Ian McKellen: From Gandalf to goose

“When you’ve played the Widow Twanky, can Mother Goose be far behind?” The Lord of the Rings star talks his next role as Mother Goose, preternatural occurrences in Ireland, making it up as he goes along, and men wearing frocks

Ian McKellen is over near the corner shamelessly rummaging in a child’s purple goodie bag. Man on a mission. A lollipop. No, no. “They shouldn’t give things like that to children”, he mutters. “Ah, that’ll do.” He’s found a mini-egg wrapped in gold foil. He had ushered me to sit with him in front of a giant window and chat. He enjoys the chocolate egg, mightily and slowly.

There is a bit of divilment in this man.

Lest there be any confusion, Ian McKellen – aged 83, one of the world’s most famous and outstanding actors, acclaimed from Shakespeare to Lord of the Rings – wasn’t stealing a child’s chocolate egg. He was seeking a titbit in the leftover goodiebags from the press conference just finished.

The event was announcing Mother Goose, a glossy, starry panto with him in the title role, written by Coronation Street writer Jonathan Harvey and directed by Belfast-born Cal McCrystal. It runs in London’s West End over Christmas and is coming to Dublin’s Bord Gáis Energy Theatre in March. Before the launch event on buzzy Leicester Square, there was a slightly surreal reveal when McKellen (handsome, raffish, craggy, in an off-white casual suit and dashing blue scarf) and comedian John Bishop (Ms Goose’s stage husband) stepped out of a giant egg to the flash of waiting bulbs.


What’s this? Gandalf in a panto? “When you’ve played the Widow Twanky,” as he did a few years ago, “can Mother Goose be far behind?” observes McKellen, who is hugely enthusiastic about the role of pantomime in his life and in theatre generally.

At the press conference the questions are from children, and McKellen, Bishop and Mel Giedroyc (originally Cilla The Goose before she stepped down for personal reasons) gracefully have the crack.

I had the odd feeling when I first went to Ireland. I was in Kinsale. I felt at home. Funny feeling. Not that I’d been here before

The youngsters extract amusing and sometimes illuminating answers. “I don’t get frightened onstage,” McKellen replies. “I get frightened when I’m not on stage. I’m a bit frightened now. Because in real life you never know what’s going to happen next, do you? Whereas when you’re in a play or a pantomime, it’s all sorted out. You’ve rehearsed it, you know what’s going to happen next. And even if something goes wrong and someone makes a mistake, it’s all right, you’re all in it together.” To another, he spoofs “there must have been times when I got the lines a little bit mixed up, perhaps because I wasn’t concentrating properly. Perhaps because I hadn’t learned them in the first place! But on the whole you can sort of get round it. Like I’m doing now, making it up as you go along. You just keep talking and as long as you keep talking people think you mean it.”

With the children gone, McKellen and I sit several storeys up, looking out over London’s impressive expanse. “That’s the back of the National Gallery. There’s Nelson’s Column,” he points at it, reaching towards sky. “That’s very impressive.” There was one of those in Dublin once, I muse, but it was toppled. “Oh I know, quite right too,” he says.

In an unlikely twist the urbane and thoughtful actor, a gay-rights activist, comes from Ballymena-preacher stock. His father Denis Murray McKellen was a lay preacher and both grandfathers were preachers. His great-great-grandfather was a preacher in Ian Paisley country. “James McKellen left Ballymena in the 1840s. He’d been a Protestant missionary of sorts and he’d been down to Dublin trying to convert them!” (We laugh.) “No, it didn’t go down well. So he got out of Dublin and decided to come over to England. First stop Liverpool. And then he went into the hinterland to near Manchester, where he turned into a bit of a good egg and saved people’s souls by getting them off the drink and getting them back into work. He started a city mission in Manchester. But the connection with Ireland rather peters out after that. I’ve worked out the family tree back to James McKellen. It’s difficult to go beyond him because it’s pre-census, and you have to around to the churches and I couldn’t find a churchyard in Ballymena. I looked and looked and looked.” (I wonder first if he’s kidding but say nothing.) “There was McKellin, a local shoe-shop.”

Earlier, talking to the children, he recalled his first time in a theatre, aged three, a Peter Pan panto. “You’re never too young to go the theatre, I think. And if you see a pantomime when you’re a kid, you might, like me and like us all, be hooked for life and realise that more magic happens inside theatres than anywhere else in the world.”

Alone now, he expands on how “I fell in love with the theatre as an audience. It wasn’t that I was one of those little kids who loves showing off. It was that I went to see, thanks to my parents, all sorts of entertainment in the theatre, including pantomime of course. But I went to plays and musicals and a bit of opera. But mainly plays and I enjoyed it so much that I wanted to find out how does a play ever emerge. I didn’t realise there was a writer and rehearsal and all that. And it was for that reason I began to get involved in plays at school, and then I was hooked as a performer. But I still think of myself primarily as an audience. I know the pantomime is crucial to any theatregoers’ development and life.”

Panto is quintessentially British of course, which is how the tradition took hold here too. With roots in 16th-century Commedia dell’Arte’s dance, music, acrobatics and stock characters, it borrowed from masques, music hall and harlequinade along the way, later adding satire and elaborate sets and costumes.

Jonathan rang me up and asked, would I consider being in Coronation St if a part was written for me. And I said ‘yes please’

It is, says McKellen, “entertainment par excellence. Every type of storytelling that theatre can offer is in a pantomime, in the scenery and the costumes, in the story itself, and the audience participation, in the singing, in the dancing, in the comedy.” Children and adults, alongside other families, laughing together at the same thing is, he reckons, “a model for how society should work”.

Panto wasn’t a Christmas phenomenon until after England’s 1843 Theatres Act, which restricted their times. It fits neatly with this West End panto touring venues well into the year. “I wanted it to travel about because I don’t think it needs to be stuck with Christmas. Maybe we’ll discover families don’t want to go out as families except when the kids are on holidays from school, but I suspect they will and winter is a very good time to bring some fun to people.”

What we want to know is, is McKellen going to be singing and dancing? “I am”, he says firmly. “Both. I’ve got some tap shoes. Fortunately, Mother Goose doesn’t have to be able to do either of those things very well! Mother Goose just isn’t a great singer or dancer. She thinks she is. In the basic story, she wants to become young and beautiful. And I thought well, what’s that all about? Botox? Anyone can have that, but in our version she wants to be a star and very famous, which a lot of people want, don’t they, these days, on TikTok and so on. Her idea of being celebrated is to be a sort of Cher, Madonna, Adele.” There you have it: a Madonnaesque-McKellen.

There’s a long tradition of panto dames, with varying approaches to male representation of women onstage. He has a long think about this. He recalls Les Dawson, “who I saw do pantomime in Birmingham. He was resolutely a man in a frock pretending that he wasn’t, and so it was hilarious, because he did remind you of a certain sort of woman. He kept his own register of voice and so on. The basic thing with dames is that it’s a fella in a frock. It’s not Danny La Rue. It’s not female impersonation. It’s not Ru Paul. It’s not lookalike.” He mentions Dan Leno, the first Mother Goose (“In photographs he looks like a little woman. I don’t know how he acted it because there’s no film”), and Norman Evans in Over the Garden Wall, “You recognised the sort of woman he was playing. And the fact that it was a man wasn’t really the point.”

Some performances have exaggerated notions of femininity, but McKellen says “I promise you there will be nothing in my Mother Goose which is disparaging of women or femininity. No, that’s not the point.”

In approaching it, “I said to Jonathan Harvey, I want you to write me a Coronation Street, one of the strong women. So that’s what I’m going to be. I won’t be putting on a mask or a comedy face or anything like that. It will be my face, wearing women’s clothes, and I’ll have to see how it goes.

You’ve only got to look at the map to see that. Ireland, England, Wales, Scotland belong together. I think it’s been the best thing of my life, political awareness, that Ireland and England have more than patched it up

“But it’s a funny mixture, a dame. Again, it’s part of what’s unique about pantomime. I think it would be a great pity if, for any politically correct reasons, it was decided that a man should never wear a frock again, unless they were transgender, and had earned the right to wear it. It’s dangerous territory, I suppose. But then pantomime has always been on the right side of vulgarity. Which was actually the wrong side.” He chuckles.

His association with Harvey goes back to one of McKellen’s many moments of glory, a guest spot in Corrie as con artist Mel Hutchwright in May 2005. Notwithstanding his melodious proper accent, he was born and brought up near Corrie-country. “Jonathan rang me up and asked, would I consider being in Coronation St if a part was written for me. And I said ‘yes please’.”

His Mother Goose script is “a good story. In pantomime sometimes you think, where’s the story, what’s going on? It’s just a lot of things happening, what connects them?” The plot involves a poor couple, Mother and Father Goose, and fairies wagering that money can corrupt them. Harvey himself observes: “They go on a proper journey. Will their relationship survive? The stakes are high.”

Earlier, on foot of a child asking whether he’d rather be the back or the front of a pantomime horse (he’d definitely prefer the front), McKellen told a funny story from filming a scene in The Lord of the Rings, on a mountain with a horse. Only, because they were airlifted by helicopter, it was a pantomime horse (yes, really). As they were filming from the helicopter, the performers inside the horse “didn’t know where they were going, because they’re blind and it’s deep snow. I can see it now.” He’s laughing. “As he took the first step, they began to tilt, and we watched in slow motion as they fell over. But they emerged very jolly.”

That happened, he tells me later, just before his favourite scene from Lord of the Rings. He loves it because of the moment, rather than what the audience sees. “The fellowship led by Gandalf is going up this steep, snowy mountain escarpment with the pantomime horse ... And when we got it back on its feet, you see us trudging up. It’s a very brief shot. I was leading the way and going through snow up to here. It was on the mountain where Edmund Hillary had practised for Everest. And no other human being could ever have been where we were. You couldn’t get up there. We were taken in a helicopter. And on that side there was a steep drop, and ahead was the mountain. And I was leading the way and we were being filmed by the helicopter going around. We didn’t feel we were in the studio. We were just in the middle of nowhere.” He exhales in a deep sigh. “And. Well. You can’t believe your luck really.” He repeats it slowly. “You can’t believe your luck. It was a scene in which no words were spoken and I think I’m only seen from the back. Very, very briefly. But the thrill of getting up there and doing it was wonderful.”

Amazon’s related TV series has been slagged because the Harfoots are mysteriously assigned Irish accents, a kerfuffle of which McKellen is unaware. “Are the Irish upset by that? Are they not good enough accents? They’re not meant to be Irish, no. Well I don’t have any comment to make I’m afraid, because actually I didn’t realise they were meant to be Irish accents. I thought they were sort of generalised bucolic, rural. Brrr. That would be misleading if they were pretending that some of the action took place in Ireland.”

Aside from a night with his 80th birthday solo show, McKellen hasn’t performed in Dublin. “I don’t feel I know Dublin well enough. I’ll tell you a funny thing. I was in a hotel, reading Micheál Mac Liammóir’s autobiography, and I came to the chapter where he and Hilton discovered what became the Gate Theatre. And he wrote, I was sitting in my hotel bedroom and idly looked out the window and thought, I wonder what that building is, over the road. And the building over the road became the Gate. And as I was reading this I looked up out the window, and there was the roof of the Gate. I realised, oh my god, I’m in the very room [in the Gresham Hotel] that he was in.”

He would like “a few more experiences like that in Dublin. Haven’t you got the Francis Bacon studio [in the Hugh Lane Gallery]? I haven’t seen that.”

He describes another somewhat preternatural experience. “I had the odd feeling when I first went to Ireland. I was in Kinsale. I felt at home. Funny feeling. Not that I’d been here before but that, ‘Oh, everything’s all right here’. And I felt it again when I was filming in Galway. It was just a funny wave that came over me. And I’m not from that part of Ireland at all.

“I felt very comfortable. Why wouldn’t we? I mean, we’re all the same, aren’t we? You’ve only got to look at the map to see that. Ireland, England, Wales, Scotland belong together. I think it’s been the best thing of my life, political awareness, that Ireland and England have more than patched it up. Begun to respect each other. After too long. Do you not think that’s true?” I agree, observing it’s had a hiccup with Brexit. “Oh,” he groans, “well, hasn’t everything?”

The Irish premiere of Mother Goose is at Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, Dublin 2, from March 22nd to 26th, 2023

Deirdre Falvey

Deirdre Falvey

Deirdre Falvey is a features and arts writer at The Irish Times