Brian Blessed is an actor, adventurer and all-round force of nature and tomorrow he’s back in Sheffield to talk about his new book. Chris Bond caught up with him.
For as long as he can remember Brian Blessed has been fascinated with animals. But while you or I might settle for providing a home for cats and dogs, or perhaps even both, the irrepressible actor and adventurer has rescued everything from horses and ponies to a particularly ungrateful fighting cock.
Over the years he’s also provided sanctuary for an array of unlikely and exotic creatures including an ageing boa constrictor called Bo Bo and even a lion.
Blessed recounts his numerous wildlife encounters in his new book – The Panther in My Kitchen – which he’ll be discussing on his return to South Yorkshire tomorrow evening when he appears ‘in conversation’ at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre as part of this year’s Off The Shelf Festival.
The story concerning the panther in question dates back to when Blessed was living in Richmond, in North Yorkshire. “I was a plasterer in my youth and I was restoring an old house,” he says, in that unmistakable, stentorian voice of his. “The minister for agriculture and fisheries at the time knew about my love of animals and told me they were running a programme to send wild animals back to their country of origin and, because I had a big garden, over half an acre, he said we could set up a quarantine there for the animals which could stay for a few days before being sent back home.
“One day a famous circus man I became friendly with called Nyoka came to see me and said, ‘I want to introduce you to a friend of mine’ and I turned round and he’d put this great big female black panther called Kali on the kitchen table. My dad was there at the time and he nearly had a heart attack.
“I said ‘this is great, dad’ because he’d once taken me to see The Jungle Book, the Alexander Korda film, in Goldthorpe at the cinema there. It’s the best Jungle Book film and of course the great star of it is Bagheera and here was Bagheera on my kitchen table. It was a huge black panther, but quite tame, and I rubbed it with a great big brush and that was the panther in my kitchen.”
Blessed was born in Mexborough, in South Yorkshire, and it was here where his lifelong passion for animals began. “The Sheffield area was my stomping ground but as children we didn’t know anything about wild animals we’d just see them in Johnny Weissmuller films. Then there was an amazing shock in Bolton upon Dearne when the circus came to town, which was unheard of in the war years. My parents took me along and I couldn’t believe it because there in front of us were dozens of lions in the flesh. It was utterly bewitching and it gave me a great incentive to want to see them in the wild.”
It’s a passion he’s shared with his wife, Hildegarde, and together they have helped as many as 3,000 animals from their home in Surrey. “They’re mostly domestic animals and we rescue cats and dogs and goats and donkeys. There’s been times when you couldn’t even find space to sit in the living room...”
Blessed is a vociferous animal conservationist and has supported a number of charities including World Animal Protection (formerly the Society for the Protection of Animals) and the Born Free Foundation, travelling to far-flung places in the process. “I’m fifty per cent explorer, fifty per cent actor, and this has taken me to Everest, to Aconcagua in South America and all over Asia, and even the Arctic where I chased a polar bear away. My relationship with animals is astronomical.”
As with his love of animals, his passion for acting was forged in the coal mining communities of South Yorkshire. “Where I lived in the Don and Dearne Valley those war years were golden years, all my uncles could quote Shakespeare and in the valleys of Goldthorpe, Mexborough and Doncaster there were musical societies and opera societies.
“That whole area, including Sheffield, was throbbing with art and theatre. At the Mexborough Theatre Guild I learned everything from a wonderful man called Harry Dobson and I also had a speech teacher in Rotherham. I had all these wonderful people to help me and we were encouraged at school to have a great love of theatre and films and that inspired me to be an actor.
“Patrick Stewart and I would go on weekend drama courses. He’s a few years younger than me but we saw our first professional show together, a play called The Cathedral, and the sets were wonderful. It was all so inspiring.”
He calls Sheffield his “stomping ground” and it was here where he met Pablo Picasso as a youngster when the 20th Century’s greatest artist attended the World Peace Conference in 1950.
“There were something like 350,000 people at Worsbrough Park. There were Russian and American generals there, people like Zhukov, and it was a big celebration of peace and it was held in Yorkshire of all places,” he says.
“Paul Robeson was at the town hall in Sheffield and Picasso was there painting and signing doves of peace. I was just a kid and I could always get to the front of the queue and I said, with this broad Yorkshire accent: ‘You’re not Picasso, you sound like Carmen Miranda.’ And he said ‘this is the way I talk.’ To which I said, ‘if you’re Picasso then draw me something’ and he drew a dove of peace and offered it to me. I said ‘that’s not a dove’ and I drew him a dove.
“He looked at me and said, ‘it’s the first time I’ve had a genuine critic. To the child my drawing is no good.’ So I gave it back to him and it’s in a gallery in Sheffield and I think it’s valued at over £57m... My dad wouldn’t talk to me for a fortnight afterwards.”
Blessed is now 81 but has lost none of his joie de vivre which, again, he puts down to his northern roots. “Everyone in South Yorkshire had a great lust for life. During my childhood we had all those lovely steam trains like the Flying Scotsman and the Mallard and the Doncaster plant nearby; and the fields had no pesticides and were full of great crested newts and smooth newts and toads and frogs,” he says.
“The radio was so sensational, too. You had the Saturday Night Theatre and Dick Barton – Special Agent and of course every weekend at the Empire Picture House in Goldthorpe we had Flash Gordon with Buster Crabbe. I always pretended afterwards to be Vultan, prince of the flying Hawkmen, but I never dreamt that one day I’d actually play him in a film.”
He’s referring, of course, to his now legendary scene-stealing performance in the hilariously camp 1980 film version which has since become something of a cult classic. “Everywhere I go, whether I climb mountains in Africa or go to the North Pole, people always shout to me ‘Gordon’s alive!’ and I shout back ‘Gordon’s alive!’ and they stand and cheer. It’s become a battle cry. Even the Queen loves me saying it.”
His career, perhaps like the man himself, cannot be easily defined in a single sentence. “I’ve completed space training in Russia and with Nasa as well, and I loved doing I, Claudius and playing Long John Silver in the theatre,” he says. “But my proudest achievement is getting to 28,600 feet on Mount Everest at the age of 64 without oxygen, breaking all the world records and defying science...”
I’ll raise a glass to that and to a quite remarkable man.
The Panther In My Kitchen – My Wild Life With Animals, published by Sidgwick & Jackson, is out now priced £20.
Brian Blessed is appearing ‘in conversation’ at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, tomorrow at 7.30pm as part of the Off The Shelf festival. For more details call 0114 223 3777.
A Blessed life
Brian Blessed was born the son of a coal miner in Mexborough, South Yorkshire in 1936.
He left school at the age of 14 and worked as a plasterer and undertaker before training at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School.
An early defining role was as PC ‘Fancy’ Smith in the BBC’s acclaimed police drama Z Cars during the 1960s.
He has since played a variety of memorable parts on stage, television and in film and is best known for his Shakespearean acting and for comic roles in films like Flash Gordon and the Blackadder TV series.
Blessed is also a bona fide explorer, adventurer and author and was awarded an OBE in 2016 for his services to the arts and charity.