“Brian, a man called Brian…” – Monty Python’s Life of Brian
To introduce Brian Blessed as a giant of stage and screen would be an insult. Not because of the ‘giant’ bit, he could quite comfortably devour me whole and still have room for pudding, but because the great man’s done so much more. Seriously considering a roll-call of his achievements – going up Everest, reaching the North Pole on foot, and also being a trained cosmonaut – he starts to become a kind of shadow out of time, the kind of man you’d expect to now only exist in a few grainy sepia-tone photographs and a discreet bronze statue somewhere off Parliament square.
But no, he’s still roaring about the world, still happy to give a deafening, stentorian delivery of ‘GORDON’S ALIVE!’ to anyone who asks for it (which includes at least one Prime Minister, although distressingly not Gordon Brown), adventuring, and being generally irrepressible and larger-than-life. Brian is a walking, talking motivational seminar, even when he’s not actively expounding on how death is a foolish consideration.
In preparation for seeing this colossus live onstage, I read his autobiography, Absolute Pandemonium, to gin up on his life and times. He would go on to repeat a couple of the stories I had read only hours earlier, but somehow, this was in no way a disappointment. For one thing, they were bloody good stories, and it also confirmed to me that yes, I had been hearing his voice inside my head as I worked my way down the pages. In lieu of starting to quote and not stopping, I will simply recommend that book to absolutely anyone, particularly anyone who wants to hear how drunk and rowdy Peter O’Toole got in his day.
Since Brian once played Pavarotti – a role few actors have the stature for, and I use ‘stature’ here in the fullest sense of the word – at one point he treated us to a brief snatch of opera. This made the entire venue, a good-sized arena with maybe three hundred people milling about in Starfleet uniforms, shut up and listen. When Brian sings to you, you stay sung to.
Even though when Brian shows up onscreen you’re unlikely to miss him, no matter how much he loves the stagecraft it will always take a back seat to the mountaineering. He never speaks of it in anything less than capital-R Romantic terms, in particular in ‘Turquoise Mountain’, his account of his first jaunt up Everest, which, but for the camera crew who accompanied him, reads like a lively age-of-discovery adventure, only without the racism. Despite the fairly indisputable achievement of getting up the world’s highest peak in one’s fifties, Brian is never anything less than humble about it, reserving his praise for those who accompanied him up, and his climbing idol George Mallory – whose remains, to this day, still lie somewhere up Everest. Appropriately, Mallory’s ghost is never far from Brian’s thoughts during the ascent.
My first Brian experience was with the original run of Blackadder, the ropier, lesser-remembered prototype version, though do not let that detract from him stealing the show. This first edition portrays an alternate history of England in which Richard III defeated Henry Tudor at Bosworth Field, and was then succeeded by a Richard IV – one of the ‘Princes in the Tower’ whose murders the show explains as Tudor revisionism. The dissolve as the narrator explains that the young prince ‘grew into a big, strong boy’, to Brian in hefty medieval armour roaring with laughter, may be the finest dry comic understatement the British Isles have ever produced.
Most, of course, will know him best as the leader of the Hawkmen in Flash Gordon. A couple of years ago I remember seeing a headline that someone went up to Brian and said Flash Gordon was shit. Brian immediately laid the guy out, which seems like a fair reaction. Flash Gordon is campy and silly, it’d be a fool’s errand to argue otherwise, but that’s the whole point of it – and it seems very much in that spirit that, per Brian, the props department had hell’s own job getting the Hawkmen’s wings to flap at the same time.
Younger audiences, though, might know him better from Star Wars: Episode I. This is perhaps the one time you might have missed him onscreen, since he’s hidden behind thousands of dollars worth of CGI, but when you hear that it was him playing Boss Nass (the gungan headman) it just clicks into place. It was apparently him who came up with the strange wiggle Nass does, feeling the character needed some unusual, distinctive, alien touch at that point – and if you remember one thing about the character, it’s probably that.
Brian was of course very excited to be part of the Star Wars franchise at all – as any right-thinking person would be, even now, after its Disneyfication. He relates a time in the early 80s when he met up with his old friend Sebastian Shaw, by then getting on in years, who described being involved in some science-fiction project or other down at Elstree Studios, where they’d covered him with an outlandish black costume which he kept falling asleep in. It fell to Brian to explain to Shaw how plum a role it was to play the unmasked Darth Vader.
About halfway through, he was joined onstage by Sam J. Jones, the Flash Gordon from Flash Gordon. Although Sam still trades on this role (bearing the Gordon hair for his appearance in Ted and Ted 2), his primary gig these days is as a security professional – perhaps more reflective of these men’s generation, as both he and Brian had served in the military before going into acting. Chalk it up as an unspoken bond of sorts, as they clearly still get along.
To be honest, hearing the accounts of many actors I admire – and this may be a generational thing again – a lot of them seem to just be personable people in this way. If you listen to the commentary tracks on Fawlty Towers, for instance, John Cleese seems to not simply know every extra by name, but in most cases still has dinner with them regularly. Brian remembers his co-stars in much the same way, and, like Cleese, has a certain humility, at least by comparison. Ok, Brian frequently declares that Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen haven’t got shit on him as actors (in more or less those words) but it’s not like he holds that against them, and he’s full of praise for nigh-on everyone he’s ever appeared with.
It is in the light of all this merriment, of Brian’s sheer energy lighting up the whole place, that during the question-and-answer stage some bloody testicle approached the stage, and asked these men, in a painfully pleased-with-itself voice, ‘would you agree that Donald Trump is a cunt?’
There exists a French political cartoon of the late 19th century set at a dinner party, where the first panel is captioned ‘above all else, let us not discuss the Dreyfus affair!’. The second panel shows everyone in a raging brawl, with the caption ‘they have discussed it’. There is something similar to be done for those who out of nowhere declare Donald Trump a cunt, except the second panel is just everyone else sighing deeply. No matter how you feel about the issue, it has been discoursed to death, and it is rarely that bringing it up will improve anything.
The swearing wasn’t the issue, at least certainly not for Brian, who had already seen fit to confirm that dropping the c-bomb was ok, something the Australian MC was forced to grant him. Sam took the reins of the response, and answered in about as classy a way as could be managed while being visibly annoyed – first citing respect for the office of President no matter who holds it, and then more generally decrying the culture of negativity as opposed to positivity. While he didn’t mention his own political leaning, the MC quipped that you could kind of guess – but within his actual response there was nothing to disagree with, and I feel obliged to side against the kind of person who would ask that question.
The worst part, in my view, was that even on the subject of Donald Trump you could have asked these men a more interesting question – for instance, ‘which of you would do the better job of playing Trump in a biopic?’ (It’s Sam, obviously. If for no other reason, Brian would be required to shave his beard, and I fear it is not in the powers of gods and men to make him do this.)
With this dark patch passed, my mate J had a chance to ask his question – a far better one, about whether Brian had ever seriously feared for his life in all his adventures. Brian, of course, does not fear death, but we got a thrilling tale about the time he saved a man’s life on one of his jaunts up Everest, and then tearing a strip off another group of climbers who’d left some exhausted Indians to their fate. It’s said that from space, our petty daily concerns seem terribly insignificant, and it seems as if it’s much the same up a mountain.