hey’re acting legends who are still lending their talents to both stage and screen today after stellar careers that have spanned decades. Now Michael Gambon, Diana Rigg, Ian McKellen and Claire Bloom are just some of the names who look back on their memories — and tell rarely heard tales — in a revealing new DVD, British Legends Of Stage And Screen, which is in the shops now.
Laurence Olivier was a friend, mentor and employer to many of these stars, not least Michael Gambon, whom he recruited for his new National Theatre Company. Their first play, Hamlet, starred Peter O’Toole, and Gambon recalls the first time he met him. ‘I was one of 10 broad guys,’ recalls Michael, 72, ‘with a helmet and breast plate. I got a message asking me to go to Peter O’Toole’s dressing room. He was sitting in front of his mirror and he said, “Are you that idiot who grabs me when I jump into the grave with Ophelia? Well, you’re hurting my arm. If I was a different sort of bloke, I’d smack you. Now, lie on the floor and pretend to be me and I’ll teach you how to lift me.”’
Diana Rigg, 74, recalls how shooting to fame with her starring role as secret agent Emma Peel in the cult 1960s TV series The Avengers was overwhelming. ‘I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Suddenly I was working 12-14 hours a day, learning and delivering lines very quickly. Patrick Macnee, who played Steed, was charming and helpful but it was in at the deep end. I had no way of preparing myself for instant fame. The fan mail was huge and I felt too guilty to throw it away so I got my mother to deal with it. She was very businesslike with all these lovesick men. She’d write back saying, “My daughter’s too old for you. What you need is a good run round the block.”’
Rigg tried her hand at musicals in the film of A Little Night Music in 1977 with Elizabeth Taylor. ‘Elizabeth was ravishing and very nice but she was interminably late. She’d arrive around 11am, clutching a glass of orange juice that was not unfamiliar with the Smirnoff effect. You just wanted to slap her. She was a nice woman but indulged in every respect and didn’t really think of anybody else but herself.’
It wasn’t just in the 1950s and ’60s that emotions ran high on set. Ian McKellen, 73, reveals that he was so overcome with loneliness while playing the wizard Gandalf in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, he burst into tears. ‘I had to be filmed separately so I could appear taller than the hobbits and dwarves and I don’t like doing that. I just started crying because that isn’t what I came into the business to do.’