The legend of Flash Gordon, Star Wars and Z Cars tells all on the subjects of the Peak District, the Himalayas, and why Brontë Country is the centre of the universe…
The trouble with me is, everyone thinks I’m a loud person. But actually I’ve only played five loud characters; they just happen to be the best-known, like Vultan in Flash Gordon.
The reality is, I need quiet and stillness, and that is what I get from going walking. Honestly – I’ve walked out of rehearsals to go for a walk, many times. It doesn’t matter if it’s a pond in a wood or a mountain in the Alps: I find the same peace at either.
This has always been a part of me. I grew up in a village called Goldthorpe, near Doncaster. My father worked in local mines, and his job gave him a deep reverence and joy for the landscape. He’d tell me: “Down there I’m in the past, Brian. I’m in the fossils. A carboniferous forest from the Jurassic era. Touching the stuff that came before us.”
I’d take that joy and run out into the countryside with it. Up onto Carr Head Rocks, where as kids we’d go and scramble about. Most of our terrain was flat, up there you could stand up and look out over things, and see the world as it really was, the way my dad wanted me to. Up there we’d play – and I swear this is true – Flash Gordon. He was big in the cinema serials of the day, so there I was, running around on the rocks pretending to be Flash, or even Vultan. Haha! But what that view showed me was that west of Goldthorpe, the terrain started to undulate a bit. There were hills. So when I was 13 or so, I set out on my green Raleigh bike to go and find them. What I found was the Hope Valley.
I parked my bike in Castleton and climbed Mam Tor and Back Tor. Then I looked across at Kinder Scout and thought, ‘I reckon I can get round there too!’ So I did the whole bloody horseshoe, all round Edale. I felt like Johnny Weissmuller in Tarzan or Sabu in The Jungle Book – these hills and moors were my jungle!
But I really fell in love with mountains when I was 27. I was making a film called The Last Valley with Michael Caine and Omar Sharif. We were filming in Innsbruck and, with a few days free, I started walking off into the mountains. I started lazily, but then a rhythm came upon me and I kept going and going until I heard the village bells tolling behind me. I turned round and saw that I was thousands of feet above the valley.
I sat there, dumbfounded by the beauty. I wept. It was stillness, you see? Peace. I looked at the mountains and thought, “Where have you been all my life?” So I tracked down a local guide and he took me and Omar Sharif up into the mountains when we had days off from filming. I even forgot when I was meant to be filming: they once got a producer to stand at the bottom of the mountain with a loudhailer shouting “Brian! Brian! Where the bloody hell are you? You’re on set in three minutes!”
The love affair continued in Wales. After finishing in Z-Cars I took a six-week break and went to Snowdonia, where I found myself a wonderful guide called Geoff Arkless. He took me up Snowdon and Tryfan, over Crib Goch and the Glyders, and showed me how to climb properly. “Keep your heels down, Brian,” he’d shout. “Three points of contact. And don’t use your knees. If I see you using your knees I’ll come up there and thump you!”
Climbing is important to me, but not more than walking. I still go back to Kinder Scout and the Yorkshire Dales. I was president of the Council for National Parks for several years (today the Campaign for National Parks) and I loved it. I was the man who created the South Downs National Park! Oh, fair enough, I was the figurehead; a lot of other people worked very hard.
But together we fought some big battles to make it happen.
In that role I discovered all sorts of wonderful places, like Exmoor and Suffolk and Cumbria and the Cairngorms. These places are incandescent with beauty – moors, forests, mountains. But a place doesn’t have to be mountainous to excite me. I find the fenlands of Lincolnshire fascinating: the skies are mountainous, rather than the landscape. Mountains crowd out the sky, but the fens let the sky be as gigantic and as bewildering as it can possibly be.
But the centre of the universe is Haworth Moor, where you find Top Withins – the old cottage that was (probably) Emily Brontë’s inspiration for Wuthering Heights. I first went there when I was playing Heathcliff in my twenties and it still has the same power over me today. Emily wrote a poem called No Coward Soul is Mine, and I hear it every time I go there:
No coward soul is mine
No trembler in the world’s storm-troubled sphere
I see Heaven’s glories shine
And faith shines equal, arming me from fear.
It reminds me to get out there, and don’t be afraid. A storm is a storm. Don’t fear it. Just take your first step and keep going.
So what’s left to do? Well, my ambition is to be the first man on the top of Olympus Mons on Mars. It’s the highest volcano in the Solar System. I became good friends with George Lucas when he directed me in Star Wars and we were both nuts for Martian geography. Up there they have canyons that are 3,000 miles long and cliffs that are five miles high. So we agreed we’d race each other there in spaceships one day, and see who can get to the top of Olympus Mons first. I’ll win. He isn’t a mountaineer and he doesn’t have cosmonaut training – I do.
But I urge you, just get out there. It doesn’t have to be Olympus Mons or Everest, or even Kinder Scout. It might be a walk in a wood, or the first step after a stroke, or a hike to Top Withins. Find an adventure and go for it. I wish you joy, elation, and then – after all the joy and elation – stillness. Stillness and peace.
AS TOLD TO NICK HALLISSEY