Series Review: British Legends of Stage and Screen (2012)

British Legends of Stage and Screen provides interviews with acting royalty such as Derek Jacobi, Michael Gambon, and Ian McKellen and investigates how each of these icons began their careers.

Throughout the history of film, Britain is often heralded as having produced some of the finest actors in the world. Offering unparalleled access to some of these comes British Legends of Stage and Screen, an eight part series providing in-depth interviews with some of the most prolific, and loved, actors of their generation.

In the years following the Second World War, a group of actors emerged that would one day become some of the most respected and sought after talents in their profession. In the decades following the War, a climate of change and growth allowed actors to tap into the cultural significance of their work and become true greats of their profession. The series interviews some of those that are still alive and working today, such as Derek Jacobi, Michael Gambon, Diana Rigg, Christopher Lee, Ian McKellen, and more.

These interviews investigate how each of these icons began their careers, working up through the various roles of British theatre to television and film work. Despite the minor differences between actors, it is clear that theatre work is responsible for the undeniable success of these actors. The series provides a relaxed atmosphere within which the actors honestly discuss their experiences, providing the opportunity for some wonderfully amusing anecdotes, most of which include perhaps the greatest British actor of all time, Sir Lawrence Olivier. Almost all of the interviewees have a tale to tell about Olivier, from Sir Derek Jacobi’s gushing exclamations of how the man was a mentor, employer, teacher and father figure, to the phone call following Sir Ian McKellen’s first television appearance that motivated him to continue. It is only right that he should have such an important presence in a series like this, and so it is good that the actors being interviewed reflect this.

Despite the high cultural position of the interviewees (with most having received special honors from the Queen), the series gives a rare opportunity to learn about their successes, or failures, in their own words. Christopher Lee’s difficulty getting into acting due to his height for example, or Dame Diana Rigg’s inability to deal with her fame following The Avengers, provides an intriguing insight into these personalities. To hear the likes of Michael Gambon and Derek Jacobi honestly discussing their acting processes that have led to their hugely successful careers, as well as their personal lives, is a treat; these are larger than life individuals, and to hear them speak so candidly is well worth watching.

The series is not just a historical discussion either, with some of the interviews discussing contemporary and future work. Sir Ian McKellen’s descriptions of working on the upcoming Hobbit trilogy offer a tasty glimpse at what’s to come, but also shows the change between the beginning of his career on stage to now, acting in front of a green screen (a change that may not be as positive as it seems).

British Legends of Stage and Screen is insightful and surprisingly entertaining for a simple set of interviews. This is due to the access the interviews offer to the hugely successful and revered figures of British acting, all of whom are good company for each episode.

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