Obituary: Kenny Ireland, actor and director

Born: 7 August, 1945, in Paisley. Died: 31 July, 2014, aged 68

Kenny Ireland: Passionate theatre director and actor recently best known for his role in Benidorm. Picture: Sean Bell

Kenny Ireland played a significant part in broadening the scope and repertoire of the Royal Lyceum Theatre during his ten years – from 1992 – as the Edinburgh company’s artistic director. His connection with the theatre went back to his youth when he trained there and became an associate director of the Lyceum’s Studio housed nearby.

He was an impressive personality: avuncular, invariably cheerful with a welcoming grin and an ability to enthuse a company of actors with bold and imaginative ideas. Challenging productions he directed at the Lyceum included Guys & Dolls, Macbeth, Mother Courage and Of Mice and Men. They all demonstrated his desire to break boundaries and bring Scottish theatre-goers something fresh and inventive.

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Ireland was determined to make the Lyceum a focal venue in Scotland and his ambition and enthusiasm made it a major force in British theatre.

Typical of his ambitions for Scotland was a speech he made in 1963. He advocated that the new Fringe club should become an all-the-year-round Fringe Centre and “a permanent home which would promote the style of drama which had come to be associated with the Edinburgh Fringe”. He never lost that campaigning zeal.

He found wider fame on television when he played Donald Stewart in ITV’s comedy Benidorm. He loved making the series and it was only after being diagnosed with cancer that he decided to leave the show.

George Ireland (always known as Kenny) trained at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Dramatic Art and was awarded a year’s bursary by the Scottish Arts Council to study as a trainee director at the Royal Lyceum, where he later became an associate director working mainly with the Studio Company at the Young Lyceum. He was artistic director there for two seasons.

Ireland had a major early success when he directed The Great Northern Welly Boot Show – a play by Tom McGrath and Billy Connolly at the 1972 Fringe. It was about the Upper Clyde Shipyard work-in and was performed to rapturous audiences in the vast Waverley Market.

In 1977 he had another well-received Traverse production at the Fringe: The Hard Man, a fearsome play based on the life of the Glasgow gangster Jimmy Boyle. Another success at the Traverse was Blood and Ice by Liz Lochhead in 1982.

In 1988 he was appointed artistic director of The Wrestling School, which was established by actors from the Royal Shakespeare Company to focus on the work of Howard Barker. Ireland was instrumental in introducing challenging works to the company and establishing its name in the UK and in Europe.

In 1993 he came to the Lyceum and one of his first plays was Georges Feydeau’s A Little Hotel on the Side. The next year saw an adaptation of Kidnapped by Tom McGrath and to follow were two exceptional Shakespeare productions with Tom McGovern playing the lead in Hamlet and then Macbeth. One of his most substantial legacies at the Lyceum was a spectacular Guys & Dolls (with McGrath as Nathan Detroit) in 2001.

Before curtain-up, when Ireland was involved, there was often music, projections and pizzazz. He was never interested in small-scale, intimate theatre. He wanted to celebrate Scottish art and Scottish culture, as was witnessed in the joyous pantomimes he mounted in Perth and Aberdeen.

But he enjoyed acting in them too, as was seen last year when he appeared in The Satire of the Three Estates at Linlithgow and Stirling castles.

His campaigning commitment to Scottish theatre was evidenced when he spoke about the theatre’s future in Scotland. He firmly believed Scotland should realise its ambitions and create a national company many years before the National Theatre of Scotland was born. In 2000 with the actor Hamish Glen he expressed heartfelt opinions about the need for a centre for Scottish theatre.

He left the Lyceum in 2003 with warnings about funding the arts in Scotland. His desire to see a National Theatre of Scotland was as strong as ever.

Apart from Benidorm, his many other television appearances included New Tricks, Heartbeat, Monarch of the Glen, Casualty, Taggart, Midsomer Murders and – to his great enjoyment – “Mr Derek” in Victoria Wood’s Acorn Antiques.

In 1997 he directed a new production of Rigoletto for Scottish Opera. It was warmly praised and toured Scotland.

He is survived by his wife, the agent Meg Poole, stepdaughter, Augusta, and her children, Jack, Henry, Sid and Sam.

Appreciation by Peter Arnott

I met Kenny Ireland in 1980. I was a student in Cambridge, and he was already a big figure who had been instrumental in the revival of new theatre making in Scotland in the 1970s as an actor and director, from The Great Northern Welly Boot Show with Billy Connolly to the Young Lyceum with Bill Bryden to working with Christy Moore and Planxty in an ice rink and on and on.

I didn’t know any of that then. All I knew was another large and red-haired Scottish person had dragged his colleagues, professional actors, on tour with the Cambridge Theatre Company to see a bunch of students having a go at a script he’d worked on with Bill Gaskell and the playwright Stephen Lowe for Joint Stock – an adaptation of The Ragged Trouser’d Philanthropists. Turned out we’d played the same part.

But I didn’t understand then what a telling thing that was about the big man – his absolutely unembarrassed enthusiasm for good theatre. He knew how special that script was and it tickled him that we did too. So he dragged his mates down on their night off. I know now how unusual that was. How bereft of cynicism or calculation Kenny was. How much I’ll miss that.

He was absolutely dedicated to giving the audience a story that would provoke and honestly engage them. He was absolutely uninterested in the appreciation of anyone other than those people in the dark. He didn’t give a wet slap about the critics or about the smart operators who infect this business.

No. That’s not entirely true. He cared deeply about us. About the ones who get out there and do it. About the actors and the writers and designers and carpenters and box office staff. Those of us who engage with the people, he had all the time and love in the world for us. There were some other people around who had to watch themselves.

We didn’t get to work together till 2003. In between times I’d seen him transform the prospects of the Lyceum, carefully building an audience with continuity and courage. I’d seen him on the telly once or twice, like with Victoria Wood or in the original House of Cards. I’m sure there’s lots of stuff I missed on the telly.

But Kenny, as part of an ensemble, whether running one like he did at the Lyceum or with Howard Barker and the Wrestling School, or in one in Victoria Wood’s show or Benidorm, you could see his joy, and the joy of others in his company and talent.

And it’s as part of an ensemble that I finally got to engage fully with someone who really understood theatre for a big audience on a big stage who was simultaneously enthused by big ideas – from working with Calum Colvin on the set of The Breathing House to he and I and the late lamented Hayden Griffin and producer Duncan Hendry starting to put together a storytelling machine with our versions of Neil Gunn’s Silver Darlings and Robin Jenkins’ The Cone Gatherers.

Oh, we had such a long list of great Scottish books to bring to that big Scottish audience…

Then we lost Hayden. And now we’ve lost Kenny. With the loss too of Dave MacLennan, I feel theatrically orphaned. I know how widely that feeling is shared. I’ll be thinking of Meg and Augusta and the grandchildren who lit his life – Jack, Henry, Sid and Sam. I’ll be thinking of Lala too. I’ll be thinking about all of us who ever shared a long, nerve-wracked opening night, on stage and off. And I’ll be thinking about Kenny. I’ll be raising a glass tonight.