22 May 2000 | Sir John Gielgud (1904-2000)

My first contact with John Gielgud was a congratulatory telegram sent to the 1969 Edinburgh Festival where I was playing one of his most famous parts, Shakespeare's "Richard II". It was typical that he should have been interested in a younger generation and that he should note another actor's success. In those days he was a regular theatre-goer, although he preferred the movies for relaxation and saw all the new releases.

A couple of years later I had dinner with him at a friend's house in London. I was overwhelmed to be in the company of such an iconic actor, whose work I had followed ever since, as a schoolboy, I saw him touring as King Lear in the late '50s. He was relaxed, gossipy and confided at the end of the evening: "When I die, all they will say about me is that I was the first queer actor to be knighted." He was referring to his arrest and fine after picking up a man in Piccadilly Circus. If the world forgot that indiscretion and the law's over-reaction, he always regretted both.

Which is perhaps why he never wanted to be publicly involved in gay concerns. Privately he sent regular contributions to Stonewall, the UK lobby group supporting gay/lesbian law reform. "All power to your elbow" he wrote in response to my letter for his 90th birthday. I had asked him to allow Stonewall to publish that he was a benefactor - "No, no, no, no" began his reply. What a pity that he couldn't accept his honoured position as one of the most distinguished gay men who contributed so much to world theatre and, of late, to the film industry. I hope he wouldn't mind my recalling his sexuality even though in doing so, his forecast was part-fulfilled.

Judging by the huge media coverage of his life, it is his career that has taken precedence over his life, which he was at such pains to keep private. His lover, Martin Hensler, died last year.

Two other thoughts. Sir John, in his 97th year, was still smoking Turkish cigarettes and belied the warning that "Smoking Kills". Last year, it was rumoured that he changed his agent, hoping the new one might get him more work. — Ian McKellen, 22 May 2000

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