Rogues & Vagabonds

theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…

Archive Feature • LEO McKERN • Not Just Another Pretty Face

 Leo McKern in Ryan's Daughter (1970) [Wikimedia]

Leo McKern in Ryan’s Daughter (1970) [Wikimedia]

Americans call it ‘synergy’ – others fate. That John Mortimer and Leo McKern should find in each other the perfect marriage of words to action is remarkable enough, but that it should be preserved for posterity is a luxury only we in the age of television can profit from. McKern always maintained that Mortimer was the ‘only begetter’ of Rumpole, but without the actor’s interpretation, it may never have reached such a mass audience and succeeded in a way beyond their expectations.

Whereas the world will never witness the greatness of Garrick, Kean or Irving, we have McKern’s portrayal of the curmudgeonly defence barrister to cite as his greatest creation. His crumpled features, comic timing, and constant fight for the underdog made McKern a household name after years treading the boards across the globe and starring alongside the likes of the Beatles, Robert Mitchum and Paul Scofield on the silver screen. His death, less than a few years after retiring from the profession, enables us to assess the career of one of the greatest actors to hail from Australia.

McKern’s homeland is now seen as a hotbed of acting talent, from Cate Blanchett through to Geoffrey Rush. Formerly considered a cultural wasteland, Australia can now hold its own in television, film and theatre. Australians can play Australians and it is not seen as a handicap to commercial success. They even win literary prizes such as the Booker about one of their great heroes, Ned Kelly. Their much-derided soap operas have provided showcases for Oscar-winner Russell Crowe and his co-star in L.A. Confidential, Guy Pearce.

Yet when the young and ambitious McKern arrived in post-war London, his distinct antipodean accent had to adapt to survive in the harsh world of British theatre that still looked down upon the colonies as a mere outpost to its more urbane climes. How apt that this most Australian of actors should inhabit the character of so English a gentleman as Horace Rumpole, enemy of pompous judges and a friend to justice.

For all his success on television and in films, his heart belonged to the stage, as he explains in his autobiography, Just Resting. ‘But I have said elsewhere,’ he says, ‘that acting is a personal mystery, better unspoken or written about by actors, that being better left to others; this has been one of my few outbursts.’ In the same chapter, he goes on to explain that appearing in film or on television one has a sensation of finality, knowing that there are no second chances. Yet with theatre there is always tomorrow night. A great performance may be lost on the cutting floor of an editing suite, but so long as there is an audience there to see it, it will live forever in the memory of its theatrical witnesses.

Despite his belief in the theatre, he was far from a snob. Before leaving Australia to pursue Jane Holland, the theatre actress, to England in order to marry her – which he duly did – McKern had played in radio dramas. On reaching England, he would eventually land the first of many parts on film that would lead him to work with the Beatles, David Lean and many, many others.

There has been talk in recent years about the paucity of roles for disabled actors who are normally relegated to bit parts but McKern, despite only having one eye, succeeded with a handicap that could have prevented lesser souls from treading the boards or venturing before the clinical gaze of the camera. Half-blind actors are certainly a rarity, but not unusual. Peter Falk lost an eye as a child and Sammy Davis Jr lost his mid-career and Rex Harrison, in later years, was as blind as a bat, although there have always been allegations that he too only possessed one eye – much to his annoyance.

An industrial accident that led to complications saw the removal of McKern’s eye, but he soon learned to compensate in the way of many who are disabled in their youth. He even employed it during a performance of Henry V, switching his glass replacement around in order to bemuse a fellow actor, other times tapping it absent-mindedly during rehearsals, or half-submerging it in a plate of spaghetti and pointing it out to unsuspecting waitresses.

On the other side, McKern’s eyes became the focus (sic) of one of the bloodiest scenes ever witnessed in television drama. His Gloucester in the Granada version of King Lear with Olivier in the lead role must have felt less arduous to an actor who, in reality, only had one eye left to pluck out! Nevertheless, it is a truly terrifying scene that brings forth the true nature of violence so much better than a million Hollywood action films.

This ability to laugh at himself, his crumpled features and acting capabilities were a gift to a writer such as John Mortimer, although it was a producer who first suggested McKern for the role as the claret-swigging defence barrister. McKern, clear from his autobiography, may have been a little to the right in his personal beliefs, but this was no bar to him speaking the words of Mortimer, a self-confessed champagne socialist.

Rumpole, so Mortimer admits, says ‘all the left-wing things that I think, but when Leo said them, they sounded crusty and conservative.’ Indeed, it was a ‘perfect co-operation of an actor and writer, which only happens once in a lifetime.’ Without McKern’s ‘comic discoveries’ and ‘depth of humanity’ Rumpole could have been a tiresome ‘character’ who remained a human being without descending into parody or a shadow of Mortimer’s vision.

McKern was for many years a supporting player, a character actor, who was definitely not just a pretty face. His Scottish-Irish ancestry gave him a name meaning son of a kern. Kerns were lightly armed Irish foot soldiers who fought in Ireland against the English interlopers during the Tudor period.

How ironic that someone descended from such stock should end up portraying a thorn, albeit a small one, in the side of the British establishment. From The Common Man to Rumpole of the Bailey, Leo McKern spent over fifty years in theatre, radio, television and cinema. He may have played English authority figures such as Thomas Cromwell, but this self-confessed ‘black sheep’ was able to play a variety of characters from Toad to Volpone.

I was privileged to witness one of his last stage performances in a West End performance of Hobson’s Choice opposite Nichola McAuliffe, who played his daughter. His was a much more dignified and measured performance than that of Laughton in the film version. His refusal to upstage his fellow actors and to allow McAuliffe to go hell for leather was a testament to his abilities long served in the theatre and elsewhere.

It is good to know that his legacy continues with his daughter, Abigail, who also appeared in the television series that made her father a household name, and has carved out a career in her own right.

Howard Watson © 2002

Originally published on R&V 27-09-02

2 comments on “Archive Feature • LEO McKERN • Not Just Another Pretty Face

  1. McKern was certainly both a talented and a prolific actor. I am definitely fond of his appearances in The Prisoner performing opposite Patrick McGoohan.

  2. First Night Design
    03/17/2016

    I’d be willing to say he was unique. Such a long time since I’ve seen more than a clip from The Prisoner. It’s time to put that right!

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