Guest Actor Biography
by Pete Stampede
It comes as no surprise that, as Andrew Baker informed us, most of Ray McAnally's lines in "They Keep Killing Steed" were actually improvised, when shooting in Spain proved unworkable; the Irish actor's ability to get under a character's skin is further illustrated by his other-worldly, pre-occupied bearing and accent in that episode being far removed from his more naturalistic performance in "The Positive Negative Man." His keynote was his versatility; in the space of one year alone, the last in his life in fact, he could be seen playing Irish characters at the cinema and on stage, a man from North East England who becomes Prime Minister in the TV series A Very British Coup, and even an American lawyer in a re-run one afternoon of Man In A Suitcase, and was thoroughly convincing in all of them. Unlike some of his countrymen, he never got typecast in broad Irish characterisations; in fact, when he did come close to being typecast, in the late 60's, it was as a Cockney gangster. Heavily built, with light brown hair and an impassive gaze, his ability and reliability, gained through his constant work in the theatre, continued through his impressive career in television drama, and into his unfortunately truncated career as a film character actor.
He was born in Buncrana, a seaside town in County Donegal, on 30 March 1926. The son of a bank manager, he had no theatrical background, and for a while was strongly drawn to becoming a priest, even briefly entering a seminary in his late teens. But, having made his first stage appearance at the age of six, acting eventually held sway, and by 1947 he had, crucially, begun his involvement with the renowned Abbey Theatre, in Dublin; he would work there constantly for the next fourteen years, playing over 150 roles there in total, and eventually becoming a life member of the theatre. He also had a sideline on radio, which included, incongruously, commentating on snooker, which he was fond of playing in real life.
"Despite giving him the leading role in his first film"—which was Professor Tim (1957), with several other Abbey players—"the cinema didn't really get a grip on McAnally until the last decade of his life," as David Quinlan noted in his Illustrated Directory Of Film Character Actors. A typical British war film, Sea Of Sand (1958), Shake Hands With The Devil (1959) with James Cagney, Murder In Eden (1961), a whodunit, as an inspector, and Peter Ustinov's Billy Budd (1962), all followed for McAnally in that medium, however. A little later, he was the superintendent of an orphanage in He Who Rides A Tiger (1965), Charles Crichton's last cinema film for over twenty years, before he turned to directing for TV, including The Avengers of course. As part of the Irish television network RTE (Radio Telefis Eireann)'s first year on air, McAnally starred as St. Francis of Assisi in The Little Father (RTE, 1962), a serial shown over Lent. Then, in Britain in 1964, his performance as the combustible George in Edward Albee's Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?, at the Piccadilly Theatre, was enthusiastically received by critics.
He was an unfortunately logical choice to narrate a TV documentary on The Troubles (Granada, 1963), filling the same function on a cinema documentary, Brendan Behan's Dublin (1966), an overview of the capital as seen by the notorious playwright, directed by Norman Cohen—Irish, despite the name, and an unfairly overlooked documentarist IMHO. (Cohen's The London Nobody Knows (1968), with James Mason moodily exploring another capital, is a real little gem, often shown in the early days of Channel 4.) Staying with British TV, McAnally did Gideon's Way, "The White Rat" (ATV/ITC, 1965), directed by Roy (Ward) Baker; co-starred with Glenda Jackson in Armchair Theatre, "Home Movies" (ABC, 1967); then did a few episodes of The Fellows (Granada, 1967), a spin-off from the earlier The Man In Room 17, still centring on an academic duo of crime busters. McAnally played a Cockney crook called Alec Spindoe, and despite being put away by the pair in this series, the following year he re-emerged to star in Spindoe (Granada, 1968); this was very much set in Cockney villain territory, with McAnally's "guvnor" over South London facing up to Richard Hurndall as North London's gang boss, and genuine Cockney George Sewell on hand as an embittered private eye. The episodes had titles like, "And The Blood Starts Flowing", "But You're Back and Fighting", and "Now You're Running". Despite the setting, it was actually shot at Granada's studios in Manchester, and here's where things get complicated; when McAnally guested in Man In A Suitcase, "Web With Four Spiders" (ATV/ITC, 1967), also with John Savident, Philip Bond and Steed's stage incarnation Simon Oates, it was as an American lawyer with a fondness for the bottle, implicated in dodgy goings-on in Manchester—but this was made in London!
McAnally did an American accent again for The Looking Glass War (1969), a John Le Carre adaptation with unknowns in the leads, Anthony Hopkins and Ralph Richardson also supporting, and the very last appearance of Peter Swanwick. His TV guest roles continued with Strange Report, "Report 5055: Cult: 'Murder Shrieks Out' " (ATV/ITC, 1968), also guesting British TV's stock American Ed Bishop, here calling himself Edward; and Paul Temple, "Victim" (BBC, 1970), starring Cary Grant-soundalike Francis Matthews, from "The Thirteenth Hole" and "Mission... Highly Improbable," as the nominal urbane sleuth. Then, in a single play from the last of James Joyce's Dubliners stories, The Dead (Granada, 1971), years before John Huston's film version, McAnally gave a sombre, restrained reading of the central character, party host Gabriel Conroy. Never away from the theatre for long, in Britain he did a season with the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1970, and the following year returned to Dublin, to play Macbeth, again for the Abbey—their first Shakespeare play for thirty years in fact. Subsequently, he set up his own theatre company, called Old Key Productions, for which he also directed. Demonstrating his versatility, it was quite unexpected for McAnally to turn up in a sitcom—nonetheless, he was a regular in Me Mammy (BBC, 69-1971), starring the wonderful Milo O'Shea as an Irishman in London with a domineering mother (Anna Manahan, another Irish stage veteran) warning him away from secretary Yootha Joyce. McAnally played Father Patrick, and the series was yet another one to have originated in Comedy Playhouse; it never gets repeated, but was written by still-going Irish writer Hugh Leonard, so clearly wasn't as stereotyped as it could have been. Startlingly, and still in the comic vein, McAnally turned up, in 1969, 1972 and 1980, on The Dick Emery Show (BBC), supporting the "ooh-he-was-awful" Emery.
More in character, and again, keeping moving in the nationalities of his roles, were; The Mind Of J.G. Reeder, "The Duke" (Thames, 1971), from stories by Edgar Wallace, as a Chicago gangster claiming the, er, title of the title; The Sinners, "The Holy Door" (Granada, 1971), from an anthology of Irish stories, again written or adapted by Hugh Leonard; Justice, "For Those In Peril" (YTV, 1973), as a sea captain in a long-running vehicle for Margaret Lockwood; and a commander in Barlow At Large, "Confidence" (BBC, 1973), Stratford Johns' Z Cars spin-off. McAnally supported Frank Finlay as the Fuhrer in The Death Of Adolf Hitler (LWT, 1973), an award-winning one-shot, and the splendid Elaine Stritch, as the bad-tempered aunt, in a classic serial of Pollyanna (BBC, 1973). Dial M For Murder, "The Man in the Middle" (BBC, 1974), wasn't anything to do with the play or film, but a mystery anthology; Public Eye, "How About It, Frank?" (Thames, 1975), saw him as a chief inspector, confronting Alfred Burke's badly dressed private eye; Dick Turpin, "The Upright Man" (LWT, 1979), as a villain called Tyson Sarney in an episode directed, again, by Charles Crichton; and Strangers, "No Orchids For Missing Blandisch" (Granada, 1980), a series which the Avengers Dossier people seemed to think was a masterpiece, judging from their other books, but is never re-run. In another prestige drama-documentary, Invasion (Granada, 1980), he supported Julian Glover as Alexander Dubcek.
McAnally's film career did indeed get going again in the 80's, although a great deal of these were regrettably set against the background of modern-day troubles in Northern Ireland, his performances being as solid as ever, though. The Outsider (1979), filmed in Dublin but a co-production between the US and the Netherlands, was one of the first films anywhere to focus on this. A much better effort was Neil Jordan's feature debut Angel (1982), starring Stephen Rea (who still is as closely identified with Jordan as McAnally was), and based on Jordan's own experiences as a musician; the US distributors who re-titled this Danny Boy really ought to be beaten to death with the pipes. McAnally then did Cal (1984), with Helen Mirren as an IRA widow, and had a larger role in Alan Bleasdale's black comedy No Surrender (1985), concerning complications, to put it mildly, at a Liverpool nightclub when two coachloads of elderly Catholic and Protestant sympathisers turn up, starring Bernard Hill and Michael Angelis, two of Bleasdale's Boys From The Black Stuff. Some sources claim McAnally was in The Sleep Of Death (1981), an obscure, Swedish-Irish horror with Patrick Magee; other sources, including the IMDB, disagree.
Back in the theatre, he starred in the original production of Brian Friel's TRANSLATIONS, in 1982, alongside a pre-film stardom Liam Neeson, and again, Stephen Rea (whom Friel dedicated the play to in the published text). McAnally played a Latin-spouting, fond of the grape but philiosophical teacher named Hugh; don't ask why I'm so fond of one of his lines, following a slight misquoting—"To remember everything is a form of madness." On TV, Irish Love Stories, "A Painful Case" (RTE, 1985), was a literary adaptation anthology and return to home turf, again from a story in Dubliners, with McAnally as the aloof Captain Sinico. Back on the big screen, he was really noticed internationally through his role as a Papal envoy in Roland Joffe's The Mission (1986); he received a BAFTA award as Best Supporting Actor for this, plus a Best Actor one, for this and No Surrender, from the Evening Standard newspaper's film awards. Particularly memorable in The Mission was a quick shot, after the closing credits, of McAnally gazing quizzically into the camera. When asked, in a rare interview, what he was trying to convey to the audience with that look, he drily replied that it was his agent's phone number. Joking apart, that may not have been far from the truth, as he was all over the place for the rest of the decade. Stepping up his film work, he was an Italian minister in Michael Cimino's confused The Sicilian (1987); then back in Ireland for a minor thriller with Pierce Brosnan, Taffin (1987); wasted as a Russian in the very silly The Fourth Protocol (1987), again with Brosnan, and Michael Caine; once more as a Cockney gangster in writer-director Ron Peck's first 'aboveground' film, Empire State (1987); and a British lawyer in the rather pleased with itself White Mischief (1987). Not neglecting TV, either, he did Scout (BBC, 1987), a single play about a soccer team, in BBC2's shortlived NEXT strand, and repeated as a tribute after his death; Last Of The Summer Wine, "Big Day at Dream Acres" (BBC, 1987), as a wily tramp concocting a scam staggered into by Compo, Foggy and Clegg; and most notably, A Perfect Spy (BBC, 1987), giving a polished performance as a sardonic operator called Rick, in this John Le Carre adaptation, very much in the same vein as the George Smiley adaptations with Alec Guinness. He won another BAFTA award, in their TV section, for this.
Then, he was galvanic in the aforementioned A Very British Coup (C4, 1988), Alan Plater's adaptation of real-life MP Chris Mullin's novel, as Harry Perkins, an honest, former mine worker who becomes Prime Minister, promptly embarking on a nuclear disarmament schedule and disassociating the UK from US military intervention, but soon finding that the Establishment men, including Philip Madoc as a monstrously biased press mogul, and headed by Avengers villain Alan MacNaughtan, are still regarding him as the enemy. The truthfulness of the maxim, "no matter who you vote for, the Government always gets in" was powerfully illustrated here; McAnally's much-praised performance resulted in another BAFTA award, but when asked if he would ever consider running for office in real life, he replied, "I have no desire to become a new statesman. I am content to remain an old ham." Later that year, he played George Bernard Shaw on stage in London, in Hugh Whitemore's The Best Of Friends, a three-hander with Sir John Gielgud and Rosemary Harris, as an eccentric trio of literary acquaintances. (Interestingly, when Channel 4 made a TV version of this in 1992, still with Gielgud, Shaw was played by Patrick McGoohan, in one of his now rare British TV roles.) It was, basically, an open secret during the run of this play that it would be Gielgud's last stage appearance, as indeed it turned out to be. What no one could have predicted was that it would also be McAnally's last.
He was wasted in a cameo, as the ghost of Peter O'Toole's father, in the unfunny comedy HIGH SPIRITS (1988), surprisingly the work of Neil Jordan; to be fair, Jordan subsequently admitted that comedy is not his forte, and that in any case, he was reduced to a helpless bystander as warring producers made the film into a mid-Atlantic mishmash. McAnally was then Sir William Gull, suspected of being JACK THE RIPPER (Thames, 1988), in this big-budgeted but rather silly two-part TV movie, made by director David Wickes (a veteran of The Sweeney and The Professionals, who strangely didn't do any New Avengers) with both eyes on the US market, starring Michael Caine (doing his first television for decades) as a Scotland Yard man. But McAnally then had another strong film role, and back in Ireland, in My Left Foot (1989), as the father of paraplegic Christy Brown, who on witnessing his first attempts at writing, carries him into the local pub and proudly proclaims, "Christy Brown, genius." Daniel Day-Lewis would later pay tribute to McAnally in his Oscar acceptance speech, for his role as the adult Christy; and McAnally would win yet another BAFTA award for this, as Best Supporting Actor in a Film, but it was given posthumously, in 1990.
Again for Neil Jordan, and working in Hollywood, McAnally was a sadistic prison warden (but looked noticeably out of breath in some scenes), on the trail of escaped convicts Robert De Niro and Sean Penn, in We're No Angels (1989); it was another wrong-footed comedy from Jordan and, unfortunately, carried a dedication to McAnally when it was released. For he died, suddenly, of a heart attack on 15th June 1989, at his home in Arklow, in the mountains of County Wicklow; I remember the radio announcement of his death coming as a real shock, as it was barely weeks after the BAFTA ceremony where he collected his award for A Very British Coup. Barry Norman, normally not the most incisive of film critics, was undeniably right when he remarked on his BBC film programme, "if anyone died at the height of their powers, it was Ray McAnally." Characteristically, he had been working non-stop; Venus Peter (89; released 1990), made in Scotland, was a low-key film drama which he had done less for the salary than to encourage aspiring film makers. His performance as Mr Jaggers, in what was more a mini-series than a serial of Great Expectations (HTV/Disney, 1989), with Anthony Hopkins as Magwitch, was, strangely, not shown in Britain until 1991. At the time of his death, he had been scheduled to star as a long-distance walker in a filmed drama by Michael Frayn, First And Last (BBC, 1989); friend and co-star Joss Ackland, seen in "The Morning After," took over the role.
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