My two dads: Alan Cumming’s moving memoir of his father

One day Cumming was warned that it might emerge that he was not his father’s biological son. It was a bad moment in his life, no question. And yet, on some sad level, he greeted the news with relief.

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The foxy Scottish actor Alan Cumming’s readings from his memoir, Not My Father’s Son (17-21 November daily, 9.45am), could serve as a model for how these things should be abridged and delivered. Without hurrying at all, Cumming still managed not to dawdle remotely; a great deal got said. He explained that the book had come about during the making of an episode of Who Do You Think You Are? ostensibly centred upon his mysterious soldier grandfather Tommy Darling, who had disappeared in Malaysia.

One day Cumming was warned that it might emerge that he was not, in fact, his father’s biological son. It was a bad moment in his life, no question. And yet, on some sad level, he greeted the news with a bat’s squeak of relief. His father had been a brute. In one episode, he recalled being held down “like an animal” as his father inexplicably, and too clumsily, shaved his head with blunt clippers in the yard. Cumming was consistently effective at setting such difficult scenes, clearly being used to reading and absorbing the details of stage directions, the best of which (in both plays and movie scripts) can read like excellent prose. Repeatedly, he thickened and deepened a memory simply by describing the view from a window at the time, or perhaps the way his hands had felt as they skimmed a table or held a telephone.

Eventually we learned, after DNA tests and a ferociously tense reported conversation on some film set in South Africa (during which Cumming was wearing a bra and suspenders for a part), that he was indeed his father’s son, and that Tommy Darling had died playing Russian roulette. Fifteen sure-fire original minutes on the radio. It was only looking back over my notes that I realised how many of Cumming’s phrases were commonplace (“You made all our lives hell”): at no moment had it sounded that way. His vulnerable, measured delivery had a way of stoking the protective instinct in the listener: quite a weapon, a talent. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She presents The Film Programme on BBC Radio 4. She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 27 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the insurgents

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