Ancestry show is a blessing for Brian

Who Do You Think You Are? with Brian Blessed
Who Do You Think You Are? with Brian Blessed
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Brian Blessed might be adept at Shakespearean tragedy, but he’s always had trouble welling up on camera.

“I’ve been incapable of crying,” the veteran actor confesses in his trademark, booming voice. “It’s not being insensitive; I’ve not been able to.”

Indeed, in the 1976 TV adaptation of I, Claudius, in which he played Augustus, the production team had to resort to putting “lots of liquid” in Blessed’s eyes for a particularly emotional scene.

When it came to retracing his roots for the BBC One programme Who Do You Think You Are?, however, the larger-than-life star found the tears flowing.

“I didn’t make any determined resolution not to cry, I thought it just wouldn’t happen,” he says. “It was a great surprise to me.”

Blessed isn’t the first person to have been overcome with emotion on the celebrity genealogy show, which has returned for an 11th run.

In previous series, we’ve seen newsreader Natasha Kaplinsky grow tearful as she learns of her Jewish family’s fate in wartime Belarus, and former Newsnight ‘Rottweiler’ Jeremy Paxman break down over the plight of his great-grandmother.

This show puts the real into reality television, and “bursts the bubble of the television set”, according to Blessed.

“This reality takes place and it’s quite mystical, the way it happens,” the 77-year-old enthuses.

“For me, it was an extraordinary voyage.”

Born in Mexborough, South Yorkshire, Blessed left school at the age of 14 after his father was injured in a coal mining accident.

He worked as a plasterer and undertaker’s assistant – “strangely cheerful work, actually” – before training at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School.

Blessed went on to land parts in the 1980 film Flash Gordon and iconic TV comedy Black Adder, along with Shakespearean roles on stage and screen.

His famous trademark is, of course, that unmistakable sonorous voice, which still has traces of his Yorkshire accent (Blessed now lives in Surrey) and has made him hugely popular as a voice-over artist for everything from TV adverts to satnav devices.

When he was first approached about appearing on Who Do You Think You Are?, the actor – who is married to actress Hildegarde Neil – was sceptical.

“There was a part of me that didn’t want to do it, because I didn’t want this cliche, I didn’t want to find knights and dukes and all that boring c**p,” he admits.

“I just wanted to find real human beings; that’s what made me say yes to the programme.”

Blessed’s previous attempts to trace his ancestors had proved unsuccessful, “and then along came Mary [Cranitch, the show’s producer] and her wonderful team who made a breakthrough, a big surprise”.

The actor’s emotional trip takes him from Doncaster to London and then Portsmouth, and uncovers an adventuring great-great-grandfather, Jabez Blessed, who was orphaned and forced to sleep rough on the streets of the capital before going on to father 13 children.

- Who Do You Think You Are? airs on BBC One this Thursday, August 14, at 9pm.