The lights at the Ipswich Corn Exchange dimmed on its 1500 occupants and the first bars of “Flash” by Queen began to throb from the sound system. An inevitable walk-on track, but no less effective for it. And then, after the ‘Ah-aaaahh,’ Brian Blessed strode on to the stage and was instantly everything one ever wants him to be: thunderous, gleeful, theatrical, grand. A broad, tall galleon of a man. The word ‘Epic’ written in block capitals hewn from flesh, bone, and beard. The staging was minimal. A throne, a table, and a glass of water. With Blessed on the boards, there wasn’t room for much else.
First came the most necessary fan service, several lusty bellowings of his signature:
…leading into a clutch of anecdotes about the variety of countries and absurd situations in which he’s been asked to declaim the catchphrase that has followed him since 1980.
And then we were into a loosely structured series of anecdotes, reflections on his early life and career, and his musings on the world. There was no multimedia content, no photo montages or contrived segues into clips from his past performances. This was more like a long chat with an eccentric old uncle, an hour after Sunday lunch and deep into his third large sherry of the day. Of course, this was unavoidably an exercise in vanity. Brian was there to talk about Brian (and we had paid to listen) but he took several opportunities to mock his own seeming lack of modesty so, to me, he never seemed smug or self-satisfied.
We learnt of his upbringing in the Yorkshire town of Mexborough, as the son of a coal hewer, and his early experiences of theatre school and repertory. There were comical vignettes from his lifelong friendship with Patrick Stewart, an outrageous recreation of his comedic victimisation of John Gielgud that reduced the audience to pieces, and stories of the absurd situations that seem to beset all actors in their early years.
He did touch on a couple of the roles that made him a name: Fancy Smith in Z Cars, Augustus in I, Claudius, and Long John Silver in Return to Treasure Island. The latter two occasioned funny anecdotes and observations, but he spoke only briefly about Z Cars and in such a way that, to me, he seemed genuinely not to think we’d have heard of it (or that we’d be interested in it if we had). True, Z Cars finished its three-year run 45 years ago, but I think many in the audience still remembered it.
Blessed also discussed his Shakespearian performances, on stage and on film, and gave us a couple of dramatic recitations. Yes, Henry’s speech from the opening of the third act of Henry V is the sort of piece that would appear on Now, That’s What I call Shakespeare Vol. 1, but there is a reason why it is so well known and Blessed’s delivery was commanding. That operatically trained voice does not disappoint. And he sang several short pieces, including a partial reprise of his Stars in Their Eyes performance when he essayed Pavarotti singing ‘O Sole Mio’. He may be no match for Pavarotti’s control and technique, but he still shook the brickwork. Nor is he all volume. During a reminiscence on his time in the original production of Cats, he dialled himself back to a whisper and held the hall in silence for several minutes.
Blessed also talked about his private menagerie; several hundred rescue animals that he has taken in. He spends his money on staff to care for them and, as such, claims not to ‘have a penny to scratch [his] arse with’. Presumably, that in part explains this tour, as well as some of the ‘lesser’ work: such as voiceovers for any number of video games, appearing in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, and fronting Ladbrokes’s marketing during the last football World Cup. Their owning his image for that latter engagement might also explain why the likeness of this self-professed great animal lover was also used to promote betting on this year’s fatal Grand National. Or, at least, that is how I choose to rationalise his connection with the cruelty of horse racing.
But Brian Blessed is, of course, much more than merely a poor player strutting about the stage. He is, by his own description, an adventurer. He has tried (and failed) to climb Everest three times without oxygen and has successfully reached the summits of Mount Aconcagua in Argentina and Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. He is the oldest man to go to the North Magnetic Pole on foot and, on an expedition in Venezuela, even survived a plane crash. More recently, Blessed has completed 800 hours of space training at Star City in Russia. Indeed, on stage he complained of double vision as the result of time spent in a centrifuge. He went on to tell us that he plans to go into space this year. Frankly, it’s a testament to how borne along on his charisma and conviction I was that I accepted this remark by an 82-year-old man uncritically at the time. It now seems unlikely, and cursory research indicates that he has been saying ‘next year’ since at least 2015. Nonetheless, undoubtedly, he is an adventurer; a bold vibrant man who – as he told us repeatedly – “fears nothing”. It is hard not to feel dull next to a man painted in such primary colours, even when it is he who is wielding the brush.
Of course, this is a thoroughly entertaining performance, and I have seen bits of this schtick before: the phrases, the philosophy, the stories. But I don’t doubt that, while a performance, it is also real. Brian Blessed on stage is not an invention or a character (like the always tax-deductible Lorraine Kelly Ltd.), he is simply Brian Blessed turned up to 11. When he bellows, for the sixth time, “follow your dreams! And don’t let the bastards grind you down” he washes the stale cliché through and leaves it sparkling with conviction. Still, one wonders how much he plays up to the public’s expectation, how much he is a prisoner of his own reflection.
While a powerful, vigorous man, he is also clearly a diminished one. In 2015, Blessed was “compelled to withdraw” from Lear at Guildford because of heart problems and now has a pacemaker. On stage, he is energetic, but his own battery clearly needs to be recharged more frequently. His frenetic spells were punctuated with regular returns to his throne. Indeed, at two points, when sat still in his chair with his head lowered (for perhaps 20 seconds each time), I genuinely feared for him. Then he suddenly reanimated and was back to being Brian again. Watching him stop like that seemed like a message ̶ to him and to us ̶ that one black and silent day he will stop and not start again. For that reason, I am very grateful to have seen him, to have made my pilgrimage to this great king and to have paid tribute. In matters of death, the man himself is apparently of the Epicurean school. Where Death is, he is not, and where he is? Surely Death would not dare to be.
There is something immensely comforting about seeing Brian Blessed on stage. It appeals to a notion of patriotism Orwell distinguished in his Notes on Nationalism, that ‘devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people.’ So long as this man continues to march across stages and up mountains, to bellow and bluster and tell tall tales, something valuable and English is preserved, and some corner of a foreign field shall remain forever Blessed.