Published in The TLS November 22, 2019
IAN MCKELLEN The biography Garry O’Connor
BEHIND THE LENS My life David Suchet
In 2015, Sir Ian McKellen was given a million pound advance to write his autobiography. In 2016, he handed it back, later stating that he found it “a bit painful”. This year, however, the veteran actor has managed to heave his heart into his mouth, if not onto the page, with a one-man show described by the Guardian as “a form of acted autobiography”, stretching from his upbringing in Bolton to Hollywood stardom. The fact that the eighty-year-old is donating profits to various theatres and charities is enough to polish his national treasure status until it positively gleams.
Which could make Garry O’Connor’s biography a timely affair, or feel second-best. The pair are old friends – “like family” – having met at Cambridge, yet O’Connor tells in a fairly excruciating first chapter how McKellen neither wanted to work on the biography, nor for it to be written at all. Not in a scandalous, feuding sort of way; he just sounds weary: “I can’t of course stop you … Write it after I’m dead. Go and find someone else”. Since McKellen won’t heave for him, O’Connor decides to “‘pluck out the heart’ of the Ian McKellen mystery” himself. He jauntily continues to quote Hamlet, writing “Forgive me, Ian, if I play on your stops!” – although you might think aligning yourself with the faithless Guildenstern is not a good look at this point.
In fact, O’Connor’s biography walks a fair line between affectionate intimacy and critical distance, delivering neither fawning hagiography nor vicious take-down. He says he was drawn to the challenge of showing “this complicated and complex man in all shades and colours”, and O’Connor not only confesses to finding his subject in some way essentially unknowable, but persuasively argues that this “impenetrability” may be a “necessary part of his greatness as an actor”.
His apparent contradictions are laid out: McKellen is a private soul, yet one who recognizes that good acting is about “reveal[ing] yourself to your audience”. He is thoughtful, given to weighing things carefully (it is fascinating to hear that, when Germaine Greer wrote a sneering piece about his Lear, he combed it for “anything I can put right”), yet is also a man with a “taste for danger”. A man who didn’t come out until he was forty-nine, and then became one of the most significant global figures for LGBT+ visibility. A team player who founded the non-hierarchical Actors’ Company, yet always ended up in the star roles (Kenneth Branagh relayed the relevant joke: “Isn’t it marvellous … this week he’s playing Hamlet, and last week he was in something where he just played the footman”. “What was the play called?” “The Footman.”)
Some of the evidence that O’Connor brings to bear, however, can feel shaky. The biography is unfootnoted, and some reported comments are uncredited. It would be useful to distinguish what was, say, a summary of general press reactions to a show and what is simply O’Connor’s own memory. And some of his interpretations can be bizarre, as when he compares the “visceral thrills” of the X-Men movie to, of all things, the long- running British medical drama Casualty. There is also the mind-boggling inclusion of an “expert” in “facial analysis”, Lailan Young (who doesn’t seem to have published on the subject since 1994). Apparently, a line across the bridge of McKellen’s nose backs up O’Connor’s theory about divisions in his personality.
O’Connor is no great stylist, and often makes no attempt to stitch different strands of his storytelling together. Mostly this means lurching between unconnected subjects paragraph by paragraph; occasionally it happens sentence by sentence. Witness, for instance, the non sequitur which unintentionally implies that a schoolboy performance was responsible for McKellen’s mother Margery’s ill health: “Among [Bolton School’s] alumni was Irving Wardle, later the influential drama critic of The Times, who had played Hamlet at Bolton. Yet still Margery weakened as her cancer spread”. The sense is of a writer in a hurry, and an editor out to lunch.
The biography does make for pacy reading, though. O’Connor gets through masses of material at a trot, while still finding space to go into many major performances in some depth. His look at The Lord of the Rings phenomenon finds the right balance between nerdish detail and gossipy bounce, and, O’Connor being the author of a speculative biography of Shakespeare, it is no surprise that he has plenty to say about McKellen’s Shakespearean performances, from his breakthrough as Aufidius in Coriolanus aged twenty-four to his recent second stab at King Lear. The book is also stuffed with quotes and chummy anecdotes, clearly drawn from an inner circle, that are fun to chow through (although one anonymous description of McKellen’s penis as “fat and gusty” is a bit much, even if McKellen has proved happy to get it out onstage).
Still, it’s hard not to wish that McKellen had made good on that advance himself: his own quoted pronouncements are notably pithy. All artistic directors “are workaholics, divorced and very charming”, while Romeo is diagnosed “mad” because “he can’t reconcile the enormity of love with the business of having breakfast and being nice to people”. And McKellen apparently has a habit of rising in restaurants and announcing “Gandalf pays!”
In 1980, McKellen played Salieri in Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus on Broadway; in 1998, David Suchet took on the role. In his new autobiography, the seventy-three-year-old veteran of the British stage marks this as a “low” in his career, because the New York Times’s reviewer compared his 1998 Broadway performance unfavourably to McKellen’s (Suchet also mistakenly claims he himself played the part in 1982). “That really knocked the confidence out of me”, Suchet writes. “Yes, a big knock. Or at least it was until I was nominated for a Tony!”
Suchet’s low points sound like most people’s highs – but this isn’t just a humblebrag. Rather, it’s a chance for Suchet to remind readers not to place too much importance on other people’s opinions: “There comes a stage when you learn to be who you are”. Behind the Lens: My life gives a clear impression of a man who knows exactly who he is. There are few of McKellen’s contradictions here – or none that Suchet is willing to share.
It is quite an unconventional book, however – as much a collection of amateur photography as a memoir. Suchet frames it as an invitation to look through his eyes: photographs and text illuminate his life and career, but also reflect his more general enthusiasms. There are handsome shots of nature (twisty tree trunks; an ominously lit goat) and his beloved London, as well as images of places where he has worked. Probably the strongest are backstage portraits of colleagues: Imelda Staunton looking wickedly withering; Peter Capaldi caught in a debonair pose.
It is not quite clear who this book is for. It is unlikely to shift copies as a coffee-table photography tome, but looks more like that than the kind of autobiography you would buy a tricky relative for Christmas. But I hope it finds readers, because Suchet proves charming company. Conversational in style (“it was love at first sight. Yes, very romantic I know”), Behind the Lens is like listening to an elderly relative settling into their well-trodden, favourite topics – but his reflections on life are gentle, good-natured and generous.
This means there is some skating over darker stuff – Suchet recounts, but doesn’t delve very deep into, his relationship with a disapproving father. Although sweet whenever he mentions his wife, he barely touches on being a father. But he does write movingly about his faith. He had been seeking some “coherent philosophy” to live by, and found it, aged forty, with the realization that “the Christian world view is love”. It took a further twenty years of study before he considered himself fully converted: “it’s not easy to walk in faith”, Suchet writes.
You can really feel love-as-guiding-principle running throughout the book, however. It is certainly there in the brief, slightly woolly articulations of his political viewpoints. He argues in favour of immigration in the loveliest, luvviest tones (“I think we should welcome everyone with open arms”) and insists – without ever mentioning the c-words – that “more laws should really be put in place to save our planet”.
Suchet goes into more detail on his process as an actor (much advance research), and writes insightfully about cracking the “motiveless” Iago, playing the usually booze-sodden George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? as a sober puppeteer, and how embarrassing he finds sex scenes. And, of course, he discusses his most famous and adored creation: Hercule Poirot.
Suchet played Agatha Christie’s detective for twenty-five years; he still grieves for Poirot. “He was my best friend; my alter ego, in many ways. I knew him better than anybody I know”. As with O’Connor’s McKellen biography, Behind the Lens reveals how much an actor’s work can also become part of their life, their identity.