Ian McKellen’s latest smart move is taking on another literary hero. This time it’s Sherlock Holmes
Sir Ian McKellen knows how to take charge of a conversation. There’s nothing particularly showy about his manner, but he has a disconcerting habit of pausing in mid-rumble and inviting time to halt while he ponders the conversational crossroads. We’re talking about his lovely turn as an older Sherlock Holmes in Bill Condon’s upcoming Mr
“It never occurred to me to think it was a problem that so many people had played Sherlock,” he says.
He pauses, but something about his manner – a slight physical inclination – tells you he’s far from finished. “Because when you come to do, say, Hamlet, you are aware that thousands of actors have done it before. You can take from that fact the knowledge that many have played it quite well. Maybe you can play it well yourself.”
During today’s pauses, McKellen looks out through a vast picture window that reveals the dramatic swerve of the Thames that rubs against now-fashionable Limehouse. This reclaimed corner of docklands has been his home for a while. But for all his triumphs on stage and screen, McKellen still sounds like a man of the north. The Lancashire vowels won’t quite let themselves be buried.
“The northern accent was an advantage when I first came to London,” he says. “Albert Finney played Hamlet with a northern accent. Tom Courtenay played Romeo with a northern accent. I was a bit of a throwback. I thought you should try and speak posh. The records of my early performances are painful. I’m trying so hard to be posh.”
It all worked out in the end. Like his near-contemporary Judi Dench, Ian McKellen has en--
joyed an unusually lopsided career. For many decades, he was among the most revered of British stage actors. You could spot him in the odd film – as John Profumo in Scandal, as DH Lawrence in Priest of Love – but it wasn’t until the turn of the century that he became known to a mass audience.
“Thanks to wizardry,” he says. “We have all played wizards. It’s a new thing.”
That’s pretty much it. His turn as Magneto in X-Men did something to attract attention in lands far distant from Shaftesbury Avenue. But The Lord of the Rings kicked McKellen into another world altogether. Finney and Courtenay, both of whom became stars in the 1960s, now live relatively quiet lives. McKellen, meanwhile, is the toast of Comic-Con. Gandalf, the grumpy wizard with the big hat, follows him around every corner.
“Bill Condon’s partner said to me before Lord of the Rings, ‘Your life is about to change forever’,” he says.
He stops to ponder a barge making its sunny way towards Canary Wharf. “The only way it has changed forever is that I am famous,” he says. “It’s an oddity. And it doesn’t seem to be stopping. I get recognised. But I quite like that. I am a rather shy person. Now if I go into a room, strangers will know who I am. They will be nice and not pushy. Maybe that’s because Magneto and Gandalf are quite forbidding.”
Shy? I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised. He wouldn’t be the first actor who pulled on fictional carapaces to hide a degree of insecurity. Yet he does come from a family with a history of public speaking. The son of a civil engineer, McKellen was raised largely in Wigan and Bolton, but root around in his family tree and you discover a great-great- grandfather from Ballymena. James McKellen, like several of his descendants, was a powerful Protestant minister (as was fellow Ballymena man Ian Paisley, of course). I am reminded of Sir Ian’s turn as the ranting preacher Amos Starkadder in the 1995 version of Stella Gibbons’s Cold Comfort Farm.
“Oh yes,” he says, pleased to recall a famous quote. “‘There’s no butter in hell!’ Ha ha! I’d like to have been to one of Ian Paisley’s sermons and contributed to his ‘silent collection’. James left in 1840, but I have his name. He was a do-gooder. He stopped being a preacher and founded the City Mission in Manchester to save souls. There are missionaries in the family to this day. There are a lot of teachers.”
Is it too simplistic to conclude that we have here identified the origins of his talent for performance?
“That idea of passing on the message was there,” he says. “Contacting people. Standing up in front of a crowd. That’s what I do for a living. So, I think it is all connected somehow.”
McKellen is “no longer a Christian”, but he admires the way his relatives worked hard to leave the world a better place than they found it. In their case, they did so by “joining in with other people” in their community. McKellen felt a clos- er connection to the preacher instinct when, in the late 1980s, he came out as gay and began tireless work for the LGBT communities.
“Then it did all make sense,” he says. “I was standing up laying down the law . . . Well, not laying down the law, but saying: ‘Come and join in the fight together.’ That’s not far from what James McKellen was doing.”
We meet on the day of the UK general election and a little more than a week before the Irish vote on same-sex marriage. McKellen is (correctly, as it transpires) optimistic about the outcome. He has long viewed Senator David Norris as an inspiration and – strangely, given our history – Ireland as an example to gay-rights campaigners throughout the world.
“In some ways it is utterly remarkable what has happened. Here we have a conservative prime minister backing it when he didn’t have to do that,” he says with a happy puff.
McKellen became reasonably successful reasonably quickly. He receiveda scholarship to Cambridge University to read English and, then still something of an outsider as a grammar-school boy, quickly connected with other budding actors. In the early 1960s, he served in Laurence Olivier’s Royal Shakespeare Company, but had little to do with the great man himself. Eventually, battered by competition with the likes of Albert Finney, Michael Gambon and Anthony Hopkins, he moved to success elsewhere.
“I did hear that, after I left, [Olivier] wrote that he was ‘haunted by the spectre of lost opportunity’,” he says, laughing.
Did it not niggle that the others became movie stars as young men and he didn’t? Just a little?
“Well, I made a lot of films, but they were never any good,” he says. “To have lost the opportunity to play Coriolanus or Richard III or King Lear? Almost every play Chekhov wrote? I couldn’t do that. For what? Breathing life into a script that isn’t very good. To have success in my 60s is great.”
A long, long pause as we contemplate more passing river traffic.
“It’s all worked out very nicely for me.”
It is remarkable what has happened [in the marriage referendum]. Here we have a conservative prime minister backing it when he didn’t have to
The sleuth will out Ian McKellen in Holmes. Far right: As Gandalf the Grey in The Hobbit