When Brian Blessed lived in Windlesham, he visited Gib Mag’s travel writer Chris’ school dressed as Father Christmas, and to this day, that’s Brian’s most significant role as far as Chris is concerned. But to the rest of us, he’s best-known for his booming voice and prestigious film roles, including Prince Vultan in Flash Gordon, and Richard IV in Blackadder. This month we have the pleasure of interviewing this larger-than-life actor, operatic singer, adventurer, animal lover, and raconteur extraordinaire.
I sat patiently by the phone for our interview, as is the way in these Covid times, anticipating a conversation brimming with outlandish stories and punctuated by classic catchphrases – and Brian did not disappoint.
“Is it a nice day in Gibraltar? I came last year, and it was wonderful!” came the familiar, bold voice. I knew we’d get along just fine.
What brought you to Gibraltar, and was it your first visit?
50% of my life is exploration, I’ve been all over the world, but I had never been to Gibraltar before. It lived up to expectation – but what a dramatic entrance! The aeroplane couldn’t land; it made three attempts because of the wind. Eventually we did, and it was all very exciting. It’s a wonderful place. It reminded me of what England was like years ago when I was a teenager. Very unspoiled, very cheerful. A lot of people remembered me from my role as PC ‘Fancy’ Smith in Z-Cars (1960) when I was just 23 years old.
Gibraltar lived up to expectation – what a dramatic entrance!
What did you think of our little Rock, and what did you get up to? Did our furry residents behave?
Being a mountaineer, I of course went straight up the Rock and sat with all the monkeys. With my big beard and physique, I look a bit like gorilla – I get along very well with gorillas and baboons. In the Himalayas, people consider me a yeti. So there I was, up the Rock, and the monkeys were leaving everybody and gathering around me; they must’ve thought “bloody hell, this is a big monkey!”.
You have played many prolific roles. We have to ask; which has been your favourite, and why?
When I was a child in Yorkshire, the son of a coalminer, we had two local cinemas after the war: the local picture house and the cinema. Every weekend they played Flash Gordon in black and white. At the end of each episode when Flash was in trouble, we’d leave the cinema awaiting the next episode the following week. We’d run down the railway embankment, and I would pretend I was Vultan. I sprained my ankle jumping off a bridge, thinking I could fly. I never ever dreamt that one day I’d actually be Vultan in the film. Of course I’ve had more demanding roles, but I think this was my most enjoyable one.
I could have been a millionaire, but spent all my money looking after animals.
I can climb Mount Everest, up Kilimanjaro, and go to the North Pole, and even the Eskimos will greet me with the words: “Please say it…” and so I have to shout, GORDON’S ALIVE! Even the Queen of England said, [cue Brian’s entertaining impression of Her Majesty] “You know the grandchildren and I love Flash Gordon, would you mind saying it?” GORDON’S ALIVE! “Ew, thank you so much.”
What was it like working with Timothy Dalton [who was the only Bond to visit Gibraltar on film] on Flash Gordon?
Oh! Great fun. I teased him all the time, and he teased me. He’s a wonderful, natural guy. We just laughed and laughed. Everybody was fantastic, from the direction, to the music, and the cast. Casting Flash is difficult. Say you get someone like Tom Cruise (who I love – lovely smile); you can have the camera at a certain angle and he can look sinister. Now, with Sam Jones you could put the camera anywhere and he’d look pure, and that was necessary for the role of Flash.
I’m not sure whether you’re aware, but a recently unearthed video of you speaking fondly about cats in 1981 became a bit of a viral sensation. Do you still have cats today? Did this love of cats come about as a result of your portrayal as one on the Broadway musical, Cats?
Oh yes. I live in a country cottage on about ten acres, it’s a real menagerie. My wife and I are crazy about animals. I could have been a millionaire, but spent all my money looking after animals. [Brian works a great deal for the WWF, the Born Free foundation, and has been to Sri Lanka to assist with the protection of elephants.] I put a great deal of my life into saving the planet.
I came across an Inuit in his igloo, playing Memory from Cats. On a banjo. I was thrilled.
In the original London production, you played both Old Deuteronomy and Bustopher Jones in Cats. Tell us a little about it. Did you get to keep your leotard?
The cast was made up of the Royal Ballet and the Opera House, and brilliant actors. It was Webber’s first solo musical. I played Old Deteronomy, who the musical really is about. He comes along to choose a cat to go to the cat heaven – all lines from TS Elliot. People thought it wouldn’t be a success, but it was. With people like Elaine Page, Paul Nicholas, and Wayne Sleep, how could it not be? Opening night was absolutely astonishing.
I remember when I was approaching the North Pole I came across an Inuit in his igloo, and he was playing Memory from Cats. On a banjo. I was thrilled.
You’re well-loved for your incredible roles on-screen, but you also have a fantastic operatic voice. Will we be hearing more of it in the future?
When I was at theatre school in 1955, I considered myself a non-singer, but my singing teacher was quite convinced I could sing. She said, “Look, Brian, you’re a Yorkshireman. Pretend someone’s stealing your sheep; now shout OYYYY! Now, sing it.” Within six weeks I was singing Wagnerian opera.
When I was on Celebrity Stars in Their Eyes they asked me to be Pavarotti. I’m not afraid of going up mountains, space training… but Pavarotti is known as the ‘maestro’. As I came through the mist on stage, I saw myself on the big screen and thought, my goodness! Pavarotti is here! But it was me. The audience stood up and cheered, and then they stopped. You could see on their faces that they thought, “Well, he looks like Pavarotti, but he’ll never sound like him.” [At this point, Brian’s rendition of “O Sole Mio” threw me about three metres across my living room.] The audience went off their heads. [I’m not surprised.]
When you’re not busy entertaining our eyes and ears, you’re quite the adventurer. How did you get on with your Everest expeditions?
[Brian is the oldest person to climb Mt Everest, and has done so no less than 3 times… reportedly unsuccessfully, but after reaching heights of 28,000ft we would argue otherwise!]
The first time was in 1991, when I was filming Galahad of Everest, following in George Mallory’s footsteps, who disappeared near the summit in 1924. We don’t know to this day whether he successfully climbed it or not. With the BBC crew and no oxygen, aged 55, I got to 28,000ft, where Mallory disappeared. I returned in 1993, and about 500ft from the summit, I had to rescue a man who was dying. The third time I went, the weather was simply too bad. I’m now 84; once the pandemic is over, I’m going to go and finally climb it.
These days, you say your biggest love is Space [Brian is a fully-trained cosmonaut], could you tell us about your training with NASA, and helping with the space programme?
I’ve trained with Nasa, in Star City in Moscow, and tested prototype suits on Reunion Island, helping to promote space and going to Mars and beyond. We are children of stardust; we need to get out there, and let the earth rest. Every second we travel 57,000 miles. Every time you wake up in morning, you’re in a different part of the universe, I find it fascinating.
We need to get out there, and let the earth rest.
How do you tend to your magnificent beard?
I shampoo it a lot! It’s rather soft, my beard, but it grows so quick. I’m very hairy. The Sherpas on Mount Everest all called me ‘grandfather Yeti’. In South America, when I went to the Lost World in Venezuela, I came to a village where no white man had been. They looked at me and screamed.
I was climbing in South Africa, in Cape Town, I could hear someone grunting. I had a rope with me and I thought someone needed rescuing, so I climbed about three quarters of the way up the steep part of the mountain, turned around a corner, and there was a great big male baboon, flanked by 50 others. He looked at me and thought, “Christ, I’m not going to fight him.” Female monkeys like me though. Oh, and female gorillas find me incredibly sexy. They quietly move towards me to feel me up.
You often have some very funny and unbelievably ridiculous stories to recount. Could you verify some of these?
Punching a polar bear in the face: I went to the North Pole for an expedition, and of course polar bears are all over the place. We had guns, but I said “I don’t want anyone shooting the bloody polar bears!” It’s their country. One night, a polar bear ripped through the tent with his claws and poked his head through. I ROARED, and hit him straight on the nose. He retreated, and we never saw it again. But at least I saved it from being shot.
Surviving a plane crash in Venezuela:Yes, our plane crashed in the Lost World in Venezuela. We took this tiny Czechoslovakian plane from Horsha falls, and as soon as the journey started, I noticed one of the propellers had stopped, and the others were beginning to. The pilot turned around and headed for the forest, and belly flopped the plane into a lagoon. It didn’t blow up, thank God. We managed to swim across the lagoon, and through the forest make our way back to Caracas.
Throwing away a £50m painting gifted by Picasso: When I was a little boy, in Yorkshire, after the war there was a great world peace congress in Sheffield. Thousands of people gathered to sing songs and celebrate. In the corner by the Town Hall, someone said “Picasso is signing things over there!”
I pushed through the crowds and stood in front of him. I said, “You’re not Picasso. You sound like Carmen Miranda.” So he drew me a dove of peace, on piece of paper. In my Yorkshire lilt, I said “That doesn’t look like a dohv!” and I proceeded to draw him a dove in return.. He said to the audience, “You see, ladeez and gentlemen, eet ees the first time I have a critic.” About five months later I think it was sold for £57 million. My father wouldn’t talk to me for days.
Delivering a baby under a tree, before chewing through the umbilical cord:I was running across Richmond Park early in the morning when I heard a woman shouting for help. There was nobody around, so I went over and helped her to breathe calmly. I took my shirt off, got the baby out, cleaned it down with my shirt, bit through the cord and tied it in a knot. It was quite simple really. The little boy was fine!
As we wound up our interview, I told Brian we’d be thrilled to have him return to the Rock.
“I’ve got to come back,” Brian expressed. Pandemic permitting, he might just get his wish… after all, I never did find out whether he got to keep that leotard.
Catch Brian as Red Ivan in Evil Genius 2: World Domination, or subscribe to the ‘Brian Blessed’s Bedtime Stories’ podcast.