Cockleshell Hero

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I like to think that some Americans, and other friendly foreigners, seeing LOCAL HERO and loving it as most everyone seems to, wonder “Who is THIS guy?” when they see Fulton McKay as the aged beachcomber, the stumbling block in the plans of Burt Lancaster’s oil consortium (represented by Peter Riegert) to buy up the coastline of a quaint Scottish island.

Knowing a bit about writer-director Bill Forsyth’s methods, I see McKay’s old Ben as a particularly successful bit of writing. Forsyth loves character and dialogue and rather despises plot. Ben, by bringing the plot to an impasse which necessitates negotiation, forces talk to happen. And because Ben isn’t interested in negotiating, he keeps changing the subject. His digressions have dramatic value since they’re stopping the protagonist achieving his task, but through them Forsyth can enjoy what he’s really interested in, which is the talk itself.

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To British audiences, McKay was a familiar figure for one key role, though his career, in television particularly, was extensive. But it’s as McKay (pronounced Mick-EYE) in the TV show Porridge that he made his big impression. McKay was a tough, sardonic prison warden, the bete noir of the show’s convict heroes (Ronnie Barker and Richard Beckinsale — father of Kate). McKay the actor played McKay the character sympathetically, even though he’s a bit of a hard case and the show’s nominal antagonist (though other, more vicious criminals could also make things tough for the heroes). He did a lot of lopsided smiling and quite a bit of one eye goggling, one eye squinting, like James Finlayson but subtler. Everyone, after all, is subtler than James Finlayson.

It’s in these roles of the seventies and eighties that FM made his mark on my memories, so I was intrigued to see him in THE BRAVE DON’T CRY, the last film produced by documentarist John Grierson, a Scottish-set film from 1951, directed by Philip Leacock (brother of documentarian Richard). A young McKay seemed inconceivable, since he’d seemed old when I was a kid. Would he even be recognizable, or would time have only kitted him out with all those attributes I knew so well further down the line?

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Fulton McKay is COMPLETELY recognizable, and what’s more the same qualities that served him so well in later life work quite nicely for the younger thesp. The way he crosses a room in wide shot, he’s immediately himself — something to do with the way his head bobbles ever so slightly, a cocky bobble — his head flares out like a cork and his neck is slender, so i guess a certain amount of jiggle is inevitable. His lips are very thin and his smile is oddly angular — uniquely, his mouth has more than the conventional two corners. And it only goes up on one side.

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Terrific actor. In the movie, he’s trapped down a mine with a group of other miners, his father killed in the subsidence. Lots of emoting to do. Then he breaks a leg. He’s not having a good day. The claustrophobic tension is strong, even on rather wobbly sets. I wish he’d done more movies — he’s very funny in Stephen Frears’ first feature, GUMSHOE, with Albert Finney — but at least he was always busy. It may be his best work is buried amid all that ephemeral TV. Likely it happened on stage in some rep theatre on a rainy day, seen by twenty people. But what we do have is pretty wonderful.

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7 Responses to “Cockleshell Hero”

  1. henryholland666 Says:

    “The Brave Don’t Cry” looks interesting, I’ll have to search it out. I like Philip Leacock’s “The Spanish Gardner” despite the happy ending the movie apparently uses.

  2. Yes, The Spanish Gardener has its fans. I haven’t seen it. His direction here is fairly standard, but it’s an effective film.

  3. He went way back and I’m sure he appeared in an episode of “Probation Officer” (195-60) playing a young working man who marries out of his class. But I can’t find it in the database.

  4. Bill Nighy seems to be channeling Fulton McKay quite deliciously in his performance of Davey Jones in the Pirates of the Caribbean films. I can just imagine Ronnie Barker in Capt Jack Sparrow garb in a Two Ronnies skit (probably much like his Adam Ant costume). Which blends into McKay’s Fraggle Rock role too. There’s a pattern here.

  5. Danny Carr told me a bit more about McKay — apparently quite an avant-garde player in his early days. Playing a martinet in Porridge, he became one on set, insisting on lengthy rehearsals, which were all devoted to his character. But everyone liked him anyway.

  6. “His rehearsing was as anally-retentive and as particular and mincing and difficult as his performance”

    From 3:12 — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=blDq6WSELVE

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