On my radar: Ian McKellen’s cultural highlights

The actor on the radical joy of the Proms, a fun gay club night and the theatre he treasures most of all

The actor Ian McKellen was born in Burnley, Lancashire in 1939. Since the 1970s he has performed regularly with the Royal Shakespeare Company and at the National Theatre. He has received seven Laurence Olivier awards, a Tony, a Golden Globe and a Screen Actors Guild award. His screen credits include Richard III, Gods and Monsters, The Lord of the Rings and the X-Men franchise. In 2019 he celebrated his 80th birthday with an 80-date tour of his one-man show Ian McKellen on Stage. This summer he will play Hamlet at the Edinburgh fringe with the Edinburgh Festival Ballet Company, 2-28 August, at Ashton Hall, Saint Stephen’s.

1. Drama

Passion Play, Oberammergau, Germany

A rehearsal for the 42nd Passion Play in Oberammergau, Germany, May 2022, delayed for two years by Covid. AP Photo/Matthias Schrader
‘Overwhelming’: the 42nd Passion Play in Oberammergau, Germany, May 2022, delayed two years by Covid. AP Photo/Matthias Schräder Photograph: Matthias Schräder/AP

When the plague hit Europe but all but bypassed this Bavarian village in the late 17th century, its residents decided to give thanks, not with prayers nor by building a new church, but by putting on a play! Folks after my own heart. They’ve been doing it every decade since. I first heard of them when my grandad brought back large sepia photographs from the 1930 production – also attended by Adolf Hitler, who approved of the anti-Jewish attitude of the script. Of late, this has been cleaned up.

To sit with 5,000 other pilgrims in May this year, in the theatre designed by Eiffel (of the Tower), was overwhelming. There was a 50-piece orchestra, as many in the choir, and 800 actors – amateur theatre-lovers all born or bred in the village. When they shout their hosannas, your heart shakes with your body. You’ve got till October for this most unique of theatre experiences – or you can wait until 2030.

2. Classical

The BBC Proms

the BBC Proms.
‘Levelling-up par excellence’: the BBC Proms. Amy T Zielinski/Redferns/Getty Images Photograph: Amy T Zielinski/Redferns/Getty Images

The Proms are one of the nation’s cultural glories, and not just for the music. The Albert Hall may not have the best of acoustics, particularly for soloists, but with the seating removed from the ground floor, something radical occurs. The audience leaning on the front rail have the cheapest (£6) and the best of places. The nobs way back in the comfy boxes pay most (about £100), see less clearly and miss the subtle notes. Levelling-up par excellence. I always go for the seats on the side but near the front. This year I’m away for most of the season but it doesn’t matter too much. Each concert is broadcast. Bless the BBC. When I’m back, I have secured tickets for András Schiff’s performance of three Beethoven sonatas [4 September] and can’t wait.

3. Book

Stirring Up Sheffield: An Insider’s Account of the Battle to Build the Crucible Theatre by Colin George and Tedd George

Colin George looks on as Sheffield’s Crucible theatre takes shape, July 1971.
Colin George looks on as Sheffield’s Crucible theatre takes shape, July 1971. Photograph: Crucible Theatre

With Edward Petherbridge I was the first actor on the stage of the Crucible when it opened in 1971. The story of how the theatre got built is inspiring, as told by the late Colin George, its first director, with the help of his son, Tedd. Open stages were not quite the thing 50 years ago. The Crucible was inspired by Tyrone Guthrie’s passion for bringing audience and actor intimately together. He’d experimented at the first Edinburgh festival (1951) in the assembly hall of the Church of Scotland, by placing the audience on three sides of an open stage. This format was the basis for the Festival theatre he built in Stratford, Ontario, and then developed by him and his designer Tanya Moiseiwitsch for his own theatre in Minneapolis. The completion of their work was the Crucible. Stirring Up Sheffield plots the intrigues, arguments and betrayals that Colin had to surmount to eventually create Britain’s finest theatre, some – including me – would say. You may only know of it because of the World Snooker Championships. I treasure the Crucible as an example of how regional theatre can surpass national institutions. This book tells it all. Against hefty opposition it won this year’s Theatre Book prize.

4. Gig

Years & Years

Years & Years at BIC, Bournemouth. Mark Holloway/Redferns
‘A classic pop performer’: Years & Years at BIC, Bournemouth. Mark Holloway/Redferns Photograph: Mark Holloway/Redferns

I don’t get to many music concerts, so it was an unusual thrill to be invited to this one, on tour through Bournemouth in the spring. Previously, I’d only seen Olly Alexander acting up a storm in Russell T Davies’s It’s a Sin. On stage, clad in daring, shiny gear reflecting the spotlights into the eyes of his adoring fans, he is a classic pop performer. He sashays from the wings, seems to spot a favourite in the audience, grins a seductive smile, an invitation to us all to be entranced for the next hour and a half. It worked for me. Afterwards, I got backstage and was allowed to inspect the tour bus where the star and his crew sleep – goodness knows how – in narrow single booths as they trundle through the night to the next date. Before he travels abroad you can catch him at the Wilderness festival in Charlbury, Oxfordshire (4-7 August).

5. Club

Buttmitzvah, Troxy, London

‘Innocent fun’: Buttmitzvah at Troxy. From Facebook Photograph: buttmitzvah gay club night from Facebook/Buttmitzvah gay club night from Facebook

Traditional gay nightclubs can be daunting, with or without placatory alcohol and drugs. Bold displays of undress and the pounding beat of relentless music can be challenging, even aggressive. But these days there is the gentler sort of late-night fun for gay folks and their straight friends: witness Buttmitzvah. I first attended last year, guest at a faux rite of passage for the child of the “Rimmer family”, who greeted me at the door with half a bagel and a broad smile. “Good to see you again – you remember Hymie?” Then we danced together to Jewish music and watched the showgirls and boys on stage. Then there were speeches full of Jewish jokes, most of which I understood. All was innocent fun and clearly a good time was had by all. Buttmitzvah has travelled to New York but this year was back home at the Troxy, an old cinema, which is my local entertainment venue in east London. Same formula, same fun. Look out for the Rimmers. They know how to give a gay boy a good time.

6. Transport

Thames Clippers

the Thames Clippers service (now Uber Boat). David Taylor/Rex/Shutterstock
‘Always on time’: Thames Clippers’ Uber Boat. David Taylor/Rex/Shutterstock Photograph: David Taylor/REX/Shutterstock

Since the Thames Clippers service [now Uber Boat] set sail in 1999, I’ve watched their stately catamarans motor past my back-door windows in east London. I was one of their very first passengers and now am a regular. The most reliable way to cope with traffic and weather is to sail into town, always on time. Computers agree. Of late, tourists have discovered the unique joy of admiring London’s cityscape from water level. Although I always have something to read when I’m on the tube or a bus, onboard a Clipper I never open it, enthralled by iconic landmarks, spied through the (sometimes rain-stained) windows. From Barking to Battersea the Clippers clip, as passengers get a drink and a snack or take a pee. Whatever the reason for my journey, it always makes me feel I’m on holiday.


Ian McKellen

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
On my radar: John Simm's cultural highlights

The actor on listening to Lloyd Cole, watching Man of Steel and reading Stoner by John Williams

Ben Marshall

13, Jul, 2013 @11:01 PM

Article image
On my radar: Paul Nurse’s cultural highlights
The geneticist on the joys of Alexander Calder and Nordic noir, plus virtuoso performances from Simon McBurney and András Schiff

Interview by Kit Buchan

10, Jul, 2016 @9:00 AM

Article image
On my radar: Alex Kapranos’s cultural highlights
The Franz Ferdinand frontman on the films on Yorgos Lanthimos, the electropop of the future and how he connects with home when on tour

Interview by Kathryn Bromwich

11, Feb, 2018 @10:00 AM

Article image
On my radar: Laurent Garnier’s cultural highlights
The French DJ on the TV series Staged, a post-apocalyptic dance show and group therapy for convicts in California

Kathryn Bromwich

03, Jul, 2021 @2:00 PM

Article image
On my radar: Gareth Pugh’s cultural highlights
The fashion designer on ballroom nights, a spin on the pottery wheel and soaking up Baz Luhrmann’s cinematic vision

Alice Fisher

30, Jul, 2022 @2:00 PM

Article image
On my radar: Gilles Peterson’s cultural highlights
The DJ on his enthusiasm for Charlie Kaufman’s films, jazz masters, Arsenal and a magazine aimed at grownups

Kathryn Bromwich

01, May, 2016 @9:00 AM

Article image
On my radar: Michael Morpurgo's cultural highlights
The War Horse author on The Salisbury Poisonings, the pick of the Proms and why he longs to move to Leith…

03, Oct, 2020 @2:00 PM

Article image
On my radar: Parminder Nagra’s cultural highlights
The actor on filming Fortitude, Culture Club comebacks and haute cuisine in Iceland

Killian Fox

08, Jan, 2017 @10:00 AM

Article image
On my radar: Jarvis Cocker’s cultural highlights
The musician and broadcaster on the original Batman, the music of Cat’s Eyes, the importance of the BBC and the beautiful game

Jarvis Cocker

29, May, 2016 @9:00 AM

Article image
On my radar: Elizabeth Alker’s cultural highlights
The Radio 3 broadcaster on a composer’s inspired garden, oil paintings of motorway bridges and a magical local pub

Killian Fox

14, Jan, 2023 @3:00 PM