Kenny Ireland: Benidorm actor who had an equally successful theatre career, especially with the Royal Lyceum in Edinburgh


Alan Strachan
Tuesday 05 August 2014 16:01

Later-life television fame from his appearances in all of its series inevitably for Kenny Ireland resulted in the label “Benidorm actor”. Indeed, his performance as enthusiastic Scottish “swinger” Donald Stewart, libido rising with the Spanish sun, alongside his equally rampant wife (Ireland and Janine Duvitski had a wonderfully lubricious on-screen zest), was a highspot of the series.

There was however much more to Ireland, both as actor and director, than Benidorm’s less than subtle strokes. His career as a director notably his spell of more than a decade as Artistic Director of the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh – was especially distinguished.

Ireland was born in Paisley in 1945; his bomber-pilot father was killed on a secret mission when Ireland was only an infant. A bright child, he was drawn at an early age to the cinema and to the theatre alike. After he trained at Glasgow’s Royal Scottish Academy at a time when its reputation was particularly high his career was not slow to take off.

Rubicund and heavily built, Ireland was never going to be matinee-idol material but as a character actor he was rarely out of work and had a remarkable range. His television career was crowded; naturally he appeared in all the usual suspects of Scottish-set series, with two appearances in Taggart as well as in Monarch of the Glen and Hamish Macbeth, but he also contributed strikingly to such different series as Midsomer Murders and Auf Wiedersehn, Pet.

Two of his best small-screen performances were contrasted – his endearingly gormless beamish-boy handyman amid the glorious gallery of “Acorn Antiques” in Victoria Wood: As Seen on TV and the disturbingly ambiguous figure of media tycoon Benjamin Landless squaring up to silky-smooth Ian Richardson as Francis Urquhart in House of Cards.

The theatre remained Ireland’s principal love. Before his time at the Lyceum he had worked steadily in repertory, including an appearance in Macbeth for the Cambridge Theatre Company (1980) alongside Brian Cox, and he was part of an uncommonly strong all-male and masked ensemble at the National Theatre in the revelatory Peter Hall production of Aeschylus in Tony Harrison’s version of The Oresteia (1982).

His period at the Royal Lyceum (1993-2003) was notable for its eclectic programming, from musicals and large-cast Shakespeare productions to modern classics and occasional new plays. As a director, though he could handle efficiently enough box-office staples such as Private Lives, he was at his best on a larger scale; his ebullient Guys and Dolls, a Midsummer Night’s Dream both eerie and earthily funny, and his life-enhancing scrutiny of Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa were especially fine.

New Scottish work did not feature heavily at the Lyecum during Ireland’s regime although he directed a muscular production of James Bridie’s play on Burke and Hare, The Anatomist, and programmed a splendid revival of John Byrne’s hilarious Writer’s Cramp. His Lyceum period could see his combative side; and when he left the post of Artistic Director in 2003 he had some sharply stinging words for the Scottish Executive and for the Scottish arts establishment’s notorious parsimony over the long-mooted National Theatre of Scotland (it was finally launched in 2006).

Films came calling for Ireland surprisingly rarely; he had supporting roles in the major success of Local Hero and, more rewardingly, alongside Liam Neeson in The Big Man.

George Ian Kenneth Ireland, actor: born Paisley 7 August 1945; died 31 July 2014.

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