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Going Toplis in February 1987 LM

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PostPosted: Sun Feb 19, 2006 8:10 pm    Post subject: Going Toplis in February 1987 LM Reply with quote

[What's a nice choirboy like you doing in a revisionist Trotskyite TV series like this? RICHARD LOWE asks Monocled Mutineer PAUL McGANN for honesty, incisive self-analysis and pilau rice.]

This McGann business, it's still a bit confusing. There's Joe, the eldest of the four brothers, who'll be appearing later this year in a new BBC series, Rockliffe's Babies. There's Mark, who played John Lennon in the West End musical Lennon and is also starring in a film about the late Beatle. And then there's Stephen, who had a brief run in Brookside as Karen Grant's boyfriend and went on to the BBC sitcom Help!

The one sitting opposite me with piercing blue eyes, a winning smile and an enormous appetite for vegetarian Indian food is Paul, 27, the second eldest of the McGann clan, whose performance as Percy Toplis in the BBC's TV drama The Monocled Mutineer has established him as a minor celebrity and a major talent.

The series provoked the first of the BBC-Tory confrontations that led to the Tebbit Terror. The Monocled Mutineer centered on a hushed-up mutiny in the British ranks during the First World War; it was a horrifying portrayal of life in the camps and trenches. The paranoid Tory press thought it was subversive propaganda. Paul McGann, and anyone with an ounce of sense, realised it was splendid TV drama.

'I think all that fuss about The Monocled Mutineer was hysterical nonsense,' he says. 'The fact that a TV drama could make the leader-columns in the newspapers I found mildly hysterical, but I suppose the age is upon us; and the popular press is infatuated with television.

'I mean, it was only a TV programme--I think the whole thing was just a facet of Tory antagonism toward the BBC--they're just paranoid. What does it matter if it wasn't historically accurate? You could say that about Shakespeare's historical plays--some of the greatest plays ever written, like Richard II or Henry IV, all them--they weren't historically accurate, they were popular works of fiction--itís a drama, entertainment.'

Paul defends Alan Bleasdale, the Monocled Mutineer's scriptwriter who was accused of distorting facts to make the British military leadership look bad in his adaptation of a book by William Allison and John Farley.

'He'd be the first to admit that he juggled about with the facts, but that was just one person's impression of history. I think it was the subject-matter, the fact that it was a military hush-up and that sort of thing no doubt still goes on.'

Paul studied the pre-1914 period intensely to play Toplis; and far from finding it dry-as-dust, dates-and-places history, he sees strong similarities with the politics of today.

'The general political climate at that time was amazing,' he says. 'Britain before the First World War was probably closer to a revolution or a state of civil war than at any time in modern history. There was the growth of socialism and the trade-union movement, the Irish question, the disaffection of women. There was so much disaffection--and the war saved a lot of people's skins in that respect. Britain was on the brink of major upheaval and suddenly this war comes along.

'Of course there's parallels with today; witness the Falklands war five years ago. Everyone knows how Thatcher was massively unpopular, then as soon as the war came along you couldn't get a price against her, and we're still suffering from that now.

'There are strong arguments to suggest that the Falklands war was contrived for political gain. The First World War certainly was. It was one pointless political exercise, a breakdown in diplomacy that went too far.'

Toplis was a strange character, not at all the traditional British-officer type, and it was difficult to portray him convincingly.

'He was a survivor,' agrees Paul. 'As he said in the first episode, 'I shouldn't be here and I'm not going to die here'. He was an anarchist, he couldn't give a toss for authority.

'What struck me--even when I watched it--was that all the other characters were very rooted, very clear-cut, but Toplis seemed to just skate over the whole episode, not getting involved. That was his mentality--there was this massive drama going on and he just skated over it. Trying to retain that mentality while I was playing the part was difficult. I ended up throwing away the textbook and making it up as I went along.'

Paul acquired a taste for acting--or at least for melodrama--at his Roman Catholic primary school in Liverpool.

'The school we were at was in a really thriving parish--they had a big choir going and we were all in that. It was great because it meant you could do trips abroad--we used to do these big festivals and congresses.

'I used to love singing those Latin Masses and I suppose if you're going to trace back theatrical roots you can't possibly get any campier than a Catholic mass--all the dressing-up, the incense and the Latin tunes. At least the Catholics have the best tunes.'

After leaving school, Paul started work in a local social-services office. But he hated the job, and says he only took it to appease his parents after he'd been chucked out of the sixth form.

'You know how it is--you get to 16 and suddenly all these exams and things come along, just at the wrong time when you're more interested in the various extracurricular activities that are knocking about.

'I couldn't stand this office job--all I was doing all day was sitting in a chair putting on loads of weight. I stuck it for about six months, then packed it in.

'After that I went to live in London. Joe, my older brother, had been down there about a year doing music so I went down and stayed with him.'

Two years later, Paul won a place at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, the most prestigious of the London theatre colleges. The formal training there was valuable, but conservative.

'It's geared towards the professional stage, it's a stage school--they could teach you singing, a bit of dancing, but they couldn't give you any grounding whatsoever in telly or films. In terms of acting, though, it was a very thorough training.

'In seven terms we must have done 20-odd shows and because the company is limited in its range of actors--I mean everyone there was between 18 and 25--you'd be playing a wide variety of parts: old fellas, Americans, Jews, Irish. It was a free-for-all, really. But then as soon as you get out into professional acting you're very much cast according to type; not stereotyped though, that's something you can practically avoid.'

So Paul won't be forever Toplis. Indeed, his latest part is a touch autobiographical: he takes, well, half the title-role in Withnail and I, a strange new film from George Harrison's HandMade production outfit (responsible for the Monty Python movies and Shanghai Surprise).

'It's set in 1969. There's these two young actors who've just finished training together. One of them's from up north (my part), while the other character--Withnail played by Richard Grant--is an Old Etonian, very well-to-do, family's got a few bob.

'Drama school is essentially a classless environment. They're living in this shitty, squalid mess is Camden Town doing far too many drugs, drinking far too much, staying up far too late and not working. Neither of them has a job. This Withnail is incredible--incredibly intelligent but a total waster--I mean if there's no booze the guy will drink lighter-fluid--he's a total headbanger but an absolutely mercurial, brilliant, outstanding talent.'

Paul enthuses over this 'incredible film, all about madness and decay', and Withnail and I should pack a dramatic punch--it's the directing debut of Killing Fields scriptwriter Bruce Robinson.

'I'm biased, of course, because I'm in it, but I tell you, there won't be another like it.

'It's been great to work on because it's words, it's an acting film--there's no women in it, there's no sex in it, there's no violence in it, there's no car-chases in it--it's a very odd case in modern films. It's an acting film--there's whole five-minute scenes of acting, which you just don't get nowadays. It relies purely on the performances, an extraordinary piece of work.'

That's Paul McGann the actor, then; he'll make a Hamlet yet. But Paul McGann the singer is still keen to come out from the shadow of the forgettable, and pretty appalling, single recorded a few years ago by the four McGann Brothers.

'I tell you, if I could make a living as a singer I would--it's my first love. But I think I'm too far into the acting now, and I do love that.

'When we did The Monocled Mutineer I was standing in the studio with half an orchestra doing some music tracks over the top, singing away, and I just thought 'yeeeeeees', it was my little Frank Sinatra fantasy. I love singing and I always have, ever since I was a kid.'

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Joined: 11 Feb 2006
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PostPosted: Sun Feb 19, 2006 10:40 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Wow, great article! I had never read that before.

*gasp!* He was my age! Shocked

Look at me. I'm 28 in a month. And I've got a sole flapping on my shoe.

He sounds so much more interesting than any guys I know who are my age. Cool
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