ‘the buck on the box’.
Watching ‘Daddy on the telly’ became a ritual that I was first introduced to when I was about four. With my siblings, I sat, scrubbed and pyjama’d in the playroom of our Sandymount home gawking at the monochrome screen waiting for him to appear in an episode of the popular Dr.Finlay’s Casebook, Then the credits would role and our mother would always leads us in a cheer when Daddy’s name came up.
Of course, he wouldn’t be there watching with us and the box in the corner of the room was the reason why. Television, stage and film parts kept him regularly in London throughout the Sixties and we seemed forever to be piling into the car for trips to the airport to wave him off. Even more anticipated were his flying visits home and the prospect of treats from the London toy emporium, Hamleys.
That aspect of life changed greatly in 1972 when our father reluctantly took the decision to move the family to London and we had to make the curious adjustment from life with an absentee father to one where our daddy seemed to be at home all the time.
Naturally, it was not unpleasant. It just wasn’t what we were used to.
The thing about our father was that he lived his life in an entirely open way. As with one of those modernistic buildings, where all the mechanics are on the outside of the structure, his moods, his thoughts, his doubts, they were entirely visible to us all.
In the wholly unpredictable world of a freelance actor, life was sometimes like a permanent showery day, albeit punctuated by occasional bursts of glorious sunshine, and we were exposed to it all.
At the dinner table we'd hear him cogitate on the script he'd just been sent, what his agent was saying, what fee they were offering. Or his talk of the day's rehearsal or shooting, how it was going and how was the company, and the unforgettable roar of his marvellous laugh as he regaled us with some new anecdote.
There was scarcely a detail or a conversation we were not privy to and the truth of the matter is we couldn’t help but become a part of the process. Scripts would be slyly filtered away and perused as if we were a secondary selection panel. What's he doing this for? … Not a big part, is it? … Oh, that’s good writing, and the like. Junior verdicts which though not immediately sought, were inevitably blurted out.
Naturally, we were Dad’s biggest fans, but there was no fake flattery in the house, and as we grew older we became our father’s reality check.
Meanwhile, there were the many calls that had to be fielded. From his agent, or the productionmanager with the next day's location call, or perhaps an appointment for a costume fitting.
No mobiles or answer-machines then. Just a pad and pen by the phone on his desk and nervous young fingers attempting to accurately record the details. During our Dublin years, we were much too young for that kind of thing, so, messages were taken, mangled even, by our housekeeper from Tipperary. One mind-boggling note advised Dad that his granddad (long dead) was sending him a slip in the post. What actually arrived was a script from Granada TV. So, such confusions were to be avoided.
Another vital task was hearing Dad's lines. This became a distinct rite of passage within the family, falling to each of us in turn. An actor who learns a script easily is a rare thing and it was a labour to which he applied himself studiously. Like a penance, it was the price to be paid for the reward of getting to the heart of the role and it was fascinating watching him at close quarters, as if to observe a master-tailor, trimming and stitching, striving for the perfect fit.
For our part we’d attempt a degree of a performance for the other parts in a scene, so he wasn’t just playing to the wall. Little wonder that my brothers, Kilian and Breffni, followed him into the business.
Even when the work was done he'd sit in front of the television, quietly watching Newsnight, a vodka and tonic at his side and drawing ruminatively on a cigar, distilling his learning. Wreathed in smoke, you’d see the lines percolating within him as he turned a phrase over in his mouth, revising his emphasis here, changing the colour of his tone there.
In everyday life, Dad had no patience whatsoever and trifles such as a pen that wouldn’t write or a missing newspaper would send him into torrents of oaths and epithets. But when it came to his craft it seemed to induce a remarkable stillness in him. His silences on stage were moments to treasure.
Once, I went with him to the BBC studios where he was recording a television play and, apart from breaks for lunch and tea, he was on set for twelve hours with long pauses for technical problems, retakes and all the stop-start that goes with shooting drama.
I hardly recognised the man I saw then as my father. The entire day he was a picture of serenity and professionalism. Assuaging any problems with an easy charm and displaying none of the vulnerability we knew to be within him. He was positively saintly.
Where was ‘the shouty man’, I wondered?
I recognised then the unique set of pressures that Dad’s career applied on him. The requirement for a rigid self-control and the channelling of all his mental energies towards a constantly risky enterprise. It seemed almost that where other kids’ daddies went off to the office, ours climbed up to the highest diving board and leapt off, never entirely sure there was any water in the pool below.
One afternoon Dad rushed in from the garden in great excitement. He was in the middle of learning his lines for an important new West End play.
‘A seagull's just shit on my script’, he announced proudly. I said, that's meant to be very good luck,
‘Yes’, he said. ‘Yes, it is!!’
It wasn’t. That particular production lasted in the West End about as long as a smash-and-grab raid on a Mayfair jewellers. Fully three months hard work and passion and all for it to end in a brief phone call. ‘Sorry, TP, we’re taking it off’.
To experience failure as an actor is a very deep and personal emotion and at such times we felt every fibre of pain along with our Dad. Oh yes, when the sun shone it was golden. The reviews following an opening night with one rave after another, or the call from the agent saying a big name director wanted him for his next movie. Moments of bliss, but when it rained, it rained very hard.
But, if ever that sounds rather gloomy a memory of a childhood, then we only have to consider life had our father never quit the Ulster Bank to become an actor. Why, as the children, possibly of a rural branch manager, our formative years could have been lived out in complete stability and predictability.
I mean, just to think of it. How fascinating. How deeply boring.
Life with our daddy, the actor, was never less than interesting. A big, scary helter-skelter ride at times, but what an adventure and how privileged we were to have been his passengers.
© Stephen McKenna 2012