McKellen fulfils dream with Coronation Street role

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In a development almost as unexpected as Hilda Ogden's departure 17 years ago, the makers of Coronation Street revealed yesterday that Sir Ian McKellen is to swap Middle-earth for Weatherfield and join the cast.

In a development almost as unexpected as Hilda Ogden's departure 17 years ago, the makers of Coronation Street revealed yesterday that Sir Ian McKellen is to swap Middle-earth for Weatherfield and join the cast.

Sir Ian - whose incarnations in recent years have ranged from Widow Twankey, the voice of Zebedee in The Magic Roundabout and Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings trilogy - will appear as Mel Hutchwright, a dodgy novelist invited to the Street to address the Weatherfield book club.

Sir Ian, 65, who has signed up for 10 episodes from June, revealed last year that his only remaining ambition was to appear in the Street - having fulfilled his other desire to play a dame when he appeared as Widow Twankey in The Old Vic's production of Aladdin .

He was once offered a role as Elsie Tanner's long-lost nephew - but turned it down because he was intimidated by the soap's regulars. "You can't just wander into Coronation Street and be good in it," he said. "They're all so brilliant at it, and they've been doing it for years."

But the actor, whose upbringing in Burnley, Wigan and Bolton provides him with impeccable Street credentials, has been tempted by the Hutchwright role which insiders said would be a "very funny" storyline.

It is more bad news for the BBC's beleaguered EastEnders , which causes three in five Britons to avoid London's East End because of its miserable storylines, according to a survey this week.

"I am nervous but raring to go," said Sir Ian, who starts work at Granada on 29 March. "I don't yet know what Mel will look like nor sound like - a bit of my native northern accent maybe - but I'm already studying his lines."

Sir Ian, who is gay, has been critical in the past of the way homosexuality has been dealt with in the show. Before the introduction of the gay character Sean Tully (Antony Cotton) he said: "Surely the people who work on the programme must realise that it represents something in our society, and for them to ignore such a sizeable minority as gay people is rather ridiculous, particularly when so many of us are great fans of the programme."

He joins an eclectic mix of celebrity appearances, including Sir Norman Wisdom, the comedian Peter Kay and former Bond girl Honor Blackman.

The Manchester Evening News TV editor, Ian Wylie, who has followed the programme over several decades, said Sir Ian's appearance was "a great coup for the Street".

"McKellen is a local lad and lifelong fan. He knows what makes the Street tick. I'm sure Corrie viewers will [appreciate] him. It promises to be a storyline full of northern humour."

Sir Ian need have no fear that his fame will prevent Street fans suspending their disbelief. When Mel Hutchwright's steamy bodice-ripper, Hard Grinding , featured on the soap earlier this year, bookshops fielded calls from viewers who were convinced it was real.

CELEBRITY SOAP APPEARANCES

Sir Norman Wisdom

As Ernie Crabbe, he jogged down Coronation Street and ran headlong into a phone box. "Laugh? I thought I'd never start," said TV critic Charlie Catchpole.

Patsy Kensit

Prefers her role as Sadie King in ITV's Emmerdale to filming Lethal Weapon 2 and other work in LA. "More people have watched me on Emmerdale in the past nine months than any movie I've ever been in," she said last week.

Joan Collins

Her role as conniving glamourpuss Alexis Carrington Colby in Dynasty (1981-89) became her best known work, keeping her in the public eye.

Honor Blackman

Found the going tough as superannuated showbiz type Rula Romanoff in Coronation Street. "You get one rehearsal for each scene, someone then barks at you to get into position and you're expected to perform perfectly," she said.

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