Tag Archives: Brian Blessed

An actor’s tale: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars”

Peter Stanford took tea with me at Soho Theatre

Peter Stanford sipped tea at Soho Theatre Bar

The last time I blogged about Mensa member Peter Stanford was in June four years ago, when he was taking part in the annual Naked Bike Ride in London.

A couple of weeks ago, he was telling me: “Yes.  I am moving out of the hostel for the homeless to a Church’s Housing flat soon and do not know how much notice I will have. (Four hour’s notice to get in the hostel.)  Library computer running out. If you blog about me, will it affect my chances of getting acting work? Should it therefore be anonymous?”

When we met, we decided it would not.

We met in the Soho Theatre Bar.

“So currently,” I said, “you are living a transient life…”

“I am living in a hostel, yes. I was sleeping rough, living on the pavement, from last Christmas to about April this year.”

“I suppose, as an actor,” I said, “it doesn’t matter where you are.”

“And I have a bicycle,” said Peter. “I haven’t got my youth, but I have my stamina and I can cycle across London and back. Swimming and cycling I can still do.”

Why he is homeless is complicated and he feels too personal to print, as it might affect someone else.

"I have turned down two offers from producers saying: Tell your story"

Turned down 2 offers from producers saying: Tell your story

He also told me: “I have turned down two offers from producers saying: Tell your story about middle class homelessness.”

“You were,” I said, “almost in Sacha Baron Cohen’s movie Grimsby.

“Well…” he replied. “I got an email from one of the agencies saying: Would you object to being a urinating vicar in the film called Grimsby? So I told them: Not at all; sign me up. But then I never heard from them again.

“I can,” he continued, “think of other tales to destroy one’s self-image – being invited onto Take Me Out, turning up on set in my normal clothes for the role of a squatter and being told: You’ve been to costume and make-up then?

“On the other hand, I was writing out my theatrical CV the other day and it looks quite impressive. I sang at the London Palladium with Robbie Williams. I sang at the London Coliseum with ELO.”

“With Robbie Williams?” I asked.

“I was ‘a fat popstar’,”he explained. “At the time, Robbie Williams was getting a lot of flak in the press for looking fat, so he wrote a song and all these fat people ran out and sang No-One Likes a Fat Pop Star. And I’ve sung opera in my time.”

Peter Stanford: one man in his time plays many parts

Peter Stanford… “One man in his time plays many parts…”

“Weren’t you Henry VIII?” I asked.

“Yes. At Hampton Court. But my best story of being a homeless actor was when I was living on the streets. I went to the library to do my emails and was offered the chance to be the new face of Stella Artois beer. I had not told any agents that I was sleeping on the pavement.

We would be filming in Rumania, they told me, so we will put you up in a five star hotel for a week and then buy you out for eight thousand Euros. Is that acceptable?

“I told them that it was and thought that I must get the job for the irony alone. Pavement to 5 Star hotel, then back to the pavement (if I know anything about the wait before payment). I was going to be a Victorian doctor in the ads. Unfortunately, I didn’t get it.”

“But you almost got it,” I asked, “by going to the library?”

Peter’s multiple London library cards

Peter’s has multiple London library cards

“Oh, every day I go to the library and log on: Wandsworth, Ealing, Kingston, Southwark, Greenwich… Westminster is good because it’s open until 9.00pm. They are all good places to go and sleep. I once fell asleep while I was cycling.”

“What?”

“Fortunately,” Peter continued, “I didn’t go under a bus. I went to other way and hit a kerb, flew through the air and landed on my knee. It woke me up.”

“So how do you survive financially?”

“When I became homeless, for the first time in my life, I signed on the dole. I had been living off my acting and living with a relative. I was always brought up to be frugal.”

“I think,” I said, “you’re allowed to work up to something like 16 hours a week and still sign on?”

“Something like that.”

“How many acting jobs do you get a month?”

“Two or three. I’ve been auditioning a lot. I was a vicar the other week. When they gave me the address, it was where they had had my uncle’s cremation last year.”

“You seem to be getting typecast as vicars,” I suggested.

“Well, I have a deep voice, so I am either good guys or bad guys. A deep voice means evil or benign. A psychopath or wise old man.”

“There’s no way out of this, is there,” I asked, “unless you get a big role?”

“There is my one-man show about James Robertson Justice,” said Peter.

“Except,” I said, “no-one remembers who he was.”

“Alas,” said Peter.

“You wrote it for yourself,” I prompted.

James Robertson Justice in his prime

Actor James Robertson Justice

“I was writing it as a one-man play about James Robertson Justice and someone was interested and, three quarters of the way through, he suddenly asked: Could you make it about Brian Blessed instead? I told him the main reason I couldn’t do that was it was based on James Robertson Justice’s life.”

“Ironically,” I said, “the best person to play the part of James Robertson Justice would be Brian Blessed.”

“That part’s taken,” laughed Peter. “By me.”

“You have already performed it?”

“Written and performed it.”

“You could do it at the Edinburgh Fringe,” I suggested.

“I could do it anywhere. I’ve got a friend for free accommodation in Edinburgh, but I have never been to the Fringe.”

Peter Stanford at Wellington Arch, London, yesterday

Peter Stanford at the Naked Bike Ride in 2012

 

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A Dada celebration staged by a foolish man + Brian Blessed’s voice & a urinal

Mike Freedman is a New York writer and film maker. Or is he?

“I was born in New York,” he tells me, “but I have lived here in London for 31 years. My parents brought me over as a child.”

He has an American accent but was brought up here and, as an adult, has lived in London. So what is the reality? What is reality?

Mike Freedman in Soho - London not New York

Mike Freedman in Soho, London not New York

Mike Freedman is very serious.

“I love film,” he tells me, “because it is the only art form that is all the other art forms. It IS drama, theatre; it can also be dance, painting, music, rhythm. All artistic expression can be found in films – if they are good – to an extent that is simply not possible in the other media.”

He made an award-winning feature-length documentary titled Critical Mass, the blurb for which says:

With the planet bursting at the seams, the intelligence and physiological traits that make us human are now crucial to mankind’s survival. This intelligent film interweaves a fascinating 1960s rat experiment with a slick snapshot of today’s urban jungle.

He wrote a book titled: The Revolution Will Be Improvised: Critical Conversations On Our Changing World.

So Mike Freedman is very serious, yes?

Well, he has played in various bands and was a founding member of the “invisible acoustic comedy minstrels” known as Chicken Tikka Masala: The Band.

“I recently finished making a comedy web series,” he tells me, “called The Incidentals, which we will be putting out near the end of the year. It’s about a group of musicians who are hired to write music for a sitcom and it’s done as a behind-the-scenes documentary.”

A week today – next Thursday – Mike is organising LonDADA at the Cinema Museum in Elephant & Castle.

“No-one nowadays,” I suggested to him, “knows what Dadaism is, do they?”

“I think that’s the point, isn’t it?” he replied.

“What?” I said. “That it isn’t?”

Mike replied: “I think it was Tristran Tzara who said that there’s nothing more Dada than being anti-Dada. It is the formlessness that appeals to me.”

“So LonDADA is celebrating 100 years of Dada?” I asked.

Cabaret Voltaire, Zurich, in 1916

An early Dada event at the Cabaret Voltaire, Zurich, in 1916

“Well, June 23rd 1916 was the date that Hugo Ball performed his Karawane at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich for the first time and that was the birth of Dada poetry. The Cabaret Voltaire had existed since February and had had a couple of salons but they hadn’t really had their own work.”

“1916,” I said, “is right in the middle of the First World War.”

“Well,” said Mike, “Dada was, in part, a response to the First World War. The mainstream understanding of it is that the horror of the First World War and that wholesale slaughter and the bourgeois industrial capitalist mindset that had created the conditions that made this sort of madness possible was what they were rebelling against. Class structure, monarchy, commercialism, consumerism, industrialism. Dadaism was really a rejection of what came to be regarded as 20th century civilisation. Except they rebelled early.”

“Urinals,” I said. “That’s all people know about Dadaism.”

Marcel Duchamp’s original ‘fountain’ by R.Mutt in 1917

Marcel Duchamp’s original ‘fountain’ by R.Mutt in 1917

“You are referring,” said Mike, “to Marcel Duchamp who was offered the opportunity to submit an artwork, so he went to a plumbing supply store and purchased a urinal and signed it R.Mutt, dated 1917.”

“Why R. Mutt?” I asked.

“That was the name of the plumbing supplier.”

“That would make sense,” I said.

“He submitted it as a fountain,” explained Mike. “It is what is now called ‘found art’, but was called ‘readymade art’ at the time.”

“So,” I said, “reality in 1916/1917 was so shit that people went to the opposite extreme – the surreal?”

“Well,” said Mike, “Surrealism came later. It was effectively what killed-off Dadaism.”

“So what’s the difference between Surrealism and Dadaism?” I asked.

“To my understanding,” said Mike, “the distinction is that Surrealism sought to speak to or to touch the human by dealing with the language of the sub-conscious and the language of dreams. Surrealism deals with a different language that is only bizarre if one is looking at it in terms of waking life. If you look at Dali paintings as expressions of a dream landscape, they’re not strange at all. Surrealism is very much the idea that, in order for art to touch the heart, you have to bypass the conscious mind. Dadaism was several things that Surrealism never was.

“Dada was political from the outset, certainly in Berlin. Dada was born in Zurich at the Cabaret Voltaire. It spread to Berlin and to New York. There were brief flutters of it in other places. It became less political in Zurich and New York. The Berlin gang were very political. New York Dada was more interested in the bizarreness of this deconstructionism philosophy. The French obviously got in on the act when René Clair made Entr’acte with Erik Satie – a very famous Dada film. Also Dziga Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera was considered a Dadaist film because it was intentionally nonsensical to what the structure of what film was at that time.

Mike Freedman with Duchamp’s urinal, not taking the piss

Mike Freedman – he is not taking the piss

“What interested Dada was shocking the observer in order to create a response that was not anchored in the mind. In that sense, it shares an intention with Surrealism, but it absolutely does not share a visual or artistic language.”

“I see,” I said. “A urinal is not surreal.”

“Absolutely not,” agreed Mike. “The famous example of how to Dada was to just take a newspaper and cut it up and re-order the letters and see what you come to.”

“Like William Burroughs later,” I said.

“Well, about 40 years later,” said Mike. “If you have any inclination towards Punk Rock or the so-called Underground in music and film – the idea of just making things happen for yourself and re-purposing what is around you, of re-interpreting reality by tearing it apart and re-building it – that aesthetic idea has its roots in Dada.

“If you have something that’s a little more Arthouse in that it’s about confounding the intellectual mind by presenting it with imagery or sounds that simply does not speak the language of the everyday life, that is more Surrealism.

Mike Freedman’s definition of himself...

Mike Freedman’s definition of himself in three words…

“Dada was very strongly anti-Establishment, deconstructionist and anti-itself. Its view was that it couldn’t be anything or it would be no longer the thing that it was meant to be. So you got announcements that DADA IS NOT DADA.”

“Why is it called Dada?” I asked.

“No-one knows for certain. One belief is that they chose the word because ‘Dada’ is the first word of almost any child in any language. I find that a bit spurious.”

“Isn’t ‘Papa’ more common than ‘Dada’?” I asked.

“You are assuming they mean ‘Dad’.” said Mike. “They just meant the sound. The idea was to move art away from established forms and disciplines  back to its most protean state where it literally could be anything and rejecting the encroachment of commercial society by intentionally making things that under no circumstances were saleable. Which, of course, is ironic, because now a replica of Marcel Duchamp’s ‘fountain’ is on display in the Tate Modern.

Hugo Ball performing at Cabaret Voltaire in 1916

Hugo Ball performs at Cabaret Voltaire, 1916

“At that time, getting up on stage, wrapped in cardboard and expounding in a fully-made-up language that was, on purpose, totally nonsensical – and taking it seriously… was… Well, they were very much invested in this idea that what they were doing was important. It was not just Let’s fuck around and see what happens because no-one’s done this before, which is what a lot of people tend to do today.

“What produced Dada in 1916 was a perfect storm of social tension and dissolution and disillusion. There was a beautiful synergy between artistic and political radicalism. Today, we no longer seem to have that visible thread of artistic radicalism.

“So, on June 23rd – European Referendum day – the exact 100th anniversary of Hugo Ball’s first performance of Karawane at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich – we are putting on LonDADA at the Cinema Museum – the closest thing that I can muster to a recreation of a Dadaist salon. We are having live performance, theatre, poetry, music, film, art, clowning, short films, a 1968 documentary about Dada which has never been shown before in the UK and we are screening Hans Richter’s Dada film Ghosts Before Breakfast from 1928 on 35mm.

“When the Nazis came to power, they destroyed a lot of film as ‘degenerate art’ – including all known copies of Ghosts Before Breakfast which had the soundtrack. No-one knows what the soundtrack was. So I got Austrian composer Vinzenz Stergin to compose a brand new score which he will perform live.

“From 1.00pm on the day, a screening room will be open showing a looped programme of short films (about 90 minutes in all) by Helmut Herbst, Australian Dadaist Bob Georgeson, American Francis Thompson and John Smith, the award-winning British video artist and a few others. That loop will run all the way through.

12823246_566985420127358_2975024586101518057_o

“At 6.30pm, the main event starts and goes on until 11.00pm. In the first half of it, we will mainly have live performance and a screening of Ghosts Before Breakfast with live musical accompaniment. Then there will be a theatrical performance and a screening of Germany-DADA: An Alphabet of German DADAism, which runs for about an hour. Before that, there will be a short video introduction from the director, Helmut Herbst. We will also show a very special animated film by Chris Lincé of Karawane voiced by Brian Blessed – he recorded it specifically for the festival.”

“Good grief!” I said. “I’ll go along just for Brian Blessed’s voice.”

“There are also a few ‘Easter eggs’,” said Mike, “a few surprises we are going to throw in. Tony Green as Sir Gideon Vein and a lot more. And live music.”

“Who is going to go to this?” I asked. “Students of Dada?”

“Basically, we have a 120-capacity and I need to sell it out to break even.”

“So you are a foolish man?”

“Yes. A very foolish man. I am banking on the desire of Londoners to experience an evening of out-of-the-box entertainment.”

“Banking might not be the right word,” I suggested.

“Perhaps ‘praying with white knuckles’ would be better,” agreed Mike. “Praying that the population of London comprises at least 120 people interested in the bizarre and the avant-garde.”

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Laurence Owen – a Pervland pasticher who could have been Harry Potter

Lawrence’s album: Lullabies of Pervland

Not normal actor-turned-comedian-turned-composer-singer

Last night, a well-known agency staged a ’comedy showcase’ of some of their acts. There were around ten acts.

With the exception of one-and-a-half acts, it was a laughter-free zone.

They were actors and actresses showcasing their acting talent without interruption by humour. They were not comedians.

The result of actors trying to be comedians to ‘fill-in’ before they get ‘proper’ acting jobs is almost always a terrible, humorless dog’s dinner. It is usually a Pyrrhic victory of performance skills over comedy.

Which is why Laurence Owen is a joy to behold. His show Lullabies of Pervland has a humdinger of a song about how women’s roles in Disney movies are defined and limited – it has wonderfully complex and intelligent lyrics performed by Laurence to a perfect pastiche of the whole gamut of Disneyesque tunes. He acts as four characters in the song, including a wiseguy bird from, it seems, the Bronx. A wondrous blend of acting, singing, composition and comedy.

“Disney women don’t have a huge amount going for them after a certain point,” Laurence explained to me. “Their career options are limited and there’s always at least one dead parent – usually the mum  – which leaves these young characters flailing and alone so they can have scary adventures. The Lion King is Hamlet with lions.”

“The thing is,” I said, “you act your Disney pastiche song so well.”

“Well, when I was little,” said Laurence, “I used to be a kid actor. I did various bits and bobs. I was in a film called Wilde with Stephen Fry as Oscar Wilde.”

“Heavens!” I said. “You weren’t the one who got buggered?”

“No,” said Laurence. “That was Jude Law. I played Stephen Fry’s son.”

Laurence Owen not Harry Potter

Laurence Owen – not Harry Potter

He also auditioned for the part of Harry Potter.

“I suppose I probably look more like Harry Potter now,” said Laurence.

“So,” I asked, “you wanted to be an actor, not a musical performer?”

“Yeah. I started off as an actor. I was six when I started. I did a costume drama thing for the BBC about nannies – Berkeley Square – and I played a young Brian Blessed in a film called The Mumbo Jumbo which was mad but had a great cast – Sylvester McCoy, Melinda Messenger, John Inman from Are You Being Served?, Richard O’Brien from The Rocky Horror Show, Joss Ackland, Brian Blessed…”

“To have Joss Ackland and Brian Blessed in the same film is quite something,” I said.

“There is a lot of shouting in it,” said Laurence. “I never met Brian Blessed, but they curled my eyebrows up into these big spikes and put grey in my temples, even though I was playing a 10-year-old version of Brian Blessed and I had this one line which I had to deliver in a cod Brian Blessed voice.

“My voice broke when I was about 11 and, after that, I stopped getting work. When I was 12, I looked and sounded about 14 and no-one is interested in that; they want people who can play younger. I went and saw my agent and she basically told me I was not cute enough any more.”

“But you still wanted to perform.”

“Yes. About the same time this happened – about the age of 12 – I started learning the guitar and forming little bands at school and we made little albums. I made my first album when I was 13 and it’s practically unlistenable to, but I’m quite glad we did it. I got into Pink Floyd and things like that – old bands. Throughout my teenage years, I made a load of very over-reaching, quite wanky prog rock things on acoustic guitars.”

There is a video on YouTube of Laurence (centre), aged 18, singing with a band called Freak Kitchen.

“And, all this time, my mum was taking me to the Edinburgh Fringe every year,” Laurence told me.

“Why?”

“Because she loves it. I think this year was her 22nd consecutive year. Never been a performer, just a punter. She’s a champion hobbyist. She’s heavily involved in the Sherlock Holmes Society of London, edits The Sherlock Holmes Journal and goes on jaunts across Switzerland to the Reichenbach Falls and all that. She’s learning Japanese now.”

“Why?”

“Because she’s interested in eccentric islands.”

“So she took you to the Fringe every year?”

“Yes. I remember, aged 10, seeing Simon Munnery and feeling Wow! I’ve never seen anything like this before! He was doing his League Against Tedium. I remember being really, really inspired by it.”

“At that point,” I asked, “did you want to be a straight stand-up comic?”

“No. I discovered comedy by accident. I went up to Edinburgh every year for years, then started doing music, went to university in Brighton to study music and had this vague idea I would be a composer for a living. Then I moved back to London and started working in my old school in the music department as a kind of admin slave.

“At the same time, I was also performing slightly humorous shanty-type storytelling type songs with bits of weird, dark humour at these very earnest music nights with singer-songwriters who were whingeing on about their girlfriends. The audience really hated my songs and I was getting really down. No-one was interested at all and I was going to just stop and not bother any more, but my flatmate said: We run a little comedy night. Why don’t you come and try it out there?”

There is a showreel of Laurence’s musical comedy material on YouTube.

“So you started doing music-based gigs at comedy clubs,” I said. “But you were never interested in being a straight stand-up?”

“I’m a bit scared of that,” said Laurence. “I don’t think I quite have it in me. And I don’t really want to be a club comedian. I’m not entirely sure what I want to do yet, but I know it’s fairly cross-genre. Bits of all sorts of performance practices. For the new show, which I’m starting to formulate at the moment, I’m not having any guitar at all. It’s going to be all big backing tracks in the same way I do my Disney song.

“The new show (for Edinburgh 2015) is called Cinemusical and it’s gonna be a show about different aspects of film music, apeing all sorts of different film genres and casting a load of mis-matched characters together in a hybrid. I’m going to cast members of the audience as different characters. There will be a gunslinger Western character, a Lara Croft style Indiana Jones type person.”

Cinemusical_LaurenceOwen

“So,” I asked, “you’re going to do pastiches of Ennio Morricone and Bernard Herrmann?”

“A few years ago,” said Laurence, “I did make a concept album in the style of Ennio Morricone called South of The River – set in South London. It was about a day in the life of a charity fundraiser, going up to people in the street. He was a kind of lonely guy who got through his existence by pretending to be Clint Eastwood as The Man With No Name. So, in his own brain, each of these encounters was like a duel and the album was the music which was playing in his head as he was going up to people in the street. It was basically a spaghetti western set inside a man’s head.”

There is a video from it on YouTube – a song called A Moment of Your Time.

“I think pastiche is what I’m interested in. I’ve now got to the stage where I do make a living by performing and composing. I’m a composer for film and theatre.

“At the moment, I’m working for a theatre company called 1927. I think they’re called that because that was the year the movie Metropolis came out. They get a lot of influence from silent films. They have live actors and actresses who interact with projected animation on a huge screen the size of the stage. And they have a live pianist. The show I’m working with them on at the moment is a show called Golem, based on the Jewish folk tale and on the silent film. They have a pianist and a drummer for this one and, to complement the stuff they’re playing live, I’ve made a pre-recorded sound score which goes on around it. It’s being staged at The Young Vic in December.”

“Do you have any urge left to act?”

“I’d quite like to.”

“You should do Harry Potter: The Musical.”

“I’d love to do that.”

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GORDON’S ALIVE! – Brian Blessed from “Doctor Who” to “Flash Gordon” to taking a real life rocket into space

Tomorrow, BBC TV celebrates the 50th anniversary of the first transmission of Doctor Who.

The real Brian Blessed - OTT character

The real Brian Blessed – an OTT character

Last night, at a special University of Hertfordshire event, the actor Brian Blessed revealed: “I was once asked to be Doctor Who – after (the first Doctor) William Hartnell – but I wasn’t available.”

Yesterday’s event was not a celebration of Doctor Who, but a celebration of the 1980 film Flash Gordon, one of a series of events leading up to next year’s celebrations of one hundred years of film-making at Elstree and Borehamwood where, coincidentally, I live.

Comedian Bob Slayer once told me a story about Brian Blessed.

“I was outside a pub in Soho,” Bob told me. “The Toucan, next to Soho Square. It’s a small pub and a lot of people drink outside of it in the evening. I was on the phone to a friend when who should walk by but Brian Blessed.

“I mentioned this to my friend on the other end of the phone and he immediately suggested that I should shout out Gordon’s alive! like it would be the funniest thing in the world and no-one else had ever shouted that at Brian Blessed.

“I declined, but my friend double-dared me and so, just as Brian disappeared around the corner, I bellowed: Gordon’s alive!

“Brian then reappeared from around the corner and boomed one word back at me at a volume and resonance that made my effort sound like a choirboy whose voice has not broken. The single word he boomed out was a beautifully simple upward-inflecting CUNT!! – and then he was gone again.”

Brian Blessed’s notoriously booming line Gordon’s alive! comes from the 1980 Flash Gordon film.

Flash Gordon (1980) - kitsch, cult or masterpiece?

Flash Gordon (1980) Is it kitsch, cult or cinematic perfection?

He has an overwhelming OTT charm which could persuade anyone that the inside of an active volcano is a suitable place to use as a refrigerator. Last night, he was talking-up Flash Gordon as great art:

“I’ve got a feeling,” he said, “that Flash Gordon is almost perfection. There is such a great style about it and it’s becoming more and more of a… and then, of course, there is the cry Gordon’s alive!

“There were 70,000 people at the O2 Arena the other week for the Metal Hammer Awards for rock bands and I shouted Gordon’s alive! and I had to shout it about fifty times. It is much requested.

“I was at Buckingham Palace last year at the Christmas Concert – because I’m famous – and the Queen came up and said: You know, we watch Flash Gordon all the time, me and the grandchildren, It’s a wonderful film. Would you mind saying ‘Gordon’s alive’?

“So I shouted Gordon’s alive!!!! for her…

Thankyou so much, she said, very politely.

Brian Blessed grew up in the West Riding of Yorkshire and, in the next village was future Star Trek/X-Men star Patrick Stewart.

Brian’s father was a coalminer; Patrick’s was a milkman. Brian says they have been friends since they were nine years old.

Brian Blessed flying high as Vultan

Brian Blessed stood on a perch & flew with embarrassing wire

In Flash Gordon, Brian played Vultan, prince of the Hawkmen, sporting a large pair of wings.

“Those wings took half an hour to put on,” he explained last night. “I had dark-skinned make-up with very black hair, black beard and they wanted my teeth very white, like in the 1930s serial. I couldn’t sit in a chair because of my wings, so they built me a perch and all the cameramen and carpenters said Pretty Polly… Pretty Polly as they passed.

“Before you ‘flew’, you couldn’t have breakfast, you couldn’t have lunch – you’d be vomiting. Speaking is really difficult with all these wires on you. I had an extra one on my bollocks. We all had to be lowered down when one person fainted.

“When I was cast as Vultan, I thought of the original comic strip and then I thought of Charlie Chaplin. In some of his films, he had a great big guy who bent lamp posts and beat people up if they didn’t pay their bills and he had big black lines under his eyes and a black beard and a great smile. I based Vultan on that character.

“Then, of course, when I saw the old black & white Flash Gordon serial again, I realised he actually plays Vultan in that and he has a grizzly bear with him all the time. So I said to Dino De Laurentiis  (Italian producer of the 1980 Flash Gordon):

Can I have a grizzly bear?  

But he said Fuck off.

“De Laurentiis was a tough guy, quite a terrifying guy – a bit Mafia. When he came on set, we never got much done because the director Mike Hodges got nervous and the cast and wardrobe and make-up got nervous. When I was doing these flying sequences and Dino came in with his henchmen – you could see their guns – you could see the guns they had under their coats – and the money in sachels… Dino was a very imposing figure. Nobody dared say a word but, when I was hung up on the wires for these flying sequence, I told him:

“Dino! We can’t get anything fucking done! Every time you come in, everybody gets fucking nervous, it’s costing fucking millions. Dino – fuck off!

“Dino laughed and said: He tells me to fuck off!

“I was the only one who could tell him to fuck off.”

The cast was equally colourful.

Ted Carroll as Biro - from rugby to pub owner

Ted Carroll as Biro – from England rugby player to pub owner

“The guy with the broken nose – Ted Carroll, who plays Biro – I befriended him,” Brian said last night. “He wasn’t an actor: he used to play wing half for England’s rugby side. He wanted to be seen, so I told him: Keep with me, because they’ve got to put the camera on me. Just keep alongside me.

Now he has a pub in Ilkley in Yorkshire and his pub’s full of photographs of Flash Gordon; you press a button and the film appears.

“We would have done a second Flash Gordon film, but Sam Jones, who played him, was injured in a car crash. The second film was going to be set on Mars and had the Clay Men in it, like the original Flash Gordon serial. And giant lizards. I would be flying around and he would be wounded and I’d be carrying him across the Martian volcanoes, but it never got made.”

Brian is, I guess, a luvvie at heart: lavishing praise on everyone he works with.

Sam Jones starred in a very hard part

Sam Jones: a perfect on-screen bubble of innocence & purity

“Flash Gordon is a very hard part to cast,” he claimed last night. “Like d’Artagnan in The Three Musketeers is a very hard part to cast. You could get lots of handsome actors and put them in as Flash, but he has to have a kind of bubble of innocence, a purity. With Sam, you could put him anywhere and shoot him with the camera from any angle and he was pure, he was heroic. He was the perfect Flash. Just as good as Buster Crabbe in the original 1930s serial.

“And Max von Sydow was wonderful as the villain Ming The Merciless. He told me: I don’t know what to do, Brian, and I told him Use your hands. Use your hands, because you’re a magician and you’re sexual: use your hands. So he used his hands quite beautifully.”

Brian is known for being a larger-than-life, totally OTT character but says: “In my sixty years as an actor, I think I’ve only ever played three or four characters that are over-the-top – in Blackadder, Flash Gordon and Blackbeard. Now, 50% of my life now is exploration and 50% is acting.

“Hamlet says acting is holding a mirror up to Nature, holding a mirror up to life. But, of course, climbing Mount Everest or going to Mongolia or the North Pole IS life – and there is a huge difference. Acting is a great art, but you are pretending.

“I had Michael Gambon and Derek Jacobi and Ken Branagh in front of me and I said this and they said Yes, Brian. You have to pretend. You’re not real. But going up Mount Everest and going into space and going on adventures IS real.

Brian Blessed, modern Galahad, climbing Everest without oxygen

Brian Blessed, adventurer, climbed Everest without oxygen

People say: “Isn’t it dangerous, Brian, going to the North Pole? Isn’t it dangerous going up Mount Everest without oxygen?

“Yes yes yes. But I think the greatest danger in life is not taking the adventure. You’ve gotta go for it.

“I am fucking bored shitless with all this crap about age. Forty is very young. It’s not how old you are – it’s how you are old.

“I’m 77 and next year I’m going back to Everest. In Moscow, I’ve just completed 800 hours in the centrifuge, in the hydra, in MiG-29s… and I am now a completely, fully-trained cosmonaut and I’m going to the International Space Station…”

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