REMEMBERING IAN HOLM: ‘He was charming, everybody loved him’

Ian Holm as Henry V 1965 - Pic Reg Wilson
Bee Gilbert

Sir Ian Holm, who died on 19th June, started his long career at the RSC, joining the company in 1958. While there he met Bee Gilbert, his partner of 15 years and with whom he had two of his five children. Here Bee shares her memories of those early days and life with Ian. 

Tell us about meeting Ian.
I worked at the RSC from 1963 for a couple of years. I started in the wardrobe department, and remember I had to fit Ian for the boot he wore for Richard III. Then I was his dresser and then became an assistant stage manager. I was involved in that huge Wars of the Roses [1963]. Ian had the most lines anyone had ever had because he was Richard III, Prince Hal and Henry.

Ian as Richard III

What were your first impressions of him?
He was completely charming. He was the most wonderful company man – everybody loved him and he was a real actor’s actor.
When I was with him that’s what he was most proud of. All kinds of actors, including Ben Kingsley, said they became actors because they’d seen Ian do his Richard III. So many actors admired him but he wasn’t ever a diva.
He was always very funny too. Hugh Griffith played Falstaff and they had a tremendous laugh together. They had the most wonderful dialogues, because Hugh was wonderful on the literary aspects of Shakespeare. I think it was him that said to Ian, who was fairly short at 5ft 6 1/2in, that when he was on stage surrounded by these tall spear-carriers, they mustn’t come within five feet of him or he would look small and “lose his kingship”.

Ian as Romeo 1967 with Estelle Kohler – Pic Reg Wilson

I understand he was quite a complicated person too. Would that be fair?
Yes. He was a private person, he never wanted to talk about his acting. When he did his biography with writer Steve Jacobi, that was wonderful because Steve got him to talk. Although he had always told anecdotes about his acting, he hadn’t really opened up before.
He hadn’t liked to talk about how he found his “acting voice” before – he’d always said if you talk about it too much you lose it. For him it was so instinctive: as Shakespeare said, he wasn’t “thinking too precisely on th’event”.
A lot of actors, especially the method actors, would talk about what they were doing, but Ian would just find a little core clue to the character. When he was playing JM Barrie for the television he discovered his cough – and he would say, “Ah, once I’ve got that I’m fine”. He would become the parts, not just perform roles.

He developed a lot of techniques at the RSC, I presume.
I remember with Henry V, when he had to do the speech “upon the king”, where he feels the responsibility, he walks among the soldiers unrecognised by them in the camp as they are about to attack the French at Harfleur – and he performed the speech in a whisper.
He had to carry the words up to the audience on the balcony. I asked him how he did it and he said you change the “d”s on words like “God” and “bread” to “t”s. He was so brilliant on technique, and had that confidence. It was amazing he could whisper and be heard.
He had a natural gift – he was brilliant at iambic pentameter. He learned a lot from John Barton, who was a genius and a big influence, and also from Peter Hall.

Ian as Malvolio 1966 – Pic Reg Wilson

Which of Ian’s performances at the RSC stand out for you?
Henry V was magnificent; he was a lovely Romeo and hysterical as Malvolio. But Richard III was absolutely extraordinary. There’s a clip you can see online where he seduces Lady Anne – he was so sexy yet malevolent. He gave Richard a terrible charisma that you felt seduced by.
Later, as Lenny in Pinter’s Homecoming, he was just extraordinary – again making a nasty character attractive.

Ian and Bee with daughter Lissy

What was Ian like as a father to your children Melissa and Barnaby?
He was sweet and loving when they were little but not really involved, he was always so busy.
From about ten years old, they became wonderful friends. Melissa and Ian became particularly close, and Barnaby was in films with him, including The Lost Boys. They remember him as a dear and affectionate father.
Even though Barnaby moved to America when he was 20, he would come back on Ian’s birthday every year. He was best man when Ian married Sophie de Stempel [his widow].
They are devastated by his loss, but also he was very ill with Parkinson’s and the last few weeks were particularly hard, so there is relief that he is at peace.

You split from Ian after 15 years together but remained friends, I understand.
Yes, we were best friends; we remained close, which was lovely. We both moved on to new partners – Ian was with Sophie Baker, who’s my chum, and I was with Andrew [Birkin, the actor and writer].
We had sons born three weeks apart; they had Harry and we had Anno. Ian and I would take the boys out together. Andrew and Ian were close friends too. People probably thought it was all very incestuous!
When Anno died [aged 20 in a car accident] we made a CD reading of his poems – and Ian read them so beautifully. It was such a lovely thing to do. Ian loved Anno.

Ian went on to have stellar success. How was he with that?
He took it in his stride. I was with him up until Alien [1979] and then Chariots of Fire [1981] followed and both were huge.
He hated to be recognised in the street and would duck out of the way, but when he did The Hobbit he got more used to it and would talk to fans.

Ian as Puck 1959 – Pic Angus McBean

Did he have any regrets – roles he would have liked to play?
His biggest disappointment in his life was when Stanley Kubrick was going to make a film about Napoleon and he went to see Ian in Richard III and he said he wanted him to play the lead. But in the end the film never happened. That’s the only disappointment: he played pretty much everything he wanted to.

What do you think Ian’s legacy will be?
I think Trevor Nunn put it brilliantly in the tribute he wrote for the Guardian recently when he said: “Ian transformed Shakespeare acting, he transformed the acting of the company around him, he transformed the English theatre for decades, as only an actor of genius could. May his influence never wane.”