Billy Joel (Event Magazine, June 25, 2016)

Billy Joel and Chrissy Iley

We are back stage at Madison Square Garden. Hospitality is piled high with eclairs, pink cakes and hot dogs. Billy Joel is in a tailored suit and a tie with skulls on it. He’s quiet and concentrating on his game. His gait is slow and deliberate. He’s a man with two new hips.  Once on stage he’s exuberant and makes the giant venue feel like a living room – he holds the record for selling out 36 shows in 3 years, more than any other artist.

The crowd itself is not women of a certain age. It’s people from their 20’s up. The front row is always pretty girls, he tells me “years ago we decided to be Santa Claus, I got tired of seeing these gold chain guys with their babes sitting at the front, ‘going entertain me, Piano Man.’ ” He’s speaking in a gnarly, Gangsters of New York style accent. “So I said ‘to hell with this, the front row is not on the market.’ I send my road crew to the cheap seats and they pick who they want in front – the cutest girls they can find. So we look down and see nothing but beautiful women. That amps it up”.

Onstage he’s fully amped and says to the crowd, “at least you don’t have to listen to any new shit!” He hasn’t produced any new music for 23 years. But more of that later, for now, everyone loves the show where they can sing. When it comes to Piano Man at the end, his voice is totally shot. The audience sings it for him.

The crowd roar till they are hoarse, and he’s gone. A limo across town to the awaiting helicopter and on to his home in Oyster Bay, Long Island where he had the tennis court turned into a personal helipad. He was born not too far away.  A couple of days later I go there to meet him.  It is like visiting the Gatsby mansion. It’s beautiful beyond belief. A reconstructed arts and crafts mansion, with high ceilings and sweeping views, manicured gardens, waterfall, pet cemetery and looking out on the bright blue water.  The bay is sparkling.  Boats bobbing up and down.

He tells me, “I used to work on oyster boats and look up at this house and hate the guy that was living here with his inherited money and now it’s mine, can you believe that?” It’s almost like he can’t.  “Oysters was all I was eating when I was on the boats, I had no money and up at 5am in the middle of the winter”. He takes me to the gazebo and points across the bay to a red brick house. “That was my old house where I lived with Christy Brinkley. My first daughter Alexa was born when we lived in that house”.

In the kitchen his 8 month old daughter Della Rose is scooting around on her walker.  She has his eyes. They can stare you out “I grew up in a nothing place called Hicksville, but I used to come here, this was a magic land, I’d ride my bicycle up and think wow. I never forgot it,” he says.

We go under a canopy off his front drive overlooking the bay to talk. He’s 65 (66 May 9th) and he has an air of composure and pride. The anxious ambition long gone.  He has a beautiful blonde wife, Alexis (34?) – who gave up her job risk managing at Morgan Stanley so they could spend more time together and raise their child. With three marriages behind him, he’s anxious to do things differently. “Sure it’s different, but it’s different because of who she is. She didn’t have to give up her job, she wanted to. I wanted her to be around. She’s a good mate. I’ve always taken out the trash and changed diapers. I don’t want to have staff or a lot of people around me. I want to walk around in my boxers if I feel like it. I don’t like people all over the place. So we’re pretty much on our own. I do the cooking and she does the cleaning. It’s easy.”

Does he have a signature dish? “Yup, pasta.  On a Sunday I make a big Sunday sauce, tomatoes, olive oil, garlic. Pasta is my downfall. I love to eat. My metabolism isn’t what it used to be. Jack Nicholson once said the trouble with this country is all the guys with flat bellies and he’s right – there’s nothing more icky to me than a woman going out with a man and he’s picking at his food and only ordering low calorie. A guy on a diet is not a guy as far as I’m concerned. I can even judge a woman I’m dating by how she eats. If she picks at her food she’s not going to be good in bed.” I laugh wholeheartedly. How lovely to have such an unpolitically correct guy.

He has two rescue dogs, one very fat pug called Rosie and a boisterous mini pin macho mix called Jack. He showed me where his favourite dog, Sabrina is buried and has a lovely memorial. Sabrina, he tells me reminded him of his mother who died in 2014 at the age of 92.  His mother was his role model. His father left when he was 10 and she brought him and his sister up by working very hard and insisting that he start with piano lessions. Joel is enjoying giving me the tour, he’s proud of what he surveys. He’s proud of his 12 albums worth of material and that it speaks to all ages. “How boring would it be if it was just people in my age group?” He sold out 36 Madison Square Gardens which takes him up to the end of this year. In the summer he has selective dates in huge stadiums including Wembley. “I hesitate to call it a tour, I don’t want to be a road dog anymore. I want to be at home.  I’ve got a new baby, a new wife and I don’t want to be in hotels.”

Much is made about the fact he doesn’t write songs anymore. Does he have secret ones lying around that one day he’ll finish? “No I’m not even resolute about never doing it. People can say I’m coasting, but I stopped wanting to write songs. It took a toll on me personally. Your personal life goes to hell in a handcart because you’re like Cro-Magnon in a cave. All you’re doing is thinking about songs in your own hell. I hate writing but I love having written. I just stopped wanting to do it. Elton was always saying, why don’t you do a new album? Why don’t you write new songs? And I would reply, ‘why don’t you put out less albums?’ I guess he wants to remain relevant, but if these albums don’t sell what’s the point? I hate to think I’m a nostalgia act, but we all are, anyone who’s going to sell out arenas.”

He toured with Elton, the Piano player and Piano man for 16 years.

A couple of years back, Elton was quoted in the press criticising Joel, why did they fall out? Joel says, “We didn’t fall out, even though Elton said, ‘Billy is a conundrum and he’s got alcohol issues and is coasting,’ That’s NOT the reason we’re not touring anymore. I got tired of doing the same show over and over again and I think his agent told him we were going to do more dates that I never agreed to. I kept seeing in the press, ‘Billy cancelled the tour.’  I didn’t cancel it – it was never booked. I asked him, ‘why didn’t you call me? Don’t talk to my agent, talk to me.’ I had to have my hips replaced and that was the reason I was out of commission. I have had drinking issues in the past. So did he. I think at heart he meant well.

Elton had said when he went to rehab he had to clean floors and criticised Joel’s rehab as not being hard-core.

“At one point he said I went to a rehab that allowed me to have a dog. I thought you weren’t in rehab with me, you don’t know what happened. Once you go 30 days without a drink, you go OK, I get it. They dry you out. That’s what rehab does. So I told him, instead of speaking these words, why don’t you write a few- because he doesn’t write lyrics.”

Much has been made of Joel’s alcoholism.  He had a couple of car accidents a few years back, which were not alcohol related, but people seemed to think he was sad and drinking away the pain.

“I drink wine with dinner, I don’t drink booze anymore. Elton had a terrifying lifestyle when he checked into rehab. I didn’t have that problem. My drug was booze. We haven’t spoken in a while but a couple of years ago I went to a fundraiser for his Aids foundation and we had a little godfather chat. I said, ‘don’t throw your friends under the bus.’ The last few gigs I did with Elton, I could barely walk, I had canes, canes on stage is not good. I used to do flips off the piano, climb up lighting cables and jump off them onto the stage wearing shoes. They told me my option was – do both hips together which is very painful and the recovery is 3 months or one after the other which would be 6 months, so I said just hit me. I did the hip thing in 2011 and I needed a lot of recovery. I was in a new relationship and I wanted to devote time to my personal life.”

His wife is Alexis, his daughter is Alexa and he has a half-brother Alex who is a classical conductor in Vienna. I met him at the show. “I named my daughter Alexa Ray Joel because that has a better Iambic pentameter. The Ray was after Ray Charles and the new baby is Della Rose after my mother who was Rosalind. My mom died 2 years ago. I think once in awhile you see them. The other day I thought I saw her.”

Joel was born Jewish and baptised Protestant and growing up all his friends were Catholic.   Now he’s an atheist. “All my friends were Irish or Italian, I went with them to mass on a Sunday, because I thought that’s what you did. Mass was still in Latin which absolutely fascinated me. (He starts reciting Latin) and then there’s the guy nailed to the wall with a crown of thorns – what happened to him? It was very hocus pocus and kind of enthralling.  The waving of the incense things – it was a good show. When I was about 10 my mom said that me and my sister had to have a religion, and she took us to the church of Christ. It was evangelical. They ask you at the end of the service, do you accept Christ as your saviour, step forward and be baptised. I felt bad no one was walking up the aisle so I thought OK, I’ll go and they baptised me. One Sunday the minister, a southern guy, unrolled a $ bill and said this is the flag of Jews and I said that’s it, I’m outta here, I never went back. I have no religion and I’m glad.”

Did he feel that he didn’t fit with the Jewish parents, the Catholic friends the Protestant church? “No, none of them fit me. My grandfather was an atheist, he believed in science, he was a very smart man who would read logarithms to himself and chuckle. If there was a God, it was Beethoven, he was the guy.”

Both his parents liked music, they met when performing Gilbert and Sullivan in college.  His half brother also had the music in him. “I didn’t even know I had a brother until the 70’s. When my parents split up my father went back to Europe and I never saw him again. Never got a card, nothing. He had a very rough life. Jews living in Nuremburg, had citizenship stripped, businesses stolen by the Nazi’s.  His family went to Cuba as there was a quota on Jews in America. When he came to New York he immediately got drafted into the army.

My grandfather was a male role model and some of my teachers.”

He shrugs.  I can’t tell if the father leaving the 10 year old Joel was a heartbreak or something found easy?

“I did miss having a father but it was relief in some ways as my parents didn’t get on well, they argued a lot and I was lucky as a lot of the time the father wants his son to go into his business, to go to college and I said I’m not doing any of that. I’m going to be a musician. My mother encouraged it. A lot of my friends were afraid of their fathers and I didn’t have anything like that. I wasn’t afraid of anybody.

Then it strikes me, part of what sets Joel apart, absolute fearlessness. Doesn’t care what anyone thinks of him. “I took piano lessons when I was young and the piano teacher also taught ballet and the guys down the street would say Billy, where’s your tutu? Bang, they’d sock me. I said, ‘to hell with this’. I went to the Police Boys Club where they had a boxing program.

Was he not concerned his fingers could be broken? “No, because I wasn’t that good a pianist and I’m still not. Rock n Roll, OK, but the classical, forget it! So the next time I got, ‘where’s your tutu?’ I decked them and nobody ever did it again. I stopped being frightened. I used to have a cute nose, now it’s busted up”. The nose is all over the place, but he doesn’t care.

Has he never cared what people think of him? I read that he used to call up reviewers who gave him bad review. “If someone has an opinion they can say ‘in my opinion, I hated the music, but if they were saying something that was not correct, I’d call them out. That was the neighbourhood I was from. I don’t care about that anymore. I’ve pretty much proven myself.”

Alexis in a pretty, floral chiffon dress is going into town. “Bye babe,” she kisses Joel and we walk over to the helicopter pad to wave her off.

Is that the real reason he doesn’t write songs anymore. He doesn’t want to be that guy who has something else to prove.

He looks right at me, thinks “no it’s not that. I’m still writing music, I just stopped writing words.”

SO the words are the things he wrestles with, they are his demons? “No, not demons, just sometimes, music speaks to me on its own. I started to write what could have been a song but the music was saying what I wanted it to say.

“When Christy and I got divorced I was missing my daughter who would come and visit me and then have to leave. It was heart-breaking. The music came naturally to me and it had all the emotion in it. But I’ve never closed the door on writing songs.”

Will he write one for Alexis?  The helicopter noise claps away in the background. “I don’t know,” he says. It will take her 15 minutes to get to the city – a 2 hour drive.

He likes it when his wife and baby come in the helicopter with him to MSG. “It’s difficult to make the transition, on stage you feel like Mussolini and then bolt out of the building, you’re in a traffic jam (en route to the helipad on the West Side) and you’re just another schmuck on the highway. There’s a car in front of you and you think, does he not know who we are? But you learn from that.”

It’s not that Joel behaves like Mussolini in his domestic life. “I’ve always taken out the trash and done the dishes.” In his previous marriages he was helpful and respectful at home. Was there a pattern in the break-ups? “I’ve tried to figure that out. Sometimes it’s nobody’s fault. It has to be a pretty unique arrangement to find the right person for a lifetime. Very few people are exactly the right person, but when things didn’t work out, I never blamed my wife or myself, it just didn’t work out. I get on great with all of my ex-wives. I still like them and they still like me. The first divorce was horrible.

His first wife was Elizabeth Weber, they married in 1973, he wrote She’s Always a Woman for her. They divorced in 1982. “That divorce was a long drawn out affair. She was also the manager. She was protective of me, but it went to her head. It was not a smart arrangement.”

He married Christy Brinkley in March 1985 (the mother of Alexa Ray) who was born almost exactly 9 months after the wedding day. They divorced in 1994.

His third wife was Katie Lee, who when they got married in 2004, was only 23. She was and is a TV host for food programmes. Before Christy he went out briefly with Elle MacPherson, “I met them both together along with Whitney Houston, at St Barts. It was the first time I ever took a vacation. I started to play the piano in a bar, feeling blue because I’d just gone through the divorce and I look up and there was Elle MacPherson, Christy Brinkley and Whitney Houston standing at the piano. Whitney was only 16, Christy had a boyfriend and Elle was being flirtatious, so I started seeing her. Then she went to Europe to do the modelling thing, by that time I was already friends with Christy and she and her boyfriend had broken up, we started going out and I couldn’t believe my luck. I thought are you kidding me?”

Famously, he wrote, Uptown Girl for her. “She inspired the whole album really, I went back to being a teenager again. The rock star and the supermodel, that was a thing for a while. The hardest part of the break up was being without my daughter because Christy moved to Colorado with some other guy and I’d have to fly to where they lived in blizzards – it was a ski resort. After about a year Christy moved back to New York and everything was hunky dory. I dated for awhile before I met Katy, who was actually in college when I met her. We hit it off, she wasn’t ready for babies and I respected that.  Now she has 3 TV shows, she’s a great girl but she was too young when we got married. In your 20’s you go through so many changes and I was too old to do the things people in their 20s; want to do. Go out, be seen, schmooze.”

Why does he always need to marry people? Wouldn’t it have been better to just date her? “Well when you start living together, you’re thinking of having a family, you want your children to have a name. I married Alexis when she was pregnant with Della Rose.”

He did say after divorce no.3 he’d never marry again. “You always say that after a divorce, ‘I’m never going to do that again’. During a divorce there is a certain acrimony that goes on once the lawyers are involved, once it’s over everything is ok.  If I was going to have a baby I wanted that baby to have a name”.

He met Alexis in 2009 at a restaurant at the town down the road called Huntingdon. “I was with friends, standing at the bar waiting for our table and here was this pretty girl, I started chatting her up and then we started dating. When she started to live with me I said, why don’t you quit your job? Although I liked the businesswoman coming home in her business suit with a little attaché case, kind of sexy.”

He also has a bike shop and owns over 100 hundred motorbikes. They are his passion. Some years ago he ran into Bono in the Hamptons at the American hotel, which is old and splendid. “We got talking about music, shot the shit and then he asked for a ride back. But he didn’t know how to get to where he was staying. I had gone to the hotel in a little Vespa with a sidecar. I used to take the dogs in the sidecar. Bono went in the sidecar. We were driving around in Sag Harbour, a tiny place and he still didn’t know where he was going. I said give me some landmarks and he says, ‘there’s trees and some water’. We were surrounded by trees and water. People were looking at me with Bono in the sidecar with an “are you kidding me look? And it took about an hour to find his hotel which was five minutes away, but we had fun!

On stage he dedicated a song to Donald Trump – the entertainer, for obvious reasons and another to Ted Cruz, New York State of Mind. Why was that?

“He made a comment putting down New York values – meaning New York is a place of Sodom and Gomorrah, with all these ethnicities and dishonest people compared to the Midwest. So people in New York heard that and went fuck you! Trump is a strange guy – an inarticulate speaker, tortured syntax, I want someone who has eloquence, like Churchill. I never go into politics with an audience, that’s not what they come for but I like Hillary.  If it’s her and Trump she’ll kill him. She’s bright and dedicated to public service all her life.”

We talk about his daughter Alexa who writes songs and plays the piano. She does cabaret at the Carlyle hotel. “I don’t know if she has the hunger or drive to make a career out of it. If other people do her songs, that’s great. She’s scared of the music business because of the celebrity aspect of it.”

At one point she had a stalker. Joel continues; “that scared her and she also doesn’t know how to deal with reviews.”

To be a good song writer you have to feel everything, “and when the slings and arrows come, it hurts, it’s a dichotomy.  I’ve been thinking, if I am afraid of something it’s not that – it’s about being old and infirm. I don’t freak out about it all of the time. But I don’t want to be so old I can’t think or do anything. I’d like to think you have a light switch that just goes off and then that’s it.”

For now he couldn’t be more full of life, funny and having a great time. Of course that was not always the case. After his third marriage broke up he was miserable and in pain, physically (from the hips) and emotionally. “A tabloid story ran that I got a DUI and that got picked up – but the more you deny the more guilty you look. I never got a DUI. Now I rarely drink a second glass of wine, before I was drinking everything. I grew up in a pub culture, after work everyone meets up and drinks.”

Were you also self-medicating? “Yeah sure. Some people take pills, some people go to a shrink, some people do yoga, some people drink too much. I drank too much after Christy, I drank too much after Katy. When you’re no longer in control, that’s a problem, I don’t like that feeling anymore, I learned not to like it. I used to like eating too much food, but now I have a cut-off switch. I’m glad.”

A person who has written so much moody music and painful lyrics, is of course going to have his extremes, but it appears he doesn’t have them anymore, which could be another reason why he doesn’t have to exorcise the pain in song. When he was 21 he tried to kill himself by drinking furniture polish. “Nothing was happening with my music career, I didn’t have a job or a place to live. I had to live with my Mom again, which felt like a real failure. So I said that’s it. I’m going to off myself. There was stuff in the closet, bleach that will kill you and another one called Old English scratch polish and I thought that looked tastier. I drank it and farted furniture polish for two days.”

He was serious, he did write a suicide note. “And it became the lyrics to a song called Tomorrow is Today. When you’re 21 it’s a tough age, that transition to adulthood. I keep reading that I suffer from depression, but I don’t. Break ups will depress you. I got depressed after 9/11, I thought the new Millennium was going to be bright and shiny and then boom, the World Trade Centers. That was my town… but the rest of the time I don’t think I get depressed at all.”

Would he have cancelled his show like Bruce Springsteen cancelled his show in North Carolina over the states legislation over transgender bathrooms – saying transgenders had to use the bathroom of the sex they were born with – “I don’t think it’s going to change anything and it’s not the audiences fault. Some people probably bought tickets in a secondary market and won’t get their money back. But I admire Bruce for taking a stand, he’s a principled man and a friend.”

He’s also a fan of Coldplay, “a great band and Adele is the best singer to come down the pike since Whitney Houston, but I only listen to classical music now, Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin”

It seems odd as he’s made his millions through rock music. He smiles very contentedly, “I like spending my money on motorcycles and boats. Lawyers who were supposed to be looking after my interests did not, nor did accountants, nor did managers but I’ve learned from that and I’ve learned to be a businessman and nobody should worry about me. When I come to Europe I’m going to take a bike and ride. Maybe I should have had my nose fixed all those years ago but I never did. I’ve never been a matinee idol. I’m never going to get work done.  Changing my face isn’t going to make that happen. I’m a guy,” he says.  He doesn’t mean he’s just a guy, he means he’s a guy and that too makes him happy.

Ian McKellen (May, 2015)

Ian McKellen and Chrissy Iley

The first thing you notice about Ian McKellen is the blueness of the eyes.  It’s almost other worldly in its sparkle. One can’t use the phrase ‘piecing blue eyes’ because they do not pierce you they do not even look at you.  He in fact looks out, as if on a stage, to the view at the large window that overlooks The Thames.

We are seven floors up in his hotel suite in Canary Wharf, which is just around the corner from his home.

I remember those eyes. Specifically I remember them gleaming out on stage where I have seen him in Macbeth, Richard III, Bent. He has this unque ability to make everyone in the audience feel he is looking at them and make them understand Shakespeare even though they went just to see him. They are the eyes of Gandalf the kindly wizard from Lord of the Rings epics.

He is tall, slim handsome.  Dark grey skinny jeans, black boots, blue shirt.  He doesn’t dress like a man of 75 (76 on May 25). He looks much younger than I expected but that could be because I’ve just seen him play the 93-year-old Sherlock Holmes in the exquisite film, Mr Holmes.

I wonder did it unnerve him to play someone so close to death?  “I am 76 this month.  People you know very well die all around you, so you discover you do think about death quite a lot; theirs and your own.  So to play someone who at the onset, who is so old and is trying to find some sort of elixir of life to remember everything – I can understand it.

“Playing old used to be a matter of deciding which foot to limp on. But it’s up here,” he points to his head. “You have to tell your brain how old you are.  It’s a cliché isn’t it? But inside you don’t feel your age but you are reminded when you take your pills or in particular when friends are dying, that at last mortality becomes reality.”

I find this strangely emotional, even though he didn’t mean it to be. I’ve read how he completely underplayed his need for hearing aids, dental implants and the removal of cataracts from his eyes. He even shrugged off his diagnosis of prostate cancer assuring us he was completely fine.  I shudder. Mortality is horrible. “I don’t know about that. It’s what happens?

“I’ve seen quite a few people at the ends of their lives and they all seem ready for it. I think the preparation has been going on for some time.  You are frightened aren’t you? And as you get older you accept it. Deaths of friends that are accidents, mistakes are dreadful for them and the people they leave behind. But if I saw an obituary that said Sir Ian McKellen died aged 76 you would think ‘well he had a good life.’”

What? There’d be a nation in mourning. And yes, we would be shocked because 76 doesn’t seem especially old. “Young people say he’s really old, he’s well into his forties.”

Does he hang out with many young people? “Sometimes. Sometimes not. If I have a party there will be people my own age and younger ones. Friends who have children. For them the younger generation is a big part of their lives. I do have young people I’m fond of….”

He seemed to become super friendly with Harry Styles when they met on the Graham Norton Show. Did they stay friends? “We exchanged emails. He wanted to see the latest Hobbit film and because of who he is he couldn’t easily go to the cinema so I arranged a screening for him in New York. Since then he has had other things to do…

“I think it’s a mistake to restrict your friends by age.  You wouldn’t say I only act with people my age.”

The Mr Holmes he played was a brilliant man who was losing his mind and trying to remember everything. Was that frightening to connect with?

“No. Most parts you play you have some connection with. You just say he’s that sort of man, I’ll adjust to his way of thinking. The work has been done, the lines have been written.  It can sometimes be enough just to say the lines. You don’t see the significance of what you have said until you see the film.”

It was perhaps more poignant for me because my father had a brilliant mind that he lost to Alzheimer’s.  McKellen suddenly looks up and at me, right at me for the first time. “Was he miserable?”  No he was angry. He wanted to know the details, the minutiae of his mind unravelling and how long it took. I notice he is much more animated, much more comfortable talking about other people than himself. But then again he is much more comfortable being other people.

“Mr Holmes doesn’t have dementia, he’s got most of his faculties.  He’s just trying to gear himself up with energy and solve problems, which I think is very optimistic.  And you feel at the end of the movie that he’s a better person for what he has discovered and for what he goes through. So for me it wasn’t depressing at all, it was a sunny film.”

I wonder has he seen the other Sherlock Holmes’s, Benedict Cumberbatch, Jonny Lee Miller, Robert Downey Jr. Which was his favourite? “I’ve not seen Robert Downey Jr’s. I’ve seen little bits of the Benedict one which was clever and witty.  My favourite was Jeremy Brett for Granada Television. He took the character very seriously. It’s a detailed performance, very black, upsetting and not comfortable and I think that’s what I like about it.

“There have been so many actors  that have played Sherlock Holmes you can’t worry about how good other people have been otherwise you would never play anything, Hamlet or Macbeth. I’m quite used to playing parts other people have played,” he says demurely.  “Of course they didn’t play this particular Holmes. It is mine, I’m the oldest Holmes so far.” He smiles as he says the word “oldest” with relish.

The movie meshes the past and the present. It’s rather haunting when it trails back, searching and nostalgic. Does McKellen himself look back or live in the present or future?

“I just had a very nostalgic three days with my cousin Margaret. We worked out quite quickly that even though we don’t see much of each other, we are each the person the other has known the longest.  There’s nobody who’s known Margaret longer than I and vice versa.  Is that nostalgic?  We spent a lot of time remembering things that happened and talking about our parents.

“I wish I had been more nostalgic for the past when my sister Jean was alive.  She was five years older than me and died six years ago.  Together we would have remembered things about our childhood that now I’ll never know. Things that happened in the war. I was thinking about writing a memoir so I’m trying to remember the evacuees that stayed with us.  We lived in the north and they were evacuated from Middlesex. The father was a fire fighter so he didn’t come but the mother and her two children came, Tony and his younger sister, I can’t remember her name, and we lived together for a year.  Can you imagine, a little house, four of us and then suddenly three strangers moving in.”

McKellen was born in Burnley, grew up in Wigan and later went to Bolton School for Boys where he was head boy.  His father Dennis was a civil engineer and a lay preacher, his mother a theatre lover and home maker.

“I try not to think of the future, I catch myself thinking I’m glad I didn’t have any children. I would worry for their future. Besides I don’t think I would have been a very good parent. I don’t think many people are. I think it’s the most difficult thing anyone can do.”

Did he never think about being a parent? “I’m a gay man. In my generation you would never imagine having children. Some people want that. But I see my friends struggling with being a parent. You have to be so generous don’t you?”

Does he mean gay or straight friends? “Both, I don’t think there is any difference except perhaps if you are a gay parent you must have thought really hard about having children. It would never have been a quick night in the sack.

“I don’t think gay man of my generation ever thought about it.  We didn’t think about getting married. The state wouldn’t allow gay relationships to be declared.  And then they pointed at us and said look, they are irresponsible, they are not like us, they don’t have families.  No we don’t because you tell us we can’t. It’s silly.” He says all this matter of factly, the anger sucked out of it. It’s an inner dialogue that must have gone on for so many years of his life. He knows its every twist and turn.

He came out when he was 49, almost by accident on a Radio 3 talk show when he was discussing Clause 28, the 1988 bill that said no public servant, including teachers, could be seen to be promoting a gay lifestyle. He has always talked about coming out as a huge relief. Of course his friends and theatre family knew he was gay and he was fully established in his career but letting the world know was not just an emotional milestone it paved the way for other actors to declare themselves.

At the time he was Britain’s most famous theatre actor. It is only after this date that what were to become his most renowned film roles started to come in – The Lord of the Rings movies, the X-Men franchise, The Golden Compass, The Da Vinci Code,  Gods and Monsters.

Perhaps it was easier because at 49 the romantic lead roles were dwindling and many of his characters were asexual. When Rupert Everett came out he said that he regretted it because then he was never taken seriously as a heterosexual romantic lead again.  “Rupert is a bright man and that was how it seemed to him. But I would not say that is true for me. When an actor’s career doesn’t go in the direction they want it too it’s not just down to one particular reason. I suspect his views have changed now. I would take acting out of the equation. I have not met anybody who thought that coming out wasn’t the best thing they had done in their life. It was the most important thing, life changing and life-affirming.”

I wonder if coming out is an old fashioned phrase as things have moved on immeasurably.  “I know people who are not at ease saying they are gay but I don’t know many young people who have problems with it.  I hope in fifty years we will look back and wonder what all the fuss was about.”

For him and his generation things were much harder. Life was closed and full of stressful secrets. It is perhaps easier to come out to your friends then siblings and parents last.

McKellen’s mother died when he was twelve. “That relationship is irreplaceable. When my father married two years later I think one of his motives was to provide me with a mother, which she never was.  She was Gladys and I had a very different relationship with her. I ended up being very close to her. But she wasn’t my mother and I would love to have known my mother as an adult.

“My father died when I was 25 (killed in a car crash). We weren’t that close and for the previous four years I’d been at university.  I don’t know how different my life or my thinking would have been if they had both been alive.  There would have been a lot for them to get over. In that we weren’t a family who….” He pauses, even now finding it difficult to find the right words.

Confronting who you are and telling your parents in a time when it was illegal would have been so hard. His first proper love affair was with history teacher Brian Taylor from Bolton. It began in 1964, coincidentally the same year his father died. It endured until 1972. Six years later he met Sean Mathias at the Edinburgh Festival and they were together as a couple for a decade. They still work together. Mathias directed him in Waiting For Godot (2009) and together with another businessman they purchased the lease on The Grapes pub in Limehouse, close to where he lives.

There is nothing about him that seems extravagant.  He is not over the top with his emotions?  Does he do anything that is excessive, luxurious? “Compared to other people my house is luxurious, but it’s within my means. And I’m never tempted to live anywhere else. It roots me.”

It is in this moment that I wonder how different he would have been if his mother had not died. What if he could ever have confronted his feelings? He would he have ever have come out at all? Did his parents easily access their emotions and talk openly?

“There was a lot of love and caring and no-one ever lifted a hand in anger. But they were not emotionally open. It never became a problem but I think it would have done if they had been alive. We didn’t seem to talk about things that were important. I would have to have come out and God knows how that would have gone down.  It’s a deep regret that I didn’t have the chance to tell them.”  He has stopped looking out of the window. The conversation is suddenly important to him.  As his mother died when he was twelve, surely he didn’t know then if he was gay.  “No I didn’t.”  Post war Britain didn’t encourage introspection, it encouraged getting on with things.  He nods.  “Clearly there are a lot of families that don’t really nurture each other and some that do.”

Perhaps the fact that who he really was had to remain hidden and disconnected from his parents. It informed his desire to be an actor where you are connecting with everybody. “That is an astute observation and there is some truth in it.  One of the things that strongly appealed to me about acting was that it was a substitute for real life.  I know more about acting and what it involves, it’s effects, it’s craft than I do about anything else in my life.  I think I’m a good actor but I couldn’t say that I have a strong grasp of other areas.  So initially it was a substitute, a lot to do with being gay, unable to be myself in real life because the law said you couldn’t be. That suppression is cruel and barbaric.

“Within the theatre, one could not only express emotions publicly, although not your own – they were your own but filtered through a character. So that was an outing, a healthy one within the community of theatre. There was acceptance and love that you didn’t get anywhere else.”  Does he mean the theatre was his real family?  “That is right.  Acting is not about ego and drawing attention to yourself, it’s about getting on with people and doing it together… but then I have to come and talk about myself,” he says with a gently raised eyebrow.
He really doesn’t like revealing. It’s not in his make-up.  He’s learned too well to keep important things hidden.

When he was 18 he won a scholarship to St. Catharine’s College, Cambridge, to read English Literature. A grammar school boy suddenly mixed in with very posh people.  Was that alienating?

“There were a lot of divisions when I was university between men and women, between boys who had come from doing their National Service and those who had come straight to university.  They had killed people and now they were coming back to the rules of the university.  There was a division between north and south and I was mocked for my accent.  There were scholarship boys like me and those from southern public schools.  Many divisions, and that was just one of them. Those divisions helped you to find yourself and find your friends.”

Trevor Nunn, David Frost, Corin Redgrave and Derek Jacobi were all at Cambridge around the same time. He had a secret crush on Derek Jacobi, the actor with whom he stars in the ITV comedy series Vicious where they both play outrageously mean and camp individuals. Back then it could not have been more different. “I wouldn’t take it any further then, you just didn’t. We didn’t ever talk about being gay, it was a secret.”  They didn’t even come out to each other.

“My best friend at school qA David Hargreaves. We acted at school, we went to the theatre a lot, we were inseparable in the way kids could be. Right thorugh school. He ended up a professor of education at Oxford and Cambridge and he was gay. We never knew, we never talked about it. Isn’t that interesting?”

They were kindred spirits and didn’t realise why.  “Even my friendship with Derek we never called ourselves gay. I can’t remember what we did call ourselves. I remember I was meeting people like myself and many of them would go to the theatre but I didn’t wake up sexually until after Cambridge.”

Did he ever have a girlfriend.  “Who I had sex with?” He looks a little shocked.  No, had feelings for, who he kissed, who he felt maybe he could go there with?  “Yes, a little bit.  It didn’t seem quite right to me. I had a few who were a bit sweet on me and of course I couldn’t tell them I wasn’t attracted to them so I went along with it, a little bit.  I was experimental as many straight men were experimental. I don’t mean to make it sound clinical. I had some very close relationships with girls that had I been straight would have led onto a serious relationship. Of my closest friends there are as many women as there are men.” Does he want to fall in love again?  “No it’s nothing I would like in my life. My passion in life is that I know a bit about the status of gay people in this country and around the world.  It’s nice to have something that I have a strong feeling and connection with.”

I’m slightly haunted about his mother.  About if she hadn’t died when he was so young how he would ever have come out.  And what a difference that would have made in his life and what a difference that would have made in the rest of the world as so many gay men have looked to him as a mentor.

“I didn’t know my mother was dying. She was sleeping downstairs and had been in hospital. I didn’t know she had a mastectomy until after she died. I was away on a school camp.  I thought she was ill but she was going to get better. I didn’t see her in any distress.”

The 12-year-old McKellen chose not to come back for the funeral which seems to illustrate just how separate he could be from his emotions and the deep places he found to bury them. Emotions that later would be filtered through characters that would dazzle us.

He did once go back to the house they lived in growing up and talked to the woman who had bought it. “We had moved from Wigan to Bolton and that was where my mother died.  The woman who bought the house (in Wigan) claimed that on the day my mother died, she felt a presence.  She didn’t know that my mother had died but she found the lights being turned on and off and then she thought she saw someone come up the stairs. She had the idea that my mother would have gone back to the house where she was happiest at the moment of her death.”

In 1998 he did a one-man show called Knight Out in which he discussed his life and career. The speech that he would do at the end was called Letter to Mama by Armistead Maupin.  It was the letter that Maupin wrote to his mother when he came out.  It would touch everyone in the audience. Perhaps because he was using it as his channel. Perhaps it was the letter he would have written to his mother telling her things that he could never have done.

“I’d been watching some little films that my uncle took. My cousin Margaret bought them down. My father was a handsome bugger and my mother was pretty. You see them as kids just getting married. They couldn’t have known what they were letting themselves in for.”

From whom did he inherit the electric blue eyes? “I am colour blind so eyes don’t register with me. It must be the blue shirt that makes my eyes look more blue.” The eyes, his mother’s eyes, twinkle, the same other worldly twinkle.

Mr Holmes is out June 19