Ian McKellen Writings

December 2002 | Smoke Signals

First published in Flaunt

Like many of my generation, I had my first cigarette (filched from my father’s jacket in the wardrobe) before I ever drank alcohol or managed an orgasm. There were plenty of role models. In the late 1940s and '50s, movie stars smoked on and off the screen, women as much as men. Like Gerald Du Maurier before him, my acting hero Laurence Olivier even had a cigarette brand named after him and his favourite blend of Virginian tobacco. When I worked for his fledgling National Theatre Company, in the actors’ greenroom where refreshments were served during the long days of rehearsals and performances, there was a cigarette machine only ever filled with the Olivier brand, although it was capable of dispensing half a dozen different ones. In those long off days (1965/66) the anti-smoking movement had not gained sway in the United Kingdom and backstage we never dreamed that one day smoking would not be permitted even in one’s private dressing room. Michael York (born Johnson) and I joined the National on the same day – he found his stage name on top of a London bus as it passed a poster for “York Cigarettes.”

It’s hard to credit that when I was beginning to learn how to act in regional repertory companies in UK, audiences could still smoke in theatres and cinemas, where ashtrays with a rough surface to strike matches were provided between every seat. One of my first lessons in acting technique was discovering how to judge a pause against the likelihood that an indulged silent moment of passion on stage might be drowned by a 100 smokers lighting up all over the house – their matches and lighters, their inhales and splutters, and the illumination of their inattentive faces. The same is true today. If the audience is coughing don’t blame the weather or nicotine, blame yourself for not retaining their attention.

It was because of a play that I started smoking cigarettes in earnest. Before Cambridge University I had been a desultory smoker, buying five Gold Leaf at a time but more often taking my dad’s Senior Service, which he smoked because of the white packet, handy for notes. As an undergraduate I affected a briar pipe for a few semesters. I was in the boys’ dressing room of the Amateur Dramatic Club, waiting for my cue, and I was nervous. Some acting mate, Derek Jacobi or Trevor Nunn maybe, offered me a cigarette and I haven’t touched a pipe since.

One regrettable ill effect of the no-smoking lobby is that it’s inadvisable these days to smoke in a play. Some maybe litigious people, who happily expose themselves to the germs of 1500 fellow theatre-goers, can lose control when they fear being a victim of an actor’s secondhand smoke. If they catch sight of a cigarette case or ashtray on the set, they start to get restless and even before they spy the lighter lit, they will be coughing to register their disapproval, righteous and intolerant at the same time.

But if a cast may no longer smoke in certain period plays, as 13 of them smoked in my movie Richard III, then a little censorship has crept in. Everyone, except sticklers like me, seems happy if the actors fake it by pulling on non-nicotine weedy fags, as we call them in UK. The actors don’t harm their throats, the front row smells harmless herbs, no profit to the tobacco companies. I am left, though, sniffing and wondering what on earth it is they are smoking onstage. A few seasons back a scandalous drug-supply line was uncovered at the National Theatre. I was working there at the time. None of the goodies ever reached me.

These musings spring up when I am at the laptop, as now, because for the past few months I have been denying myself cigarettes. Not the first time I have given up, although this time I think it feels final. It’s not that I feel many advantages – I can certainly breathe deeper, which is an aid when exercising or acting on stage, but my sense of smell has returned so now I smell the cars as well as the breath of you dirty smokers. I have succumbed to the propaganda.

I want to stop being a smoking radical – the geezer who complains every train or plane journey he makes about the inadequate provision for smokers. The idiot who responded to his hostess’ announcement that hers was “a smoke-free home” by spouting about freedom and so lost a friend. I will leave it up to more determined smokers “I don’t smoke for my physical health. I smoke for my mental health;” and their jokes, “Look at this cigarette packet – No fat content: no calories: no meat content”. But I shall continue to mock those health warnings whose exaggerations are close to lying. “SMOKING KILLS!” Well yes but not always. Like it didn’t seem to kill John Gielgud, whose renowned beautiful voice was fed a daily supply of Turkish cigarette smoke. When he died at 96, no obituary mentioned his smoking. Had, of course, he died of smoking-related disease the headlines would have been “Arthur’s Oscar-winning Butler Dies from Cigarettes!”

PS: LotRings is one of the most popular movies ever and its principal characters (including underage Hobbits) smoke tobacco onscreen. I heard no objections from the cast and crew during filming nor since from the censoring anti-smoking lobby. Maybe they love Tolkien more than they hate the weed. — Ian McKellen, December 2002

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