One Knight Only: what we learned about Judi, Maggie, Ian and Derek in their Zoom knees-up

Chris Wiegand
·4-min read

They are, according to their pal Kenneth Branagh, the “greatest quartet of Shakespearean actors on the planet”. And on Sunday evening, for the charity get-together One Knight Only, hosted by Branagh on Zoom, Dames Maggie Smith and Judi Dench joined Sirs Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi to share acting anecdotes, tell Christmas cracker jokes and speak a bit of verse. It was pure thespian gold – here’s a handful of revelations.

Ian McKellen shared the stage with a ghost …
At least, that’s what Patrick Stewart told him. When they were midway through Waiting for Godot at the Theatre Royal Haymarket 10 years ago, Stewart turned to look at McKellen and “his face was ashen and he stopped acting”, remembered McKellen. “He said afterwards he had seen a man standing next to me in a brown overall jacket.” They decided it was a deceased stage manager. Apparently, Stewart often sees ghosts and before he does he always smells bacon. (Perhaps it’s ham, suggests Dench.)

Judi Dench’s parents couldn’t have been prouder …
When Dench starred in Romeo and Juliet in 1960, her parents came along to watch. It was a landmark production directed by the celebrated Franco Zeffirelli at the Old Vic. In act three, scene two, Dench’s desperate Juliet asks the Nurse: “Where is my father and my mother?” At which point, proud Reginald Dench called out: “Here we are, darling, in row H!”

Patrick Stewart as Vladimir and Ian McKellen as Estragon in Waiting for Godot at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, London, in 2009.
Ghostly presence … Patrick Stewart as Vladimir and Ian McKellen as Estragon in Waiting for Godot at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, London, in 2009. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/the Guardian

Maggie Smith was once an usher …
In those days plastic cups weren’t the nuisance. “They had pots of tea,” she remembered, “and you had to balance these trays – teapots, cups and saucers, and some very dreary biscuits. A lady once said to me, ‘I would like a lightly boiled egg.’” In later years, Smith might have delivered a trademark withering putdown, but she duly relayed the request. “They more or less told me to go and tell her to stuff herself.”

Derek Jacobi had “glorious, glorious” hair …
McKellen says he felt “instant love” for Jacobi when they met at university. He was a dapper dresser, sporting tight trousers and “glorious, glorious hair”. Combed round the back in a duck’s arse, with a spectacular quiff, it was a Tony Curtis cut and cost Jacobi all his spare cash to maintain it with trips to his Italian barber. Jacobi dreaded going to bed for fear of messing it up.

Ian McKellen nicked a beermat from the Rovers Return …
This was during his 10-episode stint on Coronation Street in 2005. The mat was nailed down to the set so it took some elbow grease. After a guilty night’s sleep, he returned the next day and nailed it back. (Maggie Smith longed to nab a goblet from the Harry Potter films but didn’t fancy smuggling it past security.)

Judi Dench hates people whistling backstage …
It’s a theatrical superstition, along with “the Scottish play”. Macbeth inspired her to become an actor. When she saw her older brother playing Duncan in a production of the tragedy, she was gripped when he declared: “What bloody man is that?” Dench knew “this is for me,” she said. “Shakespeare and swearing!”

Derek Jacobi got a copy of Hamlet from Peter O’Toole …
In 1963, Jacobi was Laertes to O’Toole’s prince. One day, O’Toole presented him with a book of Hamlet that once belonged to celebrated Victorian actor Johnston Forbes-Robertson. Jacobi later passed it on to Branagh who, in 2017, gave it to Tom Hiddleston when he directed him as Hamlet at Rada.

Ian McKellen wants to act on stage with Meryl Streep …
In 1985 they were in a film of David Hare’s play Plenty. “I said, ‘Could we do a play together?’” McKellen remembered. Streep told him that she was “having a little bit of a film career at the moment”. Maybe once McKellen’s done Hamlet they can make it happen?

Judi Dench once gave Branagh some considered advice on the art of acting …
According to Branagh, the dame shared a note on his performance: “Stop flailing your arms around like an effing windmill!”

• More about the charity Acting for Others.