Profanity and insanity – Swindon is Blessed by Brian

12 May
brian blessed_3394Swindon Festival of literatureBrian Blessed

©Calyx Picture Agency Brian Blessed

*** Warning: this report contains swearing, obviously: it’s about Brian Blessed. ***

Brian Blessed is going into Space. This is a good thing, as it is probably the only place large enough to accommodate his personality. Certainly the stage of Swindon Arts Centre cannot not hold him.

If Brian Blessed were an astrophysical phenomenon, I think he would be a supermassive black hole, because strange things happen in his field of gravity. And he’s massive.

“HELLOOOOOO!” he shouts to the Swindon Festival of Literature audience, bounding onto the stage, punching the air like some kind of demented motivational speaker. “IT’S NICE TO SEE YOU.”

I have decided that, like Terry Pratchett’s Discworld character Death, Brian Blessed speaks in capital letters.

“I’VE BEEN SPACE TRAINING IN MOSCOW. I”M NOW A FULLY-TRAINED COSMONAUT.”

(Back at the office I Google this claim. There are plenty of references to Blessed doing 800 hours of astronaut training, and securing a seat to the International Space Station on the next shuttle out, but all of these reports come from Blessed himself – newspaper interviews, Literature Festivals – and do not seem to have been confirmed [or, to be fair, denied] by NASA, the European Space Agency, or Roscosmos. It hardly matters. We are all being thoroughly entertained.)

A latecomer makes her way to her seat. “SIT DOWN MADAM,” he booms. “I’M JUST ABOUT TO TALK ABOUT MY SEX LIFE.”

Laughter.

“I NEVER KNOW WHAT I’M GOING TO TALK ABOUT,” he admits, setting the tone for an hour of free-associating anarchy. With that, he clambers down from the stage and walks to the middle of the auditorium. “I’M GOING HOME. MY TROUSERS ARE FALLING DOWN. IT’S BLOODY HOT IN HERE. I LOVE BREAKING THINGS UP.”

It’s worth pointing out that I am not selectively quoting Blessed. This, word for word, is the stream of consciousness pouring from his mouth.

He decides we need some Shakespeare. “IT’S 400 YEARS OF SHAKESPEARE,” he says. “BRANAGH SAID ‘YOU MUST DO A FEW LINES OF SHAKESPEARE’.” He throws his arms wide and his head back. “OH FOR A MUSE OF FIRE, THAT WOULD ASCEND THE BRIGHTEST HEAVEN OF INVENTION, A KINGDOM FOR A STAGE, PRINCES TO ACT AND MONARCHS TO BEHOLD THE SWELLING SCENE.”

There is rapturous applause, as it occurs to me that I now have Shakespearean bragging rights, having seen Blessed’s Henry V in Swindon.

Back on the stage, he’s about to deliver another of his famous lines – perhaps his most well known – from a movie he made in 1980. Muttering an apology, he booms “GORDON’S ALIVE!”

There is more rapturous applause, as he launches into the first of three anecdotes, which I’ll paraphrase. They are connected by a theme. See if you can spot it.

“EVERYWHERE I GO, IT’S A CRY FOR FREEDOM. ON KILIMANJARO I MET A MASAI. HE SAID ‘IT’S HIM. PLEASE SAY IT.’ GORDON’S ALIVE!

“I WAS WITH DAVID HEMPLEMAN-ADAMS AT THE MAGNETIC NORTH POLE. THE ICE WAS FIVE FEET THICK. BELOW THE ICE I HEARD A SOUND (he makes a metallic whistling sound). A RUSSIAN SUB BREAKS THROUGH THE ICE. THE CAPTAIN SAYS ‘AH, IT’S HIM. PLEASE SAY IT.’ GORDON’S ALIVE!

“I DID A CHRISTMAS SHOW AT BUCKINGHAM PALACE. THE QUEEN SAID (adopts the voice we all associate with the Queen) ‘WE WATCH FLASH GORDON ALL THE TIME. WOULD YOU MIND SAYING GORDON’S ALIVE?’

“GORDOOON’S ALIIIVE!”

brian blessed_3226Swindon Festival of literatureBrian Blessed

©Calyx Picture Agency Brian Blessed

At this point, festival director Matt Holland attempts to rein in the star, by asking him the first of his prepared interview questions: why, when he comes from a working class background, he sounds so posh.

This is an invitation for Blessed to take us on a meandering, hilarious trip through his childhood, His memories of The Flying Scotsman and The Mallard, his father teaching Fred Truman how to do cutters, the Polish Battle of Britain pilots that stayed in his house, “AND A RUSSIAN”, the 1948 Manchester United FA Cup squad stopping their coach in his village (he reels off the name of each of the players) “HOW ABOUT THAT?” and the kick-about the village kids had with the squad “WE WON 26-NIL.”

After about five minutes we get to an answer: a theatre director asked him to “LOSE YOUR YORKSHIRE ACCENT, BUT NOT YOUR YORKSHIRE EXPRESSION.”

And he’s off again: “I CAN’T STAND ACTORS’ BOOKS IN WHICH THE ACTOR SAYS ‘I MET MY VERY GOOD FRIEND PIERCE BROSNAN… AND KYLIE MINOGUE…’ OH BOLLOCKS!” before launching into a story about himself and Patrick Stewart heading to London to seek their fortunes, which runs into a story of hijinks with Peter O’Toole in Bristol (and includes Peter Ustinov and Sir John Gielgud for good measure). It’s worth retelling because the punchline is brilliant.

“(O’Toole) CHALLENGED ME TO A RUN. WE RAN FROM LEIGH WOODS OVER THE SUSPENSION BRIDGE TO CLIFTON. IT WAS ABOUT THREE IN THE MORNING. WE MET TWO PROFESSORS, WHO WERE WEEPING. THEY HAD JUST SEEN GIELGUD IN A PLAY. O’TOOLE SAID ‘THAT’S AMAZING. THEY WERE SO ENAMOURED BY GIELGUD THEY FAILED TO REALISE YOU AND I ARE STARK BOLLOCK NAKED.’”

And so it goes on. There are stories about Blessed being the Master of Ceremonies at the handing over of Hong Kong to China by the British (again, a cursory internet search reveals no official record of this, but plenty of references to it made by Blessed), of delivering a baby in Richmond Park, of punching a ferocious polar bear on the nose when it broke into his “THREE-MAN, NO, THREE-WOMAN, BECAUSE I WAS WITH THREE WOMEN” tent in the arctic.

He talks about Shakespeare (oddly, he doesn’t claim to have met the Bard, shagged him, or punched him on the nose) and his despair at dreary performances. “A LOT OF SHAKESPEARE THIS YEAR HAS BEEN SHITE,” he says “IT’S VERY DULL. I SAW A MAJOR COMPANY DOING KING LEAR AND IT BORED THE ASS OFF ME.”

The he shows us how he thinks King Lear should be played… staring loudly, and crescendoing. “NOOOOOO, YOU UNNATURAL HAAAAGS, I WILL HAVE SUCH REVENGES ON YOU BOOOTH THAT ALL THE WORLD SHALL – I WILL DO SUCH THINGS – WHAT THEY ARE YET I KNOW NOT, BUT THEY SHALL BE THE TERRORRRRRRRS OF THE EEEAAARTH.

“THAT’S A BIT MORE LIKE IT!”

There are moments of introspection, though. In response to an audience member’s question about his greatest achievement, he says “WHEN I WAKE UP IN THE MORNING I LOOK IN THE MIRROR AND I LOVE MYSELF,” before quoting Oscar Wilde: “TO LOVE ONESELF IS THE BEGINNING OF A LIFELONG ROMANCE.”

And later, during the book signing in the cafe, there are more tender moments as Blessed bumps into 91-year-old Swindon-based actor Michael Beint, who played Len Turner opposite Blessed’s Fancy Smith in the first few episodes of Z Cars (a show that made Blessed’s name, and gets fair coverage in his memoirs).

Despite the intervening years, Blessed recognises his co-star straight away, and they chat for five minutes. They could have spent all afternoon together, observed an onlooker later.

brian blessed_3611Swindon Festival of literatureBrian Blessed

©Calyx Picture Agency Michael Beint and Brian Blessed

Brian Blessed was promoting Absolute Pandemonium: My Louder Than Life Story. Report by Peter Davison

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