Thespian Brian Blessed, who served as master of ceremonies at the handover 20 years ago, recalls sparring with the Dalai Lama, punching Harold Pinter down the stairs, hospitalising Dr Who’s Peter Capaldi and throwing Peter O’Toole ‘all over the house’. That’s when he wasn’t busy climbing Everest, getting ‘rubbed up’ by Katharine Hepburn or having his bottom felt by the emperor of Japan.
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I am resisting the temptation to write the bulk of this article in upper case, though even a blanket of capital letters would not do justice to Brian Blessed’s booming voice. In resting position, it is deep, sonorous and undulating (his favourite word). Then, at the most unexpected of moments, it explodes. And when it does … I don’t think I have heard anything louder in my entire life. I worry about how my tape recorder is going to cope.
Blessed is taking a lunch break from rehearsals of a play he is directing in Berkshire, England, in a small theatre that happens to be right next to George Clooney’s 17th-century mansion. I am here to talk to him principally about Hong Kong – although that does not stop me from being treated to the full Blessed repertoire.
There are anecdotes involving everyone from Muhammad Ali to Queen Elizabeth. I am regaled with impressions of the former premier of China and the emperor of Japan. I am told how the Dalai Lama explained his ability to cope without sex. At one point, there is a spontaneous, eardrum-popping burst of Pavarotti. And finally I am sent on my way with a cheek-pulsating, beard-wobbling turn as his amphibious Star Wars character, Boss Nass.
And yet, all the while, Blessed insists, with the straightest of faces: “My biggest love in life is silence and stillness.”
The 80-year-old was in a rehearsal room, not unlike this one, in 1997, when he was asked to take on one of the biggest roles of his career. He was playing Squire Western in the BBC’s The History of Tom Jones when two men in dark suits turned up “looking very furtive, their expressions flatter than a kipper’s c**k”.
He had a mild panic attack, assuming his co-star Peter Capaldi (the current Doctor Who) had called in the lawyers after Blessed had hospitalised him when a fight scene went wrong a couple of weeks earlier. In fact, they were there on behalf of the British and Chinese governments to ask the actor to be the master of ceremonies at the handover of Hong Kong, 20 years ago this weekend.
Blessed was offered £15,000 (“in Yorkshire money, that’s around three-quarters of a million”) and a bespoke £2,000 suit, the jacket of which he still wears and is draped over the sofa behind him.
Britain’s favourite eccentric had been picked for the role in large part because of his popularity in Asia. The then-Chinese foreign minister, Qian Qichen, had seen the 1991 television documentary Galahad of Everest (in which Blessed follows in the footsteps of George Mallory’s ill-fated 1924 attempt to conquer the mountain) and requested “the man with the voice”.
Blessed flew out to Hong Kong with Prince Charles and Prime Minister Tony Blair. It was his first trip to the territory and he was suitably impressed.
“I was escorted to my fabulous hotel. It was the Island Shangri-La. I mean, there were waterfalls in my room! A private swimming pool. Cor blimey, mate!”
But the excitement soon gave way to trepidation as the scale of the task dawned on him. Although he would be sharing presenting duties with local singer Frances Yip Lai-yee, there would be thousands of people in the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, in Wan Chai, and what Blessed claims was an audience of three billion watching live at home.
“I remember [British actor] Kenneth Branagh saying, ‘How can Brian possibly do it? We’d all faint!’” he recalls proudly.
“They always say Chris Patten gave away Hong Kong. He had NOTHING compared to what me and Miss Yip had to say. I had a script as big as King Lear!”
The thespian still remembers the opening lines. “This is a day for saying farewell,” Blessed began. “But it’s also a day for celebration,” announced Yip. “A celebration,” Blessed bellowed back, “of the spirit of Hong Kong.”
From here, the strict plan went slightly awry. It was raining, “very warm rain, I remember”. Prince Charles had to make his speech with a shirt so sodden, it was memorably see-through. And the print on the pages of the scripts, sitting on the presenters’ lecterns, simply washed away. Ever the professional, Blessed says he was unperturbed.
“I’d learned it, and I knew most of her part as well,” he says. “But, I mean, Miss Yip nearly fainted.”
Then British ceremonial guns fired and, while everyone else on stage had been provided with ear plugs, “for five minutes, Miss Yip and I went completely deaf”.
It was “a farewell ceremony nulli secundus, second to none”, declares Blessed, his abiding memory being the British marching, which he insists “is always rated No 1 in the world”.
“The Russians bend their shoulders when they march. The Americans slide their feet when they march. The Chinese wobble a bit,” he contends, adding that he once saw Chinese troops parading on his way to Everest, “and it looked like a bad rehearsal of Cats”.
“But the British Army – well, I’d never seen marching like it. I’m a national serviceman, RAF, Parachute Command. And the colour sergeant was alongside me, with the military band, and the bugle and all that. And he would go, ‘BUGLE, BUGLE, BLOW THE WATER OUT!’ Because the water was going into the bugle, with the warm rain.
“They did the slope arms [part of the British rifle drill] in the rain, they almost broke their wrists: ‘SLOPE ARMS!! BANG! CRACK!’ And you could see the Chinese premier and the government thinking, ‘Boy Jesus! These boys are good.’ You’re thinking, ‘Well, MATE! You may take over Hong Kong, but this and no further!’” Blessed says with relish, adding that it all reminded him of the 1964 Michael Caine film Zulu.
The denouement was rather less triumphant. Blessed remembers a sombre mood among the British officials.
“We went out gracefully, but deeply sadly. No denying it. Everyone seemed to be crying. There were just tears everywhere, of depression, not celebration. But, I mean, Miss Yip was sensational.”
Blessed avoided the after-show party and drinks – as he does on all his jobs – preferring to seek solace back at the hotel, watching the Royal Yacht Britannia sail out of the harbour and “sadly disappear across the horizon”.
Blessed’s role at the heart of one of the 20th century’s most historic diplomatic moments is not the only thing that might surprise you about the actor. He may be known by many as “The Man With the Voice”, shouting at you down the camera, but he has had a stellar career, with starring Shakespearean roles to go alongside the B-movies, TV cameos and voice-overs.
Blessed had a courtship with co-star Katharine Hepburn (who “rubbed me up” for a quarter of an hour on the set of The Trojan Women  when he was too cold to perform a scene). He punched Harold Pinter down a flight of stairs after the playwright, who was drunk, had threatened his friends at a party.
And he had a strained long-term friendship with Peter O’Toole, who he once “threw all over the house” in anger at the actor having “sh*t all over your f***ing talent”. (In a previous production, Blessed had let rip: “Shut your bloody mouth, you ponce. Lawrence of Arabia? You look more like Catherine of Aragon. You know nothing about acting, O’Toole. You’ve got no face, you’ve got no voice and you have about as much presence as a vole’s c**k!”.)
He has conquered Kilimanjaro and – almost – climbed Everest three times (becoming the oldest man to reach 8,500 metres without oxygen, at 68, and the oldest man to reach the magnetic North Pole on foot, aged 61). A former undertaker’s assistant and coffin-maker, he once topped a poll asking which actor most resembled God.
Blessed is popular in Japan, too. When he was invited to host a premiere of Branagh’s film adaptation of Henry V – and an accompanying trade reception – in Tokyo in 1989, he took along his 88-year-old father, William. After flirting furiously with Britain’s Princess Anne, Blessed threw himself into introducing her to each member of the Japanese government. But he had forgotten two key people.
“I felt a tug on my trousers,” he recalls. “And this little voice says [cue dodgy Japanese impression], ‘Excuse me, I think I should be at the front, too.’ And it was His Royal Highness, the Emperor of Japan and his wife. I’d forgotten about them, and they were tugging at my arse!”
Moments later, the Japanese security detail jumped into action after they saw a man standing on a chair taking pictures (one of the rules was no photos). The offender was Blessed Snr. When the emperor found out, he apparently found it hilarious and invited the former coal miner forward to take his pictures of the royal party up close. But there was a hitch: “He had got a camera that dates back to Methuselah, and as soon as he came up, it jammed.”
The moment the Japanese prime minister saw his 1936 Nikon, he screamed: “Haaaah, it’s the ZM34572376 – my camera from my factory, 50 years ago! It’s still going!”
According to Blessed, the whole government scrabbled to fix it.
“They got little knives out and started to adjust his camera. My father started chatting with the entire government and became the centre of attention as a celebrity, before their highnesses, before Princess Anne, and before me. He was the toast of Tokyo. Bizarre!”
Blessed has clearly inherited this ability to befriend anyone and everyone. When he spent five days with the Dalai Lama in 1989 for his Mallory film, he was more than able to converse on the intricacies of Buddhism and reincarnation. In between these chats, Blessed admits that he was “almost rude to him all the time”, which left his new friend “in hysterics”.
When His Holiness came and asked if it was time for him to be filmed, Blessed blasted: “No, no, get out! You’re the Dalai Lama, have some patience, HAVE SOME PATIENCE!”
Later, Blessed probed a little. “I said, ‘I don’t understand, your skin is beautiful, you’re so fit. I mean, how have you gone all these years without sex?’
“Ooooh!” Blessed says, doing a high-pitched impersonation. “It’s very good, no, I like this. It’s true, Brian, I think of beautiful woman, then I do my mantras louder and I take a cold shower. It’s practical!”
The actor also sparred with the spiritual leader, who is a passionate boxing fan. “Very gently,” Blessed clarifies. “He couldn’t box for toffee. I let him hit me on my jaw, and then said, ‘Ooh, you can’t half punch, your Holiness.’” The Dalai Lama was “in fits”.
I assume he has given up any ambitions of summiting Everest; frankly, I feel a bit silly even asking the question of an octogenarian. But I shouldn’t.
“Oh no, no, I’ll go next year,” he says, breezily, as if talking about his next seaside holiday. “I could have done it easily. The first time was for the documentary, and I wasn’t allowed to. The second time, I was close to the summit and without oxygen at 28,500 feet. I had to rescue a guy who was dying. And the next time, I was just halfway up the mountain and my brother died and my mother died. So … unfinished business.”
Blessed says he keeps fit by lifting between 90kg and 140kg (“not out of vanity. I could lift more, but there’s no need to”) as well as doing stomach and leg exercises for two to three hours every day. He also runs daily and meditates for half an hour in the morning and half an hour at night.
The man who once turned down a top-flight opera career also trains his voice for half an hour a day (this is the point in the interview when he unleashes his inner Three Tenors). It all leaves me wondering how he manages to fit anything else in, yet, he says, in addition to the play, he is currently completing his seventh book.
With this vast artistic, spiritual and expeditionary hinterland, it must be disturbing to be just as well known as the man of a million voice-overs – the actor behind adverts for everything from beer and windows to compensation lawyers and mayonnaise. Has he ever craved more prestige, or lost out on a role as a result?
Blessed is having none of it. After all, he is not one of those actors who “seem to believe their own publicity”.
“I have such implicit faith,” he insists, “and I kind of love myself. You know, I look in the mirror and I have the face of a Yeti and the physique of a gorilla (and being an honorary Gurkha – the Gurkhas call me ‘Yeti’). I wouldn’t want to be thin, or long and tall,” he says, before pointing at my slender frame and adding, “Excuse me.”
“And I love my face. Every time I look in the mirror, I love myself. I think I’m the world’s best actor. I think I have the best voice in the world and the most vivid imagination. And I am totally and utterly in love with myself.”
It must be this total lack of self-doubt that explains how he has managed to put up with fans demanding that he wail the same line several times a day for going on 40 years. The catchphrase, of course, is “GORDON’S ALIVE!”, from his star turn as Prince Vultan in the movie Flash Gordon (1980). Even former British prime minister David Cameron invited him into 10 Downing Street to yell it at his cabinet colleagues (Gordon Brown was the leader Cameron had ousted from power).
“Oh, I love it,” Blessed grins.
It was the part that enshrined his own personality in popular culture and the one that gave him the gimmick that Cassius Clay, as the boxer Muhammad Ali then was, had told him back in the 1960s that any star needed.
“Now all actors are trying to find a gimmick. Mine has happened quite naturally,” he says.
It seems to me that there is an unusual harmony between the actor and his roles. Both involve a loud-mouthed, big-hearted defender of the underdog.
“Yes, I do my own thing,” Blessed says, without missing a beat. “I make the roles suit me. All this crap that actors talk about, ‘Ooh, I immerse myself into the part.’ You’re PRETENDING!”
With Everest, space travel and his first trip back to Hong Kong in 20 years all on his agenda, there is little time for pondering his own mortality. Even his recent landmark birthday did not trigger pause for thought.
“I’m not scared of death,” Blessed proclaims. “Death for me doesn’t exist. I think the last word for me is life.” He quotes English poet John Donne (“Death, thou shalt die”) before shouting, “The only thing that dies is death. It doesn’t exist. We’ve always been alive. We are children of stardust, we’re yearning for the stars.”
He is on one of his many rolls: “My biggest love in life is space! We’ve got to get out there. Hopefully the scientists can keep me alive for another 50 years – not for vanity, but because there are things I want to do. I want to inspire Nasa and inspire the Interplanetary Society, inspire the Royal Geographical Society. I mix with top scientists and great brains and I inspire them with my love of the universe … ‘GET ON WITH IT! You’re sitting on your arses!’
“I’ve no interest or fear of death. I am fearless!” he adds. “B******ks to death.”
Agatha Christie’s Spider’s Web, directed by Brian Blessed, is being staged at The Mill at Sonning, Reading, England, from Thursday to September 9.