Brian Blessed: one of a kind

Brian Blessed is not short of achievements. But saving the world may be beyond him and instead require extra-terrestrial involvement he says

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Brian Blessed dared to dream. As an actor he mastered the stage and as an explorer he conquered nature. He also became a conservationist for all creatures great and small. Each of his childhood aspirations came true. This year sees him share his stories as part of a national tour.

“The wonderful thing about the coal miners in those days was that they all knew Shakespeare.”

The beloved Yorkshireman has never enjoyed sitting still. His acting breakthrough came in the television series Z Cars and led to Hollywood roles before exploration opportunities arose later in life. In his late sixties, when others would be retired, Blessed became the oldest person to climb Mount Everest to 28,500ft without oxygen. He is also the oldest to reach the magnetic North Pole on foot. Age has simply been a number.

“I’m sick to death of all this old age crap,” says the 81 year old, ahead of his tour An Evening with Brian Blessed. “My forties were young, not middle-aged. I was middle-aged between 55 and 65. It’s not how old you are – it’s how you are old.”

Blessed was born in Mexborough, South Yorkshire. As the son of a coal miner during the Second World War, his childhood was “wonderfully happy”. The mining community of Hickleton Main Colliery was financially poor but culturally rich, exposing him to the arts from a young age.

“The wonderful thing about all of the coal miners in those days – in the Don Valley and Dearne Valley – was that they all knew Shakespeare,” says Blessed, who went on to perform with the Royal Shakespeare Company. “They’d put on operas, musicals and plays.”

His father’s legs were severely injured during a roof fall, causing Blessed to become the family breadwinner at 14 years old. “He had to fight for his life and we thought he was going to die,” he says. “He survived but I had to help the family. It was horrible – I had to leave school.”

Blessed worked as both an undertaker’s assistant and a plasterer. He completed his schooling and attended amateur theatre in the evening. After national service with the Parachute Regiment he got a place at the renowned Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. Did he ever expect this would happen? “No, it was a miracle,” says Blessed, who attended alongside Sir Patrick Stewart, another Yorkshireman.

“My mum and dad were in tears – half the street were in tears – because it was inconceivable that a coal miner’s son could ever go to drama school. It was unheard of.”

Blessed’s public appearances often mirror the extrovert characters he is known for, such as King Richard IV in The Black Adder and Long John Silver in Return to Treasure Island. But he says his true self is very different. “A lot of my parts have been very gentle – and that’s really what I am – but I have played parts that have been very much over the top and to tremendous effect.”

One such part was Prince Vultan in the 1980s cult classic film Flash Gordon. Blessed regularly bellows “Gordon’s alive!” – his character’s much loved line – to fans from all walks of life. “The Queen wanted me to say it to her and her grandchildren,” he says, having visited Buckingham Palace in 2016 to receive an OBE for services to the arts and charity. “It’s happened to me on Kilimanjaro with Masai warriors too. Everywhere I go, throughout the world, it’s the battle cry for freedom: ‘Gordon’s alive!’”

Blessed as Prince Vultan in 1980s cult classic Flash Gordon
Blessed as Prince Vultan in 1980s cult classic Flash Gordon

Despite numerous exploration feats, venturing into space still eludes Blessed, but this may soon change. Shortly before his 80th birthday, he became a fully qualified cosmonaut, having caught the attention of Nasa. He completed 800 hours of space training at Star City, Moscow.

“My biggest love in life is space. I’ve always loved it. I believe completely that we are the children of stardust,” he says. “There are great advancements now with spaceships. All kinds of things are taking place. We have to get out there into the solar system and beyond.”

Blessed now works closely with both Nasa and the British Interplanetary Society. He is excited by efforts to look for life on other planets, such as Titan, but is also concerned about the current state of his own planet. What might any such extra-terrestrials think of Earth?

“There’s a general feeling that other beings in other worlds and civilisations would not want to come here,” he says. “Look at the wars at the moment. Why would they want to come? The United Nations is a kind of paper tiger: it’s toothless. What the hell is it doing? Men, women and children bloody suffer because of these bloody silly wars. We need a being from another world with great wisdom, knowledge and power to control and guide us.”

Blessed has a lifelong love of animals. He works with organisations such as Born Free and has rescued everything from stray cats to wildcats, as documented in his recent book The Panther in my Kitchen.

The tale behind the book’s title spans several decades. Blessed’s father had taken him to see Alexander Korda’s cinematic interpretation of The Jungle Book as a child in 1942. The real-life animals he witnessed on screen left a lasting impression. Twenty-five years later, Blessed bought and restored Clarence House, a grade II listed house in Richmond, Surrey, which unexpectedly became a temporary animal sanctuary with help from the naturalist Jeffrey Boswell. He took the opportunity to belatedly thank his father.

“I took him downstairs to the huge kitchen with its great big oak table. There on the table was a huge black panther,” he says. “It stretched itself on its back with its golden eyes and I rubbed its belly with a brush like a dog. I said: ‘Come on, Dad, take over. There’s Bagheera from The Jungle Book. Thank you, Dad.’ He couldn’t believe it.”

Many of the animals Blessed rescued at that time originated from Pet Kingdom at Harrods department store. It was here that the wealthy bought wild animals as the ultimate status symbol in a culture that would be unfathomable today.

“It was terrible. We were so ignorant about animal care in the 1960s and 1970s. Bloody cheetahs living in flats in Kensington,” he exclaims, speaking of celebrities buying such creatures as household pets. “They’d take their claws out so they wouldn’t damage the furniture. I would get plastic surgeons to put hard plastic claws back onto the cheetahs and then they would go back to Africa.”

Thankfully, the Endangered Species Act 1976 ended such practice. Decades later, Blessed believes there is still much work to be done but is reassured by other “marvellous people doing wonderful work with animals”. He cites Virginia McKenna, the founder of Born Free, as his heroine and commends the awareness raised by Sir David Attenborough through his television documentaries. He also acknowledges the preservation and conservation work of Chester Zoo but believes that, in an ideal world, wild animals wouldn’t require captivity of
any kind.

“The animals are taking a beating and somehow we have to put them in beautiful enclosures with acres of land. People are still breaking the law but we’re going to win out. We are the guardians of this planet and of the animals.”

Blessed is proof that anything is possible. To those who wish to follow in his footsteps, he offers these words of encouragement: “I do believe firmly that there is no one like you. Nature doesn’t cheat. We’ve all got something that nobody else has got. Don’t let the bastards grind you down. We’ve got to be allowed to fulfil our dreams.”

Blessed visits Leeds Town Hall, 29 June; Baths Hall, Scunthorpe, 5 September; Warrington Parr Hall, 20 September; Bingley Arts Centre, 28 September;
St Martin’s Church, Brighouse, 13 October. The Panther in my Kitchen is available now (Pan Macmillan)

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