My fa­ther, Roy Kin­n­ear

The ac­tor Rory Kin­n­ear pays trib­ute to his fa­ther, Roy, one of the most fondly re­mem­bered com­edy stars of the Six­ties and Seven­ties

The Oldie - - CONTENTS - Rory Kin­n­ear

This Septem­ber, it will be 30 years since my fa­ther, the beloved comic ac­tor Roy Kin­n­ear, died while film­ing in Spain. For many peo­ple, that it was so long ago comes as a shock. I can’t say it does for me. I was ten when Dad died and, as I have just turned 40, three­quar­ters of a life feels like a very long time in­deed.

The mem­o­ries I have of him as a fa­ther, which are many, lov­ing and now en­trenched, feel some­what sun-bleached, some­what the pos­ses­sions of an­other young boy, only dis­tantly con­nected to me. And yet the knowl­edge of how it formed who I am, the cer­tainty that all of my life has been shaped by that slightly dimmed, un­seen-by-me ac­ci­dent on a bridge in Toledo has never wa­vered.

When I was 11, I re­mem­ber say­ing to my­self that I wasn’t go­ing to let the death of my hero de­stroy me. I knew that he loved me too much to be for­ever sad. And, while I’m aware that it was the found­ing stone upon which my per­spec­tive on life was forged, I like to think I have let it in­spire rather than di­min­ish me.

None of which, I know, is very dif­fer­ent to a lot of peo­ple who lose a par­ent when young. Their ab­sence be­comes a guid­ing pres­ence through the rest of one’s life.

I was lucky. I had a strong mother, a lov­ing home, siblings to share it with, a sup­port­ive school and a close group of friends. Run­ning in par­al­lel, how­ever, with this fairly nor­mal re­sponse of a child to los­ing a par­ent was the fact that my dad didn’t just be­long to me and my fam­ily. He was loved by a coun­try.

A lady I met re­cently told me that, grow­ing up, the only thing that brought her frac­tious fam­ily to any sort of har­mony was the sight of Dad on tele­vi­sion. Here was some­thing, amid the bick­er­ing, that they could all agree on: they all liked Roy Kin­n­ear.

Count­less others I’ve met have ex­pressed a sim­i­lar sen­ti­ment. What was it about him? He was funny, cer­tainly – but there have been lots of funny peo­ple who don’t elicit such warmth. He was in­cred­i­bly kind, hum­ble and gen­er­ous: but that doesn’t mean some­one is tal­ented. Was it his un­pre­pos­sess­ing form? That short, stout, lit­tle bar­rel of a man, with the warm eyes and ki­netic smile, who looked like a cud­dle in hu­man form? Well, it was all of these, I guess. Plus some­thing else, some­thing he wore with very lit­tle fan­fare, and with such ease that you barely no­ticed it. Dad was a bril­liant ac­tor.

Born in Wi­gan in 1934 to Annie and Roy Snr, Dad had moved back to Ed­in­burgh, his par­ents’ home city, with his mother and sis­ter, Mar­jory, in 1942 fol­low­ing his fa­ther’s death. Roy Muir

Kin­n­ear, my grand­fa­ther, had played rugby union for Scot­land and the British Lions, and rugby league for Great Bri­tain and Wi­gan, scor­ing for a vic­to­ri­ous Wi­gan in the first Chal­lenge Cup Fi­nal to be played at Wem­b­ley.

Fol­low­ing his fa­ther’s sud­den death, from an em­bolism in his neck while play­ing for the RAF, the eight-year-old Roy was forced to con­front the fragility of life – as many young boys dur­ing those war years were hav­ing to do – and to forge the re­silience re­quired to carry on.

I sup­pose I took great heart, af­ter Dad’s death, in know­ing that he him­self had been through the same thing.

Fur­ther re­silience grew from the need to make friends and get along when you’re a short, fat chap with asthma at a very sporty, all-boys school – Ge­orge He­riot’s, in Ed­in­burgh. Be­ing funny and self-dep­re­cat­ing, he quickly learned, seemed to de­flect any po­ten­tial brick­bats from the bul­lies. He was also soon to shine in his school’s drama depart­ment.

From star­ring in school plays, he ap­plied to and was ac­cepted by Rada in 1951. Con­tem­po­raries there in­cluded Al­bert Fin­ney, Peter O’toole, Frank Fin­lay, Alan Bates, Peter Bowles and Richard Bri­ers. It wasn’t a bad year. And with such a golden pe­riod for young men and women, forged but not bro­ken by the war, all – pre­sum­ably – try­ing to outdo each other, it led to a char­ac­ter­is­tic fear­less­ness in all their per­for­mances which served Dad, and his au­di­ences, so joy­fully well. They were the gen­er­a­tion that emerged as the post-war class, and re­gional bound­aries that had held ac­tors like them back for decades were be­gin­ning to crum­ble.

At Rada Dad had been told to lose his ac­cent. The suc­cess in films of ac­tors such as Fin­ney, and the new era in the theatre ush­ered in by John Os­borne and his con­tem­po­raries, meant he was in the last gen­er­a­tion to be told to do so.

Dad and his peers took quick ad­van­tage of the in­creased promi­nence in the arts of the ‘work­ing man’. And they ran with it. He was spec­tac­u­larly suc­cess­ful very early on in his ca­reer. Hav­ing done some reper­tory work in Scot­land and Eng­land, and a year spent play­ing the pop­u­lar geri­atric chil­dren’s char­ac­ter Mr Fixit in Scot­land for STV, he was soon brought into the com­pany of ac­tors that Joan Lit­tle­wood was en­list­ing and gal­vanis­ing at Strat­ford East.

Lit­tle­wood was a phe­nom­e­non, pas­sion­ate about break­ing down bar­ri­ers and smash­ing the dis­tinc­tions be­tween the clas­si­cal and the pop­u­lar, and she left

an en­dur­ing mark on the young ac­tors she worked with. De­mand­ing of them to do it dif­fer­ently ev­ery night, to keep it both alive yet truth­ful, to be the an­tithe­sis of the deathly, rev­er­en­tial theatre that she saw as bor­ing the life out of this most elec­tric of art forms, Joan called reg­u­larly on Dad’s in­nate ease and in­ven­tive­ness with im­pro­vi­sa­tion.

In pro­duc­tions as var­ied as Make Me an Of­fer, Ev­ery Man in His Hu­mour and Spar­rows Can’t Sing, he showed not only a highly skilled tech­ni­cal abil­ity and phys­i­cal nim­ble­ness but a free­dom and warmth that con­nected in­cred­i­bly strongly with an au­di­ence. It was said that it al­most ap­peared he was mak­ing it up as he went along.

That fear­less­ness and in­vi­o­lable in­stinct was called upon again in the fur­nace of live tele­vi­sion. The ground­break­ing satir­i­cal re­vue pro­gramme That Was The Week That Was took the na­tion by scan­dalised storm for two se­ries from 1962, mak­ing house­hold names out of its stars. Scripts were rarely fin­ished un­til just be­fore trans­mis­sion – and some­times not even then. Ev­ery Satur­day night, peo­ple would race home from the pub to be out­raged all over again by what these young punks were say­ing about British so­ci­ety. Scan­dal reg­u­larly fol­lowed trans­mis­sion, and ques­tions were asked in the House of Com­mons about what could be done about these un­def­er­en­tial up­starts.

This led Dad’s slightly timorous agent at the time to prom­ise him he’d get him out of his con­tract as soon as pos­si­ble, to avoid any dam­age to his ca­reer. Dad, quite wisely, didn’t think it was do­ing it any harm.

Not yet 30 then, Dad was fa­mous. Film di­rec­tors came call­ing. Given the lead­ing men he had acted along­side at Rada, and hav­ing be­gun to lose his hair at 17, it was no sur­prise to dis­cover what kind of parts he was be­ing asked to play.

When­ever a jour­nal­ist asked how he was go­ing to play a par­tic­u­lar role, he would quickly say, ‘The usual: short, fat and bald­ing.’

But you don’t get to work with the qual­ity of di­rec­tor that he did (from Sid­ney Lumet to Wim Wen­ders, Ro­man Polan­ski to Ken Rus­sell – of­ten mul­ti­ple times) just by be­ing a funny shape.

More of­ten than not, it was his abil­ity to im­bue char­ac­ters with a pathos, a like­abil­ity, to make an au­di­ence root and care for the un­der­dog, that saw di­rec­tors call on his tal­ents. Such was his in­ven­tive­ness and his comic brio, though, they of­ten got much more. Lit­tle­wood said of him, ‘His suc­cess was down to his ta­lent, not his shape.’

Di­rec­tors al­ways knew that what­ever was on the page, Dad would make it fun­nier. It might have just been a look, a trip, a bit of busi­ness or even a dou­ble take – what dad re­ferred to as his ‘Adja-ay’; di­rec­tors knew that he could gild the most leaden of scenes. And he, in turn, knew that that was what they of­ten em­ployed him for.

One film my gen­er­a­tion knows him best for, that our chil­dren con­tinue to watch, is 1971’s Willy Wonka & the Choco­late Fac­tory. It is a supreme ex­am­ple of Dad bring­ing the most ef­fer­ves­cent life to a sup­port­ing role, and giv­ing a di­rec­tor so much more than they ex­pected.

He worked con­stantly: in theatre, from the Na­tional and the RSC to pan­tomime; tele­vi­sion, from Plays for To­day and much-loved sit­coms to ad­verts and game shows; and films, from The Hill (1965) and Jug­ger­naut (1974) to The Boys in Blue (1982) with Can­non and Ball.

He was pro­lific and he was ut­terly demo­cratic. There was no pre­ten­sion and no snob­bish­ness. A job was a job, and en­ter­tain­ment was en­ter­tain­ment, be it high art – or Can­non and Ball.

I think there were about three days when Dad was out of work. By chance, on the first of these, a door-to-door sales­man, a fre­quent caller to our house, came round sell­ing feather dusters. ‘Up to any­thing, Roy?’ he asked. ‘Bit quiet as it hap­pens,’ said Dad. Two days later, the sales­man was back, de­tail­ing a very at­trac­tive busi­ness plan, go­ing 60-40 on any sales in per­pe­tu­ity.

And I’m so grate­ful that he did work so much, for all his vast body of work and its ex­tra­or­di­nary range. Through all of those films and tele­vi­sion roles, from short films peo­ple have sent me to Youtube clips of Blan­kety Blank and The Cliff Richard Show, I have been able to see my fa­ther grow from a young man to a 54-year-old. And I have worked with count­less peo­ple who all have a story about him that they’re des­per­ate to fondly re­call.

Through those sto­ries, and through those roles, I have been given the most price­less and ac­tive legacy a child could hope for. Thirty years af­ter his death, my fa­ther can still make me – and his grand­chil­dren – laugh at some­thing for the first time.

‘How was he go­ing to play a role? He’d say, “The usual: short, fat and bald­ing” ’

High pro­file: Roy Kin­n­ear and Wil­lie Rushton, That Was The Week That Was, 1963

Roy Kin­n­ear with his daugh­ter Kirsty and the young Rory Kin­n­ear, 1979

Sweet: as Mr Salt, with Gene Wilder, in Willy Wonka & The Choco­late Fac­tory (1971)

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