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Brian Blessed interview: Shatner’s space trip is just ‘Mickey Mouse’ stuff

If an evening with Brian Blessed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre turns out to be anything like a phone call with the 85-year-old actor, it will be wildly entertaining.

Brian Blessed
Brian Blessed

Star of Flash Gordon, voice of Grampy Rabbit in Peppa Pig and, for the past several decades, a mountaineer, adventurer and fully trained cosmonaut, Brian has a lot of tales to tell.

He’s the oldest person to reach the North Pole, which he achieved at age 70, and explains a Russian submarine surfaced through the ice when he was on that trip – and he entertained them with his Flash Gordon catchphrase, “Gordon’s alive!” “They loved it,” he says.

He’s climbed Mount Everest three times, although never reached the summit. And now his greatest remaining ambition is to go into space. Like William Shatner who recently left the earth’s atmosphere in Jeff Bezos’s rocket, perhaps? At 90, Shatner has become the oldest man to go to space.

“No! That’s Mickey Mouse stuff. It’s fine but it’s Mickey Mouse,” says Brian. “He’s just going up a few miles. I will go properly into space. I don’t know anybody more ambitious for space than me. I want to go to the moon and beyond. I have been telling them (scientists) that rockets are antiquated, this is not the way.

“They are crude, they are heavy. We need to change the approach to outer space. I’m giving people my ideas. I have written a chapter in my last book called Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star where I take you all to Jodrell Bank and work out the way to go into space and say what scientists should be looking at doing and that they should not be antiquated.”

What drives him to want to go to space? “Love! I love space, I adore it. I shall tell the audience in Cambridge as I’m talking to you that when people say you wouldn’t get me going into space, I say you haven’t got a choice.

“You are all cosmonauts because the Earth is moving at 61,000km a second and when you wake up tomorrow morning you will be in a different part of the universe. We are going at tremendous speed, we are the children of stardust, we don’t just belong here. We have got to get out of here – the Earth has got to rest.”

Although he loves acting and says it is “a must” for him, space and exploration have always been equal passions. “I’m always on The Infinite Monkey Cage (BBC Radio Four show) with Professor Brian Cox talking about different planets and where we should go,” says Brian.

“Everyone should be given a chance to go into space but it is much bigger than that, the scientific developments are so exciting. This year the James Webb Space Telescope is going into space a million miles from the Earth. It will see more than the Hubble telescope.

James Webb Space Telescope artist conception. Pictrue: Northrop Grumman
James Webb Space Telescope artist conception. Pictrue: Northrop Grumman

“It is a huge thing. It is so powerful it will penetrate back towards the Big Bang. It will show trillions and trillions of planets, it will penetrate the atmosphere of these planets. We will get to know what the creatures look like on these trillions of never-ending planets and see that our bubble universe is not just one universe. That is really exciting and I will be there at the launch.”

It sounds like Brian should have been an astronaut... “I always tell people who want to get into acting that you have to feel you must do it,” he says. “Acting is a must for me. It is incredibly difficult, a very tough profession, and you are constantly being tested.

“It requires immense courage, and therefore I mean it’s a must. But the love of my life is space – that’s always been my number one from being a child.”

The James Webb Space Telescope's Near Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec) is mounted onto a stand in NASA Goddard's cleanroom. Picture: NASA/Chris Gunn
The James Webb Space Telescope's Near Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec) is mounted onto a stand in NASA Goddard's cleanroom. Picture: NASA/Chris Gunn

After discussing his plans for going to space, next we come back down to Earth to talk about Brian’s childhood in Goldthorpe, a mining village in South Yorkshire near Mexborough. “I’m the son of a coal miner. All my uncles were in the mines too and all the miners in the neighbourhood – I mean thousands of them in the Don and Dearne Valley – they would put on musicals.

“They all knew Shakespeare. My father knew all of Hamlet. The miners would put on one-act plays, three act plays, Shakespeare,” he says. “I was brought up on art and opera and musicals. I was brought up in a happy household. They were the war years, which were incredibly exciting years.”

So acting and singing were encouraged and Brian got a taste for acting when he played Rumpelstiltskin at school. He then took up speech and drama lessons where he met Patrick Stewart, who would go on to play Captain Picard in Star Trek of course, and they both ended up with scholarships to the Bristol Old Vic theatre school.

“Patrick and I have a very ancient friendship,” says Brian. “My earliest friendship was him. He’d come into my little council house and we did Shakespeare together and that went on for years and years and years. He constantly phones me up because he’s always scared stiff that I’m going to die on some mountain. And I say I’m not going to die for God’s sake.”

Then at the Old Vic he struck up another friendship, this time with actor Peter O’Toole. “When I was there he was absolutely giving the best performances I’ve ever seen of any actor in my life. He was astonishing!

“He used to jump off the stage as Hamlet and run around the auditorium, sit with people and talk to them, and deliver speeches to them in the audience. He had this amazing black hair and was very handsome with a short, black beard. He didn’t become blonde until later when he was in films.”

One night the pair went for a run together over the Clifton Suspension Bridge. “We were neck and neck,” says Brian. “He drank a lot. It made it easy for me to keep up with him, because I was always big, and we drew alongside each other in Clifton Downs and we came across two professors, Professor Josephs and Professor Murray.

“They were crying their eyes out and then they saw us both. It was dark and nobody was around in the woods. And they said they had just been to see Sir John Gielgud in The Seven Ages of Man, and his grasp of verse of Shakespeare was phenomenal.

“They went and cried in front of us and they said to me, you must go and see it. And then they walked away crying their eyes out. Peter looked at me and said, ‘It’s amazing isn’t it Brian? That’s the power of John Gielgud – they failed to realise both you and I are naked...’”

Now his closest friend in the acting profession is Kenneth Branagh. They first worked together in Branagh’s film of Henry V and again in another Shakespeare film, Hamlet, in which Blessed played the ghost of Hamlet’s father.

He says: “Ken Branagh and I have a father-son relationship. He is with me every week on a Sunday. Wonderful actor, lovely man. He is like a son to me. Although sometimes I’m the son and he is the father. I’m like a child to him because I will never grow up. He is ancient compared to me.

“He has just completed playing Boris Johnson in a series. He’s unbelievable, he is so brilliant you really think he is Boris Johnson. It is an amazing performance.”

Peter O’ Toole looked at me and said, ‘They failed to realise you and I are both naked’

However, he says it is mostly women who inspire him these days. “I’ve always found men bore me. It is women that are my heroes,” he says. “Men are full of vanity, they are stupid, they bore me but women, oh! In science and everything I find women have something extra definitive, and all I’ve learned in life I’ve learned from women, that they’re my heroes, not men.

“The list of women I admire goes on and on. They are great philosophers, they’re great scientists and great artists – Charlotte Bronte, Emily Bronte, people like that. And women are the ones who are making the breakthroughs in space.

“They’re the ones who are sending out messages in space. And they’re receiving messages back now. They can be very hush hush but we’ve received about 75 messages back in all signifying that they are out there...

“The universe is never ending. It has trillions and trillions of galaxies and that is not built for just the Earth. The universe is teeming with life beyond our imagination. It’s all out there, we have got to go.”

And in the meantime, while he waits for the right type of space travel to be invented, does Brian have any other plans for adventures? “I’m gonna get to the bottom of the sea,” he says. “So much of the world is

completely unexplored. I want to go to the Mindanao Trench in the Philippines. And there are vast tracts of Venezuela that are completely unknown – 90 per cent is unexplored.

“In South America, the lost world of Arthur Conan Doyle exists. No, we’ve got a lot to do here. We are just children, we are just beginning.”

Suddenly it’s all over. Brian has to meet some friends to look after their dogs and then he has his workout to do. “I never get tired and I just have this colossal energy,” he says. “When I have finished talking to you today I will go for an hour and a half training with weights and a rowing machine and then study.”

You might need a lie down after listening to him.

An Evening with Brian Blessed is at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on Tuesday, November 16. Visit cambridgeartstheatre.com for tickets, priced £25-30.

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