An evening with Sir Ian McKellen

Image credit: Chris Williamson / Getty Images

‘If sex comes your way, grab it’, was McKellen’s mantra for life as a Cambridge undergraduate.  He explains that, being a gay man, sex scenes in front of the lens proved far harder for him than sex in real life.  Having sought the help of a friend, he now considers himself ‘an expert in the missionary position, but that’s about it.’  Sex and sexuality was the main thrust (!) of McKellen’s speech, and he handled it with delightful eloquence.

‘It was expected, when I came out, that I would be a queer artist’, McKellen explained at the opening of his speech, but ‘gay doesn’t sum it all up’.  McKellen is keen that his sexuality doesn’t define his performances.  Wednesday night was certainly a performance, and McKellen danced mischievously around the Union chamber with the nimbleness and vitality of an undergraduate.

He discussed coming out at length, which he did aged 49 under Thatcher’s Section 28.  The law banned all positive discussion of homosexuality.  Gay artists declared him a phoney, and the law of the land anointed him an outcast.  Nowadays the laws don’t discriminate ‘on any fucking ground’.   McKellen seemed pleased about how far things have come since then, but frustrated by the regimentation of things more recently. 

Following a conversation with two students, he is against endless labelling.  ‘Let’s drop them all and just be what we are’ he says -  except ‘the one label that matters, your name’.  He remarked flippantly that gay rights are a ‘done deal, no more work to be done’.  It was hard to tell to what extent he buys into his own words.  Over the next five minutes he recounted an anecdote about a man who was killed in Trafalgar Square for his sexuality.  Jeered at by passers-by as a ‘faggot’ and a ‘bender’, the man heckled them back and was murdered in front of horrified tourists.

McKellen’s interviewer moved the conversation gently on, to his feelings about performing.  It was little surprise to anyone that McKellen lives for ‘the stage, the stage, THE THEATRE’.  He means this in the most old fashioned sense.  He wants to interact as a human.  He even objects to microphones – he points to the enraptured students in front of him - ‘not viewers, audio, audience’.  He was insistent that he spoke to us as his unadulterated self. 

McKellen rounded off his performance with a Shakespearean monologue.  He cast aside his microphone with glee in the direction of the photographers, whose cameras he had already banished.  He wants his audience to hear him as he is, performing from ‘all those intimate sex making places’.

‘Do you prefer playing a character like yourself?’ McKellen admitted it was not something he often considered.  The audience tittered, in which time McKellen had forgotten the question.  His interviewer started up again but McKellen interrupts as the question comes back to him – ‘No, no it’s a good question...what was it?’  Reminded for a third time, he declares that it is indeed ‘a very good question’. 

‘I acted to get away from myself’ he answered at last.  ‘They couldn’t like Ian because they didn’t know Ian.  A lot of professional actors are gay for that reason.’

‘Is there any character you’d [still] like to play?’, Asked another of McKellen’s fans from the front rows.  ‘No’ followed by a lengthy pause, and a second resounding ‘no’.  Since Gandalf, McKellen’s job offers have fallen within a very narrow radius.  He has played ‘nothing but old men’, something he is bizarrely surprised by.  He has also been asked to play God 3 times, he declared with a flourish of his broad frame. 

McKellen relayed the endless questions he receives from the young and old about playing Professor Dumbledore.  He comes prepared with answers.  ‘Don’t you wish you played Dumbledore?’ Said no-one in the chamber, thankfully.  But many do, to which McKellen snaps, ‘I played a real wizard’.

Of course, McKellen and Michael Gambon (Dumbledore) are hilariously asked for each others’ signatures all the time.  Gandalf gracefully replies, ‘I suppose you want Mike’ – Dumbledore just signs for Gandalf.

McKellen closed with some anecdotes and wit about being a gay student.  He somehow managed to crow-bar mention of his libido as a young man into most of his answers over the course of the night.  He also announced with a twirl and a grin that he had sex every night of his life until the age of 28.

He touches on some of the more arresting elements of Oxbridge tradition.  He remembers ‘having to wear his gown after dusk in the street’.  Disobedience cued big trouble with the older boys.  Of course, aside from the pomposity of it, McKellen admitted, pirouetting, that he still really rather liked his gown. 

Such was the loftiness of St Catherine’s at the time that McKellen recalls leaving the cabbage on his plate at a venison dinner, because this seemed proper.  ‘I’ve grown up, I’ve left my cabbage’ he announced with mock pride.   Growing up in post-war Bolton, this was the first time he had left any food on his plate.

The final question he was posed by an audience member was how to deal with a younger sibling who was too afraid to tell conservative parents that he’s gay.  Unbending and ready to offend, McKellen said ‘they should know better.’  Of course, the subsequent advice was welcomed with a delighted smile.   

Ian McKellen has the invaluable habit of bringing others up to his level of confidence and passion for life.  Unusually for such a distinguished speakers’ event, questions from the audience were not asked with shaky voice or trembling microphone, because Gandalf had made everyone in the chamber feel as comfortable as he is.  ‘I hope by the end of our session I will have looked every one of you in the eye’ he declared, and it felt as if he actually had.  

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