He does it as he likes it

Renuka Sadanandan catches up with dynamic British actor and explorer Brian Blessed here to shoot a film on elephants

When most others his age would be quite content with retirement, he has just completed training at the Moscow Space Centre to become a cosmonaut on the International Space Station. Last week saw him in Kegalle, clambering down a slithery slope to stand cheek by trunk with an aged elephant in the river.

Brian Blessed with Baby at the Millennium Elephant Foundation. Pic by Gemunu Wellage

Life, for Brian Blessed, is a joyous adventure so pursuits such as these are then not all that strange for a man approaching 70. And so the dynamic British actor, explorer and President of the Council for National Parks in Britain thinks nothing of wading into muddy waters to get up close with Baby, the Millennium Elephant Foundation's oldest resident for a spot of filming. Baby is 83, blind in one eye and rather unsteady at times, afflicted as she is with arthritis. Yet she and Blessed stand in quiet communion as he talks to the cameras of her condition and how after having been a work elephant for 60 odd years carrying timber and taking part in festivals, she has now found a tranquil shelter in the Millennium Elephant Foundation.

Blessed and a four-member crew from one of UK's premier television stations ITV were in Kegalle last week to make Elephant Sanctuary, a two-part short film that will be aired later this month on ITV's 'This Morning' programme. The focus of the film which was mooted by the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) is the Millennium Elephant Foundation's sterling conservation efforts including its successful elephant dung paper project and mobile veterinary clinic. Set up in 1999 on a 15 acre estate by Carmini Samarasinghe, the Foundation provides compassionate care for Sri Lanka's fast dwindling elephant population and is now home to 14 elephants.

For Blessed, whom one magazine dubbed 'the loudest man alive', for his trademark booming voice, it is his first visit to the country. "I just find it vibrant, exciting, a land of contrasts. One feels a great spirituality here like I've not felt anywhere. It is rare in this world to come across good manners," he adds, remarking on the gentleness of the people. "Everyone is so gracious….you feel throughout the country a great soul."

Blessed is also deeply taken with the pachyderms he's been working so closely with this past week. It was his first close encounter with the Asian elephant, and despite having a menagerie of over 2,000 rescued animals in his animal sanctuary back home, the elephant "has gripped my heart". "I shall go back to England remembering how each morning the elephants get up have their bodies cleaned, their dung used for recycling, and through the care of the mahouts and volunteers and the wonderful people running this place, go down to the river for their wash, and have a caring, loving day. And that gives me inspiration and belief that we can bring this care to the rest of the animals in the world."

"This is an example of how caring we can be to animals and how it benefits us. This place symbolizes the fact that there is no separation between animals and mankind. We are one on this planet. We are the guardians of animals."
The son of a coal miner, Brian Blessed grew up in the Yorkshire town of Goldthorpe and had to leave school at the age of 14 when his father was injured in a roof-fall in the mine. Then it was a succession of jobs, a stint of military service till he got to drama school and then on to the Royal Shakespeare Company as he found his true vocation. "It was inconceivable that a Yorkshire boy, the son of a coal miner would be an actor", but he made it, along with his best friend from the next village, Patrick Stewart of Star Trek fame.

Over the years, from screen to stage, the roles have been unceasing. From the entire gamut of Shakespearean roles, he has appeared in TV series like the Avengers and Dr. Who, in films like The Man from La Mancha and Robin Hood; Prince of Thieves, lent his voice to the character of Boss Nass in Star Wars, Episode 1- The Phantom Menace and sung in musicals like Cats and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang to cut a long list of credits brutally short.

This year alone he has done five or six films, among them one by his favourite director Kenneth Branaugh who asked him to shelve his bluff persona for a sensitive portrayal of the good Duke in As You Like It, whilst also taking on the role of the bad brother. "So I am playing both parts," he says with a chuckle, obviously having relished the challenge.

He has also finished another film, The Conclave, playing Pope Pius the Second which will be released this autumn.
Acting though, has not been enough. "95 percent of actors are boring," he says emphatically. "I can't stand their vanity. There are two classes of actors; the actor who loves the art in himself or the actor who loves himself in the art. But if you love the art in yourself, it is amazing in life what you could do when it's not about you. Then you can do anything."

That's perhaps why he chooses to make his life fifty percent acting and fifty percent exploring. "Acting is a great art but it is holding up a mirror to life as Hamlet says. But going to Mount Everest and going on an adventure is life."
England at times, he confesses, is a bit tame for the man whose first love in life is adventure. He has attempted Everest thrice, reaching a height of 28,000 feet at the age of 64 without oxygen as well as having conquered most other major peaks in the world, Mont Blanc, Aconcagua and Kilimanjaro and even trekked to the North Pole. He is now planning to climb Sangay, Ecuador, the most active volcano in the world.

The biggest danger in life is not taking the adventure, Blessed believes. "I think Everest is a symbol. We have Everests everywhere. It can be in your garden, it can be your river, your family.."

His 70th birthday falls on October 9 but far from slowing down, Blessed runs ten miles a day in preparation for 2008 when he hopes to join the International Space Station. "I'm just a guinea pig," he laughs, "but I do believe I can be a very good spokesman for it. I believe we are the children of stardust. We need to go to other planets…to put life into space. We are at our best when we are exploring. We belong out there."

That in a sense seems the quintessential Blessed... still searching for new heights to conquer.

Back to Top Back to Top   Back to Plus Back to Plus

Copyright © 2006 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd. All rights reserved.