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Kenny Ireland

Actor and director

Actor and director

Born: August 7, 1945; Died: July 30, 2014.

KENNY Ireland, who has died of cancer aged 68, was a multi-talented, Paisley-born stage, television and film actor perhaps known most recently as the ageing swinger Donald Stewart in the series Benidorm.

But such sitcoms were mostly to pay the bills. To the theatrical and general artistic community, he was considered one of Scotland's finest directors, with a reputation beyond these shores. He was also a serious dramatic actor, including in Shakespeare, and was artistic director of the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh for more than a decade, a theatre he turned around from debt to great success. Outspoken, straight-talking, ready to blow his top if he thought it necessary, he was often described as shooting from the hip.

Towards the end of the 20th century, Ireland was also one of the first and most passionate proponents of a National Theatre of Scotland, something he was delighted to see come to fruition in 2006 although he had hoped it would be based at the Royal Lyceum rather than as a touring company and that he would run it. He was critical of the Edinburgh Festival organisers, whom he said were afraid a national theatre would undermine their "wee local party".

With his twinkling eyes and cheery, chubby-cheeked face, Ireland was a natural comedian, appearing on TV programmes including Drop the Dead Donkey and as the gawky, dungareed handyman Derek in the Acorn Antiques sketches alongside Julie Walters.

These were part of the series Victoria Wood As Seen On TV, directed by the comedienne herself. But he also popped up in the comedy-drama Auf Wiedersehen, Pet and serious TV dramas including Taggart, House of Cards, New Tricks, Doctors, Midsomer Murders and Monarch of the Glen.

On the big screen, he played Skipper in Bill Forsyth's much-loved Local Hero (1983) and starred with Billy Connolly and Liam Neeson, appearing with the latter as an unemployed miner-turned-bare-knuckle-boxer, in the bruising 1990 film The Big Man.

Kenneth Ireland was born in Paisley in August 1945. After leaving Paisley Grammar School, he spent some time working in the local thread mills before following his heart and enrolling in what was then the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama on Glasgow's Renfrew Street, now known as the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. Keeping him company at the RSAMD was his childhood friend, the future actor Bill Paterson.

In the late-1960s and into the 1970s, Ireland was heavily involved in supporting Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre, first based in a former doss-house and brothel in the Lawnmarket, later in a sailmaker's loft at the east end of the Grassmarket.

Encouraged by Traverse artistic director Max Stafford-Clark, Ireland moved south to help develop the innovative Joint Stock Theatre Company, a workshop theatre concept founded in 1974 by Stafford Clark and Bill Gaskill, which pioneered a new form of theatre and featured the work of many contemporary writers including Caryl Churchill, David Hare and Howard Brenton.

Ireland, along with actor and director Hugh Fraser (Captain Hastings in the Agatha Christie TV series Poirot), was also a driving force behind The Wrestling School, a "virtual production company" (nothing to do with the sport of wrestling) founded in London in 1988 by playwright Howard Barker to develop the dynamic among language, communication, performer and audience.

The Independent newspaper once described The Wrestling School as the most important buildingless company in Britain.

Back in Scotland as artistic director of the Royal Lyceum from 1992, Mr Ireland gave a new Glaswegian edge to the Edinburgh company. His directing credits at the theatre included Guys & Dolls, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Much Ado About Nothing, Of Mice and Men, Midsummer Night's Dream and Waiting for Godot. His farewell piece at the theatre was the highly-acclaimed The Breathing House by Glaswegian playwright Peter Arnott, which, in the words of one critic, put Edinburgh on the psychiatrist's couch.

When he stood down from the Royal Lyceum in 2003, still pushing with his usual fire and brimstone for a Scottish National Theatre, Ireland launched a scathing attack on the Scottish arts establishment for providing what he called theatre on the cheap and on the Scottish Executive, for "putting plans for a National Theatre of Scotland on the back burner".

He took a lot of flak from the establishment and the media but three years later his dream of a Scottish National Theatre came true, although not (yet) to the extent he had hoped.

According to Keith Bruce, arts editor of The Herald, the Chinese buffet restaurant across the road from the Lyceum lost its best customer when Ireland left the theatre job. He recalled having a stand-up breakfast with Ireland during the Edinburgh Festival. "We stood as he consumed a croissant ... apparently unaware that the diminutive figure of Seona Reid, then boss of the Scottish Arts Council, was seated at the table beneath us. 'Oh dear, he said to me in a stage whisper. I'm dropping crumbs on the director of the Arts Council. Usually it's the other way round.'"

Although he was a serious actor and a director of an artistic mind, Ireland bowed to the wishes of his wife Meg, a well-known London-based agent for actors, to take the part in Benidorm playing the Scot Donald Stewart, who shows up at the Hotel Solana with his wife Jacqueline (Janine Duvitski) looking for a swinging time. He once said: "If your wife gets you a job as a swinger, is she trying to tell you something?"

It is perhaps ironic the majority of Britons will remember Ireland as the cliché of a Scotsman on the Costa Brava, rather than as an artistic innovator in the arts of his country, not least in the National Theatre of Scotland which, before he died, he was certain would further his native land on the worldwide theatrical stage.

Ireland died in London on Wednesday morning only six weeks after being diagnosed with cancer and standing down from the next Benidorm series, due on our screens next year. He is survived by his wife Meg (nee Poole), daughter Augusta, four grandsons and extended family.

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