In sickness and in health: Stephen McGann on the diseases in his family’s past

The actor's book is more than the opening up of a family’s secrets. It is a cautionary tale.

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Since he was a teenager, Stephen McGann has been fascinated by his family history. Sitting opposite me in the restaurant of the Covent Garden Hotel over a pot of Darjeeling and a smoked salmon bagel, the actor tells me how, as a boy in Liverpool, he began trying to discover “how I got to be me”.

McGann’s father, Joe, fought in the Second World War and landed on the Normandy beaches on D-Day. “There was lots he wanted to forget. There was lots he didn’t like. He made his world-view and he clung to it. There was nothing he wanted to dig up. But I was curious. Well, everyone was curious, but nobody did anything. That was ‘Steve’s thing’.” By “everyone”, he means his three brothers – all of whom have found acclaim as performers – his sister and his mother, Clare.

“Steve’s thing” has now become a book, Flesh and Blood: a History of My Family in Seven Maladies. It isn’t the usual actorly autobiography but rather a tracing of McGann’s family history from the Irish famine of the 1840s onwards, with his and his relatives’ stories told through what afflicted them: hunger, pestilence, exposure, trauma, breathlessness, heart problems, necrosis. It is an artful, honest book, marked by the author’s clear-eyed examination of how his family’s lives were entwined with history’s often terrible markers: not only the famine and the Second World War but the sinking of the Titanic, the Alder Hey scandal and the disaster at Hillsborough.

Steve’s other thing is playing the kindly Dr Patrick Turner in the BBC series Call the Midwife, a show that demonstrates social revolution by stealth, its hard-hitting portrayal of life in postwar east London cloaked by a veneer of cosy Sunday-night drama.

The drama was developed by McGann’s wife, Heidi Thomas, adapted from the bestselling memoirs of Jennifer Worth. McGann is vehement about its commitment to social history. “My wife does an astonishing thing,” he says. “On a Sunday night, before the nine o’clock watershed, she shows one in six people in this country – man, woman and child – what backstreet abortions are like, what happens to a woman who gets pregnant by a married man and is the victim of institutionalised cruelty. She shows what socialised health care was founded for, where our ideas might have come from and how they might change. And all this before nine o’clock!”

McGann’s role in Call the Midwife led to a book, Doctor Turner’s Casebook, detailing the real cases behind the storylines in the series. After its success, his publisher asked if he might like to write another book. He proposed Flesh and Blood, though he was, he says laughing, “too naive to terrify myself adequately” at the prospect of writing it.

Talking to McGann, I sensed his urgent intellectual engagement. Having failed his A-levels “spectacularly”, he forged a successful career as an actor, but his education was always “unfinished business”. After completing a BSc in computer science in his forties, he went on to do a Masters in science communication at Imperial College London.

This, one senses, is his real passion: he understands that true communication happens not with lists of facts or statistics but through story. Flesh and Blood is strikingly personal, for it is not just a book of family history but a book of a family’s living present, too.

McGann writes about the terrible agoraphobia that he suffered as a teenager; he writes about the stillborn twins his mother gave birth to before her other children; he writes about his wife’s beloved brother, David, who had a congenital heart defect. After David’s death, his heart was removed without the family’s consent at Alder Hey Children’s Hospital. He writes about the time Heidi nearly died from an obstructed bowel.

Why, I ask, did he choose to be so open? “It just bubbles up at four in the morning,” he says. “If you are going to tell a story about family, it has to be about how a family branches out, where it leads to. You become extinct; people leave other people; people form their own families. So eventually my life had to be there.”

McGann writes frankly about the degrading conditions in which his family lived when it first arrived at Liverpool’s docks from County Roscommon in north-central Ireland. It was a striking experience, he says, to read about that world from the vantage point of his “cosseted media life”.

He and his siblings, he tells me, don’t always agree: “But there’s one thing we all agree on. We feel very strongly that we existed in a social and educational golden age.” They are “beyond livid that the door is closing behind us”.

His family’s history “is a defence of the NHS. How could it not be? The NHS was the nation’s debt payment for my father’s horrific burden of duty. It was the foundation on which my mother reared a large working-class family with the necessary health to learn, thrive and give something back. It’s the greatest expression of humanity through policy that our society has ever demonstrated.”

Flesh and Blood, then, is more than the opening up of a family’s book of secrets. It is a cautionary tale. “I fear that the NHS as I knew it will soon pass away into history through selfishness and public complacency,” McGann says, “and this will prove an act of enormous national self-harm.

“Even the need to defend such an obvious good is a symptom of the deeper malady of our times: a society that’s become careless about inoculating itself against past horrors, and one that now risks disastrous reinfection.” 

Erica Wagner is New Statesman contributing writer. A former literary editor of the Times, she has twice judged the Man Booker Prize. Her most recent book is Chief Engineer: The Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge.

This article appears in the 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon

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