Sir Ian McKellen: Why I'll never leave Narrow Street

IanMckellenWEEEEBBY.jpg"I heard one of those tourist boats going past one day say, 'on the left hand side is the pub where Charles Dickens wrote some of his famous plays and that house on the left, painted pink, that belongs to Julian Clary. Well, one queen's much like another for them I suppose.They've gone back to saying that's Gandalf's house now. I wish they wouldn't, but what can you do?"

Sir Ian McKellen, unquestionably Docklands' most famous resident, takes another mouthful of the split pea soup he's having as we sit in the pub he took over "on a whim" with a former boyfriend, theatre director Sean Mathias, and Evening Standard chairman Evgeny Lebedev.

"I wish I could tell you there was some great purpose," he said. "It's a sort of romantic thing isn't it - let's take over a pub?

"One motive was that I didn't want it to change and the other locals didn't either.

"When I first came to Narrow Street, 30 years ago, one of the few buildings that was working was The Grapes. It was a little beacon of comfort.

"Of course there's no money in it, it's more a social service.

"You've got to pay rent, you have to buy the beer from Punch so any money you can make is on the food."
And that's why I've been invited to lunch.

"The owners have just appointed a new chef - Dean Anthony-West and Sir Ian is keen to let Wharfers know the The Grapes' fine dining room, once frequented by Dickens, is open for business.

Sir Ian said: "We do huge sales down in the bar - it was packed today and they're all eating a version of the menu served in the restaurant upstairs But I'd like to see the fine dining room full all the time.

"Dean's a bobby dazzler - we always thought there must be some young chef who'd want to stamp his mark on the place."


Sir Ian breaks off to praise the warm salad of autumn vegetables he's having as a main and I ask him why, when he could live anywhere in the world, he chooses to live in Narrow Street.

"The river," he replies instantly. "I was looking for a house and I'd always been lucky enough to live in homes that had views.

"The minute I walked into the house here I thought 'oh my God, the river' and that was it.

"I've been here 30 years and I've decided I shall end my days here. Whenever you look out it's different.

"The same but different. There's movement on the river, you see the sky all the time and the sunsets are amazing.

"Here you don't feel at weekends that you're in London. You're on the river, that's what you feel and I love it.

"When you shut the front door, the only noise is from the Thames, which is quite congenial."

While you might see Sir Ian in The Grapes, you're equally likely to spot him in Canary Wharf.

"I go there all the time," he said. "Well once a week at least. I do a big shop at Waitrose and they deliver - perfect.

"I don't like to shop online because I like to see what I'm buying. I've just taken up Pilates, a wonderful thing.

"I nip into Alan Herdman's studio once or twice a week at Reebok Sports Club.

"I get my glasses at David Clulow, down in the depths and I go to the Frontispiece."

Art's a passion for Sir Ian who has a plan to site a Gormley behind the pub (see below) and he suggests Wharfers Wharfers check out the framing shop.

"I bought a real bargain there," he said. "People should go because he still has some left - he bought a whole set of Matisse prints called Jazz and I got two of them.

"They're technically not Matisse, because they were printed long after his death, but the colours are absolutely spot on.

"He sells them at half the price you can get them in Harrods. He's also got all sorts of interesting local stuff."


On his Gormley

"I've got an exciting project. I went round Antony Gormley's studio in London and there, sitting, was a figure like the ones on Crosby beach.

"I asked if he wanted to hold onto it, 'no'. I asked him if he'd sell it to me, 'depends'. Suppose I was to put it on the beach behind The Grapes?

"And that's what we're going to do. He'll get drowned twice a day, possibly not fully as the harbour master's worried a canoe might bang into him, but he'll get wet."

On The Hobbit trilogy

"The third Hobbit film was an odd do. We were always making two and we were just finishing off.

"On the last week of filming, Peter Jackson called a few of us in and said 'we've got so much material, we can't bear to cut it down. So we're not going to. We're going to make it into three films - do you mind?'

"No. What's involved? 'Well you'd have to come back and do a bit more filming'. So I've still got another five weeks in New Zealand to do on it.

"Of course, the first one's all ready to go now.

"They put the music on there at Abbey Road last month ahead of the premiere in December."

On Dickens and The Grapes

"Everyone's always said the third chapter of Our Mutual Friend is set in The Grapes [re-named the Six Jolly Fellowship Porters Tavern]

"Others have said, 'well it could be any pub'. But it's definitely this area and his godfather used to live locally so he knew Limehouse.

"Well, in 1944, the owner got a letter out of the blue form an old lady, by that time living in America - she was 84.

"She said she'd been reading about the arguments as to whether Dickens knew The Grapes or not and said she'd like to tell the owner that when she was four years old, she was brought to The Grapes to meet Mr Dickens, who was a huge celebrity, in an upstairs room.

"So we can say with confidence that Dickens knew the view from the restaurant."

On homophobia in east London

"When I came out in 1988/89, I was living down here and I got some death threats, unsigned, in green ink, misspellings. And I'd show these to the police and they'd say don't worry about them

"It's a bit alarming, when they say they know where you live and they've got a bullet for you.

"But I don't think those ever came through my front door, so they didn't actually know where I lived.

"When you're in public life and you show yourself off, you don't want to think there might be some nutter.

"Apart from that, there's scarcely been a hint of anything. Although I did talk to a young gay man who lived in Cable Street.

"He was an artist at some studios I know and he said he and his boyfriend had been regularly abused, verbally, so much so that they left the area - it was getting really horrible for them.

"But I don't have any trouble at all."

On nearly becoming a journalist

"The first thing I wanted to be was a journalist. My father knew the editor of the Bolton Evening News, who in his time had been deputy editor of The Spectator - he was no fool - and I went in to see him and he said 'now look I get more applications to work here per day than I have jobs to give in a year'.

"So I decided to go into the much safer business of writing.

"But he said 'If you want to write something, you can contribute to our notebook column, written under a pseudonym,' and I used to write little 150 word pieces about things I'd seen or heard or noticed.

"And the thrill of sending these off and then waiting to see if they'd been accepted - and I wouldn't know until I saw the paper - it was so exciting. I wish I'd kept them.

"If I'd kept at it, I suppose I might have become a journalist, but at the same time acting was more available as an amateur and that's the way I went."

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I lived on Narrow Street for 10 years - The Terrence Higgins Trust was born in my tiny little flat and oh boy I miss it now - Whenever I visit London now I stroll down it remember it when it was not quite so trendy, Spent many a happy hour on what was still a bomb site at Limehouse basin discussing movies with David Lean.
If I was ever lucky enough to be able to afford to move back "home" I would be there in an instant. Happy memory's of a quite magical part of London.

Paul Grimshaw said:

We live on Narrow Street just a few doors down from the Grapes and Ian is spot on about Narrow Street and the river. We love it, even the party boats. :-) We will definitely be trying the Grapes new menu. I spoke to Ian a few weeks ago on his way back from the newsagents and he's a really nice bloke who grew up in the next town to me in Wigan.