The atmosphere of an old-time touring company is so lovingly re-created that you can practically smell the gin- scented sweat of generations on fusty costumes. This BBC adaptation observes Harwood’s original stage version, but uses the whole of the Hackney Empire – backstage, wings, corridors and all as its set.
“There are very few plays which are accurate about what it’s like to be an actor, but this is truthful – it’s not romanticised,” says McKellen, who extemporised a vital training session on mid-century stage make-up. “Of course we’ve been there, we know it backwards, so no acting required, really. I remembered a theatre in Bolton where the star dressing room had a lavatory behind a little curtain, and I suggested this to the designers. So you do occasionally glimpse a dirty loo. That was my little contribution.”
Above all, The Dresser celebrates the “calling” of artists who hauled high art round the provinces. “I know from my own experience how important that was,” says McKellen who, for all his success in Lord of the Rings and X-Men films is a dyed-in-the-wool creature of the theatre.
“Growing up in Lancashire, I was very grateful to the actors who toured around. I saw John Gielgud on tour, and it made a huge impression on me. I’m a patron now of the English Touring Company, and, in the 1970s, I was involved with the Royal Shakespeare Company, touring Twelfth Night and The Seagull round 14 different places. We felt we were very much missionaries, taking out the message. We played mainly to school-children and, years later, I was talking to Michael Grandage [former artistic director at London’s Donmar Warehouse] who told me he’d been at that performance of Twelfth Night aged 15 and that it was the moment he knew what he wanted to do with his life. So you never know.”