Celebrating the early on-screen appearances of some of our greatest actors, including Michael Caine, Ben Kingsley, Ian McKellen, Derek Jacobi and Michael Gambon.
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In the world of acting,
there is a band of performers which stands out from all the rest -
an exclusive club of British stage and screen greats,
who were knighted for their services to drama.
Oh, terribly sorry.
For more than 50 years, they have entertained us,
and helping propel them along the road to success was the BBC -
the National Theatre of the airwaves,
transferring, from the stage to the small screen,
a new generation of acting talent.
And as television brought them to new audiences of millions,
they helped shape the dramatic world on the people's screens,
as TV evolved into a new art form that everyone could enjoy.
We'll follow their transformation from newcomers to knights,
through their greatest moments...
What I say is, when you're dealing with the devil,
then praise the Lord and pass the ammunition.
..to ones they may rather forget.
From first steps to career-defining performances,
we'll see where it all began,
in the archives of the BBC. APPLAUSE
My name is Ian McKellen.
I'm a 30-year-old actor earning £50 a week.
Our young actors entered a profession still dominated by theatre.
During the 1950s, television drama was the poor relation of the stage,
considered lowbrow and somewhat embarrassing.
It was an art form with an identity crisis.
Limited by large and heavy cameras, producers were forced to
simply recreate theatre plays live in the studio,
but there was no applause to fill the gaps,
and on TV screens, stage acting sometimes seemed distinctly hammy.
Hugo put his arm round her waist,
and she smiled off, with that white dress billowing round her.
Well, it was perfectly natural, after what happened.
Look at you!
Michael Caine's first appearance at the BBC
was a 1956 play about Joan of Arc called The Lark.
I wouldn't have believed...
He plays a guard in the background.
-Blink and you'll miss it.
-I'll take her out and give a ducking, sir.
-No, you idiot.
-But, hey, at least he got a line.
-We are going for a gallop together.
We were talking, and I find I'm surprised...
It was an encounter that stayed with him.
Yeah, very few people seem to remember the fact
that all the plays then, which were 90 minutes, were absolutely live,
and you sort of lived with your mistakes.
I came in and I had one of those helmets on that makes you look
like a 25 pounder shell. You know?
As though you've just been fired in from a cannon somewhere, and missed.
And I'm 6'2", and the arch was about 5'6"
and as I came in, I hit my helmet,
without realising it,
and because I was so nervous, you don't feel anything.
You're completely numb with nerves,
-and so, my helmet was slightly cocked on one side.
And I shall come back again...
Television needed a dramatic language of its own, but the acting
profession was dominated by an older generation, enthralled with theatre.
Well, get back to your post.
You don't need to stand here listening to this.
Thespian grandees Like Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud -
-Here hung those lips, which I have kissed, I know not how oft.
Where be your gibes now?
Where be your gibes now?
Your gambols? Your songs?
-Your songs? Your gambols?
-Your flashes of merriment...
And in the '60s, theatre would undergo a boom.
Theatrical powerhouses were launched,
like the Royal Shakespeare Company,
and the National Theatre, managed by none other than Olivier himself.
Regional repertory companies were also flourishing.
Together, these trends produced a new generation of talent.
By now, television had begun to find its feet, and emerging young
actors and writers quickly found their way into the studios.
The BBC were determined to bring the experience of drama to a wider
public, and through more than just West End performances.
In 1961, Michael Caine was given his first big break,
in a now-lost drama called The Compartment.
Written specifically for television, it was a critical hit,
and helped bring him to the attention of the film industry.
Soon enough, he had his first taste of breakthrough success
in the film Zulu.
Who are you?
John Chard, Royal Engineers...
Caine plays against type,
as an aristocrat,
with varying degrees of success.
That's my post, up there.
He held the screen,
but this was an unusual start to his career,
and some thought it a strangely uncomfortable fit for Caine.
Who said you could use my men?
They were sitting around on their backsides doing nothing.
I'd rather you asked first, old boy.
But it was looking like Zulu might be a misfire.
After filming had finished,
his film company released him from his contract for,
as his producer charmingly put it, "looking like a queer on screen".
Now 30, and anxious for the next job,
Caine headed back to his theatrical roots,
signing up for his first and last classical performance,
as Horatio, in the BBC's Hamlet At Elsinore.
Give order that these bodies,
high on a stage,
be placed to the view,
and let me speak to the yet-unknowing world,
how these things came about.
He may be more geezer than Gielgud,
but Caine had actually served a long apprenticeship,
treading the boards in rep theatre.
Accidental judgements, casual slaughters...
And he could do this stuff.
Of deaths put on by cunning and forced cause,
and, in this upshot, purposes mistook,
fallen on the inventors' heads.
This Hamlet was a technical milestone -
the first time a full-length play had been shot on location.
Drama was usually recorded in a studio and performed live,
with the outdoor scenes shot on film,
but using film was prohibitively expensive,
and video cameras were too large and cumbersome to move around easily,
so Kronborg Castle in Denmark was turned into a studio,
and the whole thing recorded on two-inch videotape.
Caine acquitted himself well, but never did it again.
Before long, though, Zulu hit the big screen,
and he was claimed by Hollywood.
Who the hell are you and what are you doing here?
Early roles were, all around, a tricky business.
Nigel Hawthorne was a very strange casting decision as a screen heavy.
What was it you want? What are you supposed to be looking for?
-The key, Mr Martin.
-You mean the key that Mrs...?
-You know the key I mean.
When you left the cafe, you took that key to an ironmonger's
and you had a duplicate made.
I know what I'm talking about, Martin,
so don't let's waste any time.
Hand it over.
Luckily, he wouldn't be needing action skills in future roles.
Having taken some convincing from his agent that TV was worth
bothering with, Ian McKellen made his debut in Kipling,
stuck up a tree.
And there, Stephen, you see,
in front of me, there was the tiger,
so I walked up to it, took a single shot, fired,
-and that was that.
-How big was it?
It was a confident start for the young actor,
who managed not to betray any hint of a northern accent.
A darn sight bigger than any tigers
you'll find in this part of the country.
This isn't tiger country, is it?
-Precisely, but down in the central provinces.
-Ah, but you're not...
But despite a few outside shots,
the majority of the drama was studio-bound.
It still looked and felt like theatre.
Equally stagey was an early John Hurt role,
in Jean Anouilh's absurdist drama
Point Of Departure.
It was a modern take on a Greek legend for the beatnik generation,
all set in a railway cafe.
In the chair. Extraordinary.
Do you think it was an insect listening to the sound of our steps,
ready to spring away on its little legs...?
Its true meaning was lost somewhere in translation.
So far, the new generation
weren't exactly snapping at Olivier's heels...
..but, in 1966, one of them got a taste of the kind of accolade
usually reserved for the cream of screen actors.
MUSIC: Don't Go Breaking My Heart by Burt Bacharach
Michael Caine's Alfie was hailed as a new kind of antihero
and it won him an Oscar nomination.
He'd only got the part after it was turned down
by his roommate, Terence Stamp, who played the character on stage.
Breaking down the fourth wall with casual abandon,
Alfie was Caine's international breakthrough.
Well, what harm can it do?
Old Harry will never know, and even if he did,
he shouldn't begrudge me -
or her, come to that -
and it'll round off the tea nicely.
He was now a star, albeit an unconventional one.
Oh, I think there's quite a lot of Alfie when I was younger,
but you see, of course,
you can't play Alfie and be Alfie at the same time,
because playing those parts takes up too much of your time.
You have to go to bed early.
I don't think I went out with one girl
the whole time I was making Alfie.
I did when I was finished.
In the same year that Alfie was released,
Alan Bates appeared in a BBC drama.
He was already an established film actor,
but it was theatre that first catapulted Bates into the public eye.
At the Royal Court in 1956, Bates played Cliff
in the legendary kitchen-sink drama Look Back In Anger.
The BBC's Hero Of Our Time couldn't have been more different.
Based on a 19th-century Russian play,
it was hardly cutting-edge stuff,
but the fantastically caddish Alan Bates
plays his character with an aloof '60s cynicism,
musing on the tiresome inferiority of everyone else around him.
Really the nicest people in town...
Nothing makes me yawn more than the nicest people.
Now, don't you worry about me.
Everything's going very nicely for you, isn't it?
-Well, she hardly knows me yet.
-Well, there you are.
-Women always fall in love with men they don't know.
-Not in every case.
You should have heard the things she said about you.
-Is she talking about me?
-Well, well, well...
-I'm afraid she doesn't like you.
It's a shame, because my little princess is really quite charming.
And what does your little princess have to say about me?
She said, "Who is that young captain
"with the nasty, overpowering stare?
"He can't be a friend of yours."
But 1966 wasn't all grand appearances by big-names-to-be.
The very early days of Ben Kingsley were caught on camera,
entirely by accident.
Your yardstick is...
He was featured in a documentary about Original Theatre Company,
as a twenty-something hopeful, learning his trade.
Kingsley can be seen in the background,
a long time before anyone had to call him "sir".
You know, that you didn't move...
There's no missing that trademark stare.
It'll be funny! I'll carry him on my shoulders.
They were attempting to create a documentary play about the Civil War,
based entirely on contemporary documents -
a brave idea, and young Kingsley doesn't seem entirely convinced.
It's like being faced with the canvas, isn't it?
A great big canvas,
and you don't know the overall effect that you want to make,
with your colours and with your canvas, until it's finished.
So you have to do... You have to finish it in your mind,
and then go backwards, and do it,
do you know what I mean? But you can't with a script.
If you've got a script, you've got the...
You have the line and the form to follow upwards,
but I think with a documentary,
they have to get the finished picture and then go backwards,
and then go forwards to the end.
That's what I think is a bit off-putting.
I also cut my hair very short and flung my clothes into a...
Oh, no, cut my hair very short...
Regional theatre was the bread and butter of
the post-war acting profession.
Up and down the country, it honed their acting skills
and prepared them for bigger roles
in the large theatre companies, and, increasingly, TV.
-Oh, I'm terribly sorry.
Michael Gambon was part of Olivier's mighty National Theatre
from its early years.
My first important audition was for the National for Laurence Olivier,
and, being very green, I did Richard III for him.
I remember going into the audition, and I met him,
and shook his hand. I was terribly nervous.
He said, "What are you going to do?" I said, "Richard III."
So he said, "Which part?"
So, I said, "Richard III."
You see, "I know, but which part"?
Not realising he was sending me up.
So he said, "Buckingham? Catesby?"
And I said, "No, Richard III."
So he was shocked, or pretended to be shocked - the cheek of this.
So, I started straight away.
I was only two foot from him, and sprayed him with spit.
And he told me to go away and get up
the other end of the room.
So as I was walking up this long rehearsal room, I was...
My mind was working. I thought,
"How can I impress this man?"
So, I was going to do the speech,
"Was ever woman in this humour woo'd?"
And as I got to the end of the room,
I thought I'd spin round a pillar.
They had cast iron pillars up the room.
And then I...
As I came round the pillar,
I'd start the speech.
So I did that,
but my ring got caught on a screw,
and ripped my little finger in half.
So, they had to send the first aid box.
The nurse came in. I got the job,
and I didn't have to do the speech.
In 1967, Olivier suggested he get more experience in regional theatre,
so Gambon headed to Birmingham, where he could get the starring roles.
Soon enough, TV took notice,
and he was cast as the romantic lead
in swashbuckling series The Borderers.
Gavin, they've fired the stables!
Gambon's action sequences were as wobbly as the sets...
..but he caught the attention of producer Cubby Broccoli,
who asked him to audition for the part of James Bond.
Sadly for Gambon, the role went to the much better-known Roger Moore.
GUNSHOT Gambon, it seemed,
wasn't destined to be a star -
at least, not in the conventional way.
The door, before they charge it.
Hot on Gambon's heels was Anthony Hopkins,
another National Theatre graduate.
He was first spotted by Olivier in 1965, and became his understudy -
a moment Hopkins remembers well.
I became a young actor. I was a student for a few years.
I was too young, really, to absorb what was being taught.
And I auditioned for the National Theatre,
and Olivier was the man who was running the auditions that morning,
and I went in, and I didn't have anything else to do.
I just did Othello.
It was the only Shakespeare piece I knew,
and he was in his prime, then, playing Othello himself.
Even so, my bloody thoughts, with violent pace,
shall ne'er look back,
ne'er ebb to humble...
And he said, "What parts are you going to do?
"What audition pieces have you got?"
I said, well, I've got Three Sisters.
Yeah, Tuzenbach, yes.
Major Barbara. Yes.
"What's your Shakespeare?" I said, "Othello."
"You've got a bloody nerve, haven't you?
"You've got a bloody nerve."
And I did the Othello, and he said, "Well, I think you are very good,
"and I don't think I'll lose any sleep tonight," he said.
"But you're good."
And he said, "So, would you like to join us?"
For Hopkins, the National Theatre was a training ground
that brought him into the orbit of the greats.
Stage giants like Olivier and Gielgud might have impressed him,
but he was a cheeky pupil.
It's been said of you that, in fact,
you're one of the best mimics, actually, in the business,
and you specialise in doing the actor knights, don't you?
-Yes, are you going to...?
-Which one do you want?
I love mimics. Well, let's start with...
-Well, everybody does Gielgud, don't they?
-AS JOHN GIELGUD:
-To be, or not to be - that is the question.
Whether tis nobler in the mind to suffer
the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
and by opposing, end them.
To die, to sleep no more.
What about Olivier doing the same one?
-AS LAURENCE OLIVIER:
-To be, or not to be -
that is the question.
Whether tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings
and arrows of outrageous fortune,
or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
and by opposing, end them.
To die, to sleep no more.
And by a sleep, to say we end the heartache,
and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.
What about the...?
Undaunted by his venerable predecessors,
Hopkins appeared in a BBC adaptation of Chekhov's The Three Sisters.
This is my brother, Andrey.
Chekhov was flavour of the month, and it was a role that showed Hopkins had
the acting chops to go on to bigger things.
You'll get no peace from my sisters now...
Unlike many of the older generation of stage actors,
he had a relaxed and restrained style that worked well on camera,
which made his performances look effortless.
I'm secretary of the local council now.
Protopopov is chairman.
The most I can ever hope for is
to become a member of the council myself.
I, who dream of the night that
I'm a professor in the Moscow University -
a famous academician,
the pride of all Russia.
The new generation's relationship with television ebbed and flowed.
As I will not eat any...
At the BBC in the '60s, Ian McKellen found an eclectic
mix of parts in drama...
..Incorrect use of the word, "intriguing"...
..including this one wearing the wolf's mask.
..I lacked a university education. It sometimes shows.
But the word, as used, was not entirely incorrect.
Ah! You mean other members of the plot?
Or accessories after the facts!
Ah, the '60s!
..Exactly who - whom! - they were going to meet
until they arrived at this place.
When I first came here, you decided...
he also had a lead role in Dickens' David Copperfield.
..but, I should be grateful for some indication as to what
term of months or years you had in mind.
You wish to become formally engaged to our ward, Mr Copperfield?
With all my heart, ma'am.
Come, sister Clarissa...
He'd played Copperfield onstage a few years earlier and now,
12 million people watched him reprise his energetic performance.
We must send her in to you directly.
You mean I am to propose to her now?
I see no reason to keep you from happiness any longer.
Oh, but I didn't think I should be proposing to her this afternoon!
I just wanted to let...I mean, I haven't thought what to say.
I should like time to think it over.
By the end of the decade,
McKellen was once more concentrating on his stage career.
But he had little interest
in being part of the prestigious National Theatre.
He'd been recruited there in the mid-'60s,
but quickly taken a dislike to it.
Instead of working with the big production companies,
he preferred the more radical theatre offered by smaller touring groups.
McKellen was an outsider, and, for him,
the '60s would end in both enormous controversy and acting triumph.
In 1969, he was followed by a BBC crew as he toured,
playing the lead in both Richard II and Edward II.
My name's Ian McKellen.
I'm a 30-year-old actor earning £50 a week playing
Richard II in a play by Shakespeare
and Edward II in a play by Marlowe,
at the end of a 12-week tour of theatres in Britain.
'Like most stage actors,
'part of Ian McKellen's life is still dominated by the trivial
'technicalities of getting from place to place, week after week.'
Hello, can you tell me about trains to Leeds this morning,
please, from King's Cross?
Is there one in about... Is there one at 12?
To act for a long run in London doesn't hold that much appeal to me.
It seems to me that the West End is mainly a tourist theatre.
One doesn't feel that one is contributing much to society
in general if one is acting to a lot of people who are just on holiday.
When you come to Leeds,
you play to packed houses, you feel that, for that week
at least, you've set up your tent like a circus
and you've made some sort of impact on people who won't forget you and
their lives might just have been changed
a little bit by the experience.
How good do you think you are?
Whenever I start rehearsing a play, I tell myself the fact
that I'm the best actor in the world to play that part.
Because, obviously, if there'd been a better actor
who was willing to play it for the money that I accept,
the company would have got that actor.
Why do I rail on thee,
Since thou, created to be aw'd by man
Wast born to bear? I was not made a horse
And yet I bear a burden like an ass,
Spurr'd, gall'd and tired by jauncing Bolingbroke!
His fear is that which makes me tremble less than I foretell them.
Whereas Richard II was recognised as a defining performance,
his Edward was a more heated issue.
McKellen pulled no punches in a legendarily gruesome death scene
when the King is murdered with a red-hot poker.
Run for the table.
Spare me or dispatch me in a trice!
This scene caused huge debate for refusing to downplay
the king's sexuality
and the grim nature of his killing.
But not too hard, lest that you bruise the body.
WHIMPERING AND MOANING
As the '70s dawned, there were new challenges
and new opportunities for the knights-to-be.
At the BBC there was growing pressure to bring down the costs of drama,
which meant that one-off plays began to fall from favour.
Scale production and serial programmes were seen as the answer.
And costume drama came into its own.
But not all of the new generation had broken out of theatre.
In 1971, the BBC caught up with Ben Kingsley.
He'd turned down an offer to become a pop star at the end of the '60s
and was now at the Royal Shakespeare Company,
bearing all as the character Ariel in The Tempest...
..seen here in the background.
It was Shakespeare, '70s style.
..to dive into the fire.
To ride on the curl'd clouds, to thy strong bidding task...
# Ariel... #
He even wrote the music.
# ..and all his quality... #
I wouldn't turn around if I were you!
Soon enough, another future knight was ready for his close-up.
Derek Jacobi was a founder member of the National Theatre
and Olivier's protege.
It was during a 1961 live performance of a BBC version
of She Stoops To Conquer that Olivier first came across him.
It was Jacobi's first TV appearance, but Olivier was suitably impressed.
In 1972, Jacobi returned to the BBC a highly-rated stage actor
in a series called Man of Straw.
You can be very nice when you try, Herr Hessling.
With you, Fraulein Goppel...I shall always e-endeavour to, to...
That stammer was to come in very useful a few years later.
By the early '70s, television drama was getting ambitious.
In 1972, the BBC planned a production on a scale
never before seen on British TV -
an adaptation of the book that many own,
but few have read - War And Peace.
At 20 episodes, it was almost as long as the original,
but it wasn't without its limitations.
Whilst location footage like the epic battle scenes were shot on film...
..interior shots were recorded on video
and the contrast between the two was poor.
In a starring role was Anthony Hopkins.
..as a traitor to his country on the rights of men
I sentence to be...
Well, hello. This is...
Hopkins starred as Pierre Bezukhov,
and skilfully balances the kind-hearted meekness
and awkward irrationality his character feels
at being a man out of place in high society.
Oh, that's 40?
Do you want to go on playing?
Of course. I'm going to win it all back from you. Deal.
270, take one.
It was a landmark in television drama
that changed the lives of everyone taking part.
For a few months, they allowed me to be a child again.
Wouldn't that be lovely?
I finished the year surrounded by something like 400 cans of film.
It meant being able to live with one character for 12 months.
I think it meant illustrating Tolstoy's marvellous characters.
It's paid the rent.
Well, almost everyone.
You better keep your head down. The French are coming!
Hopkins was a man with a problem.
Unlike his acting peers, AND despite being Olivier's
understudy at the National, he had fallen out of love with theatre.
In 1973, he abruptly left, halfway through a run of Macbeth.
Hopkins wanted to be a film star
and, soon afterwards, abandoned Britain for Hollywood.
I was a bad boy. I was trouble. I was a rebel.
I was discontented. I was angry. Fed up.
I hated being part of an establishment and
hated all the Shakespeare.
When I started out, I just wanted to be famous.
I didn't want to become a great actor, a great Shakespearean actor.
I had no idea people would say I'd be the next Olivier.
I didn't want to become the next Olivier.
I didn't want to stand in wrinkled
tights on the Old Vic stage for the rest of my life.
I had ideas beyond that.
Some people would call it arrogant and ambitious. I'm all those things.
Whilst Hopkins had chafed under Olivier's bit, Sir Laurence was
still the actor against whom the very best were judged.
Starring alongside him in the film Sleuth
wasn't one of his National Theatre proteges, though,
but Michael Caine.
Have you got the glasses or have I got them?
I must have left them upstairs.
'He was cast first and was asked who he would like to play the part,
'and he said me.
'I mean, I suppose, presumably... I wouldn't know...'
A bit of Pinot.
For Caine, hand-picked for the role by Olivier himself,
it was validation that he was a real actor,
helping produce perhaps his best performance.
In countless studies, or propped up in the loft basket like a rag doll.
Which do you fancy - early Agatha Christie or vintage SS Van Dine?
For Christ's sake, Andrew, you're talking of murder.
Of killing a real man! Don't you understand?
In both the script and the choice of actors,
Sleuth got under the skin of class attitudes.
I've got one in my...
And the backgrounds of Caine and Olivier
reflected this theme perfectly.
There is a tremendous class battle which goes on the entire time,
during the, sort of, mental struggles between Andrew Wyke
and the character that I play,
and I find this extremely interesting,
not just from the old, "What about the workers?"
point of view, but the tremendous difference in frames of mind.
But having Laurence Olivier playing Andrew Wyke
must be fair competition for you.
Is there a danger of being overshadowed by him?
It's not something you worry about,
and especially in a two-man piece.
There must eventually come a time when you get your own,
sort of, turn, and then,
it's very nice to have someone like Lord Olivier off-camera.
And now she's in love with me.
And that's what you can't forgive, isn't it?
And after me, there'll be others.
Are you going to kill them, too?
You're mad! You're a bloody madman.
Whatever Olivier's legendary status, in Sleuth,
the quality of performance between the two leads was evenly matched.
Olivier was a giant of the stage,
but it was Caine that had mastered acting in popular film.
The achievement of the two men was recognised
when they were both nominated for an Oscar in the same category -
Best Actor in a Leading Role.
Unfortunately, they were pipped to the post
by Marlon Brando's Godfather.
-It's an invasion of privacy.
The same year, RSC great Ben Kingsley finally got a role in a BBC drama,
as a dodgy Indian taxi driver, in the brilliantly depressing
-Play For Today episode Hard Labour.
-Well, I suppose so, I suppose Chris could...
-£50, you're talking?
-Could be done on £200.
What, you said 50!
Sometimes 100, £150, £200.
I think it's rotten.
It is rotten. It's a rotten business.
Well, anyway, I want the cheap one.
This drama was a far cry from Shakespeare.
Here, Kingsley was required to give a much more naturalistic performance.
She can get sick, you know?
She can have that one, and get sick,
what are you going to think about me?
It's got nothing to do with you.
It doesn't matter what happens to me afterwards.
None of your business.
You are asking me to talk to this fellow, see this man?
You're making it my business.
If it's not my business, you can go have baby...
The Indian side of Kingsley's heritage would be
sidelined for some time after this production.
It was a relatively minor role,
but in his next part, that same year,
he would finally become a lord like Olivier -
You'll not deny me a turn at the dance, I hope?
-With pleasure, I'll not, sir.
By the mid-'70s, our knights-to-be were finally building momentum.
In 1976, it was Derek Jacobi's chance at glory.
He would draw on his classical stage skills
and television experience to play the lead role in "I, Claudius".
Oh, come, Pollio, that's not fair...
The stammer that had seen him through Strawman now went stellar.
Which of us would you rather read?
Intelligent but cowardly.
No, I mean,
it d-depends on what I'm r-reading for.
For beauty of language, I would read Livy,
and f-for interpretation of f-f-fact, I would read P-P-Pollio.
Now you please neither of us, and that's always a mistake.
I w-wasn't trying to please, just to t-t-tell the truth.
It may be a seminal moment in TV drama, but it's sheer theatre.
TV just doesn't get more thespian than this.
It was Jacobi's career-defining role,
and the one that made his name in the public eye,
winning him a Bafta.
Dare I hope that you are b-better?
And it wasn't only Jacobi having his moment.
I've never really been ill.
John Hurt was there, too, as the crazed Emperor Caligula.
I've been undergoing a metamorphosis.
Was it p-p-painful?
It was like a birth in which the mother delivers herself.
Oh, that m-m-must have been p-p-painful...
Both actors gave brilliant performances with different styles.
While Jacobi's heart remained on the stage,
Hurt played the unpredictable emperor more cinematically.
..which has come over you.
Isn't it obvious?
Their approaches would be reflected in their future careers.
You've b-b-become a God.
Cassius, order the detachments and raise the levies...
But when given the chance,
Hurt could chew the scenery with the best of them.
I go to forge, in the white-hot fires of war,
a new and tempered spirit of Rome that will last 1,000 years!
With I, Claudius, historical dramas reached new heights of popularity.
Now one of the most famous classical actors in Britain,
Jacobi got the chance to bring his first love, Shakespeare,
into the nation's homes.
In 1978, he played Richard II in a theatrical studio performance.
Face to face, and frowning brow to brow,
ourselves will hear the accuser and the accused freely speak...
This was his home turf,
and playing opposite him was stage and screen legend John Gielgud,
but Jacobi held his own with one of the theatre's greats.
Since thou dost seek to kill my name in me,
I mock my name, great King, to flatter thee.
Should dying men flatter with those that live?
No, no, men living flatter those that die.
Thou, now dying, say'st thou flatterest me?
Oh, no! Thou diest, though I the sicker be.
-I am in health.
I breathe and see thee ill.
Now, he that made me knows I see thee ill.
Ill in myself to see, and in thee, seeing ill.
Thy deathbed is no lesser than thy land,
wherein thou liest in reputation sick.
They were the highlight of a series that dramatised all 36 of
Shakespeare's First Folio works,
and took seven years to finish.
As the '70s were coming to a close,
most of our future knights were well on their way to stardom,
and TV drama was once again changing.
The latest video technology would shape the course of things to come.
In 1978, The Mayor Of Casterbridge was shot entirely on
a new breed of portable video cameras.
The use of this lightweight equipment broke drama out of the studio,
and ended the need to use costly film for outside shots.
It revolutionised the possibilities for drama on television.
Starring Alan Bates,
Thomas Hardy's classic novel was adapted by Dennis Potter,
a writer who had a central role in developing TV drama
as its own art form.
For Potter, television was his first language, rather than theatre.
The Mayor Of Casterbridge's bleak tale of a man
who sells his own wife and daughter at a country fair
provided Bates with a meaty title role
as the lonely, unsympathetic mayor with the dark past.
It was the challenge of a lifetime for the actor.
I can't abide the streets
of Casterbridge any more.
I've had my fill.
I came here with nothing but my basket and my knife
and, well, that's how I want to go.
I'll follow my own ways...
..and then you can follow yours.
For Bates, usually cast with one eye on his good looks,
this was a change in tone and his favourite screen role.
The visual quality of the series might have been lower than film,
as video technology was still in its infancy...
What is it you want?
..but this was a point from which TV drama would never look back.
The new generation were gradually making television their own.
-How can you be so sure that I won't run away?
-Well, where would you go?
After this success of I, Claudius,
John Hurt was particularly on the rise.
Oh, don't imagine that I've admitted anything here today.
I've listened. That's all. I've listened.
Because, Porfiry Petrovic, you're a very entertaining fellow.
As well as playing Raskolnikov in Crime And Punishment -
another upmarket historical production -
Hurt now had movie roles that would make him
a successful character actor.
In Alien, he wasn't the star, but stole the scene in an iconic moment.
Hurt had only taken the role at a day's notice,
after the original actor, John Finch,
fell seriously ill on the first day of filming.
The first thing I am going to do
when I get back is to get some decent food.
The scene was largely improvised
and used a naturalistic style rare in sci-fi.
It suited Hurt's style of acting perfectly.
Right now, I'm thinking food.
Now you know what it's made of.
I don't want to talk about what it's made of. I'm eating this.
What's the matter? The food ain't that bad, baby.
-Are you choking?
Nobody except him knew what was coming next.
And the rest is cinema history.
Then, in 1980, alongside John Gielgud and Anthony Hopkins,
he played perhaps his most challenging role yet,
in heavy prosthetic make-up, as John Merrick, the Elephant Man.
It was directed by David Lynch and produced by the unlikely
figure of Mel Brooks, who wanted to break into serious drama.
May I introduce you to Mr Carr-Gomm?
Mr Carr-Gomm, this is John Merrick.
My name is John Merrick. Pleased to meet you.
Despite being unrecognisable,
Hurt's powerful performance led to him being nominated for an Oscar.
Our knights may have had solid
and critically acclaimed careers for some 20 years by this time,
but true fame and stardom came late on for several of them.
Not least Nigel Hawthorne.
By 1979, Hawthorne had been paying his dues for a long time.
Unlike the other knights, he had struggled with secondary
roles as a jobbing actor, never quite finding his niche.
All that suddenly changed in his 50s,
when he landed a lead role in the hit series Yes, Minister.
Ah, Minister, allow me to present Sir Humphrey Appleby,
permanent undersecretary of state and head of the DAA.
Hello, Sir Humphrey.
-Hello and welcome.
-Thank you, Sir Humphrey.
I believe you know each other?
Yes, we did cross swords when the minister gave me a grilling
over the estimates in the Public Accounts Committee.
I wouldn't say that.
You asked all the questions I hoped nobody would ask.
Opposition's about asking awkward questions.
And government is about not answering them.
-Well, you answered all mine anyway.
-I'm glad you thought so, Minister.
Hawthorne made his role so funny by playing it absolutely straight.
Who else is in this department?
Well, briefly, Sir, I am the permanent undersecretary of state,
known as the Permanent Secretary.
Woolley here is your principal private secretary.
I too have a principal private secretary
and he is the principal private secretary
to the Permanent Secretary.
Directly responsible to me are ten deputy secondaries,
87 undersecretaries and 219 assistant secretaries.
Directly responsible to the principal private secretaries
are plain private secretaries
and the Prime Minister will be appointing
two Parliamentary undersecretaries and you will be appointing
your own Parliamentary private secretary.
Can they all type?
None of us can type, Minister. Mrs Mackay types.
She's the secretary.
A product of the times,
Yes, Minister was said to be Margaret Thatcher's favourite programme.
And Hawthorne was rewarded with no less than four Baftas
for playing Sir Humphrey, over fellow cast member Paul Eddington.
For Ben Kingsley, too, true fame and recognition came relatively late.
He had established a high-profile stage career as a leading light
of the Royal Shakespeare Company.
But in 1982, he took on the role that made him a superstar,
as the main character in Richard Attenborough's epic Gandhi.
Pappu. Pappu, please don't do it.
What do you want me not to do?
Not to meet with Mr Jinnah?
Gandhi was an epic production, even for cinema, and a world apart
from the television and stage work Ben Kingsley was used to.
But on screen, Kingsley was transformed in an incredible
performance as the father of India.
You send fear into the hearts of your brothers.
That is not the India I want. Stop it.
For God's sake, stop it.
It was, perhaps, some vindication for the actor, who had been forced
to change his real name from Krishna Bhanji early in his career,
as his Anglo-Indian heritage
threatened to limit his opportunities.
It's a great journey,
because I do go from early to middle 30s to his death at 79 -
to his assassination at 79, of course, it wasn't an actual death -
and, er, examine the faith, the strength, the anger, the capacity
to forgive, the articulacy, the way he used to mobilise his language.
The script is very faithful to Gandhi.
But Kingsley wasn't the only one of the knights
to audition for the role of India's hero.
You'd have done very well if you'd accepted a deal for Gandhi,
wouldn't you? You turned down the part?
No, I didn't turn it down, that was subject to a make-up test, actually,
and there is no way I could look like an Indian amongst Indians.
Dickie Attenborough and I looked at each other and said,
"This isn't possible,"
I looked rather like a Welsh rugby player with a nappy on, you know?
Nor was it just John Hurt after Kingsley's job.
-You are a sunny natured Celt, aren't you?
-All the Celts are.
-With our short legs and long bodies.
Is that the reason you turned down the part of Gandhi?
Thereby lies a tale. Actually, that is absolutely true.
With all due respect to Ben Kingsley, Attenborough did
offer me the part and I phoned my father up and I said,
"He's offered me Gandhi," and he said, "It's a comedy, is it?"
He said, "You can't play Gandhi." I mean, look at me.
But, no, I had to... Actually, it was a big mistake.
I'm glad somebody else did it.
Thankfully, in the end, it was Kingsley who got the part,
winning an Oscar and recognition as one of Britain's finest actors.
By this time, television drama had greatly enlarged its horizons.
Productions like foreign legion romp Beau Geste were confidently
showcasing a more cinematic film-making savvy.
But while TV may have left the theatre behind,
that didn't mean it entirely abandoned some of the things
theatre can be particularly good at,
such as making the serious seem comic and the comic serious.
Enter an actor and writer with roots in both mediums,
who would create a more intimate language for TV drama - Alan Bennett.
Bennett's 1983 drama An Englishman Abroad stars
Alan Bates as the notorious Cambridge spy and defector, Guy Burgess.
It was based on the story of a real-life encounter involving
Burgess in the 1950s, when he was living out his days
as a washed-up alcoholic in dank, suburban Moscow.
In the opening scene, the exiled spy is found watching a Shakespeare play
in the theatre, drunk and bored rigid.
But this little slice of British life in an alien Russia briefly transports
him home and encourages him to seek out the company of one of the actors.
Filming in Soviet Russia in the '80s was still tricky,
so instead, the exteriors were shot in freezing old Dundee and Glasgow.
If you want to come around and be sick,
you might at least save it for the end of the performance.
Oh, Pears soap.
-Who are you? And who is that boy outside?
The role offered Bates the kind of complicated character
he wasn't finding in the cinema. And it won him a Bafta.
Could I have one of these?
I love your frock.
-You're very rude. Are you from the embassy?
Bates made his slippery spy character charming enough to
win over even Cold War warriors.
Well, why don't we tell him you're here? He's only down the corridor.
All in good time. The question is, you see, are we as welcome as ever?
I know your face.
Interestingly, this version of Burgess's defection as comic farce
was directed by Hollywood Oscar winner John Schlesinger.
TV drama was no longer the poor cousin.
Then, in 1986,
television drama experienced one of its defining moments.
The Singing Detective, written by Dennis Potter.
Recently returned from Hollywood, Potter drew on his own life
for inspiration to create a drama that could only have been made on TV.
In the lead role was Michael Gambon.
Gambon plays a bed-ridden writer with a terrible skin
and joint disease that Potter himself suffered from.
Don't you go and get any complications
or anything silly like that.
You're doing so well.
Drink plenty of water, you hear?
Now, let's see what's going on here.
In a surreal series of fever-induced fantasies,
he becomes a detective with his own mystery to solve.
Too many people were beginning to ask the same question,
and it wasn't because they wanted to polish my shoes for me.
It was a bold and brilliant drama,
an unconventional story for an unconventional leading man.
-# ..You're sure of a big surprise
# If you go down in the woods today...
Short on film, the style of the series was neither theatrical
nor cinematic, but something more unique.
Gambon's scenes often switch between reality and fantasy
without warning, bursting into song, as his character's mind unravels.
-Christ, the warbler.
-Quick, use the shooter.
With The Singing Detective,
television proved it could make original works
every bit as good as those in film and theatre.
By the late '80s, our knights-to-be were at the top of their game.
And in 1987, Michael Caine, by now an Oscar winner,
held a masterclass in the art of film acting.
It's a delicate operation.
It's like, I regard the theatre as an operation with a scalpel.
I think movie acting is an operation with a laser,
because it's so tiny and it's so small that half the time,
people will say, I don't know what you're doing.
And you say, wait till you see the rushes.
The greatest piece of advice I can give to someone who wants to
act in movies is to listen and react, but, also,
when you get really close to the camera,
if some directors go in for the massive close-up,
the thing that people never do in real life is they don't say,
"I don't want to go out,"
"I'll have the egg and chips," you know,
but you will see actors doing that all the time,
and so when you get in here, that doesn't look so obvious
until you get in here, you know?
You've got to...just be.
There is no-one here.
It's just you and me. You'll be standing there.
And there isn't even a camera.
Caine had proved himself not just a powerful actor, but a film star.
He had led his generation,
but his peers hadn't all kept pace with his success.
Ian McKellan wasn't convinced they were anything special.
He had almost given up on fame and movie stardom.
I don't, as I now approach my 50s,
and the '90s, imagine that I will ever get fully involved in film.
I'll end up being, you know, an honourable character actor,
like Sir John or other people.
Now you are the senior generation, Ian, what do you feel that means?
Well, that we are a pretty poor lot, really.
I mean, there are a lot of us, but I don't see any giants,
and I think giants are not just made by publicity machines or by
governments deciding to knight anyone,
but, apart from Dame Judi Dench,
there is no-one of my generation that has been given the accolade.
But McKellen didst protest too much.
The following year, he was nominated for a knighthood
and dubbed Sir Ian for services to the performing arts.
He also managed to squeeze in a few films,
becoming a megastar as the wizard Gandalf in Lord Of The Rings.
I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.
the portrayal of a terrifying Hannibal Lecter won him an Oscar.
And a knighthood followed in 1993. He decided to stay in LA.
Derek Jacobi topped off his theatre career with a knighthood in 1994.
He later even found time to make the sitcom Vicious, with his friend
Sir Ian, sending themselves up as a couple of struggling old actors.
1998 was Michael Gambon's turn to become a sir.
He continued to work across theatre, TV
and film in many critically acclaimed roles.
He also played another wizard, Dumbledore,
in the Harry Potter films.
The following year, Nigel Hawthorne won a knighthood.
More than just a funny man, he was nominated for an Oscar
in The Madness Of King George, and died in 2001.
Sir Maurice Micklewhite, Michael Caine, for services to drama.
Michael Caine went on to win another Oscar,
before becoming Sir Maurice Micklewhite in 2000,
and cementing his legendary status for a later generation
in Christopher Nolan's Batman films.
2002 was Ben Kingsley's time for a well-earned knighthood.
As an Oscar winner, he's combined making Hollywood blockbusters like
Iron Man 3 with highly acclaimed lower-budget films like Sexy Beast.
Always determined to follow his own path,
Alan Bates mixed high-profile roles like Claudius in the film version
of Hamlet with less prominent appearances in television dramas.
He was knighted in 2003 and died later that year.
In 2015, John Hurt finally became a knight.
A scene stealer in movies for decades,
he was twice Oscar-nominated,
won two Golden globes and four Baftas, and played dozens of roles,
including, of course, a wizard.
They were a generation of world-class talent that could only have
emerged in Britain.
A unique type of performer with theatrical prowess that
translated into television and film.
They followed their own path, dedicating decades to their craft,
and reached the very top of their profession.
And like the best wine, they have aged well.
They command the biggest performances as a very British kind of export.
Knights of stage and screen.
# I play this part...
# ..I can't For to live
# I have to give
# The performance
# Life. #
In the first of a two-part series, the BBC delves into its archives to discover British acting greats as they take their first tentative steps on the road to success. Long before they were knighted for their services to drama, we see early appearances from Michael Caine in a rare Shakespearean role, Ben Kingsley, Ian McKellen, Derek Jacobi and Michael Gambon.
Featuring unique behind-the-scenes footage alongside a wealth of classic British productions like War and Peace, the Mayor of Casterbridge and the Singing Detective, it reveals many career-defining moments from the first generation of acting talent to fully embrace television drama.