Caro Meets Theatre Interview

John McKay: Dead Dad Dog

By | Published on Thursday 5 October 2023

It’s been 35 or so years, but I reckon some of our more seasoned readers are old enough to remember the first staging of John McKay’s ‘Dead Dad Dog’, which premiered back in 1987 at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre to much acclaim. I was really pleased when I heard that a revival of the show would be taking place this month at the Finborough Theatre. 

Since that staging of his first play, McKay has gone on to high profile things as a writer and director in TV and movies, on such films as ‘Crush’ with Andie MacDowell and ‘We’ll Take Manhattan’ with Karen Gillan, winning awards – not least a BAFTA and an Emmy – and also working on one of my favourite ever TV shows, ‘Life On Mars’. 

Anyway, all things considered, I wanted to find out more about the play and the playwright, so I spoke to John ahead of this month’s run. 

CM: You’re about to stage the first professional revival of your first ever play ‘Dead Dad Dog’. Can you tell us a bit about it, its story and themes?
JM: ‘Dead Dad Dog’ is the story of a day in the life of ‘Eck’ – Alec – a young guy in Edinburgh of the mid-1980s.

He’s a hip young gun who’s got a big day ahead of him, with a top job interview and a hot date tonight, and he thinks he’s got it made – until the ghost of his dead father appears in his kitchen at breakfast time, dressed in his cheesy 1970s flared suit.

And the thing is – everyone can see this ghost and Eck can’t get away from him. Cue: major embarrassment. Thematically – well, you can guess, but it’s a lot about fathers and sons, and Scotland of the 1980s trying to escape the terrible fawning awfulness of its past.

CM: It’s been a while since you wrote the piece, of course, but can you tell us a bit about what inspired the play? 
JM: I was 22, and it was Christmas Day and I had got back from the pub late and I was lying in my childhood single bed at home, and picked up an old school pencil and wrote most of it in one all-night session… I guess I had some things to say.

My dad had died when I was twelve and I’d grown up through the twilight of the 1970s into the alternative comedy scene of the mid-1980s, helped form the radical left-wing act The Merry Mac Fun Show, and had just been asked to write a first play. So I had motive – and opportunity!

CM: What happened to inspire a revival?
JM:  My good friend and old colleague, the wonderful director Liz Carruthers, took me for lunch and told me she had a spot lined up at the Finborough Theatre, and they’d like to revive ‘Dead Dad Dog’, and what did I think? So I paused for about a nanosecond before my mouth said, “Yes, absolutely!”

CM Can you tell us a bit about the cast and creative team working on the play?
JM:  Liz Carruthers is an amazing director in Scottish theatre who seems to know everyone, from the oldest guard to the freshest new talents – like our new Eck, Angus Miller, who is incredibly talented and funny.

It was Liz who suggested Liam Brennan, one of Mark Rylance’s leading players from his time at the Globe, for the part of the dead dad’s ghost Willie.

We have design by Alex Marker, who is everywhere in London fringe theatre right now, and lighting and projection from the amazing Rachel Sampley – which is something we never had back in the 1980s!

CM: Could you tell us a bit about how your career began? Was writing/directing what you always wanted to do? How did your working life begin?
JM:  I was always the kid who preferred to be lying on the carpet, “writing novels” with a crayon, to ever being out in the cold with a football.

I guess I liked performing by the time I was a teenager and really found my feet with The Merry Macs in my 20s, which was very fresh and immediate, like a punk band – literally, we’d write the stuff in the afternoon we were going to perform that evening.

Once I started writing plays I lost the idea I was ever going to be an actor – I’m not very good at pretending! – and after a while writing comedy for TV and watching other directors push my stuff around I thought, I could do that.

So I went to the National Film And TV School and learned how, from great teachers like Steven Frears and Udayan Prasad.

CM: I think it’s been a while since you did theatrical projects, hasn’t it? What’s it like to be doing that again? How does it contrast with the TV and film work you’ve been doing in recent years?
JM: Yes, once you get used to the TV money it’s hard to go back, haha!

Actually, I think it’s just about focus – I can only really do one thing at a time. But being invited to come play in theatre again has been absolutely delightful.

Everything is very simple and people are very can-do and calm – which is about the polar opposite of BIG, EXPENSIVE TV, where everything is very complicated and people are very stressed all the time because they think it’s all so important.

CM: Have you been affected by the US SAG-AFTRA strikes? Have they had an impact on the UK film and TV industry, do you think?
JM: Well, they absolutely have. It’s important to stand up to the US studios and to carve out a deal with the streamers, who have eluded normal practice so far.

It’s been a pretty choppy time for the UK film and TV industry, which had a crazy boom last year where you couldn’t get enough crew for the jobs available, then has seen so much shut-down this year, due to our chronic over-dependence on US-led production and casting.

Luckily I work in independent film – which NEVER has any money anyway!

CM: What would you say have been the highlights of your career thus far?
JM: It’s pretty hard to beat seeing your play-title lit up on the front of the Royal Court, but I’d also offer…

1: Losing cast member Tom Wilkinson on a dark mountainside after a night out at a disco with Sam Rockwell and Brenda Blethyn – he stopped our taxi for a pee and fell off!

2: Stopping the footway of the Brooklyn Bridge without permission to film a scene with Karen Gillan, until the massed joggers of NYC were literally about to drown us… good scene though!

CM: What aims and ambitions do you have for the future?
JM: Be a better father. Don’t stop making things up. Spend more time doing nothing. There are some contradictions here I need to work out…

CM: What’s coming up next for you after this?
JM: My first feature film as a producer, Aylin Tezel’s ‘Falling Into Place’ – co-produced with Weydemann Bros of Berlin – is going to have its international premiere in competition at Tallinn in November, which is pretty exciting.

In the meantime, I’m working on a couple of other movies – James Ley’s sparkling gay romcom ‘Lovesong To Lavender Menace’, and an adaption of Rachelle Atalla’s twisty bunker novel ‘The Pharmacist’. 

‘Dead Dad Dog’ is on at the Finborough Theatre until 28 Oct, see the venue website here for more information and to book tickets.

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