Paul McGann: When you were kids, the music you like showed you belonged

Paul McGann’s love affair with music has been one of the most significant relationships of his life, the Liverpool-born actor tells Laura Davis

IT SEEMS appropriate that a parish priest was the one to introduce Paul McGann to two of the great loves of his life – music and theatre. Twin passions that he would worship with almost religious fidelity for the rest of his life.

The epiphany happened in St Anne’s Church, in the Smithdown Road area of south Liverpool, where Father Gordon would produce plays and musicals, as well as running a boys choir.

Acting, as those who have followed McGann’s film and TV career well know, would make him famous; while music has always remained a private preoccupation.

Singing in the choir opened ways to other experiences – trips to European cities where hundreds of Catholic children would gather to perform in towering cathedrals.

The first time McGann set foot on foreign soil was a visit to Germany with the church choir in 1970, a time when few families could afford to travel abroad.

“Choirs are sociable, unifying,” says the actor, who is taking part in a Desert Island Discs-style live event at St George’s Hall on Saturday.

“Even if you can’t sing very well, you can disguise yourself in a choir. Even for us amateurs, just to sing your head off makes you feel great. I can remember that feeling as kids – you were naturally high as kites.”

Not that the four McGann brothers (Paul, Joe, Mark and Stephen – all actors) and sister Clare were unused to the sound of uplifted voices.

While their father was out at work, their mother would think back to her long-ago days as a nightclub singer and accompany her housework with a soundtrack of 1950s ballads.

“Whatever she’d be doing, she’d be singing,” remembers McGann, whose numerous film and TV roles include Doctor Who, the “I” in Withnail and I, Ken Russell’s The Rainbow and Alien 3.

“I remember saying to her ‘you must know a thousand songs’ because she never seemed to repeat any when you heard her in the back kitchen.”

The brothers would listen to records on the family turntable, replaced in the early-70s by an Amarex music centre with a smokey-grey glass front – “when my dad must have had a win on the horses”.

McGann bought his first singles – Wishing Well by Free and The Strawbs’ Part of the Union – from Freemans department store, on Wavertree Road.

New musical discoveries were made at the ice rink in Kensington, where the boys would skate around in circles listening to the latest hits played over the loudspeaker – “sometimes I still hear a record and it’s like I’m back going round and round the ice rink”.

Meanwhile, they’d drive their friends mad with their own a capella renditions.

“Music was something that we just did,” says McGann.

“Mates who were being unkind used to call us the Von Trapps because we could fall in and harmonise naturally.

“It must have been really infuriating for people. You couldn’t start a song in our house without a three-part harmony appearing 10 seconds later.”

The word that McGann speaks most when talking about music is “lucky”. He was lucky to have been born into a city that was, if only briefly, the centre of the musical world. He was lucky to have grown up surrounded by Merseybeat, to have been there at the rise of ska, rocksteady and reggae and to have experienced the punk explosion.

He was especially lucky to have witnessed the deliverance of David Bowie, who “arrived like an alien from outer space” to the delight of those Liverpool teenagers who would become pop stars themselves within the decade.

“When you were kids, the music you liked was so important, it got you in, meant that you belonged,” says McGann.

“When we were young, even the shyest kid at the school if he had the right LP under his arm, it was a sign.”

His voice quietens to a whisper: “I couldn’t be with somebody that didn’t at least partly share my musical taste. You might play a record and somebody that you fancied or even loved would go ‘ewww’. That’s a deal breaker.”

By the time McGann had moved to London in the late 70s, he was firmly into the Jamaican music scene led by Bob Marley, but was also attracted to US musicians such as Curtis Mayfield.

“The American scene then was so rich,” he recalls. “The Vietnam War was still going on and so much of the music was political. I like to think of it as socialist soul.

“We were probably the last of the generations to think music could change the world.

“That mystique has vanished. Nobody now seriously thinks that, aside from a charity gig, music can change very much.”

These days, at the age of 52, he is less familiar with what is in the charts than he is with the black music scene in Bristol and London that his son Joe, a music producer, is immersed in. He has also learnt a lot from his other son, Jake, also an actor, who is “almost encyclopaedic about Detroit hip-hop”.

Despite still believing in the unrivalled sound of vinyl and keeping all his records (those that his children haven’t pilfered anyway), McGann no longer owns a turntable and listens to tracks digitally, often through music sharing website Spotify.

His eclectic tastes will be reflected in his (still secret) selections for the event at St George’s Hall – which mixes a question and answer session with his five chosen songs played live by Liverpool musicians including folk singer Lizzie Nunnery, Thomas Laing and The Amadeus Choir.

“Perhaps devotional music is the nearest common denominator – I love stuff with a purpose,” he says.

“And, if it ain’t got a purpose, then just a swagger will do.”

Liverpool Post, 2/2/12