Film: From Withnail to downtime ... and now the big time

Interview: Paul McGann

Janie Lawrence
Saturday 22 October 2011 22:18

Paul McGann and Richard E Grant won instant fame with `Withnail and I'. But while Grant had success after success, it all went quiet for his co-star. Where's he been and where's he going? Janie Lawrence finds out.

Intense. Charismatic. A big screen presence. Ever since his powerful debut in Withnail and I these are qualities Paul McGann has possessed in spades. So it's somewhat of a surprise to come across a none too tall, exceedingly slight figure. Dare I say it one that seems to be crying out for a good square meal? "I'm a lean little thing - I just act big." McGann responds grinning at my spectacularly undiplomatic opening gambit.

With his shirt hanging scruffily outside of his trousers McGann proclaims himself exhausted. He has arrived for our meeting directly after a night of shooting the final scenes for his starring role in the forthcoming BBC adaptation of Our Mutal Friend. But where has Mr McGann been?

Two years ago he went time travelling in the Tardis in a brief incarnation as Dr Who but most of his scenes opposite Sigourney Weaver in Alien 3 didn't make it out of the cutting room. It's been 13 years since he was Percy Toplis in Alan Bleasdale's Monocled Mutineer and 15 since he was the star of the cult classic Withnail and I. While nobody would dispute McGann is a very fine actor, unfair but probably inevitable, comparisons have been drawn suggesting that where fellow Withnail co-star Richard E Grant's career continued to soar McGann's has stalled. "People have said it because I started with Richard and Richard went off and did what he did. But I think it's a bit crass to say, `Why didn't you do what he did?' or even to infer it. It's too simplistic. Anyway I'm 37 and as I recall nobody had heard of Alan Rickman until he was 45." McGann counters in a voice that still owes much to his native Liverpool.

As irony would have it as we speak only two rooms away the prolific Grant is in the same Soho club promoting his latest venture. Yet although Withnail and I was a huge critical success it didn't make either of them wealthy men. A tentative enquiry about royalties produces a sound from McGann that can best be described as a textbook hollow laugh. McGann is not a character who minces his words. "We were paid pounds 20,000 each. We were green, we were cheap and we were completely shafted." Any suggestion that being in something so massive so early on has been a hindrance is also swiftly dismissed. "Far from it - it's great to be associated with something like that. It becomes a calling card. It might just mean you get in to see someone." What he does concede is that all subsequent scripts were an anti climax. "Because I'd never done a film before I kind of assumed this was what it was going to be like. Then I met the Withnail director after six months and I said I was reading scripts but they were all shit. He said, `Paul take one. You'll simply never find another one like we did." Where his former Withnail co-star has been seduced by Hollywood McGann is still keen to make "good British films". "It's lovely being paid American money but I think my attitude gave them alarm bells. It's a game over there. Maybe I'm a bit idiosyncratic."

In the soon to be released, low budget film Downtime, he plays the central role of a police psychologist. A hybrid of disaster film meets social commentary almost the entire film takes place in a lift. It is to McGann's credit that based on the flimsiest of premises this gritty film, as much an indictment of 1960's tower blocks as anything else, is as gripping as it is. Were he to sum up his career game plan he says it would be encapsulated by the phrase, `Just keep going.'

"If work dried up suddenly and it was something that everyone else knew about that I didn't then I might get concerned. But the priority is having a life before worrying," he shrugs.

"If you were to measure each success on some scale of your own choosing you're going to drive yourself mad aren't you?

He's had some terribly bad luck. Originally chosen to play Sharpe the part went to Sean Bean after McGann had a footballing accident and pulled his knee ligaments. "I was gutted to be injured. But what hurt me more than anything was not being able to work for seven months. Though Sean's done a brilliant job" he adds generously.

Despite his sleep deprivation McGann still exhudes a nervy energy. If truth be told he's the sort of bloke one imagines happily holding forth to friends on just about anything and everything after a couple of strong shandies. Neither short of words or opinions he is, for the most part amiably charming. Nevertheless despite what passes muster for an easy going exterior the distinct impression is of a man whose instincts operate on a rather short fuse. Introduce a subject he would rather you didn't and there's a discernible chill in room temperature as his shoulders tense.

THAT tabloid photo with Catherine Zeta Jones is a case in point. In 1994 he was snapped kissing the Darling Buds of May star on the street. At the time the pair had just finished working together on Catherine the Great. Subsequent screaming headlines deduced this constituted an affair. About to commence filming in Ireland on The Hanging Gate, Paul and his family, including his two children, found themselves under media siege. Any mention of the incident patently still leaves a sour taste in his mouth. "There's definitely a film to be made of the experience," he says wearily. "It was an experience I'd never care to repeat or wish on anyone else. It's attritional. It's a really odd thing to happen. People feel powerless. Initially we did."

Although he has repeatedly and robustly denied that there was any truth in the allegations his wife Annie was so incensed that in the wake of Princess Diana's death last year she spoke out giving a vivid and detailed description of the level of intrusion they had undergone. Married for seven years, together for 16, Annie was reported as saying, "It was the beginning of two weeks of Hell which has had repercussions on our wellbeing ever since." While on the one hand McGann says he never took any of the fandango personally he is still agitated and less than complimentary about the Press Complaints Commission. "What winds me up and what winds my family up is that Annie doesn't want to read my obituary one day and someone's name to be bigger than hers. He pauses fixing me with an uncomfortably penetrating gaze, "Think about it - that's a wind up."

Thankfully the temperature shoots back up the barometer when we return to other topics. One of four brothers all the McGann siblings have gone on to enjoy varying degrees of screen success. Joe, sitcom star of the Upper Hand, Mark, Stephen and Paal each attended a Catholic school run by the Christian Brothers. "We were inner city scallies but by dint of passing the 11 plus we were out in these leafy lanes somewhere in the suburbs. Politically now I can only have mixed feelings about it but I've got this romantic memory of being in the place. It worked for me and my brothers."

At one time he rather fancied the idea of becoming a PE teacher. "At 14 it seemed the height of sophisticated glamour. Driving that little bus, being the umpire at cricket. Our teacher had a permanent tan and I thought he was the most glamorous man in the building." Apparently were it not for the intervention of his former deputy headmaster, Father Higham, McGann might never have made it to drama school. He had left school halfway through the sixth form and was working in a shoe shop when Father Higham suggested RADA. As he tells it they hastily prepared a speech from Richard III and an extract from My Fair Lady - the latter being the only "modern" script the monk possessed. Despite what he recalls was the "worse Cockney accent ever" he got in. The likes of Timothy Spall in the term above, Kenneth Branagh in the term below.

Only twice have the brothers all appeared together - once in the stage musical, Yakety Yak and once in The Hanging Gate. Working together on the epic tale of the potato famine was he recalls now "pretty hairy." "It was just the proximity of each other. If I say that getting on a set and shooting was a relief. Style cramping doth go on I found. But it's natural.. There's not a family invented that you can escape that."

While he often zips back to Liverpool to visit his mother and attend the football for many years he's lived wihh Annie and their two young sons in Bristol. As befits the children of a former altar boy they've both been christened but it was an ecumenical service: "So you're not signing up to the Reds or the Blues" he quips. "For me throwing off Catholicism was the beginning of politicisation. At 16 I couldn't hear it anymore. The kow tow, don't complain because you're going to a better place. You literally are the sheep. Great music, fantastic traditions but it's oppressive, it's not intelligent and it's not fair."

He is warming to his theme. Given more time I've no doubt McGann would put forward a fascinating and passionate defence of his opinions. As it is I'm jolly glad to see someone has seen fit to bring him a large lunch.

Downtime is released on Friday 13 February. Our Mutal Friend begins next month on BBC 1.

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