Amol Rajan interviews legend Sir Ian McKellen

Thursday:Amol Rajan Interviews Sir Ian McKellen; (BBC Two, 9pm)

By Claire Cartmill
Wednesday, 2nd March 2022, 5:00 pm
Sir Ian McKellen and Amol Rajan
Sir Ian McKellen and Amol Rajan

It’s official: Ian McKellen is a nice bloke.

Those who have waited by the stage door to meet him following his stage performances have been greeted by his smiling face and a man more than ready to share a joke or two with fans.

It makes a refreshing change from often grumpy individuals who forget they would be nothing if it wasn’t for those who avidly follow their careers and pay good money to see them in action.

Affable and charming, McKellen is instantly likeable and has a nice line in anecdotes. Some may suggest that’s thanks to his down-to-earth northern upbringing.

Born in Burnley in 1939, he and his sister Jean were raised in nearby Wigan by parents who encouraged young McKellen’s passion for the theatre – although his first visit, to see Peter Pan, was not an overwhelming experience.

“I wasn’t over-impressed,” he laughs. “For one thing it wasn’t a real crocodile and I could see the wires.”

Luckily, further productions proved far more inspiring and, after a spell at university and appearances with numerous amateur groups, McKellen turned professional, quickly becoming a leading light in London’s West End. But despite making his movie and TV debuts in the 1960s, he didn’t become widely known until the 1989 film Scandal, in which he played disgraced former MP John Profumo.

A year earlier, he outed himself as a homosexual during a Radio 4 programme and ever since has been regarded as a gay icon.

“I think it’s one thing to declare your sexuality, if you care about what that is,” he later commented. “It’s another thing to start talking in public about what you do in private and who you do it with. It’s not that my partners don’t want to be identified as gay, but that they don’t want to be identified as with me.

“But I’ve had enough of being a gay icon. Since I came out, I keep getting all these parts, and my career’s taken off. I want a quiet life. I’m going back into the closet. But I can’t get back into the closet, because it’s absolutely jam-packed full of other actors.”

Since becoming a household name, McKellen has received Oscar nominations for Gods and Monsters and the first Lord of the Rings movie. He’s also appeared in the likes of Apt Pupil, Richard III, Mr Holmes, All Is True and, of course, the X-Men franchise. He also continues to act on stage, most recently in Hamlet and The Cherry Orchard at the Theatre Royal, Windsor.

However, he admits that perhaps now is the time to slow down a little: “I have reached a stage in my life when work is not the be all and end all of my existence. I would imagine that feeling only comes with age.”

Nevertheless McKellen is back on the small screen this week, looking back on his life and career with Amol Rajan.

The BBC’s media editor recently landed the first TV interview with tennis player Novak Djokovic since he was deported from Australia, and while speaking to McKellen might not be regarded as quite as much of a coup, it should be hugely entertaining.

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