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More than old crocodile brains: Brian Blessed on what makes us human

Each of us has over a hundred billion cells in our brain, comparable to the number of stars in a giant galaxy. The cerebral cortex is our liberation.

Dearest possession: we are kindred spirits to other animals roving the earth but intelligence gives us the edge over our fellow creatures. Image: Katerina Plotnikova.

What makes us human? It is a terribly difficult question and one I find almost impossible to answer. It would be easy to gloss over the subject and pontificate about love, compassion, self-sacrifice and all the staggering achievements of mankind, but I feel that would be “copping out”.

So, where to begin? Forgive me if I take you on a short history lesson. It is understood that the earth is four billion five hundred million years old. Six hundred million years after its birth, the vast oceans appeared. Six hundred million years ago the miraculous Cambrian explosion took place. Suddenly the oceans throbbed with many different life forms and the first vertebrates appeared. In that dramatic geological landscape there were winged insects, amphibians, reptiles and the first trees.

After the magnificent dinosaurs, the primates arose, our great ancestors. Less than ten million years ago, the first creatures that resemble human beings evolved, accompanied by a spectacular increase in brain size. It is the past that is the clue to the complex nature of man.

Man – an impressive being who made his entrance on to the world’s stage with formidable effect. It is this creature’s brain that intrigues me most. Deep inside is the brainstem; capping the brainstem is the R (reptilian) complex. This is the seat of aggression, ritual and territoriality, which evolved hundreds of millions of years ago in our ancestors. Deep inside the skull of every one of us lies the brain of a crocodile! “Never make friends with a crocodile.”

Surrounding the R-complex is the lim­bic system, or “mammalian brain”. This is the part of the brain that is associated with moods and emotions. Living an uneasy truce with these primitive brains is the cerebral cortex – where matter is transformed into consciousness. It is here that we have ideas and inspirations. Here we read and write, compose music, learn from the sciences and meditate on all things sacred. This is the distinction of our species, the root of our humanity. It is what makes us human.

Each of us has over a hundred billion cells in our brain, comparable to the number of stars in a giant galaxy. The cerebral cortex is liberation. No longer are we at the mercy of our reptilian brain. I experienced the cortex in all its glory when I reached 28,400 feet on Mount Everest in 1993 without
oxygen. It was a stunning sensation, a spark­ling field of rhythmic flashing points. When I closed my eyes coming down the mountain, I could see the cortex and observed millions of flashing lights, dissolving and emerging in a sea of cosmic delight – I couldn’t stop laughing.

But you can see that the cortex has to deal with the ancient reptilian complex, the seat of aggression. It is here that anger, greed, war and strife are nurtured. This is our problem. An old dervish in Armenia informed me that the term hu-man means tiger-man. We need to quieten the tiger.

Will we succeed? I believe so. But we cannot afford to sit on our backsides. Our earth is taking a beating. She is being wounded from all sides. Yet I have to say that thousands of people are making a colossal effort to save Planet Earth. It is not yet clear whether we have the wisdom to avoid self-destruction but I am convinced they will win; our intelligence has provided us with awesome powers.

We have so much to be proud of. In our insatiable quest for knowledge we are revealed as fine, brave explorers who are heaven-bent on seeking limitless horizons. Science works, though it is not perfect and it can be misused; I find myself huffing and puffing trying to keep up with it all. Exploratory spacecraft have been launched to study 70 worlds. Twelve human beings have been to the moon. We are the children of stardust.

My biggest love in life is space and we are venturing further into it – it is our destiny. I long to journey to the planets and the distant stars; they feel almost like a memory. Just imagine climbing Olympus on Mars – three times higher than Mount Everest! Yet there are moments when I am chilled, when I think what some of us would do to these new worlds.

When Pandora opened the box, she let out all the dark furies. When she tried to close it a sweet small blue creature flew out saying, “I am hope! I am hope!” Ladies and gentlemen, we have Hope, which embraces the heart and is the essence of the soul. We have begun to seek our origins; we are stardust yearning for the stars. I speak for Planet Earth – as long as we love and protect it, we will survive and prosper.

The “What Makes Us Human?” series is published in association with Radio 2’s Jeremy Vine show

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Why empires fall

Lady Macbeth.
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Lady Macbeth: the story Stalin hated reaches the movie screen

Lady Macbeth grows less psychologically plausible the higher the body count rises.

Lady Macbeth (15), dir: William Oldroyd

Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, Nikolai Leskov’s novel about a bored, oppressed and bloodthirsty young woman, was adapted for the opera by Shoskatovich. Two years after its premiere in 1934, it had a terrible review, allegedly by Stalin himself, in Pravda. The new film version, Lady Macbeth, is set in 1865 (the year the novel was published) and feels resolutely anti-operatic in flavour, with its austere visuals and no-nonsense camerawork: static medium shots for dramatic effect or irony, hand-held wobbles to accompany special moments of impetuousness. The extraordinary disc-faced actor Florence Pugh has her hair scraped back into plaits and buns – all the put-upon teenage brides are wearing them this season – and the film feels scraped back, too. But it features certain behaviour (murder) that would feel more at home, and not so riskily close to comedy, in the hothouse of opera, rather than on and around the stark moors of low-budget British cinema.

Pugh plays Katherine, who is first seen reacting with surprise to a booming singing voice at her wedding ceremony. Unfortunately for her, it’s her husband, Alexander (Paul Hilton). On the plus side, there won’t be much cause for crooning in their house, no power ballads in the shower or anything like that. The tone is set early on. He orders her to remove her nightdress. Then he climbs into bed alone. It’s not clear whether she is expected to follow, and a cut leaves the matter unresolved.

Alexander defers to his grizzled father, Boris (played by Christopher Fairbank), who purchased Katherine in a two-for-one deal with a plot of land in north-east England, on important matters such as whether she can be allowed to go to sleep before him. So it isn’t much of a loss when he is called away on business (“There’s been an explosion at the colliery!”). Ordered to stay in the house, she dozes in her crinoline, looking like an upside-down toadstool, until one day she is awakened, literally and figuratively, by the sound of the rough-and-ready groomsman Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis) sexually humiliating the maid, Anna (Naomi Ackie). Katherine leaps to her rescue and gives Sebastian the most almighty shove. Pugh’s acting is exceptional; fascination, disgust and desire, as well as shock at her own strength, are all tangled up in her expression.

When Sebastian later forces his way into Katherine’s room, you want to warn them that these things don’t end well. Haven’t they seen Miss Julie? Read Lady Chatterley’s Lover? Thérèse Raquin? Well, no, because these haven’t been written yet. But the point stands: there’ll be tears before bedtime – at least if these two can lay off the hot, panting sex for more than 30 seconds.

The film’s director, William Oldroyd, and the screenwriter, Alice Birch, play a teasing game with our sympathies, sending the struggling Katherine off on a quest for independence, the stepping stones to which take the form of acts of steeply escalating cruelty. The shifting power dynamic in the house is at its most complex before the first drop of blood is spilled. Indeed, none of the deaths is as affecting as the moment when Katherine allows her excessive consumption of wine to be blamed on Anna, whose lowly status as a servant, and a dark-skinned one at that, places her below even her bullied mistress on the social scale.

There is fraught politics in the almost-love-triangle between these women and Sebastian. It doesn’t hurt that Jarvis, an Anglo-Armenian musician and actor, looks black, hinting at a racial kinship between groomsman and maid – as well as the social one – from which Katherine can only be excluded. Tension is repeatedly set up only to be resolved almost instantly. Will Alexander return home from business? Oh look, here he is. Will this latest ghastly murder be concealed? Oh look, the killer’s confessed. But the actors are good enough to convince even when the plot doesn’t. A larger problem is that Lady Macbeth grows less psychologically plausible the higher the body count rises. Katherine begins the film as a feminist avenger and ends it as a junior version of Serial Mom, her insouciance now something close to tawdry camp. 

“Lady Macbeth” is released 28 April

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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