Ian McKellen’s lat­est smart move is tak­ing on an­other lit­er­ary hero. This time it’s Sher­lock Holmes

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FRONT PAGE - Mr Holmes opens next week on gen­eral re­lease

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.”

Ir­ish vote

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

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