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'I was glad not to have had children'

Sir Ian McKellen's next performance is as himself, tracing his roots for BBC One's Who Do You Think You Are, writes Jeananne Craig

When the young Ian McKellen showed an interest in becoming a performer, his mother, Margery, was more supportive than most parents might be of such an unpredictable profession.

"Apparently, she said, 'If Ian decides to be an actor, it's a good job, because it brings pleasure to people'," says the star, now aged 77.

Mrs McKellen died when her son was just 12, but she would undoubtedly have been proud of his work, with acclaimed performances in everything from Shakespearian tragedies to Hollywood blockbusters.

"You find a lot of actors will say that, at heart, what they're doing is trying to impress their parents. And I have on occasion gone, 'I wonder what my parents would think seeing me in this play?'" admits McKellen, whose father, Denis, a civil engineer, died when the actor was 24.

"Almost always I would have to say they would've approved; but like all good parents, before everything else, they would want me to be happy. And I am."

Burnley-born McKellen's love of theatre began at the age of three or four, when his parents took him to watch an adaptation of Peter Pan in Manchester.

While he wasn't particularly impressed with the production or its special effects ("You could see the wires"), he recalls thinking, "I'm going to come back here, I want more of this."

He nurtured his love of acting by appearing in plays at Bolton School, where he also had a stint as head boy. "I was in the pocket of the head teacher. I was useless," he says of his tenure. "But it's surprising how many people were head boy who are actors. Show-offs!"

Known by audiences of all ages for roles such as the wizard Gandalf in The Lord Of The Rings trilogy (for which he was nominated for an Oscar) and even Corrie con-man Mel Hutchwright, McKellen's latest appearance is as himself, in an upcoming episode of BBC genealogy show, Who Do You Think You Are?

In it, and in person, McKellen is just as captivating as the characters he portrays - and has you hanging on his every word.

He's also expert at dramatic pauses (though that might be more down to the chocolate chip biscuit he's eating while we chat).

During the programme he learns of a creative family tree, which includes a painter, a singer and an actor. As a keen activist for gay rights, he's also pleased to learn of a great-great-grandfather who campaigned on behalf of his fellow workers.

"They're not neurotically bound up with their own lives. Whether they're an actor, singer, social reformer, painter - they're all outgoing. They're in the society and are part of it and try and change it. If that is a family trait, I confirm that in my own life."

Unlike some celebrities' gruesome or shocking findings on the series, McKellen's were "all entirely positive", but he notes that the outcome could have been different.

"This is only one little strand. It's a lovely strand, but in the whole tapestry of a family, there are hundreds of people to choose from.

"A friend of mine was asked to do the programme and they did their research and came back and said, 'We're sorry, there's no one of any interest in your family'." He notes that he is the last of the McKellens, but it's not something he's particularly bothered by.

"I don't feel anything about it, really. I think I've always known I wouldn't have children, because I'm gay. That wouldn't have been true today, would it?" says the star, whose older sister, Jean, died in 2003. "I don't feel I've got a responsibility to produce another McKellen."

In fact, he was "very glad" not to have children.

"Bringing up children is the most dreadfully difficult thing to do, and so few people are good at it. I'm far too selfish. I know parenthood can change people's personalities in a good way, but I find it difficult making decisions about my own life. To have to make decisions about someone who's dependent on you. Oof!

"I can see it would be very alluring to look into the eyes of a little boy or girl who looked like oneself, that must be extraordinary. But I don't look to my legacy, I suppose that's what makes me different from a lot of people. My contribution has been of another sort."

Up next on the big screen is a role in the much-hyped remake of Disney's Beauty And The Beast, playing Cogsworth the clock.

"I've seen it and fans of the 1991 film will be enraptured all over again," he promises.

When he isn't working on stage or screen, McKellen plies an altogether different trade, as leaseholder of a pub in east London. He particularly enjoys attending the pub's quiz night - despite claiming general knowledge isn't his forte.

"I pick very good team members. There are always two boring questions about sport, which I can't answer. And pop music; useless."

What might his next team name be?

"Hmmm". Another pregnant pause. Finally, McKellen says: "The Last Trump."

Who Do You Think You Are?, BBC One, Wednesday, 8pm

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