January 12, 2022

The power of storytelling with Sir Ian McKellen

Edward Dark
Written by
Edward Dark

Why working with Sir Ian McKellen was a “full circle moment” for me.  

For several years Catsnake: The Story Agency travelled the country with our famous “The Power of Storytelling” workshop helping train National Trust staff in how best to tell their stories. We visited beautiful manor houses, stunning estates and Swindon.

The workshop was so well regarded (sorry to brag!) that the National Trust asked us to create a short video version that could be shared with all staff as part of their internal training. As storytellers, we knew that for anyone to watch, it would need to be entertaining.

So, we created a short animation that explains the power of storytelling, using the tale of some primitive humans told through cave paintings and a meaningful voiceover. We needed a voice with gravitas, and a touch of wizardry in its devilish delivery, that would command attention. I was directing the film, and asked Lucy (our Head of Production) to find me “someone like Ian McKellen”. She went away, and a few days later said, “How about Ian McKellen? He’s just said he’ll do it”.

To explain how important this moment was, I need to introduce you to teenage, spotty, 16-year-old Ed Dark.

The year was 1998, Britpop was being drowned out by the Spice Girls, New Labour weren’t so new anymore and Google was just starting to find itself. I was in a school that was far too posh for me (I cheated on the entrance exam, meaning I never quite fitted in and ended up “being asked to leave” which is posh for “being chucked out”).

Thankfully, despite my difficulty settling into academic life, a new English teacher took a shine to me. He thought my work was better than the marks I’d received, deducing that the previous teacher had been grading me on reputation alone, not on the work itself. Whether this was true or not, it worked. He bumped up all of my grades from the previous year and suddenly had a willing and excited student.

From stage left, towards a newly-enthused English student, entered Macbeth. Coming from quite a manipulative family, I intuitively understood the drive of this piece about complex family relationships. It was the first story that truly resonated with me and I found it profoundly affective.

There was a point in 1998 where I could recite any part of it. It was a terrible party trick, but it meant a lot to me that the rough kid with a history of underperforming at school knew Shakespeare’s text by heart.

And then… that same teacher did something that would change me forever. He wheeled in the big square television and pressed play on the BBC Production of Macbeth starring Ian McKellen and Judi Dench.

The set was minimalist, the costumes were black, but the performances were captivating. I sat there enthralled by every minute. I couldn’t take my eyes off them. We watched it in chunks over a few lessons and I couldn’t wait for the next class to see how they interpreted each scene.

Macbeth (if you’re interested in watching the whole thing)

This was the first time I fell in love with a story. I loved Macbeth before I saw these two great actors bring it to life, but once I had watched that production, “story” became a life-long obsession that lasts to this day. It’s why I wanted to direct my own films, tell my own stories and set up a company called “The Story Agency”. Sir Ian McKellen was part of that. Dame Judi Dench too, but I’m still waiting to work with her!

So, the day of recording with Sir Ian McKellen, Macbeth himself, was a full circle moment for me. He arrived looking like Magneto (wearing a similar hat and coat as those seen in the X-Men films) and spoke to me like Gandalf (with all the wisdom and experience of a man who had lived a thousand lifetimes), but all I saw was Macbeth.

After we finished the voiceover record I walked him up to his taxi and nervously told him my story. My story about how he is the reason I fell in love with stories, and why they have taken over my life. He graciously said thank you and, before he walked out the door said to me, “that’s why we do what we do”.

I felt invincible in that moment. Like no one, “not yield to one of woman born”, could bring me down. And, it’s safe to say, “I bear a charmed life”.