I remember: Brian Blessed

Joy Persaud

The charismatic, deep-voiced star of stage and screen, Brian Blessed, 81, is best known for his roles in Blackadder, I, Claudius and Flash Gordon…

…My mother’s face,

funny that—that’s the first thing I recognised. My eyes didn’t open for several days and then when they did I remember my mother. I’ve always had an extraordinary memory. Actors and explorers consult me because of my memory.

 

…We lived in Goldthorpe,

a coal mining area, and nearby was the Doncaster plant where they made trains like The Flying Scotsman. Judi Dench, Keith Barron and Patrick Stewart lived nearby so the early days, those war years, were vibrant and wonderful.

 

…all the coal miners could recite Hamlet and Julius Caesar

and they put on productions of operas and musicals and plays the length and breadth of the Don Valley, from Sheffield to Doncaster to Mexborough. They were very artistic, the coal miners.

Starring alongside Kenneth Branagh in Henry V 

 

…My father, Bill, was very heroic—

he played cricket at the weekends and he moved around 18 tons of coal a day. He would sometimes work naked, as it was so hot down there.

 

…We had a lovely council house on Probert Avenue.

It had a garden with a big tree and an air raid shelter in it and I remember sitting in the grass with my mother saying, “Hidey, hidey, hidey,” to me.

 

"I think women are different creatures altogether. They're superior. Women are my religion really"

 

…There were thousands of cats

everywhere, and a big cat came into our house one day. It was red and I called it Tibby—I was about three or four—and he loved me and sat with me on a little chair as I sat in the garden. He’d come onto my lap and he became part of the house. When I was seven, I’d walk down the road and he would walk with me.

 

…In the evening I would

see my father coming down the road with this great helmet on with the light on it and his face would be black. He’d pick me up and I’d be reading the Beano and the Dandy and he would take me into the house. It was like an Ovaltine advert.

Brian in 1990 with his wife Hildegarde Neil and their dogs, prior to his Everest expedition

 

…My father once took me into the sitting room

and then went into the bathroom, stripped off and got in the bath so I could wash his back. It was purple from roof falls always hitting him. And then when he was all clean, he stood up. Now, people can look good even with a poor figure with a suntan, but to see that man stand up—white with great muscles—looking like Achilles, I was so proud of him.

 

…My mother said to me when I was six years of age,

“Would you like to have a brother or sister?” I said yes and she said, “Well then, you’ve got to collect as many milk tops as you can, Brian.” I filled bags of them over the weeks and months though I couldn’t understand why my mother was getting fatter and fatter. I’d ask, “Have I collected enough of them yet?” And she said, “I think so—you’ve got enough bottle tops, we’ll have a baby soon.” My brother was always a cheerful lad and he was my biggest fan. They were halcyon days.

 

…My brother Alan never knew a day’s good health

but I was always so fit. He was always cheerful but when he was one he got pneumonia. Until we got the NHS, we only had one midwife and a doctor in the area and my brother was dying. Pneumonia was a terrible thing to get and it came to a great climax. My father couldn’t stand it, he walked out of the house and down the road, my mother weeping, putting hot poultices on him. Alan’s breathing became faster and faster and the doctor said, “He is going to die,” and then it became slower and the doctor said, “He is past the crisis; he is going to live.”

Aged 11 with his then four-year-old brother Alan

 

…An extraordinary thing was that there were two cinemas

and we had Flash Gordon on in black and white. Afterwards, at the end of each episode, we would come out and run down the embankment to watch The Flying Scotsman and I would jump down the embankment over bushes and pretend to be Voltan. I never dreamt that in the future I would actually play him. I walked into the studio at Pinewood and there was a great painting of me on the wall. They said, “This is the painting of Voltan from the comic strip,” and I said, “No, it’s me”. They said, “That’s what we think—it’s you”. People criticised Flash Gordon, saying it was camp, but it’s not. Flash Gordon, as Ken Branagh or anyone will tell you, is a great movie. It was a childhood dream come true.

 

…Bolton-Upon-Dearne had a very modern secondary school.

We had marvellous teachers and we won everything. I was the best fighter in the school and so I was the best boxer too. I became the Yorkshire schoolboy boxing champion. There were great designs to make me into a cruiser weight, but my mother was appalled.

 

…I did a lot of amateur theatre

with Patrick Stewart. We dreamt of becoming professionals but thought it impossible. We were working-class boys—me a coal miner’s son and Patrick the son of a milkman—with no qualifications.

Starring in The Cherry Orchard at Birmingham 

 

…I was at RAF Upper Heyford

for two years doing my National Service. It was a great big American base—it was so powerful it could have invaded Britain. When it ended I went down to Bristol, did an audition and was offered a position as a student for two years with a bursary. My mother wept, my father wept, nobody could believe it. It was impossible for a working-class boy to do that—it was a wonderful, exciting day, and I had two fantastic years at the Bristol Old Vic.

 

…When I was at Bristol,

I developed a very strong relationship with Peter O’Toole—he was always competitive with me—and one day he and I were running across the suspension bridge at 3am as a test of courage. We were met by two great British theatre critics and they were crying their eyes out. They’d just seen Sir John Gielgud in The Seven Ages of Man and they said, “He had such a phenomenal grasp of the text, it was wonderful, you must go and see him”. When they left, Peter O’Toole looked at me and said, “It’s amazing isn’t it? They were so enamoured by Sir John Gielgud that they didn’t realise that you and I are stood here bollock naked”.

With dogs Hamish and Nick

 

…I was in Nottingham at the playhouse,

building sets, stacking cupboards, marking out the sets, cueing the actors, doing the lighting, everything. Then one day the door opened and there was Agatha Christie. Everyone was jealous of my relationship with her. She’d make me tea and gather props with me and tell me all about her life. She’d had two or three nervous breakdowns. She had been a nurse and that’s how she knew all about poisons. She used to visit the police to learn about the latest ways that murderers were killing people. She once played me Clair de Lune on a broken down piano. When she left, she gave me her wooden radio. Somebody stole it or I’d have it to this day. She was a delightful woman. I’ve always been lucky meeting people like that. I met Stanley Kubrick in the 1970s—it was fascinating walking with him through some fields.

Posing with Joe Brady and Jack Dempsey

 

…I became lead actor

at the Birmingham Rep. I was there for 14 months and then I was in Z-Cars with 28 to 35 million viewers a week.

 

I, Claudius was the biggest thing that the BBC

had ever produced and I won awards all over the b****y world. In the first press meeting they asked the director Herbert Wise, “What made you cast Brian Blessed as Caesar?” He said, “Because no one can shoot c**p like Brian,” and he was right. The BBC just kept casting me.

 

…Listening to War Of The Worlds

by HG Wells. My biggest love in life has always been space. People ask me, “Isn’t it dangerous, Brian? All the things you do—going up Everest and going to the North Pole and South America?” I say the most dangerous thing in life is not taking the adventure—it can be in your garden shed, or greenhouse; it could be on a zimmer frame but that is an Everest, you know? We are the children of stardust and we are yearning for the stars.

 

…Becoming involved in the space programme.

I did 600 hours training in Moscow at the space centre and about the equivalent with NASA and want to promote exploration to Mars. We need to get out there because the Earth has got to rest.

 

…When I went to the north pole,

I shared a tent with two women who really looked out for me. I think the strength of mankind is women. Most men don’t like women—they want to go to bed with them, but they don’t like them. I think women are different creatures altogether and they’re superior. Women are my religion, really.