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″British Coup” Star Says He Is His Characters

January 13, 1989

LONDON (AP) _ Ask Ray McAnally what he thinks of the people he portrays so memorably, and the Irish actor is lost for words. His job, he says, is to honor his characters, not to judge them.

″The character is me; I see the world that he sees,″ says the 62-year-old actor, who can be seen on Masterpiece Theater on PBS on Sunday playing fictional Prime Minister Harry Perkins, a socialist who is unseated by his own uppercrust secret service.

Written by Alan Plater and directed by Mick Jackson, it will air in two parts - Sunday from 9 to 10 p.m. EST and Monday, 9 to 11 p.m. EST.

It’s McAnally’s second recent PBS series, following his starring role as ne’er-do-well Rick Pym in John Le Carre’s ″A Perfect Spy.″

Set in 1990s Britain, ″Coup″ shares the paranoiac, conspiratorial tone of such recent British films and TV series as ″Defense of the Realm″ and ″Edge of Darkness.″

It is rooted in a long-standing, real-life conspiracy theory - that right- wingers in the British secret service plotted to oust Harold Wilson and his Labor Party government in the ’70s.

Adapted from a novel by Chris Mullin, a Labor lawmaker, ″Coup″ is a satire in which a Labor prime minister outrages his opponents by telling the truth to the press and honoring his election pledges.

Perkins’ downfall comes from keeping a promise to remove U.S. military bases, and turning to Moscow for aid rather than allowing Britain to remain ″an aircraft carrier for the United States.″

As the right-wing press howls for his blood, the secret service sets out to discredit him by concocting a phony bank account in his name and digging up an ancient love affair.

The series invites debate, but McAnally keeps his distance. An Irish resident who has never voted in a British election, he tries to get under Perkins’ skin without evaluating him.

″My job is not to make decisions about politics (but) to create the human being,″ McAnally said in a phone interview. ″If I were playing (British Prime Minister) Maggie Thatcher, I’d vote for Maggie Thatcher.

″When I play Harry, I’m in his shoes. He feels that the world needs changing, that the values society holds need to be changed.″

McAnally’s strength is his uncanny ability to become his character, whether as the polished papal ambassador in ″The Mission,″ or as the roughhewn Ulster work boss in ″Cal.″

The Perkins role required a distinctly south Yorkshire accent which he honed to perfection by spending five months in the pubs and steel foundries of Sheffield.

Of scripts, he says: ″I draw no massive, cosmic, global conclusions, but simply take every line in detail.″

McAnally has rarely been out of work since making his professional debut in his native County Donegal at age 16. He has worked closely over five decades with Dublin’s Abbey Theater in more than 150 plays, classic and modern, as both an actor and a director.

Movie work has ranged from ″Shake Hands With the Devil″ with James Cagney to ″The Fourth Protocol″ with Michael Caine. He most recently appeared on London’s West End stage last season playing George Bernard Shaw alongside Sir John Gielgud in ″The Best of Friends.″

Roland Joffe’s movie ″The Mission″ made him a star, a status he accepts with ambivalence: ″I’m still, thank God, quite anonymous.″

Married with four children, McAnally says he was first drawn to acting at age 6, and sees it as ″a vocation, not a career.″

″This is where I belong,″ he said. ″A lot of people go into the business because they think it’s going to give them something. That, I think, can be disastrous because they may not get what they’re looking for.″

McAnally will be seen later this year as the lawyer Jaggers in a new TV adaptation of ″Great Expectations.″

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