He’s attempted Everest three times and is the oldest man to have walked to the magnetic North Pole. Now Brian Blessed is taking on the challenge of directing his first play. What’s more, his wife and daughter are in the cast.
“It’s exciting – a virginal experience!” booms the unmistakable voice of Brian Blessed across the auditorium of the The Mill at Sonning.
It is here, in this affluent Thameside village near Reading, that the 79-year-old actor and adventurer is making his directorial debut with Agatha Christie’s murder mystery The Hollow.
“It’s rekindled all my love of the theatre,” admits Blessed, reminiscing about his early days going to the theatre with his childhood friend Patrick Stewart.
“He was 11 and I was 14, and we went to the Rep to see Hugh Walpole’s The Cathedral. The audience applauded the set. I feel that’s the kind of atmosphere I want to rekindle here.”
Agatha Christie’s The Hollow started out as a novel, published in 1946, with Hercule Poirot among the guests at a country estate where philandering physician Dr John Christow has been shot dead.
When she adapted it for the stage in 1951, Christie omitted the famous Belgian detective from the cast, believing that his presence had “ruined” the original story.
Blessed describes The Hollow as a “tremendous” whodunnit: “It has many subtleties and lovely relationships. It’s a quite a classic. I’d put it on the level of some of Chekhov’s plays. It’s the best thing she ever wrote.”
The cast of 12 includes Blessed’s wife Hildegard Neil as the eccentric Lady Angkatell, the host of the ill-fated dinner party, and Rosalind Blessed as sculptress Henrietta Angkatell.
“They are both inspirational actresses,” Blessed says. “I like to give them an idea and then you can learn from them. I’ve learned much more from women than from men in my life.
“One mustn’t be a dictator – that would be a disaster.”
Last year, Blessed made headlines when he collapsed on stage as King Lear. Rosalind was in the cast as Lear’s daughter Goneril.
After being assessed by a surgeon, the star returned 20 minutes later to complete the show, telling the shocked audience: “I feel such an idiot and am not in the habit of doing this, but I have a little fibrillation.”
A week later he had to withdraw from the production on medical advice.
“My heart is fine now,” Blessed assures me, after a vivid retelling of the event. “I’ve got the best heart specialist… he said ‘now you’re Terminator 4′ – you can do anything you like’.”
So how does he plan to spend his 80th birthday in October?
“A bloody good long walk,” he says “I might do some of the summits in Wales. I shall never retire. I’m going to return to Everest.”
While Blessed is famous for his energetic, larger-than-life personality, he says he likes to relax with daily meditation.
“It sounds preposterous and pompous. My biggest love in life is silence and peace.”
A little later, Rosalind Blessed describes rehearsals with her father as “relaxed but inspired”.
“He’s got a lovely balance between giving his own thoughts and giving you the space to work,” she says.
“And if I may say so, the really nice thing about working with my father – when he is directing and we are acting – is that there is a a portion of the day when we can speak and he is quiet!”
Brian Blessed’s larger than life CV
- The son of a coalminer, Blessed trained at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School.
- He made his TV breakthrough as PC “Fancy” Smith in the 1960s BBC police drama, Z Cars.
- His most memorable TV roles include Augustus in I, Claudius and King Richard IV in the first series of Blackadder (pictured above).
- His has appeared in Kenneth Branagh’s films As You Like It, Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, and as The Ghost/King in Hamlet.
- He was the original Deuteronomy in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats.
- His most oft-quoted film line is “Gordon’s alive!” spoken by his character Vultan in Flash Gordon.
- He voiced Boss Nass in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace and the Pirate Captain in The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists!
- He has been on three expeditions to Mount Everest.
- He was made an OBE in 2016 for services to the arts and charity.
The Hollow by Agatha Christie, directed by Brian Blessed, is at the Mill at Sonning from 7 July – 3 September.