Sir Ian McKellen:'The Show' must go on

Sir Ian McKellen co-founded Stonewall in 1989, but there's still work for the gay rights group today, he tells Dan Poole
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The Independent Online

On entering Sir Ian McKellen's house, the first question I'm asked is whether I want him to sign my jeans. I laugh. The look he gives me over the top of his glasses tells me this is not a joke. I frown; he looks appalled. "Oh God, no - who are you? God, what an odd question to ask! I'm so sorry!"

My identity duly established, explanation arrives later with the delivery of a pair of jeans (with nobody wearing them) during our interview. The signing, for a charity auction, is not without its dilemmas - "Where do I sign them? Down the leg? On the arse?" - but you can forgive Sir Ian for feeling a bit harassed.

EuroPride, an annual event that celebrates gay, lesbian and transgender culture, has been taking place in London for the past fortnight It will culminate this Sunday at the Royal Albert Hall with The Show, of which Sir Ian is the director. "It means five-and-a-half thousand people can get together in the nation's concert hall and, whether they know it or not, attend a political event. We've got some of the most famous gays in the country on stage: Elton John, Stephen Fry, Julian Clary, Sandi Toksvig Graham Norton and me, if I can persuade Widow Twanky to get back into her fishnets."

EuroPride had its beginnings in London, back in 1992. Since then it has appeared in Amsterdam, Berlin and Rome and last year took place in Oslo, Norway. This year's event included film screenings, galas, exhibitions, plays and comedy shows, and things will get even more interesting on Saturday. Officially EuroPride day, festivities kick-off with a parade that will wind its way down Oxford Street - a first - turn onto Regent Street, through Piccadilly Circus, down Whitehall and finish on the Victoria Embankment.

A rally will take place in Trafalgar Square from 3pm, including speeches from Mayor Ken Livingstone, various politicians and Sir Ian himself. The Soho Party will also be getting started, with the Women's Stage, a food festival and numerous bars and stalls. Leicester Square also gets in on the act with the Cabaret Stage, featuring the unmissable Drag Idol 2 Final.

The Show is not the first time Sir Ian has put on such a spectacle, having produced a number of Stonewall Equality Shows at the Royal Albert Hall in the Nineties in tandem - then as now - with producer Mig Kimpton. Stonewall is the gay rights group that Sir Ian co-founded in 1989 in response to Section 28. That was the year after Sir Ian came out publicly on Radio Four and he soon found himself acting as a spokesperson for the gay community. It was a role he didn't necessarily expect, but has nonetheless embraced.

"When we set up Stonewall and it needed funding, it was the Equality Shows that used to raise money. The funding came from showbiz: Elton [John], Paul O'Grady, Julian Clary. Time and again they turned up, and their mate, Sting. All the wonderful comics - Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders, Joanna Lumley- would help, right at the height of their fame, because there was a cause that we were fighting for. Now, it's different. Now Stonewall's established, people think it is reliable and everyone is happy to turn up and pay a lot of money at the Savoy for the annual dinner.

"But here we are, back again, and who is it that wants to support the cause? Showbiz again. It's very nice and I'm in good company, and although it's a lot of hard work and not what I normally do, in the end it's very rewarding. Because what can I do? I can't go into the office and understand the work they do. I'm not a lawyer, I can't go and talk to civil servants and ministers on the specifics of what needs to be done."

While we are talking, Sir Ian has to field calls from agents, PRs and fellow organisers, and you get the feeling that this has been the norm for the past few months. However, he's clearly determined, for while he accepts that things have come a long way in his lifetime and indeed since he first became active in gay rights, he still sees a lot of work to be done. "People say, what's the point of having Pride anymore, isn't it all over? The laws have all been changed, we have an equal age of consent, there are gays in the military, civil partnerships, there's been a review of Section 28.

"But we always knew that changing the law was only the first part of it. There was a guy murdered on Clapham Common recently because he was gay. Pride marches in Moscow are interrupted by the police. Teenagers are executed publicly in Iran for having sex. That's why we have to go on about it, because it doesn't always feel like a safe world when you're growing up identifying yourself as being gay."

He asks me how old I am. 24, I reply. "Well until I was 27 it was illegal for me to make love to the person I chose to be with. John Dexter, who directed Amadeus, was imprisoned because he was gay. Angus McBean, a great photographer, was put in prison. John Gielgud was fined for making eyes at somebody in the street. These were the images of my youth and I think people of my generation are scarred. You just hope that young people today find it easier to come out, and are aware that the world becomes a better place for it. More people see that, just because some people don't use sex for reproduction, there's nothing to be alarmed about."

Is it harder to come out when you're in the public eye? "You're not out until there's nobody in the world who you wouldn't mind knowing. You don't have to tell them all, but you're not going to hide it. If you're in public life you've got an extra bit of coming out to do that most people don't have.

"You don't have to talk about your private life, but the thing is to not deny your sexuality, both for yourself and society at large. Until someone is prepared to say they're gay then other people might think there's something sinister about it - why are you not saying you're gay? But we're not in a secret society, even if sometimes we are made to feel as though we are."

And with that he's off again, a whirlwind of phone calls to make, people to see and places to go. If he wasn't so busy, I'd have been tempted to ask him to sign my jeans after all.

For tickets to The Show call the Royal Albert Hall box office on 020-7589 8212. For those who have recently entered a civil partnership, there is a special two-for-one offer and a chance to appear on stage.

Visit www.pridelondon.org for more details.

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