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Actor Brian Blessed on panto, wildlife and his Surrey life

PUBLISHED: 15:23 12 September 2011 | UPDATED: 16:50 08 December 2014

Brian Blessed as Captain Hook

Brian Blessed as Captain Hook

One of Britain's best-loved actors, Brian Blessed will be starring in his home county of Surrey this Christmas, playing Captain Hook at Croydon's Ashcroft Theatre. Tracy Cook caught up with him between rehearsals

Originally published in Surrey Life magazine December 2008

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Find 2014's Surrey pantos here

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You hear his well-known voice booming down the corridor well before you actually see him and then he enters the room, literally larger than life, full of bonhomie and sporting the famous bushy beard that looks like it should be home to several furry woodland creatures. And actually this gentle, but very funny, giant probably wouldn't mind if it was, such is his love for animals. But more of that later...

First, I want to talk to him about his role in Croydon's Christmas panto, Peter Pan, in which he will be playing Captain Hook. Launching at the Ashcroft Theatre on December 6, it has the highest advance bookings of any pantomime at the theatre for the last 13 years. Needless to say, Surrey-based actor Brian Blessed, 71, is bursting with enthusiasm for the project.

"I enjoy doing this more than any show I've done on stage," says Brian. "I played Old Deuteronomy in the opening year of Cats with Trevor Nunn and Elaine Paige, and that was mind-blowing, but this rivals it. Playing Captain Hook requires the expertise of a Shakespearean actor: it needs speed, fun, dramatic personality, immense style and a tremendous amount of voice. I find it even more challenging than playing King Lear!

"Panto is the hardest medium to do, but if you get it right, it can be the best entertainment on a stage. It embraces musicals, ballet, opera and pure theatre. Ours is wonderfully funny and there are no lavatory jokes! I hope to thrill Croydon!"

As he talks, he acts out scenes from Peter Pan, complete with singing, funny voices, and much dramatic shouting. "Please! I'm trying to act!" he cries, as I roar with laughter. Completely drawn in, his skill is evident and I even want to shout, "he's behind you!" But this is Brian Blessed talking and I can't get a word in edgeways!

He says he's delighted to be performing at the heart of his home county in the Ashcroft Theatre at Fairfield.

"It's named after Peggy Ashcroft, a heroine from my youth," he exclaims. "It's a lovely theatre: I call it the national theatre of the south-east."

Surrey roots
He knows Surrey well, having lived in Richmond in the late Sixties, before moving to Chobham in 1977, then Bagshot in 1986, remaining in the same area ever since.

"I used to visit here when I was doing national service, canoeing up the river, and I thought, I must live here," he says. "It's such a green, cheerful county. So I moved to Richmond when I was filming Z Cars."

He lives in Chobham with actress Hildegard Neil, his wife of 30 years, on a small farm in an idyllic location.

"It's in the middle of Windlesham Arboretum," says Brian, whose daughter, Rosalind has also followed him into acting. "It's about 400 acres, full of lakes and woods. I'm in the middle of my Shangri-La! We've got a little cottage, and I've got a hut outside where I do my writing."

An honorary president of the Council for National Parks, and a great supporter of the World Wildlife Fund and the Born Free Foundation, he and his wife also run an animal sanctuary from their home.

"They're all rescued - we've got cats, dogs, chickens, ducks, ponies and donkeys!" he laughs. "I love animals, and I like to live my principles at home, but it's Hildegard who is completely devoted. She knows the name of every duck!

"I once came home to find her favourite Shetland pony, Misty, finishing off the dog biscuits from a bowl in the kitchen. We now have a hen that visits the kitchen daily to do the same thing and a robin that likes the Go-Cat!"

A distinguished career
Undoubtedly one of Britain's best-loved actors, over the years he has built up an impressive repertoire of roles in television, films and theatre. After training at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, he started out in Z Cars, before moving on to TV classics such as I, Claudius and Blackadder. Now he's filming his own modern day production of King Lear and has just finished The Underdog Show. He has also hosted Have I Got News for You, sung on Celebrity Stars In Their Eyes as Luciano Pavarotti and is probably best known as Vultan in the cult film Flash Gordon.

In between all this, Brian has also found time to be an intrepid explorer. He has tried to reach the summit of Everest three times and holds the record for being the oldest man to trek to the North Pole. I wonder if he worries about the danger.

"No, not at all! The most dangerous thing is not taking the adventure! They say acting is holding a mirror up to life, but climbing Everest is life," he says. "We've all got something no one else has got. You must be allowed to bring it out. You must fulfil your dream."

Talking of his own dreams, ironically, it was first seeing a pantomime that made him want to become an actor himself. Growing up in the mining town of Mexborough in Yorkshire, he recalls going to see Jack and the Beanstalk with his lifelong friend, actor Patrick Stewart.

"He was nine, I was 11. It was magical. The beanstalk was 20ft high, the costumes brilliant and it was wonderfully funny. We came out and I said to Patrick, 'we must be actors'.

"I'm too long in the tooth to be vain about it, but I've been voted the best Captain Hook ever, which I'm delighted about, not for the sake of Brian Blessed, but because I can therefore instil in children that which was instilled in me as a child," he continues, warming to his theme.

"If you can get children away from their computers, for some it is the first time they have come to a theatre. You want them to leave feeling exhilarated, exhausted, as if every cell in their being has been changed. I want to embrace the child in every human being. Panto gives people memories, keeps them young."

As he gets up to go, he says, "what's that?" and examines my necklace. As I look down, quick as a flash, he chucks my chin and pinches my nose. Oh Mr Blessed, the old ones are always the best!
 

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MY FAVOURITE SURREY

Place to visit: I love Chobham Common. I'm on it all the time. That's really my favourite spot.

Shop: I love going into Oxfam shops - they're always good fun.

Restaurant: I don't have time to go to restaurants, I'm too busy with the animals.I haven't been to a restaurant for about ten years!

Garden: Wisley gardens. I've never been and I really want to go. My passion is gardening. I've got quite a large garden and it's very tropical. Wisley sounds second to none!

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