Tim Hughes talks to Queen’s Brian May about his passion for protecting animals and his upcoming Oxford show rian May is having a busy morning. As if he was not occupied enough putting the finishing touches to what is surely his most intimate tour, he has found himself back in the headlines over an issue close to his heart: badgers.
A passionate advocate of animal welfare, the Queen guitarist has become the figurehead for a national campaign to overturn a Government-backed cull which would see thousands of the animals slaughtered in an attempt to control bovine tuberculosis.
“I’m talking myself to death,” he says, gently. “But it’s good to make contact with people. And this long hard battle’s not over.”
The star led a procession through London earlier this month, to oppose the culls and the setting up of pilot killing zones, one of which is in Gloucestershire. He also presented a petition to Downing Street, calling on the Prime Minister to halt the cull.
“There’s no science involved whatsoever,” he says, with feeling. “The only thing they will find out is how loudly badgers scream when killed. This is all about ways humans can cull thousands of badgers. It’s awful. We have a Government which is not listening and they have to listen to us. “They and the NFU want to do their dirty work and hope that we all look away. But there will still be bovine TB.”
We are supposed to be talking music; specifically his low-key tour in support of another threatened animal – the lion. The concerts, which see Brian team up with West End star Kerry Ellis, are in aid of the Born Free Foundation and follow a similar outing last year and a bigger Anthems tour with Ellis in 2010.
But while the Anthems tour was a spectacle, culminating in two sold-out nights at the Royal Albert Hall, this one is low-key, starting, in suitably cosy style, with a warm-up show at St John the Evangelist Church, Oxford, on Monday.
“I love these concerts,” he says. “They are full of smiles and make me happy. It is acoustic and by candle-light.
“We sing songs, tell stories and get through a lot of candles.”
Kerry, 33, is best-known for playing the lead of Fantine in Les Misérables, and for roles in Oliver!, Wicked and My Fair Lady. She met Brian when he invited her to audition for a part in his Queen musical We Will Rock You. They have performed together ever since.
The shows will see the pair perform stripped-down Queen classics and other favourites. Brian admits he can’t wait to start. “Come and see a concert the way it used to be,” he says. ”It’s truly live, which most things today aren’t.”
So where did the idea come from? “Out of Africa!” he laughs.
The pair were invited to the Born Free Foundation in South Africa, by its founder, the actress Virginia McKenna who made her name playing naturalist Joy Adamson in the Born Free film. Both were captivated by the big cats they saw roaming the Shamwari game reserve. Moved to help, they hit upon the idea of an acoustic tour.
“We ended up doing sporadic songs in the jungle — it was amazing!” he says. “We thought ‘wouldn’t it be great to bring this to the UK to build awareness of these wonderful animals on the verge of extinction?
“We are there to have a good time, but if it jogs thoughts, that’s a good thing.”
It’s certainly a step down after the enormous shows he played with Queen, not to mention his famous National Anthem guitar solo on the roof of Buckingham Palace, for the Queen’s Golden Jubilee, and last year’s Olympic closing ceremony. “The Olympics were huge and challenging and I had to face my fear doing that,” he says. “But I can do big any time.”
And he says he still gets a thrill playing his favourite Queen tunes. So what can we look forward to? “I can’t tell you that!” he laughs. “It changes, but there are a few favourites like A Crazy Little Thing called Love, which people like to sing along to; We Will Rock You; and We are the Champions. They are lovely songs and lend themselves to just guitar and vocals, with no clutter.”
The shows also give Brian and Kerry the chance to play their Kissing Me song — Brian’s first new single for over a decade. He says: “I wrote Kissing Me for the last leg of the tour and it went down well. It’s nice to have a hook to hang your hat on.”
Though, he says, releasing a single after such a gap revealed some dramatic changes in the music industry. He says: “I don’t understand it any more. In the old days you made a record you could hold, smell and look at. Now it’s all about downloads and everyone wants it for free. How any artists make money I don’t know. “I don’t need to make money. I just want to make great music and see things happen. But for Kerry it’s a shame.”
It is 22 years since Freddie Mercury died aged just 45, but Brian says the charismatic frontman is rarely out of his thoughts.
“He’s a big part of my life,” he says. “Hardly a day goes by without me thinking about him. I went through grief and not wanting to talk about him or Queen. Now I’ve got over it and am full of joy at what we created and proud of what Queen is. I don’t know what that is... but I’m proud!
“We had a great time and I’m happy he was part of my life; I am really grateful.”
And if he could tell him anything, what would it be? “That’s a good question,” he says pausing deeply. “I’d talk about how life has changed since he was here.
“I don’t mean to sound mystical, but he’s very often in my dreams. We almost have a dialogue. I don’t feel he has really gone as he’s still so much a part of what we do — the same as he always was.
“Roger [Taylor] and I are always thinking ‘what would Freddie say now?
And what is he most proud of? “I hope that when I die I’ll be remembered for the way I used my life,” he says. “I hope my music, science and animal welfare work have helped to make the world a decent and more compassionate place.”
- Brian May and Kerry Ellis
- St John the Evangelist Church, Oxfordon Monday
- Northampton’s Royal & Derngate on June 21
- Tickets £39 from ticketzone.co.uk or call 0844 758758