My school, Bolton School in Lancashire, was an independent grammar school. It was fee-paying, but I got a scholarship. Day school. All boys.
You could, at our school, go on school trips, climb mountains, go on geography courses, go to Stratford-upon-Avon, join the Scouts, be in the football team, the rugby team, the cricket team.
Anything that you were interested in was thought to be a good idea and supported. So, to play the lead in the school play was at least as good as being the captain of …perhaps the Second XI. Not the First.
You were encouraged to have a hobby that had merit in that you developed as a person. There was a school choir, there was a school orchestra. It might have been those that I went for; my brothers did. It was a very liberal, open school. If you had an enthusiasm and someone could help you at school, they would.
Most of the teachers in the English department were amateur actors, so I had something in common with them. Frank Green taught English. I don’t think he ever taught me English. In fact, I don’t think he ever taught me at all. But he was the man in charge of putting on the plays. He used to direct the Shakespeare each year in the Great Hall.
He was very particular about understanding and pronunciation and elocution. I don’t think he had great insights into how to discover the theatricality in the play.
I’d done lots of acting before my voice broke. When my voice broke, I was ready to play Prince Hal and Henry V, which Frank Green cast me as. I wasn’t discovered. It was just, “Well, there’s McKellen. He’ll turn up to rehearsals.”
I wouldn’t claim much for those productions, but they got put on. We learned all the lines. I used to love it.
When you’re growing up, the adults outside the family quite impress you. My parents went to the theatre a lot, but didn’t act. And then I met adults who went to the theatre and acted on stage themselves.
At school, there were a number of teachers whose hobby was the theatre. They had an impact because they acted Shakespeare themselves. So Shakespeare and the theatre were just part of what life was to me.
These were the people who used to take the school camp to Stratford; they were the people who directed little plays that we did in a miniature theatre that we had at school. They’re the teachers who I used to see away from school, acting for the local amateurs. I saw one of our teachers play Hamlet at the local amateur theatre.
I think, if I hadn’t become an actor, I’d have become one of them, really. Theatre would have still been a big part of my life, but as an amateur.
Sir Ian McKellen was speaking to Adi Bloom. He has launched a new app, Heuristic Shakespeare, which aims to make the Bard more accessible to modern audiences
Sir Ian McKellen
Born 25 May 1939, Burnley, Lancashire
Education Bolton School, Bolton; St Catharine’s College, University of Cambridge Career Renowned actor of stage and screen, most well known for his roles as Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit series of films and as the mutant villain Magneto in a number of movies based on the X-Men comic books