The actor Sir Ian McKellen has said that the British government “underestimated” the public by initially doubting they would behave responsibly and observe lockdown rules during the coronavirus outbreak.
Speaking at a livestreamed event on Wednesday night, McKellen said that it was thought, before lockdown came into effect in March, that people would not have the patience and discipline to respect the rules for long enough. However, he observed, “people are very happy to obey orders, in this democracy, if they see it’s coming from a sensible place. The government didn’t quite trust us to be grown up”.
In an apparent reference to the Durham trip made by the prime minister’s chief aide, Dominic Cummings, he added: “One of their people, very close to the centre of power, broke the law so perhaps they were right that there are some people who don’t know how to behave.”
The government’s delay to introducing stricter social distancing measures was widely criticised in the early weeks of the coronavirus outbreak, including in an open letter dismissing herd immunity. Signed by more than 500 UK scientists, it was issued on 14 March. Lockdown was ordered on 23 March.
McKellen acknowledged that he is “awfully glad” he is not prime minister and steering the country through a pandemic, and that “whatever you do, you’re going to get it wrong”.
The actor was talking at an event, chaired by journalist Patrick Strudwick at London’s Crazy Coqs cabaret venue, in which he and the American author Armistead Maupin discussed their careers and their long friendship. Maupin, who 30 years ago dedicated one of his Tales of the City books to McKellen, said that he had written seven chapters of a new novel in the series, Mona of the Manor, focusing on his character Mona Ramsey. McKellen credited Maupin with helping him to come out as gay. “I think I was sort of ready,” he told him, adding: “You held out a hand to me and pulled me into the real world.”
The pair discussed their shared passion for the theatre, with Maupin remembering making his stage debut aged six as one of the murdered children in Medea, and saying that McKellen’s recent 80th birthday one-man show had left him eager to do one of his own. McKellen discussed the recent news that, once lockdown restrictions have been eased, he will return to the theatre as Hamlet. He said it would never have crossed his mind to do the role but that director Sean Matthias had suggested it and he was intrigued and going along with it.
Playing the Prince of Denmark in his 80s – when “young Hamlet”, as he is called, is generally considered to be 30 at the oldest – was a way to “look into how much we need to see what we’re hearing”, said McKellen. The character is “so witty, so on-the-ball” he added, and he is looking forward to re-encountering a role he previously played in 1971. “I didn’t reckon I was any good,” he remarked, “and nor did anyone else.”
McKellen said lockdown is the longest period that he has gone without performing and has been like “an enforced retirement”. He has his own plans to write a play, which will revolve around two real people. The only hitch, he said, is that he doesn’t yet know how to engineer their meeting.
A Live Stream with Armistead Maupin in Conversation with Ian McKellen is available to watch online until 14 August