In memory of my best friend Ian Charleson, who performed the greatest Hamlet ever

Thirty years ago today the ‘Chariots of Fire’ star died of Aids. Fellow actor and best friend Hilton McRae recalls a man of stubbornness, bravery and brilliance

Sunday 05 January 2020 12:45 GMT
Charleson (right) in the role that made his name on film
Charleson (right) in the role that made his name on film

It was 1968. I went to Edinburgh University to read Scots law. My father’s best friend was the Sheriff of Dundee, so it seemed like a good idea. There was a scrap of paper on a noticeboard advertising lunchtime charades at Dramsoc’s premises. And that’s where I met Ian. A young man who looked old beyond his years, Ian McElhinney (Mac), performed a charade which I gathered to be a play by Shakespeare, and when Mac mimed tossing a coin, a blond god along the row from me exclaimed: “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.”

The blond god – tall, loose-limbed, beautiful but with bad acne – was Ian Charleson. During that first term we – Ian, Mac, David Wilson (now Rintoul) and myself – did a pile of plays, workshops, readings, whatever. When I went home for Christmas I told my dad: “I know what I want to do. I want to be an actor.”

“That confirms it,” he said, “you’re a fucking poof.” And that made me cry. Mac and I moved into a flat and hosted countless evenings of charades and bridge. And Ian would mostly be there. He was fun: gentle, caring, a dry wit. He would pick up his cards and mutter “fuck-my-old-boots’’.

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