To join, albeit fleetingly, the cast of the UK’s longest running soap had been McKellen’s last great ambition. He said so himself. And it followed two seasons – at the Old Vic, no less – of Aladdin, in which he played Widow Twankey. Another box ticked.
These, then, were the impish desires of a man accepting of his place as a national treasure and realising that, at 65, he could ask for – and get – anything he wanted.
In the years since, Burnley-born McKellen’s status has expanded to match that of contemporaries such as Judi Dench. And just as the venerable Dame Judi flitted between outings as 007’s boss and guest spots in Clint Eastwood movies, so McKellen slipped comfortably from franchise flicks – X-Men, The Hobbit – to sell-out Broadway productions of Waiting for Godot with his old mate Patrick Stewart.
In a 50-plus year stage career he’s played all the greats from Hamlet to Lear. In the cinema he strove to be a movie star after years of quietly envying peers like Albert Finney. Surely there were no more worlds to conquer?
Then came rumblings from the set of The Hobbit. McKellen was heard bemoaning the visual effects tool known as “green screen”, which allowed him to interact with other characters without ever meeting them. Acting, he said, was about spontaneity and looking the other actor in the eye.
“The first day, I shamed myself by grumbling to myself that this sort of filming wasn’t why I’d become an actor. And I’d forgotten I was wearing a microphone,” he confessed in 2012.
It was a rare faux pas from a professional who rarely bleats about his lot. But it identified a sense of heightened isolation in new moviemaking and perhaps goes some way to explaining McKellen’s decision to play Sherlock Holmes.
The superannuated sleuth at the heart of Bill Condon’s intimate, intricate and playful little film – based on the 2005 novel A Slight Trick of the Mind by Mitch Cullin – is man struggling with who he was and, most importantly, who he has become. Unhappy with the fictional portrait painted by Dr Watson and haunted by an unsolved case that prompted his retirement, the nonagenarian Holmes rages against the dying of the light and his once ferocious faculties. His companions – Watson is dead – are his housekeeper and her son, a bright lad who becomes a protégé for a man looking back beyond his beehives to his younger days.
“I never had any ambition to play Sherlock Holmes,” says the actor who recalls listening in the early 1950s to radio broadcasts of the stories starring John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson and Orson Welles. “If I ever thought about it I thought ‘Well, I’m too old.’ Then this part of a 93-year-old Sherlock comes along.”
And therein lies the trick behind McKellen’s take on this most iconic of characters. Cullin’s book raised the hackles of some purists who claimed it denigrated Holmes by chipping away at his primary weapon, his intellect. McKellen’s not having any of that.
“This is a different aspect of him. I think he comes out of this story rather well. It is another play on the familiar character and I like the way it would be possible to just sit through the film and believe that Conan Doyle had written it. I’ve not had any complaints about trampling over Sherlock Holmes.”
He makes the point that so many actors – “hundreds, hundreds!” – have played the great detective on film. Sherlock Holmes, observes McKellen somewhat bluntly, was not invented by Jeremy Brett, Benedict Cumberbatch or Robert Downey Jr.
“Good luck to us all, I say. Derek Jacobi will be playing Sherlock Holmes next, you watch!” he quips, adding, “It’s not as difficult or remarkable or puzzling to play a character that so many other people have played as you might think. I mean, I’ve played Hamlet. If you started thinking about all the people that have played Hamlet you’d never step onto the stage.
“But you do because you know that so many people have played Hamlet and had a success in this wonderful part that you don’t deny yourself the possibility of discovering Hamlet inside yourself or discovering something that nobody else has noted. That’s true as well.
“Then there’s Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet and Coriolanus and the ugly sisters in King Lear. And here we are with Sherlock Holmes, another famous part that many people have played. The difference with this as compared with Hamlet is that my Holmes is a script that nobody else has done. Of course it’s inspired by Conan Doyle but this character’s imagination is mine.”
Mr. Holmes, as the film version is known, reunites McKellen with Condon, the writer/director who steered him to an Academy Award nomination in 1999 as Best Actor for playing James Whale in Gods and Monsters.
Whale was the openly gay Midlands-born film director who, as the man behind Frankenstein, The Invisible Man and Showboat became the highest paid Hollywood filmmaker of his time. The film is a fictionalised version of the last few weeks of his life. Mr. Holmes boasts the same pedigree. And McKellen’s meticulous approach could well garner him another crack at the big prize.
“I have to say this was a peach of a part for any actor,” observes McKellen. “I’m very, very lucky that I knew Bill Condon of old and he thought of me before any of the other actors who were tearing what’s left of their hair out.”
The age of the character meant McKellen had no need to immerse himself in the canon as created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. McKellen sounds relieved.
“If somebody has taken the trouble to write a script, any suggestions I have about any omissions from the source material – whatever that might be – are too late. They thought about all that.
“My ideas are likely to just be irrelevant, boring [and] unnecessary, which does relieve you of having to read, if you’re playing Hitler as I have done, enormous biographies on the man or monster. Of course you will want the script to be good and this one was.”
The prospect of another Oscar nomination is not raised though the notion of awards is.
McKellen talks of having just returned from a trip to Wigan, the place in which he spent the first dozen years of his life. He was honoured with a star in the ‘I Believe in Wigan’ Square for those who have done themselves or Wigan proud.
“I got a bit weepy actually because it was over cobblestones that I’d walked as a kid every Saturday, going to the fair or to watch the people selling their stuff in the market. First actors I saw up close, really.” His mouth crinkles into a wistful smile at the thought.
What does Sherlock Holmes mean to this grand old man of the theatre, an actor beloved for being the quintessential Gandalf, a snazzy septuagenarian in Panama hat, safari jacket, jeans and sneakers? McKellen pauses for what seems an age before answering.
“Well I’ve just turned 76 and he’s 93 so I think ‘Ooh, mortality!’” He laughs. “I think, ‘Don’t give up. Even right to the end there’s more that you can say about yourself in the world. That would be a good motto for an old person to have. The old people that I know who are keeping at it really are enjoying their lives – even with all the aches and pains.
“There’s a plot [to Mr. Holmes] but there are themes, really, and one of them is very touching: someone we think we know well, Sherlock Holmes, and someone perhaps we wouldn’t have liked to spend much time with [because] he’s not a very sociable person turns out to have a beating heart that he’s trying to catch up with and has spent 30 years running away from.
“Clearly he’s at the end of his life and wanting to complete the emotional side of his life, which has been neglected. He’s a much nicer person at the end than he was at the beginning. And so there’s hope for us all, I suppose.”
• Mr. Holmes is on nationwide release.