1990 | My Favourite Films

First published in the Sunday Telegraph

I'm always very scathing about actors who don't go to the theatre, but I'm one who doesn't go to the cinema very much because I was brought up to go to the theatre rather than the flicks, as we called them then.

In Wigan and Bolton in the Forties there were cinemas, but there were also theatres, and because my parents preferred to go to the weekly theatre, I picked up that habit and immediately enjoyed it. If I was going out on my own in the evening I'd always go to the theatre, whereas most of my contemporaries went to the flicks.

I saw things like Queen Elizabeth Slept Here, a great range of plays from Ben Travers, John Gielgud as Lear in Manchester, musicals, but very little opera and ballet; musically, my taste is very catholic. All that theatre-going must have influenced me and my sister, who is five years older than me. She is now an amateur actress and wardrobe mistress in East Anglia.

Like most children of my generation, I was an ABC minor and went to Saturday morning cinema shows. I remember being entranced by Robert Newton as Long John Silver in Treasure Island and watching The Broken Arrow, although on the whole I don't like Westerns. I can remember having nightmares about the witch on the broomstick in The Wizard of Oz and being very scared by Bambi.

I was dotty about Ivor Novello and I remember going to see a film called The Dancing Years and queuing up for Patricia Dainton's autograph afterwards; she was on a promotional tour for the film — what must she have thought of the North of England!

There was a memorable occasion when we were on holiday in Bournemouth and my father took my sister and me to see Olivier's Hamlet on Sunday, soon after cinemas had been opened on that day. We weren't allowed in until the five o'clock performance because children were supposed to be at Sunday school until then; I don't know if they would have allowed Jewish children in.

Most Shakespeare on film is not good — the best is Trevor Nunn's video of Macbeth. I haven't seen Kenneth Branagh's Henry V yet. My favourite Olivier film is The Entertainer because he is in such amazing control of his performance. While he was making the film, he was also playing Coriolanus at Stratford and had a specially refitted ambulance to drive him between there and Morecambe.

There's a wonderful anecdote about him and the BBC newsreader Mac-Donald Hobley, who was also in it — that they had just finished a scene on location when a lady stopped them and asked for Hobley's autograph, saying "And is your friend an actor?"

There are various film genres that I dislike. Cartoons bore the pants off me; I don't like Westerns because you can always work out what's going to happen; and horror films either frighten me to death or are ridiculous. Monsieur Hulot's Holiday suits my sense of humour. It's virtually silent and the jokes are so visual and tell you so much about people's characters. My comic heroes are the silent ones, like Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy.

Dr Strangelove is a very funny, very disturbing film in which Peter Sellers gives a gigantic performance. It's extraordinary that such an anti-nuclear film was made at a time when CND was frowned upon, and that the money should be put up by America for something that openly criticised American foreign policy.

Nobody could claim that Fred Astaire was a great actor or singer; nor was he, in repose, very attractive to look at. But, of course, all those inadequacies are irrelevant the minute he starts to dance — such charm and wit infuses all his choreography. He's my favourite dancer — you come away from one of his films, such as Top Hat, exhausted and full of admiration. He's a thousand miles ahead of the English dancers of the same period, like Jack Buchanan and Jack Hulbert.

Mephisto made a great impact on me, especially the performance of Klaus Maria Brandauer. He plays a German actor who collaborates with the Nazis and, although he began as a rebel, realises that if he's going to get on as an actor he will have to play the party game. He is a terrible traitor to his ideals, but it's what we all do.

Torch Song Trilogy is the first film, as far as I know, that presents the gay characters within it as if they are normal and the heterosexual characters as the strangers in the society. In most films, homosexuals are presented as freaks. Torch Song has a great deal of humour and humanity, and is a low-budget movie that works. 

The common thread through these films is that they have a great performer at the centre of them. I didn't choose them with this in mind, but, unwittingly, I've probably named some of the great actors in my lifetime. — Ian McKellen, 1990

Monsieur Hulot's Holiday (Jacques Tati, 1953)

Top Hat (Mark Sandrich, 1935)

The Entertainer (Tony Richardson, 1960)

Dr Strangelove; or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Stanley Kubrick, 1963)

Mephisto (Istvan Szabo, 1981)

Torch Song Trilogy (Paul Bogart, 1988)

More Writings

Ian McKellen's Home Page