At the age of 82, and with a pacemaker fitted, Brian Blessed still has a list of ambitions to fulfil. Some may be rather long shots – like going to Mars or the Moon – but others might be within reach.
Just a few years back, for example, the Students’ Union of York University demonstrated a keen sense of humour when it named a new space “The Brian Blessed Centre for Quiet Study”. And, since Brian is heading for the city in September, to deliver his one-man show at the Grand Opera House, he’d rather like to see it. “I laughed out loud when I was asked to loan my name to it”, he booms. “What a very clever idea.”
This is the first time that he has appeared on stage in York. “I really do not have a clue why I haven’t been to any of the theatres before. I love the place. You can’t keep me away from the engines in the National Rail Museum,” he says.
Born in Mexborough, Brian was taken back to the family home in Goldthorpe, and was raised by his father William – a coal miner at Hickleton Main – and his mother, Hilda. He has vivid memories of his father coming home from shifts and using a tin bath in front of the fire to get cleaned up. “I was allowed to soap his back,” he says fondly, “and it had blue scars all over, where he’d been hit by flying pieces of coal. The lads used to work half-naked in those days, it was so hot below ground.”
His father was a multi-talented man who belonged to the local amateur dramatic and operatic societies. “He knew every word of Hamlet and Julius Caesar. People think that miners just mined, but in fact there was an amazing creative and social life to those communities,” he says.
“Maybe that’s where I got the idea that I wanted to be an actor. Who can tell? In those days, it was the BBC Home Service, and I used to listen avidly to Dick Barton – Special Agent and to Paul Temple. And there were wonderful plays I remember, and an adaptation of HG Wells’ War of the Worlds. Spellbinding stuff. Oh, and Flash Gordon!”
Years later, Brian famously played Prince Vultan in the film version of the radio soap featuring a certain, memorable line. “I had to yell out ‘Gordon’s Alive!!!!’ and it haunts me to this day. I go anywhere and I get it yelled at me. I was on the North Pole ice pack a few years back and this bloody Russian sub comes up from under the ice and smashes its way to the surface. Up comes the conning tower and then, to my amazement, out comes the admiral. It was like Red October all over again. I looked at him, he looked at me, and he recognised me. He said ‘Say your line!’ So I took a deep breath and shouted, ‘Gordon’s Alive!!!!!’ and he turned went back inside his sub and obviously went away a very happy man.”
Brian has trained with the Russian space teams in Moscow and with Nasa on its Reunion Island base. “They want to send older people into space, just to test out our capabilities. I’d go like a shot. My lovely wife Hildegarde looks at me when I say that I have special blood in my body that has been identified to allow me to go on my mission, and she always sighs and says, rather sardonically, ‘Yes, but what about the stuff in your head?’”
Brian struggled at school, failing his 11 plus (“I just scribbled pictures of dinosaurs all over the forms. I wanted to get out looking for newts and wildlife, not doing silly exams”), and went off to Bolton on Dearne Secondary Modern, where he found himself in the “C class”. It was here that he made friends with another local lad, a certain Patrick Stewart.
“I was the sort of boy who was always off, scrumping apples, being a little bit naughty and cheeky. Patrick was always the one who erred on the side of caution, and was forever telling me ‘Brian, please do be careful’. He hasn’t changed, not one bit. These days, if I say to him that I’m off to the mountains to do a bit of climbing, or that I’m planning an expedition somewhere, I hear it all over again, his voice down the phone, whispering ‘Oh, Brian, do be careful!”
Rather surprisingly, he claims that he doesn’t have many acting friends, saying: “Most of them are climbers and explorers.” But then he reveals that “Ken Branagh is popping over tonight to discuss a few new projects. It’s a bit of a ‘father-son’ relationship, but in reverse. He’s the more sensible father, I am the unpredictable son.”
Talking to this remarkable, engagingly warm man is like tumbling through a fusillade of ideas, opinions, facts and asides. He’s 19 stone in weight he says, adding: “And these days I am as broad as I am tall.” That pacemaker came about after he collapsed on stage – he was playing King Lear, a mountain of a part – and “I could feel something funny going on around my heart. The wonderful thing is that I actually heard someone in the cast asking that old cliché of a question, ‘Is there a doctor in the house?’ If I hadn’t been feeling so poorly, I would have laughed fit to bust.” Nevertheless, he considered himself well enough to get through a few more performances, before conceding that he was harming his health. He reluctantly – finally – withdrew from the production. These days, he says, “I run five miles a day. No problems. Death doesn’t exist for me.”
He’s passionate about cleaning up Everest and is furious about the amount of litter left on its slopes. He’s equally enthusiastic about woodland, and greening energy sources. “I was over the moon to discover that Sheffield City Council have finally decided to stop cutting down the trees in the streets. Finally, the light of day dawns! I’ve got a lovely wood that I’ve planted all around my home. It gives me so much joy. The birdsong, the wildlife.”
He still gets letters and emails from youngsters asking for advice. “I tell them all, without exception, the very same thing. I say, ‘there’s no-one like you. Don’t let the b******s grind you down. Write your own scripts, your own lives. Be yourselves, be unique’. I really do believe in that. I’m not a rich man, no way. I have a couple of changes of underwear, a few pairs of pants, a shirt or two, and a blazer. I’ve given nearly all the money I’ve made away – to provide for animal and conservation welfare. But I’m a happy man. Very happy. And I never know what is around the next corner. I think I’ve done most things in my profession. There are parts I’d love to play – Captain Ahab in Moby Dick is one, and Peer Gynt is another. But am I content? Bet your life,” he says.
“I look in the mirror, and I see someone not too bad for my age. I look a bit like a gorilla with a beard. But when I go out on safari, the gorillas look at me and they love me. They come and inspect me. I think that’s rather lovely, don’t you?”
Brian Blessed, York Grand Opera House, September 3. 0844 8713024.