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The 8 songs that Sir Ian McKellen couldn't live without

Sir Ian McKellen is one of the greatest actors of our time. Once hailed as “the heir to Olivier”, McKellen has done it all, and in terms of eminence, you do not get much more revered than he. A king of classical acting who cut his teeth in numerous productions of Shakespeare, McKellen is of a generation of actors that seems to be in decline, one in which the ancient mores of the craft are respected and where hard work is placed before all else.

Famously, McKellen’s The Lord of the Rings co-star Christopher Lee once said: “I’d worked at all sorts of places, all over Europe in different languages – singing, acting, sweeping the stage… in other words, learning. Something that few young actors and actresses are prepared to do these days. So many of them are stars before they even make their first film and you know when you look at them on the screen that they are looking in a mirror.”

Lee continued: “It’s the beginning of a lifelong romance and their hand is underneath the mirror, out of shot because that’s what they want – to be rich and famous immediately which is terribly sad and extremely dangerous. The most dangerous thing that a young actor or actress can do is to believe their own publicity.”

This is exactly the same school of thought that McKellen is from. Hailing from a middle-class family in Lancashire, he had no designs on being an actor until he went to Oxford University and realised that his two great friends there – Derek Jacobi and Trevor Nunn – were going to follow that route, so he though he “might as well join them”. 

Remarkably, McKellen had no formal training, but through his ability to communicate, he rose up quickly in the British acting world and segued seamlessly from the stage to the big screen. Echoing Christopher Lee, when discussing his career, McKellen said: “People like me are sloggers. I’m not a born actor, I’ve learned how to do it.”

Whether it be his numerous star turns on stage, as Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings, or Magneto in the X-Men series, there are many reasons to love Ian McKellen, and he remains one of the most captivating actors currently within the industry, even at the age of 82. 

Luckily for us, in 2003 he appeared on BBC Radio 4’s flagship programme Desert Island Discs, sitting down for a lengthy and revealing discussion with host Sue Lawley. In one of the most eye-opening interviews the acting legend has given, McKellen revealed what his eight favourite songs are, and they may come as something of a surprise.

One of the first songs McKellen picked out is ‘Adagio for Strings’ by Samuel Barber. After discussing the death of his mother when he was just 12 years old, he explains: “I expect on this Desert Island I’d like to indulge my melancholic mood occasionally, and this will certainly help.” 

Elsewhere, the discussion turns to McKellen’s homosexuality and the fact that he didn’t come out publicly until he was nearing his 50s, explaining that he broke the news when appearing on a radio discussion programme. Asked by Lawley why he took this “large” decision all of sudden, he responded with the lucidity you’d expect from one of the greats of classical acting. McKellen expressed: “I’d just split with a boyfriend of longstanding, and the facts of our relationship was that had I come out whilst we were living together, he would have been even more ‘Ian McKellen’s boyfriend’ than he already was, and so we kept rather quietly publicly about that. But when we split up, I began to think for the first time in my life really, seriously, about it.”

He continued: “Gay politics had passed me by, gay liberation, I was too busy having a career, you know? I really wasn’t involved with the real world, and I began to wonder how and when it would be appropriate to just complete the coming out journey, because all my friends knew, employer knew, employees knew, I hadn’t talked to everybody in my blood family, but I hadn’t talked about it publicly, and if you’re in public life, that’s a little bit extra of the coming out journey you have to do.”

Asked if it took courage to come out, McKellen responded: “No it didn’t. It took a very nasty law that the Thatcher government was proposing to put through, called Section 28, still on the statute books, which I didn’t approve of because it was about me, and I took it very personally.” 

Duly, at this point, McKellen’s mood had shifted, and he picked a track by one of the musical greats: Nina Simone. Choosing 1964’s ‘Mississippi Goddam’ he said: “Well, slightly related to what we were talking about, here’s a political song, but it belongs to showbusiness as the introduction makes clear, another wonderful performer, Nina Simone singing ‘Mississippi Goddam’.”

For his final song, McKellen picked out the iconic 1976 hit by ABBA, ‘Dancing Queen’. He revealed: “This is a track that I dance to more than any other I think, because they play it at my local gay bar in the East End, The White Swan… well, when the lights are dimming, before being turned on far too brightly, this is what they play, and I like singing along to it, and dancing to it.”

An eclectic mix, McKellen’s choices are a brilliant reflection of his character, with one eye on the past, and one looking firmly into the future. Below, we’ve pulled together a full playlist of the songs, so you can kick back and plunge into the mind of one of the most esteemed actors in history. You can listen to the full episode here.

Ian McKellen’s 8 favourite songs:

  • Vladimir Horowitz – ‘Stars and Stripes Forever’
  • Samuel Barber – ‘Adagio For Strings’
  • Ludwig van Beethoven – ‘String Quartet No. 13 in B flat major, Op. 130 – 2nd movement’
  • Ethel Merman -‘Rose’s Turn’
  • Lena Horne – ‘Stormy Weather’
  • Nina Simone – ‘Mississippi Goddam’
  • Joanna MacGregor – ‘Harrison’s Clocks’
  • ABBA -‘Dancing Queen’

Get the playlist below.

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