Comments: Ian McKellen and Coronation Street

Thursday May 5, 2005
The Guardian

Lord of the Rovers
Ian McKellen went straight to Coronation Street after a long run in panto, and it shows. After the first week of his 10-episode turn as novelist Mel Hutchwright, a sort of poor man's DH Lawrence, the same broad comic style, the same knowing self-mockery that he brought to Widow Twankey in the Old Vic's Aladdin is apparent. This is no bad thing; in a cast that contains such characters as Cilla and Audrey, you have to act your socks off just to get noticed.

Casting guest stars in soaps is a high-risk strategy; they can either fall flat on their faces, or they can make the regular drones look very dull indeed. McKellen must have been tempted to act the others off the screen - and, given the writing, it would be hard to resist. "Many's the time I've scrubbed the coal dust off my father's back as he squatted naked in the tin tub," he said on Monday, rolling the words around his mouth like heady wine; the Rovers had never heard the like. But in fact, he's a good foil for the rest of them, allowing Norris (Malcolm Hebden) and Emily (Eileen Derbyshire) in particular to get a look-in. Unlike his odious character, a charlatan of the deepest dye, McKellen isn't bothered about having the last word. He's too busy concentrating on the details - picking his teeth and eating off his knife at Emily's breakfast table, hovering in the Rovers until a drink is offered. This is not an actor who turns up, plays himself and takes the money.

The last couple of years have seen a great loosening-up of Ian McKellen's performances. Before Gandalf, he was all about repressed violence, sexual threat and tragic martyrdom. Now, the man who gave us Macbeth, Richard III and Bent is more at ease with his comic muse. Perhaps he feels, rightly, that after four decades of intensity, he deserves a few laughs - and he's certainly getting them. A voice trained by a lifetime of Shakespeare and Chekov can bring unexpected depths to the words "Eeeeh, Lancashire hotpot".

McKellen has upped the stakes for soap acting, intentionally or otherwise. If continuing dramas can deliver this quality of performance, then maybe they should, on a regular basis. It will be interesting to see if the competition follows suit; in the tit-for-tat world of soap, they would be hard pressed not to. In the meantime, I'm watching like a hawk for McKellen's comeuppance in the Rovers Return. I never thought my fingers would type those words.
Rupert Smith

Sir Ian McKellen on Coronation Street — what’s with the thesps taking over the soaps? This isn’t to denigrate the talents of soap operas’ usual cast members — many would put the kind of actors who speak about their “craft” to shame — but it does seem odd that a man whose Coriolanus and Macbeth, among others, will go down in history should suddenly feel a longing to spend time in Weatherfield.

Odd, that is, until you remember that McKellen has a well developed sense of camp and that the nation’s No 1 working-class soap is nothing if not a bastion of the most heavenly campness this side of Desperate Housewives. For a truly ambitious British actor, such as McKellen, scaling the heights of Shakespeare represents only one kind of glory. But really endearing yourself to the hearts of the nation essentially means becoming Vera Duckworth, or a version thereof. I will be glued for the whole 10 episodes. — India Knight, The Sunday Times, 13 March 2005

King Lear was famously regarded by thespians as the Everest of roles. In the electronic age, however, they see things differently. Once, Sir Ian McKellen turned down the chance to appear in Coronation Street as Elsie Tanner's long-lost nephew because the Shakespearean was unnerved by the prospect of competing with the Rovers Return regulars. Last week, though, he beat his demons to accept a part in Corrie, a peak he will scale in May. The 65-year-old admitted that it will fulfil his only remaining ambition, his other career goal having been to play a pantomime dame, which he did last Christmas. — Leader, The Observer, 13 March 2005

Street credibility

Ian McKellen's Corrie stint is just what British cultural life needs

When Ian McKellen played Widow Twankey in pantomime last Christmas, becoming the first theatrical knight to turn into a dame, some critics commented on the resemblance of his drag acting to such northern matriarchs as Ena Sharples and Annie Walker. This now proves to have been a Freudian slip at the make-up table or a deliberate hint to casting directors because Sir Ian has signed up to appear this spring in 10 episodes of Coronation Street, playing writer Mel Hutchwright, author of the fictional Salford bonkbuster Hard Grinding.

Sir Ian was also one of four actors competing to appear yesterday in a special Radio 4 edition of The Archers, written by Victoria Wood for Comic Relief. Although he was beaten to the prize by Stephen Fry, this double assault on early eveningserials suggests that he's getting on his soapbox for soap or, at least, that the long-held snobbery about the genre is disappearing.

As in so many aspects of British theatrical acting, Sir Ian finds himself following Laurence Olivier. Larry apparently long fantasised about appearing in the Street and had the advantage in this ambition that his brother-in-law, David Plowright, ran Granada. A character role was scripted for him but an illness prevented Olivier from treading the cobbles.

Even so, a folk-memory of the connection has lingered because some websites insist that Olivier once secretly played a tramp in the background of a scene. And the fantasy of a classical actor guesting in peak-time populism has extended to other performers.

Michael Gambon has said his mother would only have believed that he had made it at the greasepaint game if he had turned up in a scene with Ena Sharples. Gambon sometimes seemed in such interviews to be fishing for the offer of a Salford walk-on but it sadly never came.

The explanation for Sir Ian's soap debut may simply be that he wanted to speak some proper dialogue after appearing in all that Tolkein trog tosh, but this benediction from a great Shakesperean actor to the Street almost certainly has a greater significance.

There's an obvious psychological impetus - McKellen comes from the north-west and, as with Gambon, there's a hint that this is the kind of acting that would have impressed the neighbours - and perhaps also a political agenda: the actor has complained in the past about gay representation in the show, and it seems likely that the character he plays will redress this balance.

Most notably, though, Sir Ian's equal billing with Ken and Deirdre signals an end to the stigma for stars in acting in soaps. Intriguingly, McKellen first agreed to appear in the Street some years ago but backed out before rehearsals.

It seems likely that his second thoughts then came from a fear of CV-contamination: the possibility that a scene between McKellen and Ken Barlow would be seen as the kind of joke about slumming it that was best confined to the plays wot Ernie wrote for the Morecambe & Wise Show. If so, it was a sensible concern.

However, McKellen, after successfully managing to alternate Gandalf with appearances in Strindberg and Shakespeare, seems now to have understood the extent to which cultural categories are breaking down. By the summer, he will have become, in six months, the first major classical actor to have appeared in both panto and soap.

The public and most pundits are impressed by promiscuity. These days, a sensible philosophy professor appearing on Desert Island Discs would always include the Simpsons theme tune between the Palestrina and the Satie. Two Oscar-winners have appeared in James Bond movies (Halle Berry and Judi Dench) and Sir Ian's Twankey was, in fact, a serious piece of acting, an exploration of a different type of comedy.

His Mel Hutchwright for ITV1 peaktime will hopefully offer the same pleasures of crossover acting. The one worry is that performers are notorious followers of fashion. So, after Sir Ian in the Street, we risk switching on EastEnders to find Dame Judi chin-wagging with Dot Cotton, while Sir Ben Kingsley chews over wool prices in Emmerdale.

They should be careful because McKellen is an unusually versatile performer, as anyone knows who has seen his Corialanus, Gandalf and Twankey. It's fitting that he should become the first star recognised on both Coronation Street and Sunset Strip. —Mark Lawson, The Guardian, 12 March 2005