Sir Ian McKellen talks of his take on Sherlock Holmes
Benedict Cumberbatch, Robert Downey Jr, Basil Rathbone, Jeremy Brett – all have brought their own interpretation and breathed new life into Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous creation Sherlock Holmes.
Then of course there are all the others that you can’t remember who have attempted to play one of the best-known characters in the history of cinema. The credentials of the next occupant of 221b Baker Street could hardly be questioned. Step forward Sir Ian McKellen who stars in Mr Holmes which is released in cinemas next week. The big question is how will McKellen’s Holmes differ?
“The take of this film is that he wasn’t fiction, he was a real man, and he wasn’t really like the Sherlock Holmes that Dr Watson portrays in the short stories and novels,” explains the actor, who has just celebrated his 76th birthday.
“That was the intriguing part of it, that although Sherlock Holmes is a part many, many actors have successfully played and are still doing, this was, at least, not a script that any of them had done before. And part of the newness is Sherlock Holmes is very old.”
Indeed, the film is set in 1947 and McKellen’s Holmes is 93 years of age for much of it, with flashbacks to 30 years previously. He lives in relative anonymity in the Sussex countryside, with his housekeeper and her young son, Roger.
Irked with the misrepresentation of him in Watson’s novels, Holmes diverts his attention to an unsolved case, and is frustrated when his memory falters and he can’t remember key details relating to it.
“At my age, I’m inevitably interested in what it’s like to be an old man, surviving your friends, trying to make new ones and trying to understand a sometimes alien world,” says McKellen, who is stylishly dressed in a leather jacket and patterned scarf.
“It’s not a fantasy world that he lives in, but a very real world.”
Although the actor, who was born in Burnley and brought up in Wigan, empathises with his character, memory loss isn’t something that concerns him.
“I don’t worry on my own behalf about decline, because it’s not really happened yet,” he says, turning his spectacles over in his hands as he speaks.
“But I do with friends and people my age and a bit older. I see what happens, and mortality’s ever present, of course. It’s no fun seeing an elderly relative decline and change.”
Now in his seventh decade, McKellen’s commanding performances in the Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit movies are just as celebrated as his long stage career and rare but highly-praised comedic turns in Extras and - for a brief but brilliant spell - Coronation Street, as con artist Mel Hutchwright.
But growing up in the Forties, cinema visits were “occasional” and “there was no television” to watch, he recalls.
“I didn’t go to the ABC Minors [cinema clubs] all the other kids went to on a Saturday morning,” he says, smiling.
“I didn’t go and see films relentlessly, week in, week out, and collect a whole bank of memories of films that other people have now forgotten. I’m not one of those film buffs.”
However, after studying at Cambridge, McKellen, who also stars alongside Derek Jacobi and Frances de la Tour in ITV’s Vicious, a comedy about an older gay couple who work as actors, honed his craft at regional theatres. When I started out, you couldn’t act unless you were a member of the union, Equity,” says the X-Men star, who describes himself as a “slogger”.
“Before you could get your full card, you had to be a provisional [actor] and you had to do 44 weeks of work – not continuous work – but 44 weeks of work, before you appeared at the West End or in a film or on television.
“So for the first 44 weeks of your career, you were not doing television, you were learning how to act in front of an audience.”
Although the rules have changed, McKellen is no stick in the mud when it comes to commending the new generation, praising both his younger colleagues on Vicious and 12-year-old Mr Holmes co-star Milo Parker (who plays Roger) for their talents.
“Milo was full of the esprit of a young person,” he says. “He had no fear of the camera or of doing exactly what the director wanted.”
Praise is also reserved for the recent vote to approve same sex marriage in the Republic Of Ireland.
A tireless campaigner for gay rights, does he think using the referendum is a useful way of approaching the subject?
“To be a purist, I don’t think it’s appropriate that civil rights should be a matter for a referendum, it should be automatic,” he says, adding that, although it was a “very good result”, there were still an “awful lot of people” who were opposed.
But he hopes Northern Ireland will follow suit.
“I think there will be pressure, I hope, on Northern Ireland, part of the United Kingdom, to join the human race, grow up, be nice to each other like we are in England, Scotland, Wales and the Republic.
“It’s a bit unseemly that there’s a part of the United Kingdom that hasn’t got the point yet, and I think the Irish vote will clearly have influence on other countries, perhaps those which have a Catholic past. But you know, it’s odd; Spain was an early country to have same gender marriage and that’s a Catholic country.”
As one of the founding members of Stonewall, the charity which campaigns for greater equality for lesbian, gay and bisexual people, McKellen will be embarking on a nationwide school tour in the autumn to help tackle homophobic bullying.
Clearly, the pupils he meets could teach their elders a thing or two.
“I find the youth of today to be considerably more mature than their elders, because no one’s born prejudiced, that’s learned behaviour,” he explains.
“If a school decides to impose good behaviour and generosity towards each other, children are going to respond.”
And if anything, interacting with the younger generation leaves McKellen feeling good about the world.
“I went to a school the other day where 41 different languages were spoken. 41,” he says, pausing to let the number sink in. “There’s no discrimination in that school because the differences are on display and are heard.
“Once a person recognises that differences are to be treasured and variety is the spice of life, the differences between people are not frightening, and bullying a minority becomes utterly inappropriate,” McKellen adds.
“So yes, I am positive about the future.”
Mr Holmes is released in cinemas on Friday, June 19
Get clued up on Conan Doyle
Think you know all there is to know about Sherlock Holmes and Arthur Conan Doyle? Perhaps it’s time to think again . . .
1: Arthur Conan Doyle was born on May 22, 1859, at 11 Picardy Place, where a statue of Sherlock Holmes now stands. But he also lived in Liberton, Tower Bank House, Portobello, Sciennes Hill Place, Argyle Park Terrace, George Square and Lonsdale Terrace. Although tourists traipse to 221b Baker Street, Holmes’ fictional London lodgings, Conan Doyle said he never visited the street.
2: Conan Doyle’s childhood home in Liberton was under threat of demolition in 2001 to make way for a McDonald’s drive-thru. The 18th-century Liberton Bank House, where he lived for five years in the 1860s, was saved from the bulldozers by campaigners and is now used by Dunedin School for children with learning and behaviour problems.
3: Conan Doyle was a pupil at Newington Academy between the ages of seven and nine. His mother then decided to send him away to a Jesuit boarding school in Lancashire to shield him from his father’s alcoholism. He attended nearby Stoneyhurst College, which he disliked, despite developing a passion for sports. His school reports described him as “sulky”, “slovenly” and “snappish” and refer to his “buffoonery” and refusal to cooperate with teachers. Holmes’ nemesis, Professor Moriarty, is thought to be named after the Moriarty brothers, two pupils who excelled at mathematics at the college.
4: The inspiration for Holmes almost certainly came from Dr Joseph Bell, former President of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, and tutor to Conan Doyle. The Royal College still has in its possession a photograph of Bell standing in a deerstalker and cape, very much in the fashion of Sidney Paget’s early illustrations of Holmes in the Strand magazine that became the most enduring image of the detective in years to come.
5: Conan Doyle took a variety of jobs while studying medicine to support his family. One of the more unusual ones was serving as a ship’s physician on the Peterhead whaling ship the SS Hope in 1880. He set off on a seven-month voyage to the Arctic. His salary was £2 a month, plus a whale oil bonus of three shillings (15p) per tonne, which was paid to all members of the voyage. After graduating the following year, he worked as a ship’s surgeon on a cargo and passenger ship bound for west Africa.
6: Conan Doyle stood for election to Parliament as a Liberal Unionist candidate for Central Edinburgh in 1900. He lost by a small margin after his opponent’s supporters tried to discredit him for being a Roman Catholic. They attempted to brand him as a “Papist conspirator” in a smear campaign, prompting him to write a letter to The Scotsman. He stood again as a candidate in Hawick, Galashiels and Selkirk in 1906, but was also unsuccessful.
7: Although he mainly set his work in London, Conan Doyle often used the names of people and places in Edinburgh in his writing. Lauriston Place, the site of the former Royal Infirmary, was the inspiration for Lauriston Garden in his first Holmes book, A Study in Scarlet.
8: Conan Doyle played a pioneering role in the development of downhill skiing in Switzerland. He took part in one of the first ski tours in the Alps in 1894, with the local Branger brothers, while he was living in the area as his wife took a cure for tuberculosis. Their much publicised trip led to skiing’s popularity as a sport. The residents of the small Swiss town of Davos later erected a commemorative plaque to Doyle next to their sports arena.
9: Despite his scientific background, Conan Doyle, became enthralled by spiritualism, which claimed contact could be made with those who had died. After the mass deaths of the First World War and the Spanish flu outbreak of 1919, spiritualism’s appeal grew, and he travelled the globe lecturing about it.
10: Research into Conan Doyle’s later life has suggested that the author may have suffered from a form of schizophrenia. It has been claimed that Conan Doyle inherited the mental condition from his father, Charles, and that he displayed classic signs of mental illness in his later
11: There are more than 400 Sherlock Holmes appreciation societies scattered around the world, including 28 in Japan, but until relatively recently not a single one in author Arthur Conan Doyle’s home city or country.
12: Wood from a tree in the garden of Conan Doyle’s childhood home at Liberton Bank House was used to make a violin in tribute to fiddle-playing Holmes.