As Brian Blessed heads to Harrogate, Ann Chadwick speaks to the actor and tour de force, who can truly own the expression, ‘larger than life’.
When it comes to a little inspiration for your New Year’s resolutions, a quick blast of Brian Blessed will set you up. The Yorkshireman describes himself as ‘50% actor, 50% explorer’.
Brian will be talking about his larger than life escapades at the Royal Hall in March for a special one-man show, presented by Cause UK for the Harrogate Film Festival.
“People say, isn’t it not dangerous going to Mount Everest, or going into the volcanos in South America? And I say the greatest danger in life is not taking the adventure!” Brian exclaimed. “Everybody’s got their Everest. It can be your projects, it can be your greenhouse, whatever it is. It might be eventually taking one more step in your Zimmer frame in hospital. The greatest danger in life is not taking the adventure. You’ve got to go for it! And don’t let the bastards grind you down!”
Harrogate, it turns out, has a rather special place in his heart, as it’s where a ‘miracle took place’. Harrogate is where he lost his heart to his wife, the actress Hildegarde Neil. He explains the two met while filming a Yorkshire television children’s series called Boy Dominic in the 1970s.
“Hildegarde was the face of the ‘70s, and she was this very beautiful woman with grey-green eyes and black hair,” Brian said. “She played Cleopatra with Charlton Heston, and was in England Made Me as Peter Finch’s leading lady, and The Man Who Haunted Himself with Roger Moore. She was in every magazine.”
Brian developed an overwhelming crush.
“I’ve climbed Mount Everest, I’ve done space training – you name it – and everyone was saying, for Christ Sake the pair of you are so in love, but I was filming with Hildegarde for about 15 weeks and we didn’t even hold hands!”
Then, he said, he eventually approached her.
“I kissed her for the first time on her lips, and that required more courage for me than climbing Mount Everest! I was so shy. And we went to Harrogate to celebrate this moment. We went to a restaurant in Harrogate, and they’d prepared a lovely meal for us, and neither of us could eat it. It was beautifully put together and the chef was so upset, and the waiters were so upset, and they came to see us and said is the food not right? I said, ‘We’re so in love we can’t eat!’ Our stomachs and hearts were so in ecstasy that we couldn’t bloody eat!! That was it, and it was the start of our relationship and our marriage, and we’ve been married now for going on 50 years.”
And so, returning to Harrogate will, ‘be magical’. “For me, next March is going to be an event. I’ll be giving my heart and soul to it. And I’m looking forward to meeting the people there and making them laugh, making them cry,” Brian said. “Harrogate has a wonderful sound to it. It sounds like it’s on fire, it sounds like it’s full of energy – HARROGATE!”
The son of a coal miner from Mexborough, Yorkshire of course forged his formative years.
“All the coal miners in Goldthorpe, thousands of them, they put on plays at the weekend and they were shifting 18 tonne of coal a day – my dad was – and they put on plays, they put on opera, they put on musicals. Patrick Stewart was in the next village, my dad knew the whole of Hamlet and he was a coal hewer. Patrick Stewart’s dad was a milkman, and he knew the whole of Julius Caesar.”
His tells a story of how his dad saved hundreds of coal miners’ lives after a gas leak, but was crushed and left injured in the rescue mission.
“It took him eight months to recover and I had to leave school at 14. I was school captain – oh I was heartbroken. My dad only got 15 shillings a week sick pay so my mother was in despair, I was a big lad at 14, and the only job she could get me was making coffins. I was an undertaker’s assistant, and earned £3 a week to help my mum and dad to survive, because we had my little brother Alan as well.”
He did however go on to study drama, with his neighbour Patrick, after a brilliant teacher convinced the local council to give scholarships to the pair. “It was a miracle,” Brian said.
At a time of anxiety, Brexit, divisiveness and general gloom, Brian is a tonic. Two things irk him – politicians (“The politicians at times really do bore the bloody arse off me!”), and mentioning his age.
“I can’t stand all this age crap. I mean 40 is very young indeed, and I was supposedly middle aged between 55 and 65, but it’s not how old you are, it’s how you are old. Death doesn’t exist for me, so I’m climbing these mountains and going on expeditions, and fulfilling my dreams. I think life is the last word and death is not!”
Brian says he’s completed 900 hours space training with NASA (“I’m a fully trained cosmonaut”) and his next ambition is to travel to the bottom of the ocean. He says he’s more likely to be friends with scientists (Buzz Aldrin rings him up), but does have a deep relationship with one actor, Kenneth Brannagh.
“We have a father son relationship, I’m the son and he’s the father! Compared to me he’s very old,” Brian laughed. “So I see him a lot, I discuss his projects and then he gets the shock of his life when I tell him what I’m going to be doing, ‘Christ Brian! Never! You’ll get bloody killed!’”
As an actor, Brian’s voice has never been in such demand – in Netflix films, on Peppa Pig, and he’s just done Call of Duty. “I’m a very modern man,” he laughs.
He says he has a gym like Rocky and bench presses 300 pounds, not for vanity, but to stay fit for his adventures.
If you give Brian coal, he’ll make diamonds through pure will power. A characteristic he places firmly at Yorkshire’s feet. Where others see matter and molecules, Brian sees stardust. And he says he’s determined to make audiences in Harrogate reach for the stars too.
“What I’ll tell the audience is things like, here you are ladies and gentleman sitting here, and you’re actually travelling at 60,000 miles an hour on rocket ship Earth, so when you wake up tomorrow morning you’ll be in a different part of the universe. We are children of stardust, yearning for the stars.” He says of the evening that he will, “throw in some Shakespeare, acting, some speeches, and they’ll be a lot of comedy as well. And I hope that I can change every cell in every body’s body.”
He says he wants to be a transformative force for audiences: “Particularly in this day and age – I want to say – we’ve all got something that nobody else has got, fulfil your dreams.”
‘An Evening with Brian Blessed’ presented by Cause UK and the Harrogate Film Festival is on Sunday 15 March, 7pm, at the Royal Hall, Harrogate. For tickets: https://www.harrogatetheatre.co.uk/whats-on/An-Evening-With-Brian-Blessed or call the Box Office: 01423 502 116.