August 11, 1949 – Ian Charleson
Alan Bates wrote:
“Charleson was definitely among the top ten actors of his age group”.
After Charleson’s passing, Ian McKellen said:
“Charleson was the most unmannered and unactorish of actors: always truthful, always honest”.
Charleson was diagnosed with HIV in 1986 and he took his final bow in 1990, gone from the plague at just 40-years-old. Shortly before his death, while seriously ill, Charleson performed a run of Hamlet at the National Theatre, giving a performance that made critics gush and audiences swoon. Director Richard Eyre had brought him in to replace Daniel Day-Lewis, who had walked away from the production, even though he knew Charleson was seriously sick.
Theatre critic John Peter wrote in the London Times:
”The masterful new Hamlet: Ian Charleson… Technically he employs clarity combined with a powerful dramatic drive. His delivery is steely but delicate. The words move with sinuous elegance and crackle with fire. His Hamlet is virile and forceful. He oozes intelligence from every pore.”
The day following Charleson’s final Hamlet performance, McKellen was given the Evening Standard Award for his Iago in Othello. McKellen offered his thank you, but said that he thought that not he but Charleson was truly the Best Actor of 1989.
Charleson had kept his HIV secret from all but his closest friends, but he requested that it be announced after his death that he had died of AIDS. His was the first celebrity death in the UK to be openly attributed to AIDS, and the announcement helped to promote awareness and acceptance of HIV/AIDS.
If you know his work at all, it is probably from Charleson’s performance as real-life Eric Liddell in the film Chariots Of Fire (1981) as a devout Scottish missionary who, as a runner, competed in the 1924 Paris Olympics,
In Chariots Of Fire Liddell refuses to take part in the Olympic Games on the Sabbath. His main competitor is Harold Abraham, an English Jew, played by Ben Cross, who is dealing with anti-Semitism.
The film was directed by Hugh Hudson and written by Colin Welland. It was a huge hit and won the Academy Award and a BAFTA for Best Picture and three other Oscars: Best Screenplay, Score and Costume Design.
It is also one of the most maligned Best Picture-winners, and I see it frequently listed as the worst movie to win the top Academy Award. For many film fans, it falls into that The King’s Speech (2010) category of middle of the middle-brow flag-waving, patriotic tear-jerkers. I loved it when I saw it in its original run in 1981, but as always, I am drawn to 1920s gentlemen athletes, plus I found the whole thing to be highly erotic.
Yet, I caught it earlier this summer on TCM, and while Chariots Of Fire certainly does embrace older values, offering up perfect period details and patriotic uplift, they are not the heart of the story. Hudson’s filmmaking is elegant, and the screenplay is fiercely intelligent. For me, it is one of the best films about athletes, and that rare movie that keeps optimism and emotion in perfect balance.
It is funnier and more playful than I had remembered, especially gay actor Ian Holm‘s work as a trainer, than its stuffy reputation suggests. It also edgier than I had thought, fueled by a fiery anti-authoritarian stance that takes on the conventions of a repressed society during the between-the wars era. In preparing to portray Liddell, Charleson read The Bible from beginning to end.
The film also includes queer artists Lindsay Anderson, Dennis Christopher, Brad Davis and John Gielgud.
Sure, the slow-motion running and the Vangelis‘ score are easy to parody but the film finds lots of variety in its sports set-pieces: the mournful, impressionistic Abrahams / Liddell showdown is as far away from the usual sports montages as you can get.
Yet, like good sports films, Chariots Of Fire is about more than a race; it’s a about class, anti-Semitism, the aftermath of WW I, bureaucratic red tape and the power of faith. It is a rich, complex character study that reveals the fissures in British society as much as it celebrates the heroism that overcomes them. If you have never seen it, I think you might be impressed. If you think it is a stinker, give it another viewing.
In 1982, Eyre directed a major revival of the very American musical Guys And Dolls at the National Theatre, calling it a “re-thinking” of the musical, and his production featured an award-winning neon-lit set design and brassier orchestrations with vintage harmonies, and included a tap dance finale, performed by the entire cast. It ran for nearly four years and breaking all box office records. The cast featured Bob Hoskins as Nathan Detroit, and Charleson as Sky Masterson.
Following Charleson’s untimely death, two reunion performances of Guys And Dolls, with almost all of the 1982 cast and musicians, were given at the National Theatre as a tribute to Charleson. The tickets sold out immediately, and the dress rehearsal was also packed. The proceeds from the performances were donated to the new Ian Charleson Day Centre HIV Clinic.
He could sing and dance and he was nimble in comedies and strong in dramas and classics. In his last decade, Charleson won praise and awards for performances on stage in London such as Sam Shepard‘s Fool For Love, Tennessee Williams‘ Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, Martin Sherman‘s Bent, and Ivan Turgenev‘s A Month In The Country.
In another dubious Academy Award Best Picture-winning film, Gandhi (1982), Charleson plays Mahatma Gandhi‘s best friend and collaborator, Charlie Andrews, opposite Ben Kingsley. The film conveniently erases the sexual relationship between Charleson and Gandhi, of course.
In Jubilee (1978) a cult film directed by Derek Jarman, Charleson plays a bisexual punk involved in a love triangle with a woman and his own twin. He sings My Love Is Like A Red, Red Rose in an evocative scene with the three of them in bed naked together. What a beautiful voice.
Charleson was forced to disown Jubilee while promoting Chariots Of Fire. Jarman never forgave him and it destroyed their friendship. I would have liked to have seen him be interviewed about the Jubilee role while promoting a film about Christian values and a devoted protagonist like Liddell.
Charleson was born and raised in Edinburgh and graduated from Edinburgh University and then attended the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA). He left LAMDA to take his first West End role in Simon Gray‘s Otherwise Engaged, with Alan Bates, one of his occasional lovers.
He regularly performed at the National Theatre and Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) from 1977 to 1989. He was also a talented scene painter and costume designer, working for small theatre companies.
Since 1991, in his honor, the Ian Charleson Awards have been presented for the best classical stage performances by actors under 30-years-old. Past winners include Michael Sheen, Damien Lewis, Dominic West, David Ovelowo, Ruth Negga, and Cush Jumbo.