Who Do You Think You Are? (BBC1), TV review: A rip-roaring story from Brian Blessed - with some surprising miner details


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The Independent Culture

There weren't enough reaction shots in the Brian Blessed episode of Who Do You Think You Are? (BBC1). When the 77-year-old actor was bursting into song on the train from London to Doncaster or projecting poetry to the metaphorical back row of a busy city street, we could only imagine the looks on the faces of the people passing by. Let the impressionists try to do justice to his rambunctious good humour, no one booms like Blessed, and in real life he's the fruity-voiced thesp exactly as advertised.

It came as more of a surprise to learn that this Shakespearean actor is the son of a miner raised in the South Yorkshire town of Mexborough and, moreover, that the name Brian Blessed was no Equity card invention, but given to him at birth. Blessed's father was a miner, and his father's father before him, but what of the rest of the line? Did they live up to their wonderful surname?

Who Do You Think You Are? often requires some imaginative input from the celebrity descendant. A few lines from the parish birth register, a grainy black and white photo and from this we must conjure up a whole human lifetime. Blessed had no trouble on that account, however.

As he stood in St Pancras Chapel, where his great-great-great-grandfather Barnabas Blessed had married in 1801, he put his dramatising powers to work on the scene, casting himself in the roles of both groom and bride, naturally: "BRAAAAVOO, Barnabas! Oh you MAAARVellous man!"

Alas, the good fortune of this ancestor was short-lived and Blessed, a man of obvious empathy, was deeply moved by a tale of infant mortality, orphaned children and the horrors of the workhouse.

At least by the mid-19th century, things were looking up. Jabez Blessed, his great-great-grandfather, had moved to Lincolnshire and fathered a total of 13 children, all of whom lived to adulthood. This virility Brian took as a personal compliment: "He didn't need the purple pill, did he? He was a RAAAANDY man! He served his country well!"

When our journey finally came to an end at Jabez's gravestone, he looked down at the ground and addressed his ancestor directly: "You lived life, Jabez! You lived it!" A merely symbolic gesture, perhaps, but then again, if anyone has a voice to wake the dead, Brian Blessed does.