WHEN Ian McKellen was offered the iconic role of Sherlock Holmes in Mr Holmes, available on download and DVD later this month, he did some research into how many times the brilliant sleuth has appeared on screen.
“There have been 150 films, apparently,” he says. “That’s a lot but it shows that this is a character that people are endlessly fascinated by.”
Created by Edinburgh-born Arthur Conan Doyle, Holmes first appeared in print in 1886 and has indeed become one of the most enduring characters in popular fiction and on television and in film.
“I suppose that it is an invention that struck some sort of chord with people. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know who Sherlock Holmes was. I don’t remember being introduced to him; he’s always been there,” says McKellen.
“That seems to have been true for a lot of people, and not just people who can read English books, which is where it all began.
“What’s interesting is that he was so clearly a man of his time, but you can remove him from his time and he remains himself.”
He continues, “I really don’t know why he endures so well. I mean, he’s not an attractive person – you wouldn’t want to spend any time with him, would you? I wouldn’t.
“He’d have nothing to say to you, and he wouldn’t be interested in you, unless you were interesting to him.
“He’s not friendly, he’s not sociable but there is something about him that we are intrigued by.”
Mr Holmes is based on Mitch Cullin’s acclaimed novel A Slight Trick of the Mind and offers a very different perspective on the legendary detective.
In the story Holmes is a real – rather than fictional – man and his legendary exploits have been chronicled by Dr Watson, who has now passed away, rather than Conan Doyle.
It’s 1947 and Holmes is now 93 and struggling to come to terms with early dementia as he tries to recall his last case some 30 years earlier.
Living in rural Sussex with his housekeeper, Mrs Munro (Laura Linney) and her bright young son, Roger (Milo Parker), Holmes spends his retirement tending his beloved bees and trying to piece together what happened to a missing woman, Ann Kelmot (Hattie Morahan).
“I get to play the standard, the expected, the Conan Doyle, John Watson version, and then this other imagined version, which actually turns out to be more real than the traditional,” says McKellen.
“The way the film plays with all that, and does it in the style of a Conan Doyle story is what’s clever about it, I think.
“You could, if you didn’t know anything about it, think, ‘Oh, this is just another Sherlock Holmes story – about a man investigating himself, for the first time.’”
McKellen had worked with director Bill Condon before, on Gods and Monsters in 1998 when they became close friends and in the following years often discussed the possibility of collaborating again.
“I regularly stay at Bill’s house in LA. He doesn’t stay with me in London – I think the premises aren’t quite good enough for him,” he jokes.
“But this came out of the blue; I didn’t know this was happening. I think I said I’d do it before he told me what it was.”
Now 75 he says, the themes of ageing and a failing memory spoke to him. “Yes, well, old age, if you’re 75, is of interest to you,” he says.
“Some people never reach it, of course, and I had contemporaries who are dead.
“Some are struggling towards it with dreadful illnesses, and some people seem to be immortal and each day is a new blessing.
“So, I just think of Sherlock Holmes as an old man, really – coping, and coping better than most.
“I do like the last image, where you feel that he’s ready for whatever comes, and he’s earned the right to just sit, finally.”
McKellen spent a long time in the make up chair to play both versions of Holmes, one, of course, younger than the actor himself and the other older.
“Although when they put the young make-up on – because I needed more make-up to look 60 than I do to look 93 – the process is different,” he explains.
“They put some false cheeks on me, and I don’t know whether you could, but all I could see was the actor, John Gielgud.
“Someone should write a movie about John Gielgud, and I would play him. I would do the voice. Astonishing.
“It was a bit like Rory Bremner, or one of those impressionists that puts on make-up and looks like people,” he laughs.
Mr Holmes (PG) is available to download from October 12 and released on DVD and Blu-ray on October 26