New Times,
New Thinking.

  1. Culture
5 December 2014

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.

By Antonia Quirke

Book of the Week
Radio 4

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. 

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how Progressive Media Investments may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

Content from our partners
The power of place in tackling climate change
Tackling the UK's biggest health challenges
"Heat or eat": how to help millions in fuel poverty – with British Gas Energy Trust