Ipswich: Film Night Spectacular host Brian Blessed interviewed
Larger-than-life actor Brian Blessed is returning to Ipswich to host an evening of film music in Christchurch Park as part of the Ip-art Festival. Andrew Clarke spoke to him about his lust for life
The last time I met Brian Blessed he broke my tape recorder. He didn’t pick it up and throw it across the room – instead he was treating me to a full volume impersonation of Lucanio Pavarotti performing O Solo Mio.
It was part of our discussion about his larger than life personality which then drifted into the topic of microphones in the theatre.
“There’s no room for microphones in a theatre,” he informed me. “I have a trained voice. I was Pavarotti on Celebrity Stars In Their Eyes.”
It was at this point he burst into song. Prior to this moment, everything on my tape machine was clear and audible, afterwards a haze of indistinct noise. The sheer power of Brian’s voice, as well as pinning me to the wall, also obviously did something to the microphone.
“Not many actors have any vocal power these days,” he lamented, unaware of the havoc he had unwittingly caused.
The reason I bring this up is because when we speak again to talk about his upcoming appearance in Ipswich for the Film Night Spectacular in Christchurch Park, part of the Ip-art festival, he greets me with: “How’s your microphone?”
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Needless to say I have dined out on this story for years and word has obviously got back to the man himself.
Brian says he is hugely thrilled now to be regarded as a personality. It was something he fought shy of earlier in his career, saying he had only ever given three larger-than-life performances – the pinnacle of which is a toss-up between Prince Voltan in the 1980 film Flash Gordon and Richard IV in the first series of Blackadder.
“The problem was that those roles made such a bloody big impression on people that they thought that was all I could do.”
He remains very grateful to Kenneth Branagh for seeing past the bluster and bravado to coax quieter performances from him in his on-going Shakespeare films. One of his favourites was Branagh’s recent Japanese adaptation of As You Like It, in which he cast Brian in two roles.
“The action takes place in an English community in Japan at the turn of the last century. I play the good Duke Senior who is banished into the forest and I also play his evil brother Frederick who is very quiet and is very frightening because he is so quiet, still and intense. He knows a villain is really terrifying when he is quiet and still.”
Speaking to Brian, it’s clear the voice remains the essential elements of an actor’s toolkit.
“I believe to this day what Sir Henry Irving said, ‘Speak clearly, speak clearly and be natural’.
“People want to play Shakespeare. They want to play Hamlet, they want to play Lear and sadly a lot of the modern actors are inadequate – certainly when compared to Olivier, Gielgud, Richardson, Redgrave, people of that calibre. They had incredibly vocal power and tremendous versatility.
“I think the way that people are trained now, with the emphasis on television hasn’t helped. Also people think they can just walk into the profession.
“People say to me, ‘I want to be an actor’. I say, ‘Really? Let’s put you on the stage at the RSC or in the West End and actually see you act – eight shows a week for 18 months’. They couldn’t do it. You need training.
“I think acting is the bravest of all the arts. Your voice, your physique, your performance is judged on a nightly basis and is very often shot down. I remember Peter O’Toole, one of the greatest actors of his generation, getting slaughtered for his Macbeth.
“I remember him weeping in my arms in his dressing room and yet he had to go on stage the next night and give a performance as if nothing was wrong. Acting requires tremendous courage and physical stamina.
“I think what marks out an actor is that they must act. It’s not enough that they want to do it. They have to do it. We have no choice.”
For Brian acting is part of his love of exploration. He says that his life is spent 50% living life, climbing mountains and going on expeditions and 50% recreating life on stage or in front of a camera.
“My dear friend, the lovely late Richard Briers, said to me not so long ago, ‘Brian you are all about exploration’ and it’s true but there are all kinds of exploration.
“Ever since I went to Everest to film Galahad of Everest for the BBC in 1990, where I wore George Mallory’s own clothes and followed his route for his ill-fated 1924 climb of Everest, I became me on camera for the first time. I was Brian not a character I was playing.
“So this notion of exploration has become increasingly blurred. I love exploring the world and climbing mountains as me. I love acting and playing other people but since that programme in 1990 I have become increasingly at home being me in front of the camera rather then always being somebody else.”
Brian will be appearing as himself to host Ip-art’s Film Night Spectacular in Christchurch Park on July 6 with Suffolk soprano Laura Wright, Wattisham Military Wives Choir, the Heart of England Philharmonic Orchestra and a firework finale.
“I am really looking forward to it. It’s going to be a marvellous evening because music is so important to film and television. It provides atmosphere and channels people emotions. Also film music has become popular classical music.
“The music on the programme covers a broad range. We’ve got everything from James Bond to Jurassic Park. We’ve got Star Wars, Pirates of the Caribbean , ET and The Wizard of Oz. It’s going to be bloody marvellous and they’ve got fireworks too they tell me.
“I’m going to have to project to the back of the park just to make myself heard,” he laughs.
Part of Ip-art 2013, gates will open at 6pm so the audience can enjoy their picnics prior to the performance at 8pm.
He’s also thrilled some of his earlier work has found a new audience now that I Claudius is being repeated on BBC 4.
“I still maintain that I Claudius was the best series ever. It was brilliantly written. Everyone wanted to be in it. You had huge actors playing five-line parts just so they could be in it.
“We realised Rome then was just like America now – even down to the architecture. You look at Washington. It’s just like Rome – all columns and statues. And of course you have the senate all based on the Roman way of doing things.
“It was a terrific series and the best soap opera ever made. And I don’t say that to disparage it but it was a soap opera because it was about people, about families, about relationships…
“We had a wonderful director, Herbert Wise, who gave me the best piece of direction I’ve ever had. On the first day of rehearsal he brought the cast together and announced, ‘We have a problem and it’s Brian Blessed’. I was playing Augustus Caesar. He turned to me and said, ‘I am telling you this Brian. If, for one moment, you play Augustus as a king or an emperor we are finished. Everybody else salutes, you have to go round as if you are nothing more than a family man. The head of the family. You should give no clue as to your immense wealth and power’ and that was they key to the series. Brilliant.”