Ian McKellen

Ian McKellen

June 2010
Two's Company

Sir Ian McKellen - one of the UK's most talented and best-loved actors - as well as one of the staunchest advocates of gay equality - returns to our TV screens this month playing the role of Number Two in ITV's new production of The Prisoner. David Hudson shared an exclusive chat with him about his life and career.

With a career dating back 50 years, Sir Ian McKellen is now one of the most famous actors on the planet - thanks largely to recent roles in such blockbusters as X-Men, Lord Of The Rings and The Da Vinci Code. However, long before those films, he was celebrated as one of the UK's most accomplished thespians, with a diverse and varied portfolio that spans all genres. Who else can happily move between the red carpet of the Oscars (nominated for his portrayal of Gandalf) to the cobbled streets of Weatherfield (he played a small role in Coronation Street in 2005), via a stint as a pantomime dame at the Old Vic? The 61-year-old has recently picked up plaudits for his portrayal of King Lear with the Royal Shakespeare Company and in the West End run of Waiting For Godot, while outside of his acting work, he remains one of our most passionate and persuasive advocate of gay rights.
The introduction of Section 28 in the late 80s - the infamous Government legislation that banned local authorities from 'promoting' homosexuality - prompted him to speak openly about his own sexuality, and he helped to launch the gay rights charity Stonewall - with whom he continues to work closely.
This month, he returns to our TV screens in the role of Number Two in ITV's new production of The Prisoner. Based on the cult 1960s series starring Patrick McGoohan, this new six-part reinvention of the series tells the story of a man (Jim Caviezel) who finds himself trapped in a mysterious and surreal place known as The Village, with no memory of how he arrived there. The Village is controlled by the mysterious Number Two (McKellen), who holds the knowledge as to why the Village exists and for what purpose.

Did you watch the original series of The Prisoner when it first aired, and what can you remember thinking of it at the time?
I didn't watch it regularly. In those days, if you missed it when it was transmitted you had to wait until it was repeated. I was working in the theatre throughout that period and missed an awful lot of classic television, so I only caught up with The Prisoner by chance. Although I don't remember watching more than a couple of episodes, I had an impression of it. I thought it was very stylish and witty and nicely disturbing, and it was rather unusual because it appeared to be shot on location. Television was much more primitive in those days, and we weren't used to cameras going outside the studios, but there it was, and the match between the studio sets and Portmeirion [the Welsh village where the original series was shot] were very convincing. It all added up to something that was quite riveting. There was a lot of mood to it, but you couldn't work out what was going on. Now that I've watched more, in preparation for doing our version of The Prisoner, I think it really gave a sense of what it was like to live under some sort of dictatorship, rather than a conventional thriller with an actual conclusion. I think that's probably the main difference between the new version and the old version.
Some people would say that The Prisoner was very much of its time - did you have any hesitation in signing up for the remake?
No I didn't. The new version is quite different from the old and very much stands by itself, and I was immediately riveted. I thought they were some of the best scripts that I'd ever read for television, so I wasn't cowed by the thought of challenging the original or anything like that. The two programmes are independent of one another really, and it's a fabulous part. Unlike the original, where Number Two was played by a series of actors, here it's the same actor each week. I had the marvellous chance of developing the character through all six episodes and he has dominance in the story. You do, by episode six, discover exactly what and where the village is, how it came about, and the motives of the people involved, so Number Two has an increasing fascination for the viewer who's following it.
How did you find filming in Namibia?
It's just north of South Africa on the West Coast of Africa, and we were working in an old colonial seaside holiday town that the Germans had built when they'd occupied that part of Africa. Architecturally, it was an odd mix of German and African, and I think that appealed to the designer and he wanted this odd look. I'm sure it's a pleasant place to live but I'm glad that I don't have to live there permanently. There's not much to do - people just go there to relax, play sports, eat well and sleep. Perfectly alright for us as there were no distractions. Namibia has amazing scenery, and it was a thrill to see that.
You seem to be working constantly - what drives you to keep working so hard?
Well I don't. I rarely work more than six months in the year, so that's an illusion. You do jobs and then they turn up a little bit later, and if you're working in the theatre, as I am now, and then other jobs appear, it gives the impression that I am working very hard, but... sometimes I do, and when I played King Lear for the Royal Shakespeare Company, that was a year's solid work, but immediately afterwards I took nine months off and didn't work at all. So, I think I've got a good balance between working and not working. I've never worked just for the sake of it, and that's true today. Perhaps I've become stricter and I don't do jobs unless I feel really compelled to do them, and in that sense, I suppose I'm getting more choosey.
Do you still have any specific acting ambitions or big roles that you'd want to tackle?
I never have had, really. I know some people do, but not many. I'd rather work my way through the Shakespeare plays, and there are a few plays that I haven't played, and now probably won't because they're younger parts, but no, I don't have any big ambitions. Romantically, I'd like to be in a musical in the West End or on Broadway, but it would be quite inappropriate because I can't sing!
Besides acting you do a lot of work for Stonewall in schools. Does it dismay you that while we now have equality in the law, the situation in schools is as bad, or worse, than before?
That's not my perception. On the contrary, there was a law, Section 28, which was designed to stop schools talking about homosexuality in a positive way. When that was repealed, about five years ago, schools suddenly had to adjust to the new responsibility that they had in a world in which gay people were taking out civil partnerships, adopting children, preparing to send them to schools, etc, and they had to decide what they were going to do because the world has changed. The schools I've visited through Stonewall have all been very positive about this, which is why I've gone to visit them, so I haven't seen a cross-section, but these are secondary schools up and down the country, and they've all been extremely responsible. And the initiative to deal with bullying and the subject of homosexuality and its place in society - past and present - that's taken very seriously indeed. And a lot of initiatives come from the children themselves. They're surrounded by positive images of homosexuality and, as a result of that, a lot of kids are coming out to their parents and accepting that they're gay and talking about it. And they expect, of course, when they go to school, not to be discriminated against, and in good schools, they're absolutely not. That's been my experience, but of course, there will be plenty of schools where that isn't the case, and plenty of schools that have to learn, which is why I'm supporting Stonewall in helping schools understand their responsibilities.
In the run up to the General Election, we've heard much from the Conservative Party about how they've changed and are now gay-friendly. As someone who was so vocal in their opposition to Section 28 at the time it was introduced, how do you feel about this change of heart?
The Conservatives - like in other parties - individuals within the party are always going to have different attitudes. The Tories, I think, are trying to catch up and erase memories of their quite appalling past legislation. It isn't always as easy as that. You have to be prepared to take the initiative and do something positive. It's not enough to say that the world has changed and it's all over and we're sorry that we didn't understand that at the time. I'm very impressed with the way that the current government, over the years, has deepened its intention in regard to gay people - in terms of legislation and in trying to change social attitudes. If the Tories are going to pick up those attitudes then very good, but the test will be when they're in government. The worry of many of us is that the changes that have been made have to be followed up positively. You can't just say, "It's all alright now." It's not. There's still a lot of opposition to the acceptance of homosexuals in society - from religious bodies in particular - and they have to be countered strongly from a government that insists that the law is obeyed. I'm thinking specifically of adoption agencies, and what children are taught in schools, and so on. More has to be done, but of course, that can't be tested until they're actually running the show.
Rupert Everett recently said that he would advise young actors not to come out as it would damage their career. What do you say to that?
No, I don't think he said that. He said that they had to think long and hard about it, and he also said that he didn't regret for a moment having come out himself, which is indeed what all gay people say because your life only changes for the better. There are employment problems, and particularly for someone trying to have a career centred in Hollywood, where social attitudes are always a little bit behind the rest of the world, but no, it would be irresponsible to advise a young actor to lie about their sexuality and be in the closet in London in 2010. This is a wonderful place for gay people to live and a wonderful place for actors to live.
Rupert also said "I liked being a poof when it was illegal, frankly; it gave me a sense of being outside." There do seem to be a small minority of older gay men who harp on about it being better 'in the old days'. What do you say to that?
Rupert said that? Well, Rupert writes books and wants to sell them, so perhaps he says things that are deliberately challenging. I didn't find anything exciting about having to lie, or lead a secret life, and I never did. I always lived quite openly with my partners and went everywhere with them and if people didn't accept us then we didn't accept them. Having to knock three times on the door to get into a club, or having to lie on an immigration form, it was extremely distasteful and absolutely horrible and it does permanent damage to people. It's absolutely ghastly. There are places in the world where it's not only illegal to be gay but there is legislation being passed in parts of Africa that would have some people put to death for being gay...
... so if anyone harks after those days, there are still plenty of places in the world where they could choose to live?
Well, yes, good point!

The Prisoner is now showing on ITV, and the DVD and Blu-Ray of the series will be out 3 May 2010 courtesy of ITV STUDIOS Home Entertainment.

An abridged version of this interview was published in Out In The City,
May 2010 David Hudson

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