Sunday 20 February 2011

TP's passing attacted a huge amount of media attention the like of which the McKenna Family would never have dared anticipate.  Irish news outlets featured the story throughout the day while in the UK major obituaries appeared in The Times, The Guardian, The Telegraph and The Independent.  Meanwhile, Reuters and Press Association flashes even saw the story reported as far afield as Los Angeles and Kuala Lumpar.

Below we present a selection of those reports.  Just click on the relevant report.  

**If you come across any broken links then please tell us in the comment box below.

TP McKenna: Actor whose career took him from the Abbey Theatre to numerous character roles on stage and screen (Anthony Hayward)


"An urbane air of authority", Obituary February 15th

,a href="">Tributes to 'exceptional' Abbey and TV veteran McKenna

Obituary by Emer Kelly, Sunday February 20th 2011


Wednesday 16 February 2011


TP McKenna

Irish character actor whose 50-year career on stage, film and television was remarkable for its versatility.

TP McKenna was a prolific and versattile character actor who performed regularly on stage, film and television for 50 years.  One of the most gifted of Irish actors of his generation to make his career in England, he made his stage debut at the tiny Pike Theatre in Dublin in 1953 as John Buchanan in Tennessee Williams' Summer and Smoke before successfully branching out into film appearing alongside everyone from Richard Burton (in Anne of the Thousand Days, 1969) and Dustin Hoffman (Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs 1971) to Johnny Depp (The Libertine 2004).

Few Irish actors were to become as qualified as McKenna to play all the leading character parts, from Shaw and Shakespeare to Ibsen and Chekov.  He was undoubtedly one of Ireland's most accomplished Joycean actors with a reputation in classical Irish drama from Synge to O'Casey.

McKenna, though, was not content to master only the stage.  In the 1960s he appeared in a variety of popular television dramas including The Avengers, Dangerman, The Saint  and Adam Adamant.  In the following decades he was in a host of television staples such as The Sweeney, Minder, Blakes 7, Casualty, Doctor Who, Lovejoy and Inspector Morse.

McKenna's lengthy filmography ranges from his earliest appearances in three 1959 films, Broth of a Boy, Home is the Hero and Shake Hands with the Devil  to The Girl with Green Eyes (1964), Ulysses (1967), Charge of the Light Brigade (1968),  A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1977), Britannia Hopsital (1982) and The Libertine.

He had an early, uncredited role in the IRA-Nazi drama A Terrible Beauty (1961) but despite a common mis-conception went on to appear only twice as a Nazi on film - as an SS commander in the US mini-series Holocaust  (with Meryl Streep) and when he played Himmler in the TV movie Scarlet and the Black, alongside Gregory Peck, Christopher Plummer and John Gielgud in 1983.

Thomas Patrick McKenna was born at Mullagh, Co.Cavan, Ireland, in 1929 and educated at Mullagh School and St.Patrick's College, Cavan, where he performed in several Gilbert & Sullivan operas.  After leaving school he joined the Ulster Bank in Grannard, Co.Longford, and worked in banking for the next five years.  However, he remained set on becoming an actor and left to train for the stage at the Abbey School of Acting in Dublin.

After his stage debut at the Pike,  McKenna played a season at the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin, with Anew McMaster's Shakespearean company, before spending eight years at the old Abbey in Dublin, the oldest national theatre in the British Isles where he played at least a hundred roles, including Jamie, his favourite role, in Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey in Night (1962).

The play that brought him to London was Stephen D.  This was an adaptation by Hugh Leonard from James Joyce's autobiographical novels.  It tranferred to the West End from the Dublin theatre festival.  McKenna played Cranly, the argumentative student friend of Stephen Dedalus (Norman Rodway).  It moved to the St.Martin's in 1963 from the Dublin Gate.

McKenna stayed on when the London run ended and soon found work as the Irishman O'Keefe in J.P.Donleavy's The Ginger Man (Ashcroft, Croydon).  Then he went to the Royal Court Theatre in Lindsay Anderson's revival of Julius Caesar (1964);  the next year he took over as the Burglar in Shaw's Too Good to be True (Garrick).

Summoned back to Dublin for the reopening of the Abbey Theatre in 1966 he played in Recall the Years.  He was proud to be listed as one of the Abbey's honorary life members.  He went on to play George in Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  and Ned in Eugene McCabe's play, Breakdown, at the subsequent Dublin theatre festival.  McKenna won the Dublin Evening Herald award as the year's best actor.

Returning to England in 1968 he joined Stuart Burge at Nottingham Playhouse.  In a revival of King John,
the usually disdained, dark play by Shakespeare, McKenna played with fine understanding Philip Faulconbridge, bastard son of Richard I, and was a powerful presence on the stage.

Jonathan Miller's thoughful revival of The School for Scandal  brought another lively performance by McKenna as Joseph Surface, and a compelling Tirgorin in Checko's The Seagull.  He was a good Macduff to Barry Foster's Macbeath, and his debut as director of The Playboy of the Western World was, according to The Times, "better than the Abbey's own recent version".

Back at the Royal Court in 1969 McKenna played Fitzpatrick, a bitter-sweet Irishman, in David Storey's The Contractor, which moved into West End at the Fortune.  For the 1971-72 season he joined the RSC at the Aldwych.  He played Robert Hands in James Joyce's Exiles  and the Bishop in Genet's The Balcony.

In 1973 he spent some time in Dublin:  after Andrew Wyke in Anthony Shaffer's thriller, Sleuth, he directed Thomas Kilroy's The Death and Resurrection of Mr.Roche at the new Abbey Theatre.  In 1975 he played at Watford Palace in Don Taylor's Out on the Lawn  before rejoining the RSC as the Preacher in Shaw's The Devil's Disciple  (Aldwych).  Returning to Dublin in the mid-1970s as Captain Boyle in O'Casey's Juno and the Paycock, McKenna went on to play five parts in The Golden Cradle, taken from five plays by the Abbey Theatre.

In the 1980s his parts included Gregers Werle in Ibsen's The Wild Duck (Guildford) and the Doctor in Chekov's The Seagull (Royal Court), as well as roles in Stewart Parker's Nightshade (Dulin theatre festival), Brian Friel's The Communication Cord (Hampseatd Theatre), Mary O'Malley's Talk of the Devil  (Watford), Ibsen's A Doll's House (Haymarket, Leicester), and the title role in Uncle Vanya  (Gate, Dublin).  He also directed O'Casey's Shadow of a Gunman  (Crucible, Sheffield).  In the 1990s his roles included Francisco in Webster's The White Devil  (National Theatre, London) and Gaev in The Cherry Orchard (Gate, Dublin, 1992);  he also appeared in Friel's Molly Sweeney (Gate & Almeida 1994).  In 2005, in a Chekhovian revival by Tom Cairns at the Lyttelton of Friel's 1979 play, Aristocrats, McKenna played - in a brief, doddering appearance - the father of five blighted children.

McKenna appeared in The Avengers three times in the Sixties, alongside Honor Blackman, Diana Rigg and Linda Thornson.  He was also conspicuous in The Duchess of Malfi (1972), The Changeling (1974), To the Lighthouse (1982) and Bleak House (1985).  His later television appearances included Heartbeat (1992) and Ballykissangel (1996).

McKenna was married to May White, who predeceased him.  He is survived by four sons and a daughter.

T.P. McKenna, actor, was born on September 7, 1929.  He died on February 13, 2011, aged 81  


Tuesday 15 February 2011


The things I'll miss most are the silver hair, that voice - that stentorian, Cavan-patinated timbre TP never lost unless he was 'doing' Shakespeare, or a British barrister, or, indeed, a wicked impersonation of some colleague 'Sir' who had begun to believe his own publicity.
My first sight of TP McKenna was in the Abbey pantomime during which, each Christmas, the company clowned around in Irish.  My schoolmates and I hung over the balcony of the gods in the Queen’s Theatre to ogle this manly, delectable Prionsa, while at the same time seeming to address each one of us personally, up there in our eyrie.
By 1965, when I joined the Abbey myself, he was semi-detached from it, intent on forging a career on the commercial stage, particularly in London.  But he was about a good deal.
I was hanging around with Sinead Cusack at the time and one night he drove the two of us home to her family house in Dalkey.  For the next hour we literally wept with mirth as he related the story of his birth in Mullagh,  using an imaginary flipchart and pointer to illustrate dashes across rushy fields by midwives and the exclamations from locals when they finally glimpsed the magnificence of his baby physique.
And that night I sensed correctly that he had chosen me as a friend.
TP had an unparalleled talent for lasting and loyal friendship.  Over the years, however, as I got to know him well, I discovered his somewhat bombastic exterior hid boundless kindness and generosity but also a penchant for deep worry.  Worry about money, about his fours sons and his daughter, about the fortunes of the British Labour Party, of which he was a member;  worry about his voice, his hair, his weight, his career, his friends, worry that he’d never get another job.
He worried about his capped teeth.  Once while performing in Shaw’s The Devil’s Disciple, he shouted the line ‘STOP!’ – and out flew one of these front caps, to land at the feet of another actor.
He worried about his nose, which Ernest Blythe told him was too long,  along with this advice:  ‘You’ll just to face the audience when you’re playing love scenes so they won’t notice!’
And he worried constantly about his health, and during a New Year’s Day party in his home in Finchley one year, on looking around at his 35 guests, realised that there were only four actors present.  The others were doctors, chemists, orthopaedic surgeons, psychiatrists – ‘my support group!’
He did have a great sense of the absurd, though. At one point he became so panicked at the thought of leaving his safe, secure job at the Abbey for the thronged shark pools of theatrical London – and inflicting the move on his family too – he sought psychiatric help.  But coming in for one appointment, he found his psychiatrist at the desk, head dolefully in his hands.  ‘How are you?’ asked the patient.
‘Terrible.’ Pause
‘Oh, by the way,’  the medic looked up, ‘How are you?’
TP said he ‘laughed all the way back to the bus’ – and didn’t go back.
His father, Ralph, was Michael Collins’s intelligence officer for the North Meath Brigade.
TP himself, born in 1929, was the eldest of Ralph’s 12 children and by the common custom in large families at the time, was sent nightly to sleep elsewhere, in his case across to his step-grandmother’s house.
This woman, Anna, was from Louisiana.  She had fallen in love during correspondence with his grandfather, a widower, and had sailed across the Atlantic to live with him in Mullagh.
It was in that house, by the soft light of paraffin lamps, the child TP first entered an imaginary world, teeming with character as this Southern belle read to him the works of Henry James and Dickens.  Sent to boarding school in Cavan, he revelled in the school shows.
And when the pupils were brought to hear the great Anew McMaster, who was playing one of his touring productions nearby, the boy was ecstatic and decided this was the life for him.
McMaster kindly granted him a personal audience but then he told him never to think about becoming an actor until he was absolutely certain there was nothing else in the world that he could do.  Chastened (‘set me back eight years!’) our hero shelved his ambitions and on leaving school joined the Granard branch of the Ulster Bank and – oh joy! – eventually got to Dublin where he instantly joined the Shakespeare Society, the Rathmines and Rathgar Musical Society and any other group he could find, while trying to convince himself that he was having the best of both worlds.
Until, in 1954, he failed his banking exams.
A transfer to Killeshandra, where there was one weekly bus to the outside world, beckoned.
He resigned and at the instigation of his new friend, Milo O’Shea, took a part in the tiny Pike theatre at £2 a week.  That was the start of it.
In 1972, with his stage and burgeoning film and television career based in London, his wife, May White, from Durrow in Co.Laois agreed to move across with the couple’s children.
He always said May never left Ireland.  He probably didn’t either, always keeping a base here and making sure to retain contact, but in a sense, we took him for granted, even by reference to his name.
Here it was ‘TP’s in a new play’, as though he had only recently left the building, or the barn, whereas in London it was a more respectful: ‘I hear TP McKenna’s in it!’
In London restaurants, even on the streets, he turned heads, and it wasn’t  just because they could hear him over the crash of crockery or the roar of traffic.  They recognised him.  They knew his name.
In my opinion, this was not just because of the Lovejoys, the Avengers, the Doctor Whos of the Sweeneys – or even the movies:  Charge of the Light Brigade, Shake Hands With The Devil, The Girl With The Green Eyes or Straw Dogs.  It was because of something indefinable called stature.
Resigned that he would never become what is termed a ‘leading man’, he was nevertheless the quintessential ‘actor’s actor’, highly respected in the profession at all levels including that of the English ‘Sirs’.
His presence in a stage play, even if not playing a lead, sold tickets and attracted confreres.
And a few years ago he was astonished, but highly chuffed, to be invited to spend the weekend with Prince Charles and Camilla at Sandringham which gave rise to a flush of new and fabulous stories about folded underwear, washed cars and special masses laid on for Catholics.
We last spoke about four months ago, when he telephoned me.
‘You know you can do better than this’ was always his ‘advice’ to me and along with all those privileged to experience his humour, his loyalty - and yes, his fretting – I shall miss him greatly.
His final resting place will be beside May in the small Mullagh cemetery where the McKennas have lain in peace since 1795.