It’s little wonder after watching tonight’s Who Do You Think You Are? that Ian McKellen is held in such affection by so many people.
The giant of stage and screen tonight investigated his family tree, coming upon the stark realisation that his pioneering campaigner ancestor Robert Lowes effectively invented the weekend.
But it was in those early moments when he traced the life of his other ancestor, great uncle Frank Lowe (Robert’s son who dropped the ‘s’) that his warmth, empathy and humanity really shone out. They are the kind of qualities that you can’t help feel have stood McKellen in good stead as an actor over the years.
The Lord of the Rings star, who is childless and whose sister Jean died in 2003, spoke movingly about being the last of the McKellens, and the fact that the family name will die out with him. But he didn’t know there had been another actor in the clan…
“An actor?” he said with what felt like self-consciously luvvie intonations. “Oh stop it!”.
The touching thing was McKellen’s genuine-seeming delight in the discovery, his palpable wish that Robert had a successful career as he scanned the magnifying glass across the documents that unpeeled the story. Though of course the fact that he had not heard of him suggested that maybe he wasn’t a champion of the stage. And so it proved.
Because Frank Lowe wasn’t a very lucky actor, you see. A jobbing turn, he enjoyed early success with work at the Queen’s Theatre in Manchester, going on to be reviewed in industry papers and play in Sir Ian’s home town of Bolton in 1876.
But he drifted from theatre to theatre and eventually lost the support of one of his patrons (impresario James Pitney Weston) who emigrated to the US, leaving Lowe to continue his struggles on the stages of northern England.
The record showed poor Frank getting less prestigious gig after less prestigious gig until he ended up in the workhouse, impoverished and separated from his wife Ellen before eventually succumbing to TB and exhaustion.
“Oh Frank,” said McKellen when he was shown his relative’s death certificate. He was seemingly close to tears before reflecting on the many talented performers he has known who have also not known riches and glory of the kind he was too modest to admit has been his own. “That is the fact about being an actor,” he said.
But McKellen being McKellen, he was able to offer something positive to this sad tale – recreating a scene from one of Frank’s successful plays, melodrama Two Orphans, on stage in Bolton (at the Octagon, the only surviving professional theatre space in the city).
And of course there was the triumph, widely trailed in pre-broadcast publicity, of that fact that we owe the weekend to the McKellen family – and the work of Frank’s Dad Robert Lowes (for some reason it was never explained why Frank dropped the ‘s’ in the surname).
Yes, great great grandpa Robert was a committed soul who campaigned tirelessly in his native Manchester for the rights of workers to have a half-day on Saturday, as well as Sunday, to alleviate the grind of their 14-hour days.
The spirit of the warehouse clerk clearly lives on in the life of his great great grandson, a tireless campaigner on behalf of a number of causes including gay rights group Stonewall.
Rather sweetly, McKellen reflected on the fact that the arrival of the weekend meant more toil for him and his fellow thespians – actors now have to work on weekends while most people are at leisure.
Tonight’s WDYTYA was a very moving instalment, intimate and appearing less staged than some episodes where the stars feel like they are feigning excitement or surprise when they discover something that was probably well known to them.
McKellen wasn’t without a thespy touch, though. “Don’t we all,” was his camp rejoinder to a researcher who told him about the stage in Frank’s acting career when he needed a break. But McKellen-style hamminess is rather engaging and delightful.
He was generous and warm, even if he cut a sombre solitary figure at times, the last of his line, tramping streets and countryside in his Fedora hat.
But at least he had this to say of his experience at the end: “It doesn’t matter to me really that I am the last of the McKellens…that’s alright. But I do feel a little more more secure as a person. I will probably not be quite the same …but in a good way.”
Who Do You Think You Are? continues next week on BBC1 with comedian Greg Davies
Ben has worked as a professional journalist specialising in TV and the arts for nearly twenty years writing for Stage newspaper, Sunday Mirror and the Sunday Times, The Guardian, Evening Standard, Broadcast, Independent and the New Statesman where he wrote a column.