Sir Ian McKellen (1951-1958)

Sir Ian McKellen has won more than 40 major awards for performances on stage and screen, playing King Lear and Widow Twanky, visiting Coronation Street and filming The Da Vinci Code, Gods and Monsters, Richard III – and two trilogies – X-Men and The Lord of the Rings.

Ian’s early fascination with theatre was encouraged by his parents, who took him to see Peter Pan at the Manchester Opera House when he was three. His sister, Jean, took him to his first Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, by the amateurs of Wigan’s Little Theatre, shortly followed by their Macbeth and a production by Wigan High School for Girls of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in which Jean herself played Bottom.

Ian himself began acting at School, most significantly for Frank Greene, the senior English master who directed the annual, Spring-term classical play in the Great Hall. On performing in the Great Hall, he recalls: “This required experimenting with being audible above the constant squeal of 800 bottoms shifting on 800 rush-bottomed chairs. Frank Greene was right: if you can’t be heard, you can’t act onstage.”

Bolton School also encouraged him at the Hopefield Miniature Theatre; indeed, his first Shakespeare performance was at Hopefield, as a 13 year old Malvolio in the letter scene from Twelfth Night.

Each Summer, Ian attended the School’s camp to Stratford-upon-Avon. The boys slept under canvas in a field, with meals cooked by Sergeant Best. With the Royal Shakespeare Theatre just half-an-hour away by punt, there was opportunity in the evenings to see Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, Charles Laughton, Edith Evans, Peggy Ashcroft, John Gielgud, Paul Robeson in Shakespeare. Later, round the camp-stove, there was much discussion of the productions.

Ian McKellen was appointed School Captain 1957-58, a position of which he remains very proud, citing it amongst various appointments and honours he has received during his life. When collecting an honorary degree from St Catharine’s College, Cambridge, in 2014 he attended the ceremony wearing his old Bolton School tie.

Bolton School had a great impact on Ian and leaving this great institution aroused mixed emotions which he wrote about – these writings can be read on his website here.  Sir Ian reminisced about his time at School in an interview published in the

Times Educational Supplement:

“From the age of 12, I was at Bolton School, which was Direct Grant then.

The Headmaster was Fred Poskitt. He’d come to the School in his 30s but by the time I knew him was in his 50s or 60s. He had established an enlightened, liberal, public-school ethic, although it was really a grammar school. We had magnificent buildings near the centre of Bolton. There was a boys’ school and a girls’ school and ne’er the twain did mix.

Fred Poskitt assumed that if anyone had any talent whatsoever, it was the School’s job to encourage it. That applied to academic talent, of course, and sport, but other things as well, such as scouting and travel. The School took us on camps all over the world. And we were under canvas, roughing it. The most influential ones I enjoyed were the Stratford camps: I went four years running and each time saw all the plays over the course of a week.

That attitude – bringing out the best in the boys – affected every other teacher. They were always involved in extra-curricular activities and working out of school hours, giving their time generously. We had a miniature theatre, which seated about 50, and the masters helped us, directing and sometimes writing plays, too.

It wasn’t the sort of school where one teacher made a particular difference, although the general attitude was, I suppose, the result of Fred Poskitt’s leadership. All the teachers were informal and friendly to the boys. Fred was an Edwardian gentleman with a posh accent. Everyone in Bolton had a northern accent, but he didn’t. He was garrulous, he loved argument and would often leave us behind in discussion.

It is unlikely I would have got into Cambridge without his encouragement as he got St Catharine’s to accept me on a scholarship and I read English there. And without Cambridge, I probably wouldn’t have become a professional actor because it was then that I really took up acting.

I remember once, after the School play – I’d played Henry V – Fred Poskitt saying to me: “Don’t get any ideas you’re anything special. John Gielgud was much better at your age.” I think he was just trying to put me off acting as people feel they ought to. It didn’t work though; I went straight into it after Cambridge.”

On leaving School, Ian won an exhibition to read English at St Catharine’s College, Cambridge. During his time there he appeared in 21 undergraduate productions, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Derek Jacobi, David Frost, Trevor Nunn and Margaret Drabble. He also began to be noted by the national press.

By the time he graduated in 1961, Ian had decided to become an actor and, without going to drama school, made his first performance as Roper in A Man for All Seasons at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry. This marked the start of an illustrious career during which he has appeared in countless stage productions and over 45 feature films. He has also made numerous appearances on TV and radio. He has received more than sixty major international acting awards and in 1991 was knighted for his services to the performing arts.

In addition to his acting, Ian is a staunch campaigner for legal and social equality for gay people worldwide and is a co-founder of ‘Stonewall’ which works to promote such equality.

Ian has returned to School several times in recent years. In 2004 he gave the School’s prestigious Tillotson Lecture and in 2006 he was Patron of the Bursary Ball which raised funds for the School’s Bursary Fund, saying at the time: “the money raised at the Midsummer Night’s Dream Bursary Ball will change the lives of some bright children who deserve to have their sights raised and horizons broadened.” More recently he addressed pupils about Stonewall’s message, emphasising how equality is not about being the same, but rather about being treated the same regardless of the differences between people.