Ian McKellen

Garry O’Connor
Weidenfeld & Nicolson

Ian McKellen

At the age of 80, Sir Ian McKellen has become one of the stage and screen’s much-loved elder statesman.

Despite clearly expanded reluctance to be the subject of a biography, which was so strong that he returned an advance in excess of £1 million rather than writing an autobiography, his popularity is such that this lack of enthusiasm would inevitably be bypassed either with his connivance of otherwise.

It therefore follows that although they first met at Cambridge University almost 60 years ago, when Garry O’Connor indicated his desire to become the actor’s official biographer in 2006, he was politely rebuffed.

Instead, a decade on, he has penned a book of the kind that is more usually published posthumously based on casual meetings over the years but primarily interviews with those surrounding the great man and good, old-fashioned research.

As a result, readers might come to the conclusion that ultimately our understanding of the subject of this book could be akin to an observation made by O’Connor about one of its central figures, J R R Tolkien: “above all he is an enigma insofar as we never quite get to the heart of his mystery.”

Even so, O’Connor is keen to establish familiarity in a populist volume throughout which his subject is generally referred to as “Ian” despite the fact that many other figures are defined more formally.

Perversely lacking the subject’s imprimatur has enabled the author to find greater freedom when it comes to postulating and developing his own opinions, given he can do so without approval.

As a result, the book has a tendency to feel chatty aided by the author’s keenness to delve into controversy. In particular, much of the subject matter is related either directly or indirectly to Sir Ian’s homosexuality, hidden from the public until he was close to 50.

This sits best when evaluating two productions of Martin Sherman’s Bent and, later as the knight took on a crusading role.

Similarly, much is made of a middle-class Lancashire upbringing in a devout Christian family and rather less of the university connection, although this was clearly helpful in the early days when a “Cambridge Mafia” was so powerful in the theatrical industry.

The first half of the book concentrates on personal history and a burgeoning career on the stage from early days in rep through the creation with Edward Petherbridge of the nobly egalitarian Actors’ Company and then onwards and upwards to leading West End and occasionally Broadway roles.

The highlights tended to come in the greatest works of Shakespeare featuring legendary productions such as title roles under Sir Trevor Nunn in Macbeth and portraying Iago opposite Willard White in Othello as well as playing Richard III for Sir Richard Eyre.

Many readers will have purchased this volume to read about the subsequent screen superstardom, first in the X Men series and then Peter Jackson’s unbelievably popular Lord of the Rings and Hobbit. The latter in particular is covered in considerable detail.

Along the way, there are also in-depth comparisons between the careers of Sir Ian McKellen and his ennobled compatriots Lord Olivier, Sir Derek Jacobi and Sir Patrick Stewart.

The later stage career contains many high points, although some might feel that the biographer’s obsession with Sir Ian’s penis rather than his performance in King Lear is ill-judged.

Some may feel that this populist biography is overly opinionated, while the writing and editing might have benefited from closer attention. However, it will undoubtedly please Sir Ian McKellen’s legion of devoted fans, as it reprises his long life and the wide span of a highly successful career in a light but thorough fashion.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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