Brian Blessed in conversation at ID Fest 2012
Continuing my round-up of the best of ID Fest 2012, held at Derby QUAD last weekend.
At 7pm on Saturday, 26th May, Brian Blessed was asked the first question of his Q&A at Derby QUAD’s ID Fest. Seventy minutes later, at 8:10pm, the event’s host Tony Earnshaw piped up: “Brian can I ask you another question?” As the joke of the festival put it, this was more of an A than a Q&A.
Who is Brian Blessed? Booked ostensibly to introduce his most-loved movie performance, as Prince Vultan in Flash Gordon, Blessed is so much more than an actor. He’s a raconteur, an adventurer, a Byronic hero who, at the age of 76, still climbs the world’s highest mountains and has trained as a cosmonaut; next year, he revealed, he will travel to the International Space Station, proof that Earth is too small a dominion for Brian Blessed. In short, he’s a hero, and an apt choice for the Saturday night centrepiece of a festival whose theme across the weekend was heroism.
Things had gotten off to an inspiring start earlier during the day, when I attended a press conference where Blessed didn’t even wait for a single question to be asked. He sat down, announced, “I’ve been asked to speak to you bloggers,” and immediately went off in a totally different direction: “funny name, bloggers. Reminds me of Yeti.” He launched into a half-hour monologue about his career as a mountaineer, punctuated by sage advice (“By the way, you mustn’t pick a war with Turkey”) and absurdist digressions (“I’ve been heartbroken since the age of six that we don’t live on Mars”).
It was only later, listening to him in full-flow, that it became obvious he’d used the press conference as a warm-up for the main event, repeating several of his dominant themes: a pet favourite being the difference between acting (“a mirror to life and nature”) and mountaineering (actual life, actual nature). Only hours after hearing Paddy Considine reveal limits to his interest in acting, here was another star who has gone out of his way in recent years to avoid doing any acting (barring the mighty Grampy Rabbit in Peppa Pig, of course). By quirk or sound judgement, ID Fest had created a riposte to the films being shown during the Festival: the best heroes don’t live on-screen, but in the flesh.
Part Don Quixote, part Tristram Shandy, Blessed’s monologues are so unlikely and implausible that half of the time you suspect he’s having you on – but you *want* to believe him. Who else but Brian Blessed would, at the age of 12, criticise a drawing of a dove by Pablo Picasso, out of the stubborn Yorkshire belief that his own version was better? And did young Brian really cajole best mate Patrick Stewart to sneak on board the shit-covered cattle wagons of London-bound trains so they could watch the plays at the Old Vic? (Poor Captain Picard becomes the butt of most of Blessed’s jokes, a snivelling scaredy-cat who apparently cries every time Blessed goes travelling: “Oh shut up, Patrick!”).
Blessed can play an audience like nobody I’ve seen, whether mocking Kenneth Branagh (“we have a father/son relationship; he’s the father and I’m the son”) or actors in general (“Actors are beggars. When I see them, I give them a healthy kick up the arse!”). An unlucky audience member who crossed his eyeline en route back from the loos was told, “Sorry, you’ve just missed me talking about my sex life!” Cheeky. But occasionally the mask slipped and I realised that Brian simply hasn’t lost his childhood love of performance. Discussing his first drama camp, where he played “the Angel Gabriel at the Last Judgement, bearing swords of fire,” his voice dropped to an awed hush, to recapture the exhilaration he experienced as a teenage novice.
When he finally gets onto the subject of his most famous roles, he’s electric. The mighty cast of I, Claudius couldn’t get into their roles until the writer revealed he’d thought of the Roman Emperors as Mafia bosses, at which point, Blessed says, the drama “became tactile and alive and dangerous” – must like the experience of watching Blessed live on stage. On his extraordinary close-up death scene, where he held his eyes open and lifeless for five long minutes, he admits, “I don’t know how I fucking did it!”
On Flash Gordon, he’s even more passionate. I’d long assumed Blessed had lapsed into self-parody because of the public reaction to Vultan, but it was a role he was destined to play; the Buster Krabbe serials of the 1930s were instrumental in stoking his love both of acting and science fiction, and he literally grew into the role, his stocky build and bushy beard matching the original Alex Raymond drawings of Vultan perfectly.
On set, Blessed clearly had a whale of a time, enthusiastically adding in the sound effects as he boshed hapless extras during battle scenes, or giving Max von Sydow the idea to have Ming flex his fingers in sexual delight. His best story involved finding out that the actress Timothy Dalton fancied had the hots for Blessed instead: “her friend told me, ‘she sees you as a caveman.’ I said, ‘What does she want me to do? Hit her with a cudgel?’”
At that point, with great regret, I had to temporarily leave proceedings to introduce a screening in the cinema next door, but when I returned, guess what? Blessed was still going strong, oblivious to attempts to wind down the event so that Flash Gordon could be screened. I have no idea what he was talking about in the interim, but it’s kind of apt to stay in the dark. During the press conference, he mentioned that “mystery is a rare commodity these days,” and Brian Blessed seems to be on a one-man mission to bring the mystery back into modern life. He’s a throwback to times when all knowledge wasn’t available at the click of a mouse, and people had to rely on great men to impart their wisdom, one barnstorming anecdote at a time. If that is indeed the case, then: mission accomplished.