Sir Ian McKellen

On the Edwardian gentleman with a posh accent in Bolton who set him on the path to meet Gandalf, King Lear and the X-Men

From the age of 12, I was at Bolton School, which was direct grant then.

The headmaster was Fred Poskitt. He'd come to the school in his 30s but by the time I knew him was in his 50s or 60s. He had established an enlightened, liberal, public- school ethic, although it was really a grammar school.

We had magnificent buildings near the centre of Bolton. There was a boys'

school and a girls' school and ne'er the twain did mix.

Fred Poskitt assumed that if anyone had any talent whatsoever, it was the school's job to encourage it.

That applied to academic talent, of course, and sport, but other things as well, such as scouting and travel. The school took us on camps all over the world. And we were under canvas, roughing it. The most influential ones I enjoyed were the Stratford camps: I went four years running and each time saw all the plays over the course of a week.

That attitude - bringing out the best in the boys - affected every other teacher. They were always involved in extra-curricular activities and working out of school hours, giving their time generously. We had a miniature theatre, which seated about 50, and the masters helped us, directing and sometimes writing plays, too.

It wasn't the sort of school where one teacher made a particular difference, although the general attitude was, I suppose, the result of Fred Poskitt's leadership. All the teachers were informal and friendly to the boys. Fred was an Edwardian gentleman with a posh accent. Everyone in Bolton had a northern accent, but he didn't. He was garrulous, he loved argument and would often leave us behind in discussion.

It is unlikely I would have got into Cambridge without his encouragement as he got St Catharine's to accept me on a scholarship and I read English there. And without Cambridge, I probably wouldn't have become a professional actor because it was then that I really took up acting.

I remember once, after the school play - I'd played Henry V - Fred Poskitt saying to me: "Don't get any ideas you're anything special. John Gielgud was much better at your age."

I think he was just trying to put me off acting as people feel they ought to. It didn't work though; I went straight into it after Cambridge Sir Ian McKellen was knighted in 1991. He has won more than 40 major awards for performances on stage and screen and has returned to the Royal Shakespeare Company after 15 years for Trevor Nunn's production of King Lear at The Courtyard Theatre, in Stratford until June 21. Meanwhile he has played Widow Twanky, visited Coronation Street and filmed The Da Vinci Code, Gods and Monsters, Richard III -Jand two trilogies - X-Men and The Lord of the Rings. His reading of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Coleridge has just been released on CD. He was talking to Heather Neill

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