RELATIVE VALUES: The great tragedy that defined our lives inspired us too

Carmel Kinnear, 61, actress and widow of the much-loved comic actor Roy Kinnear, and their son, Rory, 33, now receiving rave reviews as Hamlet, look back on family life before and after Roy’s sudden death in 1988

Interviews by Audrey Ward.
20 March 2011
The Sunday Times

Carmel: Roy and I often discussed having a third child after our two girls were born. Our eldest, Karina, has cerebral palsy and had been such hard work that we knew it would be an enormous undertaking. One day Roy went into the sitting room and I went into the dining room, and the idea was that we’d each write down on a piece of paper whether or not we wanted to have another child. When we checked each other’s answers, we’d both written yes. And that was that.

I had a lot of bad dreams while I was pregnant with Rory. I caught meningitis in the first trimester, and when the doctors told me he had a large head I immediately thought of hydrocephalus. It was a great relief when he was born healthy. Luckily, his head was just full of brains.

Rory was a joyous child and very bright. He inherited his father’s sporting ability and was named junior sports champion at the age of eight. His father was short and chubby and to look at him you might not think he was sporty, but he was very fast on his feet. After the prize was awarded, one of the other fathers turned to Roy and said: “Are you sure this boy’s from your loins?” At school, one of Rory’s first acting roles was Buttons in Cinderella. The other mothers were talking about the costumes they were making for their children, but I was doing a television series. I didn’t have the time and I’m not a very good seamstress, so I went to a theatrical costumiers and they came up with this incredible outfit. I remember being quite embarrassed when Rory appeared in an outfit that was far superior to everybody else’s.

His relationship with his dad was very loving. They had this routine on Sunday mornings of setting up a restaurant in the kitchen, putting on aprons, talking in Italian accents. “Zees eez Luigi’s restaurant. You girls, you go, you go, we men, we do it.” They’d cook scrambled egg, bacon and sausage,and wouldn’t let Kirsty and me in until it was ready.

Rory had a lot of girlfriends and his very first grown-up party took place when he was about 14, at our home in Roehampton. People were getting a little lovey-dovey in corners — nothing really naughty, but I thought: “My God, I can’t have a girl defiled in my house!” I went round the bedrooms pretending to collect the Coca-Cola bottles and interrupting them all. “I don’t mind you snogging but can you please do it downstairs?” I was the strict parent because Roy wasn’t heavy on the discipline. He never went up the road without coming back with a present for the children. I’d say, “Darling, you mustn’t,” and he’d answer in a big Scottish accent: “If you can’t spoil your own, who can you spoil?” He’d probably have gone on spoiling them dreadfully if he hadn’t died. When I got the phone call to say Roy had had a little accident in Spain and might have broken his pelvis I had no inkling things were serious. He was in Madrid filming The Return of the Musketeers. I flew out that day and I was unhappy when I saw the hospital. There was nobody around. “My God, we must get out of this place,” I told him, “they don’t care if you live or die.” Next morning he had a scan and the doctor said: “Bueno, no haemorrhage.” In fact, Roy had lost five pints of blood. As the orderlies were lifting him off the bed he said: “Careful of your backs, boys.” Joking to the end.

It was horrid having to tell the children. It was a very painful time and we’d all get on the bed and cry together. One was very aware of trying to protect them and keep their lives as normal as possible. I used to go out by the dustbins at night and cry a great deal there too, as it was the only place where nobody could hear you.

Rory still has the most enormous hero worship of his father; I’m not surprised he pursued acting as a career. Acting was always a part of the children’s lives. Once, I was doing a play in Plymouth and we rented a house there. Having watched the rehearsals, Kirsty and Rory knew all the songs and the tap-dance moves — despite the fact I was playing a non-singing, nondancing part. I remember thinking: “They’re liking this too much.”

I was delighted when Rory said he’d study English at Oxford, and in his final year I thought I must suggest something to him other than acting. “What about the law?” I asked. But he said: “Mother, I’ve wanted to act since I was about three.” Now he jokes about “Mother and her notes”. All I can say is I’ve given him lots of notes after his performances. But after he played Hamlet at the National last year I realised I didn’t have anything left to write, apart from motherly things like, “Your shirt was a bit ruffled in that scene”. He was just extremely good. It’s every young actor’s dream to play Hamlet and I was so happy for him. But just so sorry Roy wasn’t there to see it.

Rory: One of my earliest memories is of Mum taking me to nursery school on my first day. As I was getting out of the car a bird crapped on my head and I had to go and meet my new classmates with my mum asking: “Does anyone know where the sink is?” Although I was the youngest, my eldest sister, Karina, was in some ways the baby of the family, as she was severely disabled. My other sister, Kirsty, is four years older than me and she eventually became known as “the Stirrer”. Mum was quite strict and I was always in trouble for walloping Kirsty after she’d provoked me.

The image the public had of my father, and the person he really was, overlap perfectly. He was kind, generous, happy and very loving. He had just two lines if he suspected you were thinking of being naughty: “There’s an easy way and a hard way. The easy way isn’t easy, but the hard way is very hard.” I never knew what the hard way was, but it seemed so insurmountable I didn’t seem able to take it. I did get quite boisterous at the age of 10, as young boys do, but then Dad died and that knocked it out of me.

After a summer spent with Dad in Spain, Mum, Kirsty and I were back in London when the producer phoned to say Dad had fallen off a horse during filming. Mum flew out and I remember the day she returned. There were lots of people in the house but she was in the sitting room by herself. She didn’t need to tell us, we just knew.

I found the funeral very tough. There were hoards of press taking photos, which I hated, and the pictures are all of me bawling away. It was extraordinarily hard for my mum, not only losing the love of her life, but also having to cope with a severely disabled child and two young children. How she dealt with it, I don’t know. A fair degree of red wine, probably.

My mother’s tenacity can be embarrassing. If someone says, “Sorry, there’s no way you can do that,” she’ll find a way. If there was no table at a restaurant, there would be after 15 minutes of persuasion — during which my sister and I would want to curl up and die. But what she’s achieved, not only making sure we were all happy and felt loved, but also setting up the Roy Kinnear Foundation to help people like Karina, was down to that tenacity.

Karina was at a boarding school for people with disabilities until she was 19, then lived with us until she was 29. Mum and Dad had always talked of setting up a centre of excellence for young disabled adults, so she started looking for a building. She found this bungalow in Twickenham and went along to the auction. A property developer was keen to buy it, but whatever he bid, she went higher. Eventually she walked over to him and said: “Listen, I’ve been dreaming about a house for young disabled adults. Whatever you bid I will bid another £1,000.” She got it. Over the next five years she raised £1m and transformed it into a home. And now Karina lives there with seven other young disabled adults.

Mum was equally determined over taking the producer and director of The Return of the Musketeers to court. To find the best barrister she auditioned six top QCs. They were so startled anyone would question their credentials. It took six years for the case to be heard but in the end she was awarded damages.

Memories are solidified now in one’s mind. There are those with Dad and those without Dad.

Peculiarly, he lost his own father at 8, and he died when I was 10. And knowing my experience mirrored his made me feel closer to him. As for the premature deaths, it’s certainly a tradition I wouldn’t mind breaking.

I did keep up the Luigi’s tradition after he died. I’d make macaroni cheese for Mum’s birthday or an omelette for a special occasion. So Luigi’s remained open, even though it lost its head chef ¦ Rory Kinnear is touring the country in Hamlet. He appears at the National Theatre from April 13-23. Rory also stars in Women in Love on BBC4 on March 24 and 31’It was horrid telling the children Roy had died. I used to go out by the dustbins at night and cry a great deal, as it was the only place where nobody could hear you’