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Desert Island Discs

Ian McKellen

Ian McKellen in 1969. Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Ian McKellen turned 82 on Tuesday, but shows no signs of slowing down. Tickets for his Hamlet in Windsor have just gone on sale. He never used to think he could play the Dane because of his thick Lancashire accent, he told Sue Lawley on Desert Island Discs in 2003. “I thought if you were ever going to play Hamlet, you’ve got to have a posh accent.” So he switched to RP and never looked back. It’s as if you’re always playing a part, says Lawley. “It is,” he replies. “But all the world’s a stage, you know, and all the men and women merely players.”

Shakespeare has always fascinated him. When he was nine he was given a model theatre for Christmas, complete with cutout characters from Olivier’s Hamlet. At 13 he was playing Malvolio in an amateur production of Twelfth Night. Shakespeare is timeless, he says, and his performances are based on real-life figures. He modelled the Macbeths on the Kennedys – “They’ve got everything they could possibly want in life, but they want more” – and his Coriolanus was a nod to John McEnroe. Shakespeare’s warrior general had the same “dreadful arrogance” as the Wimbledon champion in his prime, he says: “I imitated him a little bit on the battlefield. I used a few of his jumps.”

🎵 Stars and Stripes Forever, John Philip Sousa, arranged by Vladimir Horowitz

🎵 Adagio for Strings, Samuel Barber

🎵 String Quartet No 13, Beethoven

🎵 Rose’s Turn (from Gypsy), Ethel Merman

🎵 Stormy Weather, Lena Horne

🎵 Mississippi Goddam, Nina Simone

🎵 Harrison’s Clocks, Harrison Birtwistle, performed by Joanna MacGregor

🎵 Dancing Queen, Abba

🎁 Grand piano

📕 A dictionary of flora and fauna

Listen to the full episode here.