With a successful career spanning decades, from the Royal Shakespeare Company to George Lucas' Star Wars, it's no wonder he's considered one of England's best known and most highly respected actors. We joined Brian Blessed at his home in Surrey for an exclusive interview where we discussed engaging with audiences, his dangerous expeditions and the most surprising people he's performed his much loved "Gordon's Alive!" for.
You can watch the full interview here or read the full transcript below.
In conversation with Brian Blessed
Where did your interest in acting come from?
Being the son of a coal miner was a shock to everybody, that a coal miner’s son could become a professional actor. I was in a seed class at a secondary school. My dad was a wonderful coal miner. 18 to 19 tons of coal a day he shifted with his own physical body. He played for Yorkshire's second team at cricket on the weekends. He taught Fred Truman how to bowl his cutters and how to bowl against the seam. But that said, that will lift it into the Australian's faces. You can always say sorry, right? So my dad taught Fred Truman how to bowl straight into the Australian's faces.
But I had lots of uncles. I lived in Goldthorpe, halfway between Doncaster and Barnsley. I was born in Mexborough, and these were the war years. Exciting, man. I had marvellous uncles, all in all the valleys. They did opera, they did musicals, they did acting, they had drama. They sang.
The valleys were vibrant with art, and we had the wooden radio. We had the BBC light program, BBC home service, Saturday Night Theater. We had marvellous programs like the Lost World or The War of the Worlds. The actors got best actors, not Oscars. They got radio Oscars because no television. They were more brilliant then than they are today on the radio. They were much better versed. Their voices were better. Their techniques and special effects.
I remember the Martians dying at Saturday Night Theater on the radio. All the coal miners there in Goldthorpe in my little Probert Avenue on my wooden radio, and the Martians dying at Trafalgar Square. Brilliant sound effects. They're dying. My God.
Then you get Paul Temple, and you get the Madison Mystery and that lovely Coronation Scot music, and Dick Barton - Special Agent. The music, the Devil's Gallop. There were the cinemas. We had the Empire, The Picture House. Of course, what did you see there? You saw Flash Gordon in black and white. Buster Crabbe, who was 6'4", Olympic gold medalist, swimming and diving. A tremendous actor. They put millions into that series. We watched it every weekend. I always played Vultan, King of the Hawkmen, when we came out, because he was the king of the Hawkmen. I never dreamt that decades later in my early thirties that I'd actually play Vultan in the film.
Are there any parallels between acting and exploration?
Your body, your face, your eyes, your imagination, your voice. Your very soul, heart and is judged. 90% of the time you're shot down. You've got to have the courage to go back on stage that night or go onto a film. 90% of the time you're shot down.
Therefore, I said to Richard Briers, it is the toughest, ladies and gentlemen, profession of all, I feel, in the arts. But as Hamlet says about acting, acting is holding up the mirror up to nature. Holding up the mirror up to life.
But of course, climbing Mount Everest or going into space is life. You see, it's a great art. It's an art that makes God smile. Acting. But you are pretending. If you get away from that, you can make the pretence wonderfully real. But if you get away from that, then you are in trouble. When you finished a part, go home, go walk the dog, get some music on. Watch television. It is not real. It is pretence. It's not false, but you're pretending.
But climbing a mountain, then this is real. Richard Briers said, "I see Brian. I agree. But thanks for the prayer - I said, ‘but I do think playing Hamlet requires as much courage as going to Mount Everest.’ With O2, dying in Macbeth with all that criticism and near the end of his career, which nearly killed him. I've never seen courage like that from an actor. I've never seen courage, that he could go on the stage out on the stage after such criticism. Never seen courage like that. I've seen people die left, right, and centre in life.
How does your wife feel about your dangerous expeditions?
My wife is very tolerant. Because I go on, from Mount McKinley to Aconcagua, and all these different mountains and different adventures I go on, crashing in the lost world of Venezuela and things like that. She says, "I say, ever serve you, right." She's quite placid about it. But I think she's quietly proud that I go on these expeditions.
People say, "Is it not dangerous going to Mount Everest? Is it not dangerous going into space? Is it not dangerous going to the Antarctic, the Arctic?” And so forth. I always say the greatest danger in life is not taking the adventure. People must go. When I do one man shows, I tell them to go for it.
Follow your dreams and don't let the bastards grind you down. Go for it.
What is it like to climb Mt. Everest?
I have a gift. My blood is brilliant. I acclimatize more than any other human being, it would seem so far. It's boy's own stuff to me. Not only am I following Mallory's footsteps and watch it in the Eagle comic and the Wizard comic. But I can actually go up there without oxygen. Much older than Mallory was. It's a miracle. Being looked after.
The mountain is kind to me, and I pray to it when I'm up there. It's a woman. Everest is not male. That's not its name. It's Chomolungma, Sagarmāthā. It’s a Goddess, a woman. You pray to the Goddess.
At 22,500 feet, you've got 14, 15 days to live. At 25,000 feet, you've got six days, seven days to live. You get on the south call, 26,000 feet, five days to live. You will die. Even I will die, and I am brilliantly acclimatized. You die like that. They look like that. They die like that. You die. At 28,000 feet, 28,500, you've got a day to live. It doesn't matter how well acclimatized you are, you will die.
If I place you on the top of Mount Everest now, well dressed, you will be dead in 40 seconds. The lack of atmospheric pressure is diminished. At 28,000 feet, it is called the white veil. It's very thin between life and death. It's fluid. You have one foot in life and one in death.
Up there, high in Everest, the cobalt blue is blue and dark, almost black at midday at 28,000 feet. We have here in London and everywhere else. We have light pollution. You don't see the sky at night, only bits. But on Everest, the Milky Way sits on your head, green and blue in folds on your head. It's astonishing. Astonishing experience.
What do you often talk about in an after dinner speech?
I find at the moment that oddly enough, the cry, "Gordon's alive" is a cry for freedom everywhere. Some of my lines as Grampy Rabbit in Peppa Pig make audiences laugh. But I describe. Of course, I have to say, ladies and gentlemen, don't I? I roar, "Gordon's alive." They stand up and cheer. From Flash Gordon. They stand up.
I go to schools. I go everywhere. Every Tom, Dick, and Harry. The butcher, the baker, the candle stick maker in the West End, taxi driver, "Brian, please shout, 'Gordon's alive.' I got me telephone say, 'Gordon's alive.'" On scaffolding in London, "Say, 'Gordon's alive,' Brian." Everywhere it's Gordon alive. It's a cry for freedom. I tell them stories from my films of Flash Gordon and my stories of my moments in Star Wars. Because again, that's all about space and magic.
So it encourages them. When I talk about Gordon's alive, I say things like, I was halfway up Kilimanjaro. I was halfway up bloody Kilimanjaro by the Harambo hut and the bloody Maasai chief came towards me. "It's him. Say, Gordon's alive. Gordon's alive. Thank you, thank you.” I'm doing this to a fucking Maasai.
I went to meet Ralph Fiennes, David Hempleman-Adams, and a whole lot to help with the elephant in Sri Lanka and I'm doing a lot of work with the elephants and all that. I've not covered all the animals and elephants that I'm working with at the moment.
I went there for a meeting. I went up there towards number 10, and it was a nice day like today. I went opposite and sat on a window sill. It was a big window sill, thick. And sat there.
Then I'm half asleep and eventually, I felt two hands on my shoulder. Said, "hello. Hello, Brian." I said, ‘hello, Prime Minister. How are you?’ “Say, I've been doing question time.” ‘But you normally come in very quick on your car. I see it once when you came in at great speed.’ He said, "oh, I know. I've had such a terrible time, and I hate question time. It's so lovely. I thought I'd walk in. Nobody noticed me. I just walked across. It's not very far, is it? I walked." he said, "I can't go in because of you."
Again, it's a bit like the Dalai Lama. "I can't go because of you. I've got to wait for you." Then when I can go in I'm meeting Ralph Fiennes, and I'm meeting David Hempleman-Adams to discuss, all these adventures and to save animals. "Come in, come in, come in." He made me a lovely coffee, sugary tall.
Then he said, "oh, come in here." He opened up and there's half the bloody cabinet. I stood on a chair and went "Gordon's alive!" Yes, that'll wake them bloody up. Even for the prime minister. Of course on top of that, I'm always doing concerts everywhere.
About two years ago, and there I was at Buckingham Palace. He gave me to bless it. "Me and the grandchildren, we watch Flash Gordon all the time. Would you mind saying to the grandchildren, 'Gordon's alive?'" So I said, ‘Gordon's alive!’ She said, "thank you so much."
How do you make an impact on an audience?
You've got to find something that takes them by surprise. Something original, something new and so forth. You find something that is of devastating depth. Find it. We've all got these moments, and we can really hit them with it.
With me, I am Brian the fearless. My vulnerability is something they will remember. There you are, ladies and gentlemen, I told you this. I told you that. Space. I'm not afraid of anything because death does not exist. I'm frightened of nothing. I've been up Everest. I've been to the summit. I've been to the most dangerous place in the world and great storms. And this, that, and the other. Met Reinhold Messner.
But anyway, I start to make it mundane. A few years ago, in Stars in Their Eyes, I was asked to be Pavarotti. I said, no. Ken Banner said, "There you are. You are bloody frightened of something." I said, ‘no, it's not that.’ When I was in Cats, a musical, Placido Domingo said to me... I said, ‘why do you always call Luciano Pavarotti, Maestro?’ He said, "Because he is the greatest tenor of all time."
‘What about yourself?’
"No, my voice is fruity. I have difficulty sometimes projecting. I have to train in a band. But my voice has a fruity quality. Almost baritone. Carreras here, he has cloud in his tenor. Timbre. Caruso had a dark quality in his tenor, but Luciano Pavarotti, his voice is perfect. It is golden on every note, no one has sung like that. Not gold on top seas like that."
Ken, that's why I said, I'm not going to be fucking Pavarotti after what Domingo told me. I was offered 100,000, 150,000, 200,000, 250, 500,000. For charity. Not for me. All right, I'll do it. I’ll be Pavarotti. The makeup was amazing. A wonderful wig, padding, the whole thing. The whole thing.
I did the whole thing and touched me here, touched my forehead here. The whole thing I did. The audience cheered because I looked exactly like it. I saw a picture above me, a camera depicting me in large. I thought, God, Pavarotti's here. Then I realised it was me. The audience cheered and cheered standing ovation. Then they sat down and thought, well he looks like him, but he'll never sound like him.
I stood there, and I can't do it in here. I would need a piano, and I can't do it. I stood there, and these are the numbers you were talking about. I went... [Sings Libiamo Ne’Lieti Calici].
There you are. I give them, and I do it ten times louder and do the whole song and they go ape shit. They remember that. There you are, take risks. Go for it and don’t let the bastards grind you down. They just cheered. I don't do it for effect. I do it to say, fucking go for it. Do something.
To NMP Live, Gordon's alive! Go for it.
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