An Ian McKellen story - on his 80th birthday

The great Sir Ian McKellen is 80 today. He’s a wonderful actor and a truly good man - spending his eightieth year travelling the country with his one-man show raising money for theatres large and small. Here’s one of my favourite McKellen stories - told on Sunday 29 April 2007 when I was in Stratford-upon-Avon hosting a Shakespeare Quiz as part of the RSC Shakespeare Birthday Weekend celebrations. McKellen was giving his first King Lear at the time. This is taken from my diary:

Sunday 29 April 2007, Stratford.

I am here to host the Shakespeare Quiz. Two star-studded teams, both alike in dignity: I appoint Ian McKellen and Juliet Stevenson as captains. In the audience, Harriet Walter, coughing. Ian in very happy form. He’s come dressed as a mad scientist – beady eyes, King Lear’s beard, lab assistant’s coat and the McBeth tartan tie . . . He’s full of Lear: ‘Did it last night. It drains you. But then one night we just flew. It simply happened. The question is, once we’re there, will I be able to act what I now feel?’ . . . He delivered for us in full measure. When Donald Sinden got the question right about how much older Anne Hathaway was than Shakespeare (8 years), Ian said, ‘Of course, Donald had the advantage of knowing them both personally.’

Donald told the Frank Benson cricketing story: how Benson advertised for a fast bowler to play Laertes. A fellow applied. Someone said, ‘He’s a wonderful fast bowler – not sure if he can play Laertes.’ Said Benson: ‘Any good fast bowler can play Laertes.’

Judi Dench told a sweet story about being in The Promise with Ian – and so nervous on first night she said to Ian, ‘I’m just going to concentrate on the front row – focus on the three seats in the centre of the row and think that the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost are sitting there.’

Said Ian, ‘They’d be sitting in the one seat, surely?’

PS. My other favourite McKellen story comes from Kenneth Branagh recalling the time he founded his own Renaissance Theatre Company. This is from Branagh’s first autobiography, Beginning:

Although realistic about commercial considerations, I did not want Renaissance to be the ‘Kenneth-Branagh-gets-all-the-big-parts Company’. I remembered a conversation I’d heard in relation to Ian McKellen and the Actors’ Company:

‘Isn’t it marvellous about Ian McKellen and the Actors’ Company. This week he’s playing Hamlet, and last week he was in something where he just played the footman.’

‘What was the play called?’

The Footman

Gyles Brandreth