Interview: Brian Blessed

CALIBRE sits down for an intimate conversation with Brian Blessed to talk about his past, his present, and his future hopes for mankind 

Calibre: Would you appear in Doctor Who again, if the chance arose?


“Oh yes, I would love to play the Doctor, absolutely! A few years ago I did Tom Jones – not literally – I mean the TV series of course, The History Of Tom Jones, in which I play Squire Western, alongside the current Doctor, Peter Capaldi.

“I would say it’s the most eccentric performance I’ve ever given – and my wife would say it’s the best.

“Anyway, the villain character in it was played by Peter. He’s an absolute shit. A real fop with make-up and a beauty spot, but he’s also a great swordsman. At one point his character hits mine across the face with his glove as a challenge, and I go, ‘Ooooh’, and chin him with a left hook!

“So, we were filming this left hook beautifully – shooting it from all angles, when the director goes, ‘Ok, just one more angle, so that we really are covered’. So, we go to film it one more time, and Peter will always agree with this I’m sure,” he says laughing. “As I throw the left hook, he puts his face forward!

“As I hit his head at the side, I pulled it, I pulled the punch as I felt it hit his cheekbone, and I yelled, ‘HE’S HIT!’” Brian grabs his throat, makes a constricted face and makes a choking noise. “He went in to the death rattle!

“His legs start flapping, his arms start going and he’s got this gash across his forehead.

I would love to be in Doctor Who, if they could find me another part

“So, the ambulance people come and get him, but they’re a bit at odds about how to treat him – because he still had all the make-up on and the frippery – they thought he was a bloody hermaphrodite!

“Anyway, I would love to be in Doctor Who, if they could find me another part, at least so Peter and I could fight again!”

Calibre: So what kind of doctor would you be?

“Around the Z-Cars time in the 1970s, I was actually in talks with the producers, who said, ‘We’re very keen for you to be the Doctor, to follow William Hartnel, and we’d like you to play him very young. You’ve got a very vivid imagination Brian. You can be quite normal and then also very, very eccentric’.

“Now, it would have been a big gamble for them at the time, to make the Doctor so young, and I said to them, ‘Well, there’s two ways I can play this…’. Very much based on my own personality, because space is my big love – so I wouldn’t have taken the piss out of it, I would have given it an intensity and humour. The other way I suggested of doing it was, ‘Whooo, whooo, whooo’.”

He starts to repeat the ‘Who’, making it sound like the hoot of an owl.

Space is my big love

“It’s almost oriental sounding you see… and I was tempted, with very fine make-up, and a great voice coach, to make him like Charlie Chan!” He says, leaning back and laughing.

“And they must have thought, ‘Christ! Brian’s crazy bloody imagination!’”

Calibre: There has been talk about a remake of Flash Gordon. Would you want to be involved?

“I think the original Flash Gordon episodes are terribly good and need looking at again, because there’s always a feeling of danger in them. There’s this noise all the time, in the Mongo atmosphere, ‘wooooom, wooooom’.” He starts to make a low, slow, pulsating noise for some time.

“There’s always this feeling of danger and you think, ‘Well, we’ve got another bloody 25 minutes of bloody danger now’.

 

“It’s what I suggested when we were doing our version, when they come to my Sky City (Mr Blessed famously played the character of Vultan in Dino De Laurentiis’s 1980 space opera Flash Gordon). “I said, ‘We mustn’t infer the heroes are safe here because I’m Ming’s man’.

“If there was a remake I would love to be in it and I think that remakes aren’t always necessary – but they should at least pay homage to the past.

“I see in reviews that Flash Gordon now gets five stars and six stars, whereas ten years ago it was three stars and two stars – so people are beginning to appreciate it. It isn’t camp, it has a great comic strip style, and it’s spot-on with capturing that and the sense of humour.”

Calibre: Is Flash Gordon your most famous role?

“Now in the film I deliver the famous line, ‘Gordon’s alive?’ And now, everywhere I go, people ask me to shout it. O2 arena, 30,000 people, ‘GORDON’S ALIVE?’, big cheer.

“Another time I was at the magnetic North Pole, where your hair stands on end because of the electricity, because that’s what happens when you’re on a huge great magnet, and where the ground is only five feet thick now because of global warming. Global warming IS taking place people.

Everywhere I go, people ask me to shout it

“Anyway, up pops this submarine, a nuclear, typhoon, Red October thing, and out comes the captain and salutes us all – they’d been following us, our British expedition. So, he gets out and comes over and points at me and goes,” adopting a Russian accent, “‘Ohh, it’s him! Flash Gordon!’ So, I just went, ‘GORDON’S ALIVE?’ and they all cheered. I then spent half an hour looking round this Russian nuclear submarine singing the Volga Boatmen.

“This happens all over the world: taximen, politicians, queens, diplomats, airports, toilets – it happens to me all over the world and I love it!

“So, how do I top that? A few years ago I received a script for a remake of Flash Gordon and it was hideously dark. The Hawkmen had claws and my character tore peoples’ arms off.

“I’d certainly take a remake into consideration, I would be interested, but they would have to put the line, ‘Gordon’s alive?’ in it. It’s become universal.”

Calibre: A third of people in their 50s and 60s plan to do something exciting in retirement – like forming a rock band. Would you ever release an album?

“When I was at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, my teacher, Mrs Moody, came to me one day and said, ‘I want you to pretend you’re a fat farmer and someone’s stealing your cattle, and you shout, ‘Oi!’

“So I went, ‘Oiiiiii’ and then she played the note on the piano – and then got me to match it. We then moved it up and down scales and in six weeks I was singing Wagnerian dramatic tenor.

I’ve always kept up my training and I do have this big singing voice

“At that time, the La Scala Milan was in Bristol at the Grand, with Birgit Nilsson the great soprano and Nicolai Gedda, the Swedish operatic tenor. It turned out they were friends of Mrs Moody and she brought them up to the school.

“Anyway, Gedda said to me, ‘Please forget drama school now’. And I said, ‘No, acting’s a must, I must do it’. And he said, ‘Well, if you come to La Scala Milan within two years you’ll be leading tenor’.

“Anyway, long story short, I’ve always kept up my training and I do have this big singing voice, and I’ve always thought that I should put together this LP covering The Impossible Dream and various other stage and musical numbers. There would certainly be some opera on there. I’ve been on the Cats one, but I’ve not made a Brian Blessed-only one.

“When I did Stars In Their Eyes, and did Pavarotti, he trained me for it. It was so sad, and he died not long after.”

 

Calibre: You have tried Everest three times. Is summiting the one ambition you have yet to achieve?

“Yes. I think Mallory’s 1924 expedition was the greatest exhibition ever mounted on God’s earth. We got to 27,000ft and very close to Mallory’s body. If we had found Mallory’s body, we would have covered it up, we wouldn’t have filmed it.

“I must say, the Americans who did find his body were very tasteful. I thought they did great honour to Mallory, but they received a great deal of criticism, and I couldn’t see any justification for that criticism. People were just jealous the Americans found it! You get more jealousy in mountaineering than you do in bloody acting!

“The greatest danger in life is not taking the adventure. We all have our Everests, and I think it’s important that we have those personal Everests.

The greatest danger in life is not taking the adventure

Calibre: What else do you want to achieve?

“I want to go to the bottom of the Marianas Trench in a bathysphere – all the way 37,000ft down! I also would love to go to the planet Mars. I made a film for Channel 4 about climbing the highest mountain on Mars, Olympus Mons, which is three times higher than Everest and the size of Spain. We simulated going there, and did space training on Réunion Island with NASA. We wore Martian prototype suits, which cost millions to make and the man who designed them designed Predator.

“My biggest love in life is space. I’ve always been mesmerised by space and I firmly believe we are the children of stardust, and we’re yearning for the stars, we don’t just belong here on this planet. The earth has got to have a rest!

“Now, I don’t want to be a prophet of doom – I believe mankind is going to make it – but we need to go to Mars and beyond. We made this film about Olympus Mons to say, ‘Get climbing! Let’s go to Mars and develop new forms of living, new forms of culture! Let’s go to other planets, other solar systems, other galaxies’.

“I once was in Cambridge University and drew out the Drake Equation for a class on the board. [The Drake Equation is used to arrive at an estimate of the number of active, communicative extraterrestrial civilisations in the Milky Way Galaxy]. I had no idea what it meant of course, I’d just learned it like I would learn Hamlet. But I wrote it out and said, ‘Ok I’ve got to rush o now, but test that, relate that to that, and then let me know how you get on’ – and they all applauded.

“Anyway, later I get a phone call,” he adopts an electronic, robot voice, “‘Hello Brian. I heard you did the Drake equation. Well done’. I thought it was Ken Branagh taking the piss – but it was Steven Hawking! And then he says, ‘They want to put me 60 miles into space, what do you think?’ And I said, ‘Well, we’re going to die anytime now – you might as well go up!’ And he just laughed, ‘Haa. Haa. Haa’.

“I’m determined to go to the moon and I’m very keen that we get moving in space, I think we have this wonderful race memory for exploration – we’re very old you see – as old as the universe, and we’re just scratching at the surface of it.”

I’m determined to go to the moon and I’m very keen that we get moving in space

Calibre: Do you see that as an important focus for the development and progression of humanity?

“I address SETI [the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence] and I say to them, ‘I think you need to change your message. We’re going to make it as a race, but we must send out an SOS, we need help’.

“But, it’s not easy, we’re such an aggressive creature, we’re so violent. I don’t think the balance or control of nature in the world belongs to any government. I think it is certain spiritual men in Asia, rishis in the mountains, in South America and in other places, who should guide us and help us maintain that balance. I think we are really going to make it, but we really need to get out there and explore more. We certainly don’t know everything.

“For example, when I was in Mongolia and we climbed Khüiten, the highest peak in the Tavan Bogd massif, the guides said that every autumn the migrations take place… of the YETI!

“The guides said they’re about seven to nine feet tall and they have rough clothes on, ‘We see them, but we don’t go near them’ – that’s what they said!

“On the earth, there’s a lot to explore, and I feel passionately about the Gaia principal of the earth – mother earth, the female – should be supplying Mars and other planets and moons, with life. I don’t think the creatures of the earth should be bound to it and I believe the earth’s function is to be mother to the solar system and to spread her life outwards.”

Calibre: What do you see as mankind’s worst attribute?

“We are the guardians of this planet, of the animals and nature, but instead we pray to the god of money.

“I think one of the biggest fears in life is the fear of not being tangible, this fear people have of not being ‘real’. They want to be famous, selfies and all that, but they live on the periphery, technology separates them.

We are the guardians of this planet, of the animals and nature, but instead we pray for the god of money

“I find that in society people become ‘thriving cripples’, in the fact that technology makes their eyesight go, and then their hearing starts to go, and their brain starts to go. Just like Jesus we all need 40 days and 40 nights in the wilderness!

“If you go to wild places, your eyes start to change, your eyesight improves, your hearing improves, and then you start to hear inner voices. You get back in touch with yourself. As a race we need to get in to the wilderness as much as possible.”

Calibre: Would you ever shave your beard off for a role?

“No. Nope. No role at all. It’s me. One role I would have loved to have done, and which we nearly did, and which would have absolutely required a beard, was the story of W. G. Grace. I always wished we had done it – but 30 years ago Britain wasn’t interested in cricket for television.”

Calibre: How has having a pacemaker affected you?

“You must understand, I do believe death exists, despite constantly defying it. But I live out on a limb.

“Three times I’ve been to Everest without the aid of oxygen. I don’t believe in oxygen. If you use oxygen you’re reducing Everest by 8,000ft! Get as high as you can without oxygen – then you know that you are worth at least that much.

“But, it was after the Russian space training, which was really very severe, that I felt a heart murmur. And, during the climb to the summit of Mount Ararat in Turkey at 17,000ft, I thought, ‘Bloody hell, I’m struggling up this’.

“So, my doctor said to me, ‘I don’t know how you climbed it, you’ve got an underactive thyroid gland, you’ve been climbing on your heart and courage alone! You should be in a coma’. So they put me on these thyroid pills, which immediately cured it, but then my heart had this slight fibrillation.

I live out on a limb

“So, it cost me £27,000, and now I love the NHS and raise money for them. But at my age, there’s things I still want to do – so I said, ‘Who’s the absolute best?’

“So, I saw these doctors who had this new pacemaker, which is made by Boston Scientific, who said they would come over and help fit it.

“So, I’m in there, and there’s all these doctors and Boston techs and I’m used to being half-naked and poked and prodded, what with all the Russian space training, trying to crap for days and these big Russians going, ‘Pleeeese sheeet Mr Blessed’, so I was fine with it all. Apparently I had no cholesterol, so they just fed the device straight through the heart, and it was all finished before I knew it.”

Calibre: How did you feel after having your pacemaker fitted?

“I just immediately felt 20 again! I take one or two pills with it now, but they completely cured me.

“Now I can go to the bottom of the sea – and when I go to Everest, I can meet the doctors and they can speed it up, ‘Oh, we’ll slightly speed it up so you can get up Everest’. So I’m basically the Six Million Dollar Man, THEY CAN REBUILD HIM!” He suddenly roars, beaming a wide smile.

“So, now I can do anything. I just wish they’d given me another cock! That’s what I said to the doctors. They said, ‘How are you feeling Brian?’ I said, ‘Great. Now I’d just like a 20 year old cock!’”

Now I can do anything

Calibre: As an actor, did you consciously develop your trademark booming voice?

“I’ve always had my voice, it hasn’t required any extra work or anything – but I can be very quiet. You know I’ve only actually ever done about four or five eccentric performances: Vultan, Tom Jones, Blackbeard, etcetera.

“I actually think some of my best performances have been very quiet. In As You Like It, playing the good Duke, I’m being very quiet and considered, and Kenneth [Branagh] wanted me that way to show the public how quiet I could be! But, in those other parts, I’m larger-than-life, and not many actors can do larger-than-life like I can.”

WORDS: Barnaby Dracup