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Words by Ian McKellen

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Ian McKellen as Chauvelin; portrait of Jane Seymour as Marguerite behind

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When Clive Donner (Alfred the Great) invited me to work with him again I was a little disappointed that it was not to play the eponymous Scarlet Pimpernel, one of the great romantic roles of popular cinema. The foppish aristocrat who rescues victims of the French Revolution is a master of disguise transforming himself, years before Clark Kent or James Bond, into a dashing action hero. Anthony Andrews, fresh from his startling screen debut in Brideshead Revisited was the luckier man: but I was pleased to play his principal opponent in love and war, the steely politician Chauvelin.
We filmed, as many British period movies do, on location at  the magnificent Blenheim Palace near Oxford. I felt at home in the stylish 18th century clothes and wig. The budget encouraged fast filming, so each day was satisfying as the scenes were efficiently knocked off.
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The Great Hall, Broughton Castle, used for the duel scene in The Scarlet Pimpernel
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Ian McKellen (Chauvelin) and Jane Seymour (Marguerite)
There was much to enjoy. I was reunited with Jane Seymour after our Broadway season in Amadeus and made new friends with the Hollywood screenwriters Bill Bast and his partner Paul Huson (who had played the elder prince in the tower in Olivier's film Richard III). 

The film's popularity continues on US television — for a time there was even a Chauvelin fan club amongst college students. But why should Americans (whether Republican or Democrat) favour a tale about an attempt to undermine the French Revolution, whose hero is a forthright monarchist and whose villain is Robespierre's devotee? — Ian McKellen,   August 2000

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More photos in the galleries

 


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