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G Live Hairspray

Talking To... Paul McGann

Rich Lee 08/05/2017 Deputy Editor
Image (Robin Savage)

This month sees the celebrated stage and screen actor Paul McGann come to Guildford’s Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, in the touring production of Gabriel, a knife-edge thriller set in the Nazi-occupied Channel Islands during World War II. Here he tells us about his character, the terrifying German Commander Von Pfunz, and about being one half of Withnail and I…


Hi Paul. You’re a veteran of the stage now yet this is your first touring production. Why the wait?

Most of the tours one gets offered, generally they’re usually minimum six weeks, sometimes six months. They’ve been too long for me. This one is only eight venues over two months, so it’s doable. I don’t know if I could have done six months. As much as I love it, that’s hard work. I don’t know if I’d be that disciplined for that long. So this is good for me. I’m having a blast!


What drew you to this play?

It’s a really good thriller; a sort of ‘page turner’. It’s pretty unpredictable as well. The audiences have been saying to us, “We weren’t expecting the laughs.” And often with deeply serious subjects, the laughs, such as they are, punctuate the tension - you can’t just act unalloyed tension for two hours, it’s too exhausting. And the first ten minutes or so it’s funny, almost farcical. And then it’s sort of does ‘something’…
It’s lovely being in something you know works. It’s just a great yarn and audiences are loving it.


What makes Nazi-occupied Guernsey such a compelling location for a story like this?

The islanders were in this really weird situation: it wasn’t Holland, it wasn’t France. There was no Gestapo, no resistance; what they called this model occupation. It wasn’t all sweetness and light, of course; there were deportations and they captured any Jews they found. And eventually there was an SS concentration camp on Alderney – many people forget there was a concentration camp on British soil. It was a weird, weird period and the islanders were trapped and the story and the play has that claustrophobia that audiences have been really responding to.

Image (Robin Savage)

What kind of conflict is playing out with your character, Commander Von Pfunz?

‘Von Pfunz’… sounds like a fart in a bath.  He’s a new arrival, an army major, the local commandant on that bit of the island (Guernsey), and he’s got power and sway over the occupied islanders. And he lets us know pretty early on that… he’s seen ‘something’. He’s come from somewhere. And although he’s not explicit about it, he lets slip to Jeanne, the main character, that something happened that affected him. Were they modern characters they’d talk about their feelings. But they’re wartime characters so they don’t. So he’s a little bit cracked, which is great. They’re the best characters to play. 


And you have to do all that while wearing a very sinister side-parting…

My dad would be so chuffed were he still alive; it’s my first ‘sensible’ haircut! When I was home the other day I went to my sons’ barbers and I thought I’d better take a photo along to show them what the character looked like, and he said, “Oh yeah, I know that one. It’s every second haircut these days. I’ve done about five this morning already. Sit down.” It took him about five minutes. Von Pfunz was way ahead of his time (laughs.)

Image (Robin Savage)

The play celebrates its 20th anniversary in 2017, but the film that has, arguably, most defined you turns 30 this year. How do you feel about the phenomenal adoration for Withnail and I among film-lovers?

Often the first film you did was always the best one you’ll ever do, because it was so exciting. The idea of being in a movie was so out-of-your-league as a 26-year-old kid. That really was the only ambition I’d ever had. We’ll always love that film, chiefly because it was the first film we ever did. I’d never done one, Richard E. Grant hadn’t done one, Ralph Brown hadn’t and Bruce Robinson had never directed one. In a way, you can tell that we’re sort of making it up as we go along. And a lot of that sprit comes across.
It didn’t disappoint us that it didn’t do very well at first, because it was so weird and so unlike everything else that was around at that time. It didn’t have that mainstream appeal then, but we were surprised and delighted six or seven years later that it made such a comeback.
When I watch it now it makes me laugh.

I can’t watch it as a story so much but more like a home movie. I still remember how happy we were. And you never really get that feeling again; that first charge of excitement is just beautiful. And how jammy were we, that the first film we made was Withnail and I?

Paul McGann (left) and Richard E. Grant (right) in Withnail & I (1987)


Withnail and I is one of the most quotable films in cinema, so do you mind those famous lines following you around?

Ah, you’re kidding, I love it! I remember being in Canada, in the depths of winter, in horizontal sleet with the parka hood up, and some disembodied voice from across the street shouts “You’ve gone on holiday by mistake!” You couldn’t make it up, it’s fantastic. It’s known the world over. How could you not enjoy that?

Gabriel, written by Moira Buffini and directed by Kate McGregor, plays at Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford from Monday 15th to Saturday 20th May. Gabriel also stars Jules Melvin, Robin Morrissey, Sarah Schoenbeck and Venice van Someren. Visit www.yvonne-arnaud.co.uk for more information and to book tickets.

Thumbnail Image Nicholas Dawkes

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