Michael “Atters” Attree:
Let’s start with a few warm-up questions first. What’s your favourite tipple?
It’s a funny one that one…of all the questions I could answer in the world, I mean, this will bore the arse off you: I don’t drink. I love people to drink, I encourage people to drink, I think drink is a great thing, it’s just that I have a kind of agenda in my life, space and mountains and all that. I’ve done two or three hours’ training today…therefore drink reduces my fitness, but I think it would be vodka. Because it’s such a pure, clean drink. I’ve been trained at Space City in Moscow and I’ve completed training in Reunion Island in Martian prototype suits…. I mean, all the cosmonauts drink vodka.
Are you a luvvie?
Oh no! Can I just say, just down the road here you’ve got Ken Brannagh. And he has a reputation of being a luvvie, Christ! It’s the last thing…he can’t stand the whole luvvie thing. It’s counter-productive. I suppose I can be objective about it, because 50 per cent of my life is exploration and 50 per cent is acting.
You were on the Basil Brush show in 1984. Was his tailor up to scratch?
Christ! I’m astonished at your questions!
They do get more intellectual….
I was doing Captain Hook to Basil Brush. And I was talking to him…
God, I actually remember this!
… and he kept saying “Brian!” and I kept looking at the actor in the box! Instead of Basil. It was this guy called Ivan Owen in the box and the director was saying, “Brian! You’ve got to stop looking at the actor! You must look at Basil! We’ll have to go again!” I buggered up all the filming.
I think on odd occasions, I just thump people; I can’t stand people being bullies in our profession. Even though people loved Oliver Reed in character, when he was drunk he was dangerous and nasty
When did the beard kick in?
It started in 1970, when I was doing a film called Trojan Women, directed by Michael Kakkiyannis who directed Zorba the Greek. I got the lead in the film, because it was really a Brian Blessed: a great warrior with a heart. And I grew the beard for that.
Bravo! And you’ve kept it since then?
[Laughs uncontrollably for a long while] Oh, this is wonderful… I love you – Oh thank God, you’re a hell of a character! [puts his arm around Atters] Isn’t he a wonderful character? [to the photographer] I mean, so many interviewers bore the arse off me…
When was the last time you engaged in a genuine punch-up?
My last fight was when we were making the film The Last Valley, with Michael Caine. There were 60 Englishmen in that film, with all the stuntmen. We were all in a restaurant one day and the Germans came in – it was like the Second World War – to have a go at us. I was at the door and as they were being knocked out I stood by the door to give them the last punch in the face! I think on odd occasions, I just thump people; I can’t stand people being bullies in our profession. Even though people loved Oliver Reed in character, when he was drunk he was dangerous and nasty. He used to terrify people.
Ken Russell directed Prisoner of Honour and Jeremy Kemp was in it, as well as Oliver Reed. Jeremy said to me, “I’m nervous about this film, because Oliver can be really violent and powerful.” So I remember saying to Oliver, just before we started the film on the first day, “Oliver, people say when you drink, you get very violent, and I just want to say if you turn up here drunk or you get violent here, I will kick your teeth down your throat and you’ll never act again.”
What was your first job?
When I left school, I had to leave when I was 14 because my father was injured in the coalmines, I was an undertaker’s assistant, and I made coffins. I’m going to do a big television thing soon, a bit like the Tibetan book of the dead, all about death and the body. You see, it’s taboo in the West…when you go to die in Sama where the Dalai Lama was, the kids are all flying kites, and I said, “Why is everyone so happy?” The Dalai Lama said, “Well Brian, we teach them about death! We almost make them experience death as a child, and therefore they see they have no fear, and that death does no exist; life does.” And so they’re all happy. I used to find making coffins and putting the bodies in rather farcical! I had to wash the bodies, and they all belched and farted and god knows what else! And I always made the coffins too small! I could never work out the sizes. The richest man in the village died, and they said “Make it a good one”, so I made it 8 feet long. And when they came to the service in the church they said, “It looks like he’s taking his money with him!”
Have you ever had an out-of-body experience?
Well, the thing is, on the giant mountains, there’s a change at 5000 feet, it changes again at 10,000…like on Mont Blanc. At 22.5 thousand feet, you have 18 days to live, and when you die, you die of lack of atmospheric pressure, cosmic rays, ultraviolet rays, lack of oxygen etc… at 25,000 feet, you’ve got five days to live. At 28,000 feet…
In the 1920s, it was called the lifting of the veil, the point between life and death. So that at 28,000 feet you have one foot in life and one in death. There is now no oxygen, virtually, the cosmic rays are hitting you…and you experience fluidity, and you know you can go. And therefore I have experienced out-of-body experiences several times. And I’ve brought myself back again. And I’m the oldest man to get to that height without oxygen.
You followed Mallory in his Everest adventure. How far did you take the reenactment in tweed?
At the age of 7, I read in the Hotspur comic about Mallory and the Everest expedition of 1924. And I resolved to follow in his footsteps. The years went by and I went to drama school and I managed to get a scholarship, but this dream remained there. And then the mountaineers and other people said, “Brian we’d love you to do it, and tell the story and follow in his footsteps.” Christ Almighty, it took ages to mount it, because it was £500,000 and too expensive for a documentary and too cheap for a drama. We tried everywhere. We met Paul Getty, who promised he would finance it. The BBC said they’d give us £250,000 and if we could find somebody else to give us the other £250,000. And eventually, one day the BBC agreed to finance the whole thing. Alan Yentob said “Oh, make the bloody thing!” because we’d pestered him so much.
When they suddenly said yes, I thought, ‘Christ. I’m 53.’ And the doctor said, “You’re fit, you bastard, but there’s a good chance you’re going to drop dead at any second.” And Chris Bonnington said, “Brian, if you get to 21,000 feet on Everest you’ll never get up the North Col. But get to the base of the North Ridge, and you can probably finish the film then, but you’ll probably never get any higher….and you’re wearing tweeds? Christ!” Anyway, we got all the tweeds, all the leather and furs and cotton underwear, and we discovered that they worked very well. And all our modern stuff was causing problems. Plastic boots giving people frostbite, because your feet sweat.
The 13th Dalai Lama was the one who blessed Mallory in 1924. Well, he’s dead. And the 14th Dalai Lama was the one who re-enacted the ceremony. So we went to Darjeeling and went on all the steam railways that Mallory went on. We went through the same things that he went through. The whole thing. And eventually we got to Everest and I suddenly turned round the corner in Tibet after many months, and it’s just sort of…there! I lose the loose out of my legs and I sink, David Breashears [the film maker] starts crying and they put the cameras away. And I said, “I’m 16 miles away and suddenly Mallory is real. He’s just up there.” We weren’t going there to find his body, or ghoulishly dig for graves, but pay tribute to these great climbers and their great ideals.
Reinhold Messner, the first man to climb Everest without oxygen, said to me: “Brian, the last step depends on the first step and the first step depends on the last step. From this moment, you are now climbing Everest. You must listen to your heart, you must listen to your brain, you must listen to your body, you will start to use instincts, you’ll start to use things in your body and operate differently. And I’ll say this; if you get to the North Col, they’ll say you can’t, and then the North Ridge, Brian, you will lose about 127 million brain cells. Do you understand that? But you’ll get new brain cells. You’ll never recover them, but others take over, and you’ll develop a new kind of brain.’ So as an actor….
Extraordinary! [With a mouthful of chicken sandwich]
Breashears said to me, ‘Brian, this morning, move up on the north ridge Brian. Early morning, it looks magnificent’. And I thought, ‘fucking hell, I’m on me own, I’m on the north ridge. And I’m heading up the north East Ridge where Mallory’s body is. And I started f***ing going up there. And it was wonderful on film- my veins are pulsating, the weather’s all right, so up I go- 24, 25, 26, 27,000 feet’, Breashears caught me up with five Sherpas, filming away and I got exactly to the point where Mallory disappeared. We weren’t allowed to get to the summit, the Chinese wouldn’t let us. We got right to the point where he was last seen so we could complete the film. Jesus, it was marvellous.
And of course all the children in Tibet think I’m a yeti. Because you see Tibetans and Sherpas can’t grow beards.
Oh I see!
When Sir John Everett was sending out several Generals, orienteering, mapping the country, of course they were in tweeds and their hair goes to here. Their beards go to here because they’ve been out in the wilderness for three years, and they come into a village and “Hello, hello, hello!” and the lights go on and there’s a f***ing yeti! They’ve never seen anyone like that in their life! So many westerners have been shot as a yeti!
Oh I love that I’ve got a huge 53-inch chest! And I can bench-press 400 pounds and I’m 76 years old.
Tell me more about meeting the Dalai Lama?
The Dalai Lama was amazing. I mean, we talked about his sex life and everything.
Oh yes! Do tell…
He shocked his translator! I mean, he believes in reincarnation and all that, but he hates… he’s a God King… but he said, “Sometimes I do miss a beautiful woman.” And then he said, “I do my mantras louder and then take a cold shower.’”
Out there, with BBC cameras and Breashears and all that, we started filming and when you’re with him you’re utterly honest. We lie in silence, we lie in noise and he’ll be out there in his big villa and I was going, “Out! Out! Out! Stop being so impatient, your holiness! You’re the Dalai Lama, self realized and you’re a human Buddha and you’re so impatient! Out! We’re not ready.”
And he loved all that. And at the end of it all, I said, “You know, your holiness… (when you’re with him, it activates things inside your head) “You make me sick! You’re so bloody good! And look at me: I’ve chinned a few and all that. Don’t you ever, ever get mad?” He says, “Yes, the other day I was going abroad, and the Doctor had to inject my arm and he stuck it in too deep and it hurt and I thought ‘I hate that Doctor! He was a terrible doctor, he was fatter than…” And I said, “You were going to say he was fatter than me, weren’t you? I am hurt, your holiness!” And he says, “Forgive me!” And the camera crew couldn’t believe it, they filmed it all. I said, “On your knees!” and the Dalai Lama went on his knees and I said, “It’s ok, I’m a forgiving man, get up.” “Oh, thank you so much!” he replied. He’s a wonderful f***ing comedian! And he’s got Joe Louis’s boxing gloves!
Have you ever performed full frontal nudity for audiences?
No! No, I find the whole thing boring. People love to flash, don’t they? I think one of the biggest fears is the modern age is fear that you’re not tangible, not real. That people want to be on the front page of the newspapers. The thing I find a hoot and very boring is that everyone’s a bloody star! Stars of this and stars of that. I mean, Garbo was a star. I remember when the great Greta Garbo was interviewed, they said “You are considered the greatest star who’s ever lived.” She said, “I would have been, if it hadn’t been for that f***ing mouse.”
So what in your opinion is the best part of your body?
Oh I love that I’ve got a huge 53-inch chest! And I can bench-press 400 pounds and I’m 76 years old. My feet! I’ve got deformed feet from my parachute jumping. People ask how I climb mountains and the thing is that I did 76 parachute jumps, and one day we missed the airfield and landed on concrete. Some broke their necks and backs and legs but I smashed my right foot. So therefore I have a bit of a wobble when I walk. In films you’ll notice it a bit; people think it’s a character thing but its not, its me!
Have you ever smoked?
No, never been interested. My wife does, but she looks lovely when she smokes. She smokes elegantly. My dad smoked until he was 99. The oldest member of the 1924 mission to Everest was Captain Knowle, who filmed it. And I met him, and he had a bloody pipe out of every orifice! I remember talking to the Dalai Lama about smoking and he said, “People smoke if they want to. No point in stopping smoking and kick cat through window.” I remember that!
Have you ever followed any fashions?
No, but I’ve always loved a blazer. I like f***ing blazers [gestures to the one he’s wearing]. I’ve got different blazers. I mean, the point is, that I’m only half-dressed, and I’ve not got it down below, you see [points to his un-ironed navy blue trousers]. The thing is, I’ve got plenty of underwear, about five blazers, a few shirts and that’s it. Because I’ve got so many animals, and there’s so much hay everywhere, that all my money goes on looking after all those animals.