THEATRE / Good night, sweet prince

Ian Charleson died five years ago today. David Benedict remembers a gre at actor

When Daniel Day-Lewis walked out halfway through the run of Hamlet at the National, everyone talked. When Ian Charleson took over the role a few weeks later, nobody noticed. At least, not until the actress Suzanne Bertish wrote to John Peter of th e Sunday Times urging him to see Charleson's arresting performance.

Peter went, and sent the actor a jeroboam of champagne after the performance. His review described Charleson's portrayal as "virile and forceful. He oozes intelligence from every pore . . . the way Charleson can transform a production is a reminder that actors are alive and well, that directors can only draw a performance from those who have one in them and that, in the last analysis, the voice of drama speaks to us through actors."

What he didn't know was that Charleson was fighting full-blown Aids. The following night, he gave his last performance. Eight weeks later, at the age of 40, he died of septicemia brought on by Aids, and Britain lost one of its finest actors.

Known principally for his outstanding performance as Eric Liddell in the much-feted Chariots of Fire, Charleson was an actor whose full potential was only just being realised when he died.

He left drama college early to work with Frank Dunlop and the Young Vic Company. Within months he was playing his first Hamlet - in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. At 24, he played the original Shakespeare version for Cambridge Theatre Company but, despite good reviews, he remained unsatisfied with his performance.

There followed TV plays, including Drew Griffiths's The House on the Hill, West End successes, a season at the National, Derek Jarman's Jubilee and a lengthy run at the RSC including Once in a Lifetime, the original production of Piaf, and The Taming of the Shrew.

Chariots of Fire was followed by Ghandi and numerous American TV mini-series. His triumphant return to the National was as Sky Masterson (the Marlon Brando role) in Guys and Dolls. Something of his deliciously smooth and sexy performance can be gleaned from the cast recording. It's not just the flowing of his light tenor voice. There's something else. When he sings "I've Never Been in Love Before" to Julie Covington, you hear his heart opening up. Conversely, when playing opposite Julie Walters in Sam Shepard's Fool for Love, he combined physical abandonment with a mesmerising intensity.

He discovered he was HIV positive in 1986 and abandoned work for a year. His antibody status was to remain a secret to all but his closest friends. When he returned to the National in 1988 opposite Lindsay Duncan in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Michael Coveneywrote: "Mr. Charleson is stricken almost to the point of catatonia, a ruined athlete in shimmering white exactly conjuring the ideal of a helpless male divinity. These are two performances of driven majesty and great poise."

In the Autumn of that year he was rushed to hospital with pneumonia. After extensive chemo- and radiotherapy, he played the tough drag queen Greta at a one-off benefit performance of Bent in aid of Stonewall, the campaign group. As the director Sean Mathias wrote, "the most gargantuan part of it from Ian's point of view was that here was a man with Aids, his torso now covered by Kaposi's sarcoma, his face starting to distort and disfigure, dressed convincingly as a glamorous and roguish Dietrich-type woman, and the secret behind that portrayal was that he, the director and the costume designer were the only people who knew about his illness."

After his death, a group of his friends set up the Ian Charleson Award for a classical actor under the age of 30. There are also scholarships in his name at Lamda, and the Royal Free Hospital has an Aids centre dedicated to him. Much of the money to provide this was raised at a benefit performance of Guys and Dolls. The tickets just vanished. Even the dress rehearsal was packed to the rafters. Nearly every member of the original cast and band returned to honour him. Bob Hoskins even flew in overnight from Los Angeles and made it in time for the curtain-call.

Tony Britten, the musical director, recalls that "he had this enormously virile stage presence and the most glorious, completely unforced voice. The musicians, a hard-bitten bunch, were crying from the overture onwards. Those occasions are always emotional, but that was something else. It was a tribute to the affection in which he was held."



Dermot O'Leary attends the X Factor Wembley Arena auditions at Wembley on August 1, 2014 in London, England.


Arts and Entertainment
At this year's SXSW festival in Austin, Texas

Music Why this music festival is still the place to spot the next big thing

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished
tvReview: The latest episode was a smidgen less depressing... but it’s hardly a bonza beach party
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall

Mexican government reportedly paying Bond producers for positive portrayal in new filmfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Disney’s flying baby elephant is set to return in live-action format
filmWith sequels, prequels and spin-offs, Disney plays it safe... and makes a pachyderm
Arts and Entertainment
Nazrin with Syf, Camden
The QI Elves photographed at the Soho Theatre. They are part of a team of researchers who find facts for the television programme 'QI'.
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv0-star review: Sean O'Grady gives it his best shot anyway
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

    The saffron censorship that governs India

    Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
    Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

    How did fandom get so dark?

    Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
    The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
    The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

    Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

    Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
    Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

    Disney's mega money-making formula

    'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
    Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

    Lobster has gone mainstream

    Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
    Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

    14 best Easter decorations

    Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
    Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

    Paul Scholes column

    Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
    Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss