Actor and explorer Brian Blessed on Shakespeare, Surrey life and his man cave
PUBLISHED: 07:59 05 July 2016 | UPDATED: 12:57 12 April 2018
Copyright 2016 Matt Pereira Photography
Recently installed as honorary patron of Guildford Shakespeare Company, veteran actor and explorer Brian Blessed is as busy as ever. Here he chats to us from his ‘man cave’ in the garden of his Surrey home
Few people love their Shakespeare as much as Brian Blessed. Over the years, he has performed with such notable names as Sir Antony Sher at the Royal Shakespeare Company and was cast in no fewer than four of Sir Kenneth Branagh’s five acclaimed Shakespeare films. However, the events to mark the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death have left him distinctly underwhelmed.
“A lot of it has been downright boring,” says Brian, with characteristic directness. “It should have been celebrated much more than it has been and the events have been orientated too much towards Britain. Shakespeare was universal so I say take him to the Americans, the Canadians, the Australians and the Chinese. It’s just not good enough.”
He has been making up for any perceived failings – at least in his home county of Surrey – by assuming the mantle of honorary patron of Guildford Shakespeare Company (GSC), which this year celebrates its tenth anniversary. The aim of the company, which was co-founded by local thespians Matt Pinches and Sarah Gobran, is to produce Shakespeare that is exciting, engaging and accessible, while remaining faithful to the original works.
As you might expect, they are staging a host of events in this special year, including The Comedy of Errors at Guildford Castle Gardens (Tuesday June 14 to Saturday July 2) and Much Ado About Nothing in the town’s University of Law grounds (Friday July 15 to Saturday July 30).
“They are an incredibly active, creative and original company,” enthuses Brian. “They did an open-air production of Henry V at Guildford Cathedral featuring just five actors and a remarkable son et lumière-style battle projection. And their most recent production, The Winter’s Tale, included dancers from the Cranleigh-based, Bollywood-inspired Just Jhoom.”
Brian became involved with the GSC after attending a performance of Othello in which his daughter Rosalind was performing. “I thought they were marvellous and asked if I could join the company and perform the title role of King Lear with them,” he says. “It was, without doubt, the best thing that I’ve ever done. Nobody had ever heard the curse done like that [in which Lear calls on the gods to make his cruel daughter Goneril sterile] – I let out a single cry of ferocity that lasted 75 seconds.”
A family affair
The production, staged at Guildford’s Holy Trinity Church in January last year, was given added poignancy by the fact that Goneril was played by Brian’s real-life daughter, marking the first time they had performed together. However, things took an unscheduled turn when Brian fainted while delivering a line, toppled off a raised platform and fell heavily, his crown rolling to a halt at the front of the stage. After a brief medical examination, he manfully continued the performance and the veteran actor confirms he is now fit as a flea after splashing out £27,000 on a state-of-the-art pacemaker to correct an irregular heartbeat.
“I feel absolutely radiant,” says the 79-year-old. “I’m bench-pressing 300lbs and can hike ten miles a day. I’m back to peak fitness.”
He is chatting to us today from his ‘man cave’ – a palatial cabin in the garden of the Surrey home he shares with his actress wife, Hildegard Neil, and their assortment of animals. It’s an Aladdin’s cave of personal mementoes, from pictures of Everest and a wall hanging given to him by the Dalai Lama to a signed photograph of Buzz Aldrin.
“I used to visit Richmond for odd weekends to row down the Thames,” he continues, recalling his earliest connections with Surrey. “Richard Attenborough and John Mills lived there in those days, and you had the green and the river, so it was all pretty sensational.
“In 1965, I started earning decent money after landing the part of PC Fancy Smith in the BBC police drama series Z Cars, so I rented a cottage halfway up Ormond Hill with lovely bow windows. I subsequently bought Clarence House at 2, The Vineyard, William IV’s former summer residence, before moving to Brick Hill in Chobham in the mid-1970s.
“These days, my wife and I live on a smallholding near Chobham surrounded by fields. We used to keep hundreds of rescue animals and it was like an animal sanctuary, but very free. Now we keep mainly dogs and horses. I adore Surrey. It’s a very smiley county full of wonderful people.”
One of Britain’s most recognisable actors for more than 50 years, Brian has played a host of high-profile roles. In the ‘70s, he was Caesar Augustus in I, Claudius; in the ‘80s, he played Long John Silver in ITV’s Return to Treasure Island and appeared in the first series of Blackadder; and in the ‘90s, he was Squire Weston in Tom Jones. Meanwhile, his movie appearances have included Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet and Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.
However, starring as Prince Vultan in the 1980 cult film Flash Gordon has proved to be the defining role of his career, and he is continuously asked to say ‘Gordon’s alive!’, his catchphrase from the movie. “I’ve been halfway up Kilimanjaro and the Maasai have asked me to say, ‘Gordon’s alive!’” he laughs. “In the Arctic, I met some Russian sailors on a submarine and they chorused, ‘Gordon’s alive!’ I was at No 10, doing a thing about explorers, and David Cameron suddenly got out of a car, grabbed me and asked me to roar, ‘Gordon’s alive!’”
Adventure has played an equally important role in his life. At 68, he became the oldest man in the world to reach 28,500 feet without oxygen and is similarly the oldest man to have reached the magnetic North Pole on foot. He has climbed Mount Everest no fewer than three times, but never reached the summit.
“I still love going on adventures,” he says. “When I trained at the space centre in Moscow, with a view to going into space, they worked out I have lungs that are twice the normal size and the constitution of a 30-year-old man.”
His next challenge marks yet another departure for him. In July, he will step backstage for the first time to direct his wife and daughter in Agatha Christie’s classic country house murder mystery, The Hollow, at The Mill in Sonning, Berkshire.
“We’re so busy trying out new plays that we’ve forgotten some of the golden oldies – and this is one of Christie’s best,” he says. “When 12 rich people are invited to stay the weekend at a large country house in leafy Buckinghamshire, they little expect that someone will be murdered. In a bit of a twist, I will have the investigating officer make a public announcement at the end of the interval, asking the audience to return to their seats in readiness for his investigation. I’m going to present it in a most unusual way!”
It seems where Brian is concerned, only one thing is certain – expect the unexpected.
Absolute Pandemonium: My Louder Than Life Story by Brian Blessed is published by Pan at £8.99
My Favourite Surrey
Restaurant: Hildegard and I don’t eat out. We’re too busy feeding our animals!
Shops: Lightwater Pharmacy. It’s the most wonderful, happy place and the man who runs it is like St Francis of Assisi – he really cares for the community. Lightwater also has the best-run Post Office in the world. The staff are marvellous.
View: The highest point of Chobham Common. Looking across the common on a summer’s afternoon is beatific.
Place to relax: My cabin in the garden, where I’m surrounded by all my books on exploration. It’s where I meditate with Sir Kenneth Branagh – my only acting friend. I also adore my garden, which is alive with birds. The hedgehogs visit me outside my cabin window every evening.
Place to visit: It has to be Chobham Common again, where I go running and walking. It’s wild, with wonderful woods, hidden lakes and tremendous flora and fauna.