Actor and explorer Brian Blessed is one of Britain’s most familiar faces – and even more familiar voices. He’s graced the stage with the cast of Cats and the RSC, been seen (and heard) in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and Flash Gordon, appeared on TV in Z Cars, I Claudius and Blackadder and famously threw an episode of Have I Got News For You into glorious chaos. He’s also a mountaineer, conservationist, writer, cricketer, boxer, satnav voice artist and space fanatic – and he’s bringing all of this to his one man show, which hits the Cresset on 9 April. Toby Venables talked to him.
You’ve done so much in your career, Brian – where on earth do you start?
What is lovely about it is I just walk onto a stage as me. There’s no scenery, no nothing – although I do enter to the music of Flash Gordon, which absolutely brings the house down. And the first thing I say is ‘GORDON’S ALIVE!’ in a huge voice. And the place erupts. I have to say that about ten times a day, and have done for years. It seems to have become a kind of statement of celebration all over the world! A few years ago I was within 20 miles of the magnetic North Pole on a five month British expedition, which was a tremendous success. And as you get near the North Pole your hair nearly stands on end with the electricity. But anyway, I heard this noise, and the ice – which was very thin there – broke, and a great, Red October-style Typhoon class Soviet submarine came through the bloody ice. The conning tower opened up and the captain saw me and said: ‘It’s him! Please, say “GORDON’S ALIVE!”…’ So I shouted ‘GORDON”S ALIVE!’ at a bloody nuclear submarine. It’s happened to me on Kilimanjaro, on Everest – wherever I go. When Cameron was Prime Minister I went to No.10 with Chris Bonington to talk about saving elephants. I got there very early, but it was a lovely sunny day so I sat on windowsill and nodded off, only to be woken up by the Prime Minister who said ‘What are you doing here?’ Then he made me a coffee and got me to say ‘GORDON’S ALIVE!’ to the entire bloody Cabinet. He said ‘That’ll wake them up!’ But it happens wherever I go.
I saw the original Flash Gordon when I was a child, of course. I was born in Mexborough, Yorkshire in 1936, a coal miner’s sone, and grew up in Goldthorpe half way between Doncaster and Barnsley. We had Flash Gordon on once a week at the cinema, starring the amazing Buster Crabbe, who was an Olympic swimmer and diver. I tried to get him into the film as Flash Gordon’s father, but they wouldn’t wear it. I don’t know why – they wanted to cut if off from the past or something. But – I’d come out of the cinema as a kid and pretend to be Vultan, the flying Hawk Man! Little did I know that one day I would play Vultan in the film. People sometimes take the mickey out of that film and say ‘Well, it’s a bit camp…’ – but it isn’t! It’s got brilliant music, a brilliant cast, and is totally comic strip. So I usually tell people a bit about what happened in that film, and then move on to my childhood.
How did the acting start?
I was the son of a coal miner, and in the next village was the son of a milkman called Patrick Stewart. He was two years younger than me, and I’d drag him around amateur theatre. And Keith Barron lived nearby, and Judi Dench. But the coal miners in the area would put on operas, and Shakespeare. My dad knew the whole of Hamlet – and he removed 18 tons of bloody coal a day! When Patrick and I got a scholarship to theatre school, and my parents wept with joy. But I always got a lot of help from teachers and others. You can only do so much on your own. I’m 50% actor, 50% explorer so I cover all kinds of adventures in the show as well as the theatre. But I tend to mix more with explorers these days – just about the only actor I’ve mixed with in the last few years is Ken Branagh. Before he passed away dear old Richard Briers said to me: ‘Brian, you never say anything about the actors any more. Can you say something nice about us?’
But I have to say, actors who talk about acting are bloody boring. Acting is simply a must – good, bad or indifferent, you must do it. And I feel it may be the toughest of arts, because if you’re singing opera you can say ‘That wasn’t very good, but I have a bit of a cold’. And in ballet you can say ‘Oh, I’ve got a bit of a stiff leg’. But in acting your face, voice, body, heart, soul, mind and imagination are all judged, and nine times out of ten you’re shot down. You just have to have the courage to go back on stage again. But actors take themselves far too seriously. Hamlet says that acting is holding up the mirror to life, but of course, climbing Mount Everest, is life. So, tough as acting is, you are pretending! This idea that ‘Oh, I take my part home at night and I can’t get out of it…’ GET OUT OF IT! I do things, acting-wise, and when I get home, that’s it mate. Bugger that – I’m out with the dogs, watching football…
You’ve put yourself in some pretty extreme situations – do you think about the danger?
People ask me about that, and I say ‘The greatest danger in life is not taking the adventure’. Adventure could be anything – it could be your greenhouse, beekeeping, any project. There are Everests everywhere. But I think you’ve got to go for it. And one thing I say to the audience is that in spite of the dark age we’re in at the moment, with the worries about Brexit, there’s no one like you. Nature doesn’t cheat. You’ve all got something no one else has got. You’ve got to be allowed to bring it out and fulfill your dreams, and don’t let the bastards grind you down.
But my biggest love is space. From the earliest days as a child, listening to the radio with my mum and dad, I remember being enthralled by the fact there were other worlds beyond our own. I was brought up on science fiction, with War of the Worlds on the radio. More recently I’ve addressed NASA, and the Russians too, and told them ‘WILL YOU GET OFF YOUR ARSES!’ We need to get to Mars. We are the children of stardust, yearning for the stars. If you stand on the peak of Chimbarazo, in the Andes, and reach out with your hand, you are the closest on Earth that you can be to Mars. It’s not on Everest, because you’re closer at the equator. So, I say all this stuff, and an audience member said to me the other day ‘We love you, Mr Blessed, but you’ll never get me going in a spaceship…’ I said: ‘You’ve got no choice. You’re on planet Earth, traveling through space at 57,000 miles per hour. Every morning you wake up, you’re in a different part of the universe’. Stephen Hawking once rung me up and asked ‘They want to send me 16 miles into space – what do you think?’ I said: ‘You’re going to ****ing die anyway, you might as well ****ing go up!’ He said: ‘Ha ha ha! Brian Blessed says I’m going to ****ing die I might as well go up!’
You’re 82 now, and showing no signs of slowing down despite treatment for a heart condition…
It’s not how old you are, it’s how you are old. All over the world – in the Himalayas, South America, you name it – I meet masses of people over the age of 80, in tremendous condition. I row six or seven miles a day and bench-press 250-300lbs – not out of vanity, but because I need to keep myself fit for all the things I want to do. I’ve done 400 hours space training with NASA, and 400 hours in Russia, because I’ve gone to high altitude on Everest without oxygen. I’ve actually completed space training, so I’m a fully qualified cosmonaut! I’ve done a film, Ascent of Mars Mountain, in which we attempted to replicate what it would be like to climb Olympus Mons on Mars, the Solar System’s highest mountain, living and climbing in the conditions one would find on Mars itself. We did it on Reunion Island, with a group of mountaineers and scientists – and it actually erupted at one point, would you believe it. We were wearing these space suits that were worth 8 million quid each, created by the man who made the Predator creature. But also there was a moment when we had to find our oxygen stores, and mission control said: ‘Brian, just use your compass…’ I said: ‘I can’t use a compass’. They said: ‘You’re a mountaineer and you can’t use a compass..?’ I said: ‘There’s no magnetic field on Mars…’ They were not happy about that. All those top scientists and they hadn’t thought of it. But I just love space. I want to get out there man!
There’s something I saw on Wikipedia that I just have to ask you about… It says you were a gifted boxer in your youth and ‘once sparred with the Dalai Lama’… Is this true?
Yes! I made a film Galahad of Everest in 1990 with the BBC, in which I followed in the footsteps of George Leigh Mallory. I wore period clothes and followed the same route to pay tribute to the great expedition of 1924 – the best expedition ever mounted on God’s Earth! Mallory’s expedition was blessed by the 13th Dalai Lama, and we asked the 14th Dalai Lama – a lovely man, who is exactly the same age as me – whether he would repeat the ceremony, which he was happy to do. So, I spent five days with him, in this beautiful place with thousands of monks and kids with kites. Extraordinary time. Adorable man. I meditated with him, and it changed my life. He’s the most impressive man I have ever come across. When you are with him, you change – your heart burns, your mind hums with happiness… I’ve never told anybody that. But it turned out one of his great heroes was the great boxer Joe Louis. All the top heavyweight boxers said that Louis was the best, and Ali said to me once: ‘I wouldn’t want to have met him… No one could box like Louis.’ Well, the Dalai Lama has the pair of gloves that Louis wore when he defended his title against Billy Conn. He also had Billy Conn’s gloves, so I wore those and the Dalai Lama wore Joe Louis’s. He couldn’t box to save his life, while I was Yorkshire’s boxing champion, but I let him hit me on the nose a few times.
But we had a tremendous time, and I made him almost ill with laughter – asking about his sex life and everything. The one thing he would not talk about was reincarnation. He never answers questions about that. But I used to con him all the time, which he loved. I got him talking about the Mallory expedition, and about General Bruce, who was the actual leader of the expedition. He was a big, powerful man renowned for his strength, and as we were talking the Dalai Lama said: ‘I found I could hold his head on a chair, and my monks would hold his ankles, and then they’d sit on his spine, and could not bend it, he was so powerful.’ And I said: ‘You’ve just talked about General Bruce and how you played and wrestled with him in 1924, but you were born in 1936, like me… You really are the 13th Dalai Lama! I have total proof of reincarnation!’ And he said: ‘You are very naughty boy… I have been five times Dalai Lama’.
You might well hear some of these stories again, when I’m in Peterborough, but there arec plenty more, believe me – about Gielgud and Schofield and how I would tease the **** out of them. And I’m really looking forward to being in Peterborough. Peterborough’s a wonderful place. I’ve got one or two relatives up there, which is lovely. They’ve never seen me in a one man show – it might be a bit of a shock for them…
An Evening with Brian Blessed
9 April, 7.30pm