My Cultural Life: Alan McKee
One half of comedy duo Grimes and McKee on being the last actor to voice Gerry Adams, instigating a duel between Carravaggio and Morrissey and having beef with Interflora
When did you fall in love with acting?
I was always class clown and I loved that immediate buzz you get from performing. I was in school productions and joined a youth drama group run by Coleraine’s Riverside Theatre. It was there that I realised I had an aptitude for acting and, more importantly, that I loved it. I was heavily involved with Queen's Drama Society and when I left the university I knew I wanted to have a real go at being an actor.
When did you meet your comedy partner, Conor Grimes? Did you know instantly that you had comedy chemistry?
I met Conor at the Queens Drama Society. We didn’t get along at all at first. People kept telling me, "You’ll have to meet Conor Grimes because you’ll really like him", but when we met I think we both felt, "Who does this guy think he is? I’m the funny one. He’s stealing my action!" But we hit it off after a few shows together.
We did a sketch show in 1998 with Conleth Hill, Colin Murphy and Tim Loane. Tim must have seen something because he suggested me and Conor write together. I would write a sketch and Conor would see something that he could add to it, and I did the same with his sketches. It’s a very rare thing to have that connection with another writer so that’s when we started really working together.
There’s a saying that 'dying is easy but comedy is hard'. Would you agree?
Frank Carson used to say, "It’s the way I tell them", and there’s a lot of truth in that handy catchphrase. The performance goes a long way to make a joke funny. We always say comedy is no laughing matter.
During the rehearsal period you get to a place where you’ve said the lines so many times that you may lose all sense of spontaneity. It feels awful. You’ve performed the gag so many times that it’s just words. It’s then when you must have faith in the performance element. You reduce it down to an almost mechanical level where it's about the execution of moves and the delivery of lines.
Do you draw inspiration from other comedy double acts?
Undoubtedly Morecambe and Wise and also the Two Ronnies. We love their musical numbers. We love doing musical numbers ourselves. We have Deborah Maguire choreograph for us. She’s great and she completely understands that neither of us are dancers. When Grimes does moon walking he looks like somebody reversing a quad.
The Morecambe and Wise Christmas show was a fixture in the seasonal calendar. The Grimes and McKee alternative panto has become an annual hit also. When did you decide to bring a little Christmas cheer to Belfast?
Anne McReynolds from the OMAC commissioned us to do a sketch show in 1998. It was successful and the following year we were asked by the Lyric Theatre to do one there. In 2000 Paula McFetridge, who was running the Lyric at the time told us, "Now its time to stretch yourselves a bit further. Do a play." We wrote Nativity - What the Donkey Saw. It was good to see how you could take the nativity story which everyone knows but go off on wild tangents. We start working on the Christmas show in the summer and we work hard to make sure it’s the best it can be. You’re only as good as your last show so there’s pressure but that pressure keeps you on your toes.
What do you see as the highlights or some of the more interesting turns of your career?
When Thatcher brought in the ban that prevented Sinn Fein from being broadcast, I was the last actor to do the voice of Gerry Adams. That was utterly surreal. Stephen Rea was the first and I took over.
For me the best moment came when the first ceasefire came. It was myself and just a couple of other actors who were with the journalists in the BBC newsroom. We were under lockdown - no outgoing phone calls to people - until the ceasefire was verified. We knew it was for real. Sitting there thinking that the Troubles were over and the repercussions of that fact was an intense moment and it will live with me for the rest of my life.
Another treasured memory is from filming The Craic. Jimeon and I were standing on the outskirts of the Gibson Desert waiting for the sun to reach the right angle for the last shot of the film, which was of us disappearing into the sunset. He turned round and pointed to the large film crew gathered behind us and said, “It’s not bad for a wee Coleraine boy and a wee Portstewart boy is it?” It was true. It was really a privileged experience.
You have acted in a few films - Divorcing Jack, The Craic, and Closing the Ring to name just a few. Would you like to do more film work?
I only had a small part in Closing The Ring, but working with Lord Dickie (director Lord Richard Attenborough) was amazing. He knows exactly what he wants from a scene and he’s wonderful with actors because he’s an actor himself. It was quite intimidating because when you go on set with him you look at the director, the director of photography, and the sound recordist and you’re counting the Oscars between them.
I don’t find film acting as rewarding as stage because you’re not getting that immediate reaction from an audience but I’m very interested in writing and directing for the screen, especially because it’s so difficult to get comedy right on screen.
If you could invite any cultural figures, past and present, round for dinner, who would they be and why?
Morrissey because he’s a genius and also you could guarantee he would say something outrageous. He would be very hard to cook for though! I’d invite the writer JD Salinger because I love his style of writing. Catcher in the Rye is beautiful. I like post-war American novelists. There’s a stiffness and a straight-to-the-pointness of the prose and I really like that.
I’m not a buyer or collector of art but I love it and I devour all the BBC4 art documentaries. Caravaggio is one of my favourite painters. He was a true genius and one of the first artists to give the apostles the faces of guys in the street. Mind you, I don’t know what he’d be like at a dinner party - he might be very quick to get a duel going. Caravaggio and Morrissey could end up at each others’ throats!
Any Irish cultural figures?
I love Van Morrison. I live in East Belfast and now that I’m around places like Hyndford Street and Cyprus Avenue it’s a great feeling knowing he walked those streets. I like that he’s a musician for all seasons. You can feel up or you can feel down and he’ll always have something for you.
I think the plays of Stewart Parker are amazing. Spokesong is a beautiful, powerful play. Conor and I are both big Samuel Beckett fans. I get annoyed by the wall of intellectualism that’s been placed between people and Beckett. Beckett was about clowns. Vladimir and Estragon from Waiting for Godot are clowns and they’re deliberately dressed like that, based on Laurel and Hardy. It’s pitch black humour but it is supposed to be funny.
If you could write your own epitaph, what would it be?
‘He tried hard, sometimes too hard, and his bark was a lot worse than his bite.’ I’ve a bad temper and a wicked cutting tongue. They know me well at Interflora.
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