The Two Sirs

By Michele Manelis

The Two Sirs
Sir Ben Kingsley and Sir Ian McKellen chat to MiNDFOOD about what it means to be knighted and how it has affected them.

They might be in their 70s but these two thespians: Sirs Ben Kingsley, 71, and Ian McKellen, 76, show no signs of slowing down.  They’re both promoting several movies such as The Walk in the case of Sir Kingsley, while Sir McKellen is starring in the titular role in the movie, Mr. Holmes and is currently filming the live action version of Beauty and the Beast, starring Emma Watson.

They talk to Mindfood about the process of being knighted and how it affected them.  Sir McKellen had some profound comments about homosexuality while Sir Kingsley’s experience and how it affected his mother is nothing short of shocking (and explains his insistence on being referred to as ‘Sir’).


I was completely surprised by the letter from the Prime Minister’s office, that’s how you
are informed.  The letter is quite beautiful and it’s written in quite unique language in that
the phrase used is, ‘It has been decided that you should be dignified by the title of Knighthood.’
So it’s quite a lot to live up to and one mustn’t trivialise it. You were then asked whether or
not you would be prepared to accept it, and of course I did, and in the context of my
childhood, my career and my society, it was something that I didn’t expect, and it was like the
most extraordinary embrace, from the language and culture that I love.

I had met Her Majesty before.  When she knighted me, the sword that she used to raise above my head and touch my shoulders was the sword that her father wore ceremonially as Commander in Chief of the British Forces during World War II.  Her father and mother never left London during the Blitz, so I was aware of the historical implications of that and how much she loved her father, so for a Queen to use her father’s sword in that ceremony, I found had huge resonance.  We chatted very briefly about what was happening in my life and then left the Palace feeling embraced.

But then……. my mother refused to acknowledge my Knighthood which I found
bitterly hurtful and, you learn that life is all about balance, isn’t it? That the wonderful woman that we call ma’am, almost like mum, had said, ‘We accept you and love what you do,’ but my mother refused to acknowledge that it had taken place. She was embarrassed and bitter and jealous. So that’s the whole story. I have never told this story before, I hope you use it caringly and kindly, but that is the truth. (pauses).  She’s dead now.

SIR IAN McKELLEN:  I was knighted for my services to the performing arts. It’s extremely flattering.  And it’s not a gift from the Queen or even from The Prime Minister.  It’s a recognition by your fellow countrymen that what you’ve been doing all these years is approved of and they recognise it.   It’s this rather sweet old-fashioned way of changing your name. I could do without the title.  I find it a little inconvenient at times because most people don’t understand it and I have to explain it.  But it’s basically a medal and it’s a pat on the back.  It’s a thank you and gratefully received.  It puts me nominally in the same company of people who I’ve spent my life admiring:  Sir Laurence Olivier, Sir John Gielgud, Sir Ralph Richardson, Dame Peggy Ashcroft.  They are my heroes and suddenly I’m thought fit to be given the same title.

But personally, two years before I was knighted I’d come out as a gay man and I was involved in gay politics so it was of great significance to me and to other people that an openly gay man was being given a high honour by a country whose laws disadvantage gay people, so here was a sense of change there.  I wasn’t the first openly gay man to be knighted; I was the second.  The first was the novelist Angus Wilson. And there are other gay men knighted like Elton John and Nigel Hawthorne.  The world is changing and I feel my knighthood was a part of that change and so that is another reason why I hold it dear.




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