20 February 1988 | Ian McKellen: Actor and trainee-activist
First published in The Independent
The new Ian McKellen emerged with the new year. The actor was doorstepped at the Playhouse Theatre late one night in the first week of January by a journalist who had just seen his one-man show, Acting Shakespeare. She thrust a handful of papers at him and briefly explained the worry of gay rights groups over a clause in the Local Government Bill which they feared would send them back to the ghetto. McKellen listened, took the documents, and went home.
"He phoned me at about 1.30 in the morning. We chatted about how difficult it was for actors to come out, because they do lose work. Then he said he had this idea: What about a big press conference, and get heterosexual couples to come with their babies, and protest?" The next day he set to work with the Arts Lobby, intent on stopping Clause 28.
This afternoon, with the clause altered but not defeated, he will make the familiar, casual entrance at a gay rights rally in Manchester's Free Trade Hall. Gestures of sucseeming spontaneity have won McKellen many friends in his 48 years. The first on record has the Bolton schoolboy watching Gielgud in King Lear. A woman in front of him giggled at the mad scene: McKellen took a furious swipe at her hat. Another story has him at his interview for a place at St Catharine's, Cambridge. Asked to read some poetry, he leapt on to a chair and declaimed from Henry V: "Once more unto the breach, dear friends..." He knew his man, the dramomane Brigadier Tom Henn, and he won an Exhibition.
"When I come to the performance, there's nothing I do that I'm not aware of," McKellen has said. If there is a characteristic that critics have singled out, while acclaiming him one of the finest classical actors of his generation, it is an ability to turn painstaking analysis into the freshest performance. Indeed the unveiling of the new McKellen, spontaneous at first sight, seems to have been the product of deep consideration.
He returned to London last autumn from a year in America. He was, according to several friends, appalled by a change in the public perception of homosexuals, in the light of growing consciousness of Aids. Furthermore a close friend, from the National Theatre production of Coriolanus, had just died of the disease. London Lighthouse, the organisation that had counselled him, was unable to raise the money for Britain's first hospice for Aids victims.
Acting Shakespeare is the show that, for eight years, McKellen has used to fill the rare moments when he has been out of work. It is an infectiously enthusiastic anthology from his experience of Shakespeare, of parts he has played (Romeo to Coriolanus), and some he will never play (Juliet and Mistress Quickly). London Lighthouse took all the profits from a seven-week run: the sum, £450,000, has enabled it to start building. It was a generous gesture, a reaction to a hard-luck story from a man whose life has featured none.
The ease with which McKellen wears his success perhaps reflects the steady way it came to him. Born in Burnley in 1939, the son of a borough engineer (and grandson of a preacher who made "large gestures from the shoulder like an actor"), McKellen had a happy childhood in a comfortable semi-detached house poised between Wigan's suburbs and its dark slums. His parents moved to Bolton when he was 13.
Shortly afterwards his mother died; an event, according to his biographer, "deep and tragic for him." But his father remarried, and McKellen was friendly with his stepmother. He followed a smooth path through Bolton's grammar school, where he starred in many plays, to Cambridge. He might, he has said, have been a journalist, or a teacher. During his schooldays he contributed "Topics of the Day" to the Bolton Evening News.
But Cambridge in 1958 was at its most theatrical. Corin Redgrave, Derek Jacobi and Clive Swift were his contemporaries, all taking their acting seriously. John Barton was a young, glamorous don. In his first year McKellen was chosen from 100 would-be actors to play Justice Shallow in the Marlowe Society's Henry IV, Part Two. The society did not name its actors, and the play was reviewed by the News Chronicle under the headline "Here's a brilliant Justice — but who is he?" The reviewer wrote: "One would like to know the name of this actor because it might obviously become a name to remember."
Two years after leaving Cambridge, in 1963, McKellen's name was high in every critic's review of Tyrone Guthrie's Nottingham production of Coriolanus. His Aufidius was played as a sexual foil to John Neville's Coriolanus: "The two enemies circle about each other uttering threats like sensual caresses," wrote one critic. But his first great success came in 1969, once again in a play which explored alternative sexuality.
Prospect Theatre Company's double bill of Richard II and Marlowe's Edward II at the Edinburgh Festival was a triumph. Harold Hobson said of McKellen, “No player of a similar age has such lustre, such interior excitement, such spiritual grace ... it is a point of almost universal critical agreement." The only dissenter was Councillor John Kidd who, horrified at seeing two men kissing, asked the chief constable to have Edward II taken off.
It takes four-letter words to provoke Edinburgh councillors today. But McKellen, in early January, must have remembered the prejudice of Edinburgh '69, as he contemplated a Bill that seemed to give the likes of Councillor Kidd the legal means to prevent a local authority funding a production of Edward II. Already Devonshire County Council had withdrawn £10,000 from a theatre proposing to put on a production of The Normal Heart, an account of New York gays' early efforts to publicise the threat of Aids.
Announcing himself as "a trainee activist" McKellen joined the seasoned gay rights campaigners of the Stop Clause 28 lobby wholeheartedly, and with a humility they found disarming. "He was naive, but then unweighted down with dogma," says one lesbian activist. "He's very bright and very receptive; he has original, interesting ideas, and, of course, the address book." Another thing he provided was his finger for the telephone dial.
But by the last week of January he had proved himself the campaign's most able spokesman. On Sunday, 24 January, he walked on stage and on to television screens at the Laurence Olivier Awards. "The greatest surprise", says one of the invited audience, "was the roar of approval that greeted him when he mentioned Clause 28". The next day he shepherded a host of stars, and one baby, on stage at the Playhouse, before journalists and Lords bussed down the Embankment for the occasion. The radio and television blitz followed, and by the end of the week homosexuality and censorship were issues of national interest in a way unknown since the late Sixties.
To achieve this, McKellen played a very private card. One friend describes it: "Coming out is the essence of gay liberation, and Ian understands that. There are only two or three other working actors who have done it, because it is dangerous. But he knew it was time to stand up and be counted." Though he described himself as gay in a World Service programme on 19 January, the declaration was made to most of Britain on Radio 3's Third Ear, on 27 January.
The occasion was a spirited argument with Peregrine Worsthorne. It provoked a remark about "disgusting homosexual practices" from the editor of the Sunday Telegraph, and a query laden with innocence from McKellen: did Mr Worsthorne mean the Garrick when he spoke about gay clubs? The following Sunday's leader did the Stop Clause 28 campaign no harm at all.
McKellen is a CBE, and a favourite among his generation's potential thespian knights. These tools, and the authority which, alone in their profession, classical actors are allowed, enabled him to bring the campaign's message to ears no other lobbyists could have hoped to reach. The SDP peer Viscount Falkland, who helped to organise opposition to the clause in the Lords, says: "Ian was marvellous, because he is seen as a responsible public figure, who has done everything with great charm and energy, but with great moderation. It's largely because of his pressure that we've had a change in the clause." McKellen met the Local Government Minister, Michael Howard, and, it is said, impressed him. Baroness Cox, one of the main supporters of the Clause, had a long meeting with McKellen. He told one campaigner that she ended their conversation with a promise to be patron of any organisation to promote understanding of homosexuality that McKellen might care to set up. But, "he was almost in tears when he came back, saying 'I've let you down.' He really thought he could make a substantial, material change: stop the clause."
The activist McKellen is still acting. Last week he was in Yugoslavia, making a video with the pop group Pet Shop Boys. Next month he will begin touring Acting Shakespeare, again for charity. In September he begins work on a new Alan Ayckbourn play, Henceforward....
But McKellen, in his new colleagues' opinion, is not going to abandon his new career. Later this month he will spend a weekend training to be an Aids counsellor. The die-hard campaigners are impressed that, although a Government amendment has perhaps lifted the threat to the arts, McKellen seems set to continue the much harder fight against the existence of the clause. "I don't like saying he's a saint," says one, "but I can't think of any horrible things about him."