It has been a bit of a strange afternoon for Pauline McLynn. She’s taking time out between performances to have a chat, and she’s still rather bemused at the antics of some of the audience in the earlier matinee. It turns out that three ladies in the front row of the stalls were all wearing sunglasses.
“Now what was that all about? Sunglasses? In a dark auditorium? And the woman next to them, in act one, decided to have a bit of late lunch, and she pulled out a chicken leg. Incredible.” She puts down her second large cup of coffee and adds: “To their credit, all of the ladies stood up and gave us some very warm applause at the end of the show, so they must have enjoyed themselves.”
McLynn is currently touring with the acclaimed live version of Ayub Khan Din’s drama East is East, a largely autobiographical account of a family in Salford in the 70s. There’s the Asian dad George, who is domineering to the point of being tyrannical, white mum Ella, and their six children. A seventh boy has left home to escape his father. It’s a story of conflicts, arguments, beliefs, a clash of cultures and a lot of love and affection as well.
“I’m told that Ayub based a lot of it on his own experiences, and I think that shows in the way that it is written. I adore Ella, she has a heart of gold, and she’s fiercely protective of both her husband and the kids, so when he and they argue, and he lays down the law (as he sees it) she’s right in the middle of it all.
“She sees where they are coming from, but – as she tells them at one point – she’s married to their dad, and she loves him too. It’s a wonderful twist of loyalties.”
The ‘real’ Ella met George when she was a bus conductress, and he was a passenger… they got together, and they decided to get married.
“Apparently, she was spat at in the street because she was going out with someone other than a white man,” says McLynn. “It must have been terrible. But it also shows how much she felt (and feels) for him. That sort of ‘back-story’ really informs your performance, and Ayub has an amazing attention to detail. Personally I loathe any sort of prejudice – I was dancing a jig the other week when the Irish vote on gay marriage was a resounding ‘Yes’. It’s yet another hurdle overcome, and another barrier smashed down.”
It isn’t the first time that McLynn, who has just celebrated her 52nd birthday, has played a real life character. Back in 1999, she was cast in a mini-series called Aristocrats, which was all about the lives and loves of the daughters of the then Duke of Richmond and Gordon. She played friend of the family Susan Fox-Strangeways.
“There were lots of gorgeous Georgian costumes and marvellously rich locations. And, I have to say, a brilliant cast as well, which included Anne-Marie Duff, Sian Phillips and Alun Armstrong. Oh, and a chap called Julian Fellowes. Now I wonder whatever happened to him, eh?”
Born in Sligo in Eire, McLynn grew up in Galway, and went on to read English and the history of Art at the prestigious Trinity College in Dublin.
“I can’t say that Galway is a hotbed of theatrical activity,” she laughs, “but they do have the very good Druid Theatre, and I seem to recall that’s where I saw my first plays. Oh, and I was also sent to Irish dancing classes as well, so maybe I was a little bit of a show-off? I remember being the Angel Gabriel in a Nativity play once, and being so proud that my mother had made my wings, and that they were far and away the best one – I think that they were real show-stoppers and when I played Snow White, she made an identical copy of the Disney costume.
“She was sitting in the audience and was as proud as Punch when the woman in front said how wonderful it looked. Not a word about me, just about the costume.”
For McLynn the acting bug really bit at college, where she spent more time on plays than she did going to lectures.
“I helped in the wardrobe department, I built sets, I acted any role that was thrown at me and did stage management. I still got my MA though and I suppose that the road I should have taken, given my degree, was to be some sort of librarian or researcher or something scholarly. However, when I graduated the recession was just starting to hit, and I seem to recall that there were about 5,000 applicants to every single job that was even vaguely relevant to my qualifications, so what chance did I stand? So acting it turned out to be.”
One of her first small breakthroughs came when she played a nurse, in the movie Iris. “Blink and you’ll miss me. But the wonderful thing about that film was that I had some scenes with the sainted Dame Judi Dench, who was playing the novelist and writer Iris Murdoch, who was succumbing to the awfulness that is Alzheimer’s. Dame Judi, bless her, what a terrific woman. So generous and open and a really mischievous lady as well. It was – despite the subject matter – a set that was full of laughter.”
It was playing the manic housekeeper Mrs Doyle in the sitcom Father Ted that made Pauline into a top-liner and brought her her first awards.
“You know,” she says, “That she was in her middle to late 50s? And I was barely 30 at the time. So there was a lot of make-up involved – and the rather shapeless and horribly baggy clothes helped. Here I am now, sailing into my 50s, and I’m playing Ella Khan, who I was delighted to read is in her mid-forties, so I am going backwards at long last. Maybe I will get to 65 and be playing Eliza Doolittle. In this business, I’ve learned, anything is possible.”
However, if Mrs Doyle is one of the classic characters of comedy, playing her did come with a price. “No-one ever found out her first name, did they? I think that it was Joan, in one of the early scripts, but whenever it might have been mentioned again, there was always something very loud going on in the background. But you certainly know that you’ve made it when people stop you constantly in the street, and quote your lines back at you.
“With the show always being repeated on one channel or another, it still happens today. I don’t drive, so I have to either walk or take public transport, so I do get ‘clocked’ quite a bit. If I had a fiver for every time that someone has said ‘Go on, go on, go on’ or ‘you will, you will, you will…’ my husband [she’s married to theatrical agent Richard Cook] and I would have long retired to our own private island in the Caribbean.
“I’m not so sure that I always wanted to be remembered and recognised as a mad old bat for the rest of my life but there we are. I should count my blessings and be grateful that I got the part in the first place, and that she hit the mark with the public’s response. Some actors would give their eye teeth for that opportunity.
“I’ll tell you this, though – when the final series finished, all I got offered for months afterwards, was ‘dotty old bag’ roles. No-one seemed to think me capable of playing anything else for quite some time.”
Since those days, McLynn has featured in high-profile series like Shameless and Bremner, Bird and Fortune, Threesome, Father Figure and in Jennifer Saunders’ Jam and Jerusalem. And, of course, she spent nearly a year playing Yvonne Cotton in EastEnders, and made a return visit a couple of months back to appear as a witness at her nephew Nick’s murder trial. “She not been killed off,”she chuckles, “so she could in theory return at any minute.”
McLynn loves knitting, and she’s also published eight best-selling novels. A ninth is being formulated on this tour.
“I’ve had a bit of a block for a while,” she admits, “but now I’m doing a lot of research that I hope will form into something….my joy is coming to places like York, and going into all the little bookshops and finding something about the local characters and history…that’s where I find my inspiration. So it is entirely possible that the new book, when I get going, will have a distinctly Yorkshire flavour to it.”
• East is East, Grand Opera House, York, August 3 to 8. 0844 871 3024, www.atgtickets.com; Alhambra Theatre, Bradford, August 31 to September 5. 01274 432000, www.bradford-theatres.co.uk