Sarah Crompton on Ian McKellen: 'He never stops looking forwards'

McKellen received the WhatsOnStage Award for Services to Theatre this past weekend

Ian McKellen in Hamlet
Ian McKellen in Hamlet
© Marc Brenner

There really couldn't be a better recipient of the WhatsOnStage award for services to theatre than Ian McKellen. Despite all his late – and he would admit surprising – worldwide fame as a movie star, thanks to his Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings and Magneto in X-Men, theatre is where his heart lies and where he has given some of his most indelible performances.

His love for the places where he fell in love with acting, learnt his craft and made his name was winningly on display in his wonderful one-man show Ian McKellen On Stage. Devised two years ago to celebrate his 80th birthday, it involved an 80 stage tour of the UK, through every theatre large and small with which he had personal connections, from childhood to professional actor.

In the course of the tour, which culminated in an 80-night run in the West End, he raised £5 million for those venues to spend on projects of their choice. Which was quite an achievement.

Ian McKellen on Stage With Tolkien, Shakespeare, Others and You
Ian McKellen on Stage With Tolkien, Shakespeare, Others and You
© Frederic Aranda

But even more of a triumph was the way that night after night, he went on stage with indefatigable ardour, sending a love letter to the stage and to his life as an actor. Sitting spellbound in the audience, I loved the way that people would sigh with happy recognition when he talked about fortnightly rep and playing Shaw, Shakespeare and Agatha Christie in quick succession, talking about the people he met en route.

It was also this love for repertory theatre – for working in a permanent company of actors – that made him return to Hamlet last year, working with his friend and one-time partner Sean Mathias on a production that brought together a group of actors at the Theatre Royal Windsor that then went on to perform The Cherry Orchard.

Ian McKellen in The Cherry Orchard
Ian McKellen in The Cherry Orchard
© Jack Merriman

At the time, I went to talk to him about that production and about that ideal. "As a training ground for young actors there is nothing to match it," he said, with such passion. "…If they want to learn how to act, the best way to do that is by acting."

I'm a lot younger than McKellen, but I grew up at the tail-end of that repertory system, and of the old idea that regions around Britain contained many theatres offering varied and variable fare for a young theatre-lover with stars in her eyes. My first encounters with live performance were in the regions: in Manchester, in Oxford, in Coventry (where McKellen himself started in rep).

I grew up with Agatha Christie in seaside resorts, where the smell of the sand outside seemed to blow through the open fire doors, and in ramshackle productions of Shaw and Tennessee Williams (sometimes truthfully enough to put you off theatre for ever) in amateur halls. The world he described and lionised was totally familiar to me.

But I also grew up watching the great actors of my day from the cheap seats – Peggy Ashcroft, Susan Fleetwood, Paul Schofield, McKellen himself, following them round venues like a football fan, increasing my knowledge of theatre by watching them at work. I'm still like that: booking a ticket to see a show always carries a keen sense of anticipation.

That's the other quality that McKellen has: an enthusiast's sense of excitement. After our formal hour-long interview was over, we sat around rifling through the extensive archive of photographs and cuttings he has built up over his career, talking about the past, about performers we had seen and loved, about the theatres in our native Lancashire that are no more and all the happy times we had there.

Then we talked about the future: all the plays I was off to see, the actors coming through, the young talent he hoped his valiant fund-raising would encourage. That's why McKellen is such a gift to theatre, and a guiding light for the future. He respects and values its past, but he never stops looking forward.