Ian McKellen on playing an ageing Sherlock in Mr Holmes

“When I was a young man, people would ask how I remembered my lines, and I’d think ‘That’s the easy part!’ Well, these days it’s one of the problems. I do find myself thinking ‘How am I going to remember it?’”

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On a damp day in London, Ian McKellen clutches his side. His body contorts. An agonised wince takes hold of his face.

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“So that’s what you do,” he says, suddenly cheerful. This, in brief, is the McKellen guide to playing characters in old age. “You imagine aches and pains, and how the person accommodates them is part of who they are.” He smiles. “It’s just acting.”

When we meet, McKellen has just celebrated his 76th birthday, a rangy, white-haired figure in a lilac shirt and charcoal suit. A few years ago, he says, birthdays began to slip by unnoticed, but as a keen user of social media, he is now wished well online. He looks a little tired, but he’s faultlessly polite. “Ah yes, ah yes,” he says when I remind him of the last time we met, at an interview before a charity screening of The Hobbit. He brought along the hat he wore as Gandalf, offering fans the chance to wear it (he made me model it for them).

His latest film involves another much-loved literary icon: Sherlock Holmes. Mr Holmes is a charming yarn set in 1947, with its hero now 93 years old. Retired to the country with little company beyond his housekeeper and her son, he tackles one last case, although his own frailty proves more pressing. There is a further twist: instead of the fictional creation of Arthur Conan Doyle, the detective is a real man whose exploits were immortalised on the page by Dr Watson. 

What he calls the “cheek” of the film (in cinemas from Friday 19th June) also, he says, distinguishes his Holmes from those before him. As a young man, McKellen’s favourite was Basil Rathbone in the films of the 1940s, though of course, for many people, Holmes currently means the version played on TV by Benedict Cumberbatch. McKellen says he watches Sherlock – “Oh yes, great fun” – but feels no rivalry. “I hope Benedict doesn’t feel we’re trampling over his territory.”

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None of his predecessors daunt him. “It’s odd. It doesn’t worry me one little bit,” he says, his accent still flecked with the Lancashire where he grew up. He points out that in his stage career he wasn’t the first actor to play Hamlet, either.