Review: An Evening With Brian Blessed

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:

GORDON’S ALIVE!!!!!

…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.

prince-vultan.jpg.480x0_q71_crop-scaleAnd 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, BlessedEarlyAugustus 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 BlessedLadbrokeshas 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.

Brian-Blessed-on-EverestBut 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.

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Book Review: ‘Rose’ by Russell T. Davies

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Rose – the novelisation

At 7pm on Saturday 26th March 2005, Doctor Who ran back on to Saturday night television: big budget, clever, confident — joyous — and looking an awful lot like Christopher Eccleston. It had been sixteen long years.

The series opener, Rose, was written by showunner Russell T. Davies and was the template for his reimagination of the concept. This April, a mere thirteen years after broadcast, BBC books resurrected the much-loved Target imprint to publish Davies’s novelisation of his landmark first script. Doctor Who fans know how to wait.

The novelisation as a form is widely regarded as nakedly commercial, derivative, and lacking any ‘literary’ worth but the Target novelisations of the original Doctor Who’s twenty–six–year run of stories hold a special place in the hearts of many older Whovians. In the age before video recorders, they were the only way to enjoy stories one had never seen, as repeats were rare and, barbarously, a number of the serials were erased or junked. It’s charming to see the Target style revived, from the cover illustration reminiscent of Chris Achelléos’s classics, to the lean prose and pleasingly kitsch chapter titles like ‘Descent into Terror’. Rose is not a work of literature (give that a few hundred years) but it’s very entertaining. For anyone who hasn’t read it (or caught up with their 2005 viewing), now’s the time I should say ‘spoilers, sweetie.’

Davies’s novel naturally follows the structure of his script but with the embellishments and reinstatements the written word affords. Following a prologue of a first chapter I’ll come to in a moment, the story opens on the humdrum life of the eponymous Rose Tyler: a nineteen-year-old girl waiting for her life to begin while she folds clothes in Henrik’s department store. She has a clueless but devoted boyfriend, Mickey; a brassy and overbearing mother, Jackie; and a deep ache for a life — and a self — that could be so much more. Then, one evening, a trip into the basement plunges her into a boundless and compelling new world: a bridgehead of Autons — killer plastic mannequins controlled by the Nestene Consciousness — and ‘that mysterious traveller in Space and Time known only as the Doctor’. Rose’s wait is over.

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Rose Tyler and the Doctor. In the TARDIS. (Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper)

As with the original episode, the story is told almost exclusively from Rose’s perspective: from the moment the Doctor takes her hand and says ‘run’, through his demolition of her job, attacks by a disembodied arm, plastic boyfriends, carnivorous wheelie bins, that impossible blue box, subterranean tanks of writhing alien fear, panic on the streets of London, to a final, life-defining choice. Rose was a smart reintroduction for a new generation that wisely avoided burdening the viewer with twenty-six years’ freight of back story. We learnt almost nothing about the Doctor aside from what he represents to Rose. The villainous Consciousness is actually on a return visit, having first plagued the Earth in the 1970 story, Spearhead from Space, but Davies wisely avoids having the Doctor mention even this. Fans will know but Rose (and casual viewers) didn’t need to. Almost all the exposition that is required is rather mischievously given to the character of Clive, the internet conspiracy theorist who has obsessed over the Doctor his whole life.

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The Autons invade London: 2005

It was a very full forty-five minutes and it’s a full 197 page novel, expanding on the episode while remaining true to it. Davies writes with his customary brio and warmth, capturing the crackle of his original script well, right down to the short, energising declaratives (‘They ran!’ ‘The Nestene screamed!’) that peppered his scripts as stage directions. And there’s some sly ‘meta humour,’ such as when Rose wanders the basement of Henrik’s and hears, on a distant, ‘tinny radio,’ ‘some Irish comedian’s voice echoing in the dark;’ in reality, a live feed of Graham Norton mixed accidentally into the original transmission.[1] There’s also opportunity for Davies to indulge his fondness for set-piece destruction and gleeful slaughter. The climax of the TV episode, involving Autons massacring the residents of London, is expanded without heed to budget. Buses are overturned, the London Eye is sent into the Thames, washing MPs from their benches, and a regiment of dummies, from brides, to ballerinas, to fetishwear models, teem through the streets: decapitating, dismembering, and blasting all before them. And then there’s this, which surely would have made the Auton’s creator, Bob Holmes, raise his pipe in salute:

Every form of plastic felt an urge to move, tugging at a cellular level. An instinct to rise up and kill. Wires and panels and joints and plugs in kitchens and cars and computers and offices began a little dance. Cables yearned to strangle. Dolls grinned in anticipation of murder. Bags imagined suffocation. Nylon ropes knew their time had come. Laminated sheets of paper felt their edges sharpen into razors and prepared to spin. On deserted pacific islands, reefs of plastic bottles tumbled together to form giant, lurching, man-shaped idols, rearing up over the surf with no one to witness their birth.[2]

Rose is an action story but it’s with his characters that Davies always shines. His ability, with such economy, to craft real people where many writers would settle for walking props, is remarkable. Rose is and was the star and so requires little further elaboration, although she is perhaps allowed to be a little savvier in the novel than in the episode and is gifted a couple of lines that had been the Doctor’s. On Westminster Bridge, for example, he once explained how the TARDIS travels, she now deduces it. That aside, she remains Rose: smart, impulsive, selfish, compassionate, brave, nineteen.

Ironically perhaps, the least developed character in all of this is the Doctor, himself. Not once does Davies allow the reader to see anything from his point of view or be privy to his thoughts. He is alien and inaccessible and we know about him only what we are permitted. This is Rose’s story. It’s a bright move – the companion has always been our way in to the Doctor, our proxy. Davies uses this to fine effect, creating an intriguing puzzle of a central character. Jackie Tyler, too, needs little extra explanation beyond being ‘five foot nothing, age not relevant, karaoke champion of the Spinning Wheel, life and soul of the party but a monumental lightning storm when angry…’[3] When we see Jackie attempt to seduce the Doctor, we know her. We’ve all known a Jackie.

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The Autons invade London: 1970

Davies borrows smartly from backstory and events depicted in subsequent episodes to add substance to familiar faces. Most substantially, we meet the caretaker at Hendriks who was merely a surname (‘Wilson’) in the finished episode. Here, and confined to only a prologue, he becomes Bernie Wilson and we know him. He’s a weak, seedy minor criminal, cast down to the basement for some small indiscretion years before, whose life is about to crumble under the weight of his greasy, picayune scheming. The merest brush with the Doctor’s world brings him his one moment of wisdom and then ends his desperation forever.

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Russell T. Davies, showrunner.

Of all the characters introduced in Rose, it is Mickey Smith who grew most during Davies’s tenure. I never liked Mickey in that first episode – he seemed too much the cliché of the slightly wet, useless boyfriend and, in truth, I think Noel Clarke didn’t have a grip on the character in that first episode, either; playing him a little too much as a buffoon. That all changed in later stories, and Mickey Smith became one of the most rounded, believable, and well-played companions, ever. For this novelisation, it seems to me (and I may be completely wrong) that Davies faced a particular challenge. He couldn’t simply write the sketchy, comical Mickey of that first episode because that would ring false; yet nor could he have him fail to act as the established plot requires. You can’t rewrite history, not one line. So, I think Davies strikes a balance and gets it right. We see that the bitterness of Mickey’s tragedies has flowered into his compassion and humanity and his loyal, patient love for Rose. Yes, he still withers in culture shock where Rose blossoms. Yes, he still clings to her legs in fear because fifteen years of series history demands that he must; but fan readers know that this will be his making. We also see more clearly Rose’s genuine love and appreciation of him. We know that it won’t be enough to keep her from running into the TARDIS at the end, but Davies notably softens that rejection from the TV version merely by omitting a couple of lines. In the original, Rose kisses Mickey goodbye and thanks him. ‘For what?’ asks Mickey and Rose replies, ‘exactly’. In the revision, Rose simply says, ‘thank you’ and is instantly a kinder person.

We’re also introduced to Mickey’s previously unseen gang and his importance to them: Mook, Patrice, and Sally,

And Mickey was the centre of their lives. He’d been on the housing list at 16, and at 18 he’d been granted that holy grail, a flat of his own. The first thing he did, when given the keys to No. 90, was to prop that door open and make others welcome.[4]

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The late Robert Holmes

They’re nicely drawn, likeable, and feel like they could  easily have become semi-regulars in some other draft of the series. I imagine they’d also infuriate the more reactionary fans as, by being reflective of modern London, they’re an unapologetically ‘diverse’ bunch: Mook Jayesundra, Patrice Okereke and Sally (formerly Stephen) Salter. In fact, combined with the scene in which Clive shows Rose the apparently different people who’ve held the title of the Doctor, I can’t believe RTD wasn’t gleefully winding-up the ‘PC-gone-mad’ pack. In the televised episode, the only Doctor Clive shows Rose is Nine. Here, Davies reaches into future-past, with the ‘man with two suits, brown and blue,’ the ‘tweed jacket and bow tie,’ and ‘a blond woman in braces;’ before giving us a ‘tall, bald black woman,’ and a ‘young girl or boy in a hi-tech wheelchair’. So that’s every box ticked in gammon-shaded blood, then. Somewhere, a big, gay Welshman is still hooting.

Another character given added weight is Clive Finch, the comical internet conspiracy theorist played with such charm by Mark Benton. Davies provides an intriguing explanation for Clive’s obsession with the Doctor and reaches back into series mythology, in this case to an iconic death in the 1988 classic, Remembrance of the Daleks. Clive’s death as the Autons ravage London is the more tragic because it is the heroism of the ordinary man, augured by an epiphany:

All of Clive’s fantasies were now becoming facts, right before his eyes. But if the glories were true then so were the terrors… To protect his wife and children, Clive simply opened up his arms. He would greet the dummy in friendship, or stop it with his body, whatever it took. And he found himself smiling, even as he started to cry. Because here it was at last. Adventure.

Here we see a restatement of the novel’s central theme: the adventure — and cost — of touching the Doctor. Clive never meets him, yet contact through his dead father and Rose is enough. We see him become like the Doctor by moving to embrace the Other while also being preparing to defend against it. The Doctor ruins his life and redeems it, all without ever knowing who he is. Bernie Wilson never meets the Doctor but touching his world opens up his own, even at the cost of his life. And when Rose Tyler takes the Doctor’s hand, he shows her the possibility of the universe and the possibility within herself.

Notes

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[1] An off-air live audio feed from BBC3’s ‘Strictly Dance Fever’ was mixed accidentally into the BBC1 audio; marking the first of Graham Norton’s two unwanted intrusions into the programme (the second occurring in 2011).

[2] Rose, p. 170. Yes, I know plastic doesn’t have cells.

[3] Rose, p. 25.

[4] Rose, p. 52.