You shall not pass! Lord of the Rings star Ian McKellen savages the Government’s treatment of the BBC

"It’s ours. I think the Government is onto a loser. They should realise that the BBC is as precious to us as the NHS. It’s one of the glories of the country"

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Veteran actor Sir Ian McKellen has told the Government to leave the BBC alone, insisting that it belongs to the people and is “as precious to us in the country as the NHS”.

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In an outspoken interview with RadioTimes.com, the renowned actor said that the Government will regret its attempts to clip the wings of the Corporation during the ongoing charter renewal process. The BBC, says McKellen, is “one of the great glories of this country”.

“Everybody’s worried,” said the Lord of the Rings star. “I cannot understand why the Government should be imagining a country where the BBC isn’t as dominant as it is at the moment. It’s one of the great glories of this country. Remember Mrs Thatcher, when she became Prime Minister, announced she was withdrawing the grant from the World Service. It had to be explained to her that it was the only decent export the country had.

“We hear they are so expensive. What is it, nine TV channels, 12 radio stations, all for a third of the price of Sky. It’s cheap.”

McKellen has read the Government’s green paper on the future of the BBC and says it is inappropriate for the document to examine the question of market dominance. 

“One of the questions in the Government’s consultation with the public is what effect does the BBC have on the market and what can be done about it. That question didn’t come from the Government, that question came from Rupert Murdoch.

“The BBC and the market? What responsibility is it of the BBC to worry about the market? The BBC’s responsibility is to worry about the listeners and the viewers and the nation. It’s ours. I think the Government is onto a loser. They should realise that the BBC is as precious to us in the country as the NHS. It’s one of the glories of the country.

“Politicians are envious about the BBC because you can’t buy them, you can’t get into cahoots with them. And they are made to be tripped up and look foolish [in interviews on BBC programmes]. But the BBC is not for the Government and the politicians. It’s for us.”

McKellen has now joined a list of big names from the entertainment world who have come out in defence of the BBC ranging from Peter Capaldi to Wolf Hall director Peter Kosminsky.

In July, a host of celebrities including Michael Palin, Daniel Craig, JK Rowling and Chris Evans signed a letter demanding that the BBC is not diminished in the next charter.

The letter – which was dubbed a “luvvies letter” by the BBC’s opponents who claimed it was orchestrated by outgoing BBC director of television Danny Cohen – read: “We are writing to place on record at the very start of the process our concern that nothing should be done to diminish the BBC or turn it into a narrowly focused market-failure broadcaster.

“In our view, a diminished BBC would simply mean a diminished Britain.”

The BBC is engaged in identifying around £1.5bn in savings as part of its obligations under the current licence fee settlement. It is still in the middle of negotiating with the Government over the renewal of its charter and the decision about the size of the new licence fee in 2016.

McKellen was speaking to publicise his latest project – a BBC2 adaptation of Ronal Harwood’s play The Dresser (see below) co-starring Sir Anthony Hopkins.

In the film McKellen plays the fussy dresser Norman who attends to the ailing actor “Sir” played by Hopkins in the Welsh actor’s first major British television performance in twenty years.

“It’s why I did it. I wanted to work with Anthony Hopkins. It was everything I could have hoped for.

“Because he was with people of his generation, [director] Richard Eyre and [co-star] Edward Fox and me…he loves reminiscing. He was talking about things that were a familiar country to us. He mentioned old songs and old personalities.

“The Dresser is one of the very few accurate dramatisations of the actor’s life. You’d think that actors playing actors they’d get it right but the scripts are often sentimentalised. This isn’t.

“This is a curiosity because it’s a play on television. Not a film, a play on television. The BBC used to do this all the time. And they have gone.” 

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The Dresser airs on BBC2 on Saturday October 31 at 9pm