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Wednesday 14 November 2012


The Prisoner: Sir Ian McKellen
ROVERS return, sometimes. But not Sir Ian McKellen, who maintains he can never darken the cobbles again.
   It’s now five years since we saw him in Weatherfield as dodgy author Mel Hutchwright. Some fans hope he might re-appear as part of Coronation Street’s 50th birthday celebrations.
   “Betty Driver (Rovers barmaid Betty Williams) wrote me a letter saying, ‘When are you coming back to the Street?’ only last week.
    "No. I was playing a character that couldn’t possibly go back. People do go back playing other parts. I think I’ve only got one Coronation Street character inside me and I’ve done it now.
   “What I wanted to do - I thought it would be fun because I was playing a conman - when it was all over in Weatherfield, on EastEnders one night the camera would be idly panning across the pub and there would be my character, chatting somebody up.
   “And then I was going to be in Emmerdale. And Emmerdale were up for it. They said I could go and play the same character in that. But I wasn’t allowed to do it.”
   Does he still watch Corrie? “I’ve never watched it every day, I’ve got a life. There’s so much of it, isn’t there? In the old days it was one a week. You could cope with that. Two a week? Fine. But now what? Is it five or six? Double doses? "But I know what’s going on. I’ve only got to call up Antony Cotton (who plays Sean Tully). He tells me.”
   The Lancashire-born and raised knight of the realm is about to fly to Australia and New Zealand to appear on stage in Waiting For Godot, following acclaimed runs on both Broadway and in London’s West End.
   We meet for afternoon tea in a hotel just around the corner from the Theatre Royal Haymarket, where Ian has been plying his trade, to discuss his role as Number Two in The Prisoner.
   The six-part ITV1 “re-invention” of the 1960s cult classic co-stars American actor Jim Caviezel as Number Six. Like the original prisoner, played by the late Patrick McGoohan, Six wakes up to find himself trapped in a mysterious place called “The Village”. Who are the residents, why is he there and can he ever escape?
   While the basic principle is the same - “I am not a number. I am a free man” - exploring issues of human rights and resistance against authority, this is a different series. The sixties original was filmed in Portmeirion in Wales. The backdrop to this 21st century version is the African desert - the Namibian coastal city of Swakopmund.
   Every day’s a sunny day in The Village which Two appears to control. “I read the first two or three scripts and on the basis of that I said I wanted to do it,” recalls Ian. “I thought it was rather adult TV, to tell you the truth. Which I like, being an adult.
   “The episodes were intriguing in terms of the thriller but meaty in terms of writer Bill Gallagher’s take on what our lives are like today. Which is the difference between this version of The Prisoner and the original. It would have been inappropriate for us to try and copy the original. What would be the point? This has taken the simple idea of the village and expanded it.”
   Unlike the puzzling ending to the original, The Prisoner 2010 has what Ian maintains is a totally satisfying conclusion. “Ingenious, telling and frightening and all very much to do with the sort of world that we live in, where people are being observed. You were observed arriving at this hotel. You’re probably being observed now. Who observes you and who gave them permission? Well we know the answer to that - nobody.
   “You will find out why there is a village, who created it and where it is. And why Two is there. I don’t think it’s letting too much out of the bag to say that he does have the means of not being in the village.”
   The producers contacted McGoohan about the new series before he died last year. “He was shown the script and I think it was an early idea that he might actually play the escaping prisoner we see at the top of episode one. But there was only one part he wanted to play and I’m happy to say that it was already cast,” smiles Ian.
   “I didn’t see the original first time round because I was working in the theatre. It’s difficult to remember, isn’t it, that if you missed television when it went out, you missed it. No DVDs.”
   Later this year Ian is due to reprise his Oscar-nominated role as wizard Gandalf for The Hobbit, a part which has won him global recognition in a glittering career that has encompassed both Shakespeare and Widow Twankey.
   He is also interviewed for ITV1‘s The South Bank Show Revisited this Sunday, his fourth appearance on the series in 29 years as it marks its final season. Ian talks about his early theatre visits to Manchester and explains the joys of disappearing into a character. “All my life I’ve been trying not to be Ian McKellen.” 
   Acknowledged as one of our greatest living actors, he turns 71 next month with no signs of slowing down, narrowly escaping serious injury in a quad bike accident while taking a break from filming The Prisoner.
   It happened while he was riding at speed up a huge dune in the desert. “I got to the top of one of these curves and fell off the bike and rolled very slowly. And coming behind me was this quad bike - it missed me by inches. They’re heavy things...this creature, it was like a movie, coming after me.”
   His action man tumble was watched by “horrified” co-stars, including actress Ruth Wilson, who plays 313.
     “Ian rolled himself out of the way. It was the best stunt move I’d ever seen anyone do.”
    *The Prisoner begins on ITV1 at 9.30pm on Saturday with The South Bank Show Revisited at 10.15pm on Sunday.

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