Noel Faulkner, outspoken comedy club owner, quits London after 40 years

Outspoken Noel Faulkner, the veteran (he will hate me using that word) club-owner is leaving London after about 40 years  (though with an interlude of about 18 years of that in the US). He started and ran London’s Comedy Cafe venue and, through his management agency, helped establish acts including Jimmy Carr. Last night, I met up with him to ask why he is leaving.

I had been seeing a comedy show and we met outside the venue after the show finished. That was his choice.


Noel Faulkner in London yesterday

JOHN: So you’re leaving in around 9-10 days. Do you have a set date for departure?

NOEL: No. I’m out of my house in London in about a week, then I’m going back to Galway. I’m from Galway. I’ve got a house there; I’m buying a boat – 40 or 45ft – and I’m going to sail six months of the year in the Mediterranean.

JOHN: I thought you were from Killarney.

NOEL: My parents moved a village in Connemara when I was a teenager. I was only there for a few years. Galway’s my home town.

JOHN: So why are you going back?

NOEL: Mainly because everybody I know in London is working. I never see anybody. All my friends are comics and I don’t want to hang round in comedy clubs. There is nothing more boring. I’d rather watch a proctologist operate.

JOHN: But you ran comedy clubs for…

NOEL: It’s all gone. After the Comedy Cafe closed, we tried it in a hotel but the people there were fucking idiots; they kept wanting to change the opening times. It’s done.

JOHN: Aren’t you going to feel pangs of nostalgia?

NOEL: I never want to see another comedian perform. I could have gone to this show you went to today. But I thought: I’m not going to sit in that. I just can’t be around comedy. You know the punchline and then the fuckers don’t hit it and you go: Oh! Fucking hell! I have no interest in comedy now. None.

JOHN: But you have an active mind. Galway is lovely. But you will get bored after six months, just sitting around.

NOEL: I’ll have a sail boat: you are permanently fixing something on a sail boat. I can fuck off anywhere I wanna go.

JOHN: And you are going to finish your autobiography in Ireland?

NOEL: Yeah. When I started writing it, there was only one Panama Canal. Since then, they’ve built a second one.

JOHN: Is it basically your 2005 Edinburgh Fringe show Shake, Rattle & Noel?

“…a Tourette-fuelled Helter Skelter ride through three decades” (New York Times)

NOEL: Yeah. But longer. More facts and craziness.

JOHN: What’s the last page? Leaving the Comedy Cafe?

NOEL: It doesn’t matter. Who’s going to buy it?

JOHN: You have amazing stories – Robin Williams, the drug cartels, being on the FBI’s Most Wanted list, the…

NOEL: Yeah, it’s a great book but I’m nobody, so I won’t get a publisher. I just wanna finish it for me. I have no ego any more about anything. I don’t give a fuck. 

JOHN: That’s age.

NOEL: Yeah. My mates are dying all around me. My brother’s girlfriend just died. I just want to get up every day and for it to be a good day and joyful.

JOHN: Paul Sinha has Parkinson’s Disease.

NOEL: Yeah. He’s a sweet man… Ian Cognito just died last month. I knew Paul (Cognito’s real name). He was a lovely man. Very sad.

JOHN: His death must have had an effect on you.

NOEL: Scary.  That’s why I realised… Just get the fucking boat… I might be dead in five years time.

JOHN: He was 60. But he had lived a fair old bit…

NOEL: A brilliant singer. I saw him sing with Peter Graham’s orchestra at the Hackney Empire… white tuxedo… beautiful. Highly talented but totally self-destructive. Permanently on self-destruct.

JOHN: I’m amazed Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones is still alive.

NOEL: It’s in the genes.

JOHN: Do you have long-living relatives?

NOEL: I have a great-great-great-grandfather who lived to be 125.

JOHN: Was he fairly compos mentis?

NOEL: I don’t know. I wasn’t born then.

JOHN: Comedy moves on. Jo Brand got into trouble. People in the UK have been throwing milk shakes at politicians. She joked on a BBC Radio show: “Why bother with a milkshake when you could get some battery acid?” Nigel Garage complained; the police investigated but decided it was not an incitement to violence.

“We can’t start censoring. You’ll have Dialogue Police.”

NOEL: It was just a fucking joke. Listen, we can’t start censoring. You’ll have Dialogue Police. When I had the Comedy Cafe in Shoreditch, they were doing a test attaching microphones to lampposts. If someone was murdered, they would hear it and the CCTV guys could start looking at the… That’s how fucking… So we could be sitting here outside a cafe having a conversation and you swear 12 times and say this word and… We are right up to that!

JOHN: 1984.

NOEL: We can’t have it! If I was doing stuff on stage now, I would fucking tear into everybody and go: Fuck you all! It’s like “Good evening ladies and gentlemen and everyone with a sexual preference from A to fucking Z”… Now I haven’t offended anybody, ya cunts. It’s fucking ridiculous. I don’t even know what the initials LGBTQ… Does ANYbody fucking know what they stand for? NO. But some guy’s got a penis transplant to his forehead and a vagina in his ear… For fuck’s sake!

JOHN: You should seriously think about doing an Edinburgh Fringe show where you just go up and rant.

NOEL: I don’t want to spend a month up there. It’s depressing. Really depressing.

JOHN: But, if you don’t give a shit, it’s OK.

NOEL: You’re still depressed. I’ve been up there with money in my pocket. Hated it.

JOHN: When you did your show in 2005? But you probably cared then. The trick is not to care.

NOEL: Yeah, but you’re spending fucking £10,000. Edinburgh, for a comic, is the greatest illusion ever.

JOHN: In what way?

NOEL: That you’re gonna make it.

JOHN: Are you gonna have a farewell ‘do’?

NOEL: No.

JOHN: Oh go on… A farewell rant.

NOEL: No, I’m not. I don’t want to stand round in a bar having to talk to people. They can fuck off. I’m gone.

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Stand-up comedians, death and fame – Who will be remembered and why?

Yesterday, I was talking to someone about reviving the Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards – I would not be involved in them. 

Of course, few people have ever heard of Malcolm Hardee.

Fame, as they say, is a fickle mistress.

In the UK, who were the biggest and most-loved comedians of the late-20th Century?

Probably Morecambe & Wise.

Before them? Maybe Arthur Haynes.

Before him? Maybe Arthur Askey and Tommy Handley.

Before them? Maybe Arthur Lucan.

But, younger readers might ask, Who WERE these people?

Arthur Haynes, Tommy Handley and Arthur Lucan?

Never heard of them.

Come to that, who the fuck was Arthur Askey?

Certainly, if you are my devoted reader in Guatemala, you will never have heard of them.

But massively famous in their lifetime is what they all were. In the UK. But now forgotten by subsequent generations in the UK. And still totally unknown elsewhere. 

If you were born and brought up in China, India, Indonesia, the USA… none of those names ever meant anything even when they were at the height of their fame. Perhaps Benny Hill was more famous worldwide. There is a possibly apocryphal story that Chinese State Television interrupted their programming to announce his death. But do new generations remember him still in Shanghai or Guangzhou? I doubt it.

Malcolm Hardee outside his childhood home in London, 1995

The annual Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards ran at the Edinburgh Fringe 2005-2017. 

Not a lot of people know that. Certainly not in Guatemala or Guangzhou.

I mentioned during the conversation I had yesterday that I thought there was a chance – perhaps an outside chance – that Malcolm Hardee might be remembered in the UK for much longer than other comedians who were ‘famous’ during his lifetime and who are nationally known today.

Come to that, given current events, memories of Malcolm might outlive the very existence of the UK.

Malcolm was not famous when he was alive – infamous in certain areas, yes, perhaps, but never famous.

He was totally unknown by the general public unless you mentioned to people of a certain age The Naked Balloon Dance on Chris Tarrant’s OTT in 1981 or 1982. Then they might remember the three-man act doing the perfomance; but not him individually. He was the one on the left.

His death in 2005 got lengthy obituaries in all the quality press but none in the popular tabloids. Because, although he was widely-known by the media and very influential in the comedy industry – Heavens! GQ even ran a fashion spread featuring Malcolm – not a man known for his sartorial elegance! – the general public didn’t know he existed.

My point yesterday was that the material and style of comedy acts date but vivid anecdotes of real people’s lives do not. 

In my opinion, Malcolm was not a good stand-up comedian. In fact, you could hardly call him a stand-up comedian at all. Though he was a superb and much-underestimated MC/compere. 

People always correctly said that Malcolm’s act was his life. He had maybe eight or ten jokes which he repeated over 20 or so years. But ask people about him and what do they remember first? Not the jokes but:

    • the fact that, naked, he drove a tractor through someone else’s act at the Edinburgh Fringe.
    • the fact that (with Arthur Smith) he wrote a good review of his own Edinburgh Fringe show and conned The Scotsman newspaper into printing it thinking it was written by their own reviewer.

If you see a stand-up comedy show from 40, 30, 20, even 10 years ago, the material has dated; the style of delivery has dated; the physical look of the whole thing has dated. Even Morecambe & Wise shows, the last time I saw one, are starting to date. And, sadly, surprisingly, younger comedy fans do not find even Tommy Cooper as funny as those who saw him years ago.

Comedians’ acts and material date badly and relatively quickly.

But wildly eccentric OTT life stories and anecdotes about rebellious characters do not date.

If anyone ever fully collates the OTT anecdotes about recently-deceased comic Ian Cognito, there is another performer whose legend and personality were arguably greater than his impact on the general public.

The image which promoted the Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards in Edinburgh.

Successful comedians tend to be more mentally ‘together’ than the real wild card comics. People love the successful performers’ professional material, love their delivery. But they are less interesting off-stage.

When was the last time you heard a wildly eccentric anecdote about that brilliant on-stage performer Michael McIntyre doing something totally apeshit off-stage?

Malcolm Hardee could not walk from his home to the Post Office without five bizarre things happening to him – or causing bizarre things to happen.

Even the title of Malcolm’s autobiography I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake (yes, he did) is OTT and the story of him stealing it will possibly still be funny decades hence, long after people have forgotten who, Freddie Mercury was.

Well, maybe that’s not true, because the off-stage Mercurial life story is a cracker too.

But my point is that anyone watching a 100% brilliant, top-notch Michael McIntyre routine… anyone watching an episode of Hancock’s Half Hour, Monty Python or Fawlty Towers… anyone watching a Robin Williams routine… in 75 or 100 years time… may not find any of them funny because tastes will have changed and cultural tastes are different. Humour in the form of jokes and scripted funny routines does not necessarily transcend borders.

A joke that is funny in Indonesia may not make ‘em rock with laughter in Canada or Novosibirsk today. A joke or routine that is funny in London today may not be funny in London in 2099. But a bizarre anecdote about a man who “throughout his life maintained a fearlessness and an indifference to consequences” (as Malcolm Hardee’s obituary in The Times said) is likely to outlive all the people who were more ‘famous’ than he was during his lifetime.

Malcolm Hardee – generally unknown during his lifetime and remembered by few since then – may yet outlive those who apparently achieved more during their lives. 

Lao Tzu is right that “the flame which burns twice as bright burns half as long”. But the flame which burns half as bright as those around it is still just as 100% hot when you stick your finger in it and yet may burn twice as long.

Of course, if you’re dead, it doesn’t do you any good so, as Malcolm himself would have said: “Fuck it!”

Or: “It don’t matter, do it? There are people starving in Africa. Not all over… Round the edge… fish.”

RIP the unknown comic, Malcolm Hardee, 1950-2005.

I know someone is going to mention that Charlie Chaplin is remembered fairly worldwide. But I don’t care and I never found him funny anyway. And I am already regretting the line about sticking your finger in…

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Paul Darrow on cult SciFi show “Blake’s 7” – its fans, scripts and BBC cutbacks

In the third, concluding extract from my 1980 chat with actor Paul Darrow, who died earlier this week, he talks about starring in Terry Nation’s TV series Blake’s 7, fans, writing and….


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Blake’s 7 is vividly remembered by many possibly, in part, because of – after four series – its jaw-dropping final scenes

JOHN: Because Blake’s 7 is ‘science fiction’, people may not treat it as seriously as other drama. The “Oh, it’s only kids’ stuff” attitude.

PAUL: They originally called it a ‘kidult’ series.

JOHN: Usually the problem with science fiction is that it’s weighted towards plot and ideas at the expense of psychology.

PAUL: Well, this is where Blake’s 7 was probably successful and this is perhaps why the characters are as popular as they seem to be. The emphasis on character – whether it came from the writers or the actors themselves – was such that it created a deeper interest. People care about the characters and that’s important. 

When I get fan letters, okay, some of them are admiring, some silly, some charming, but the majority are fairly reasonable and intelligent and say I care about this character. Now that’s marvellous for an actor, marvellous, because it means you’ve achieved something. The fact that it’s in science fiction doesn’t mean it’s any less good than if it were in Shakespeare. I’ve seen some pretty bad performances of Shakespeare that we wouldn’t have had in Blake’s 7.

JOHN: You seem to have some loyal fans.

PAUL: They make you what you are. I loathe some people’s attitude. There are one or two people, who shall be nameless, that I know very well who ignore letters and despise people who write in and I feel like thumping actors who say: “No, I don’t bother: I throw them straight in the wastepaper basket.”

I think if people take the trouble to write, you should reply. Without them, you’re not going to get anywhere. I just wish some of the fans knew which people these were so that they didn’t support them any more and they wouldn’t get the work. I feel very strongly about the relationship you have with the people who watch you. That’s why I go to science fiction conventions: because that’s part of my job.

JOHN: You won a Starburst Award last year. It’s hardly an Oscar, though, is it?

PAUL: Alright, it isn’t Hollywood and it isn’t an Academy Award, but it is an award and somebody somewhere has gone to a lot of trouble to think about it and a lot of people have gone to a lot of trouble – if you count the stamps at 10p or 12p each – to write in and say who they like, so I can stand up there on the day and be feted and given an award. That means a lot; it means more than I’ve been able to convey in what I’ve just said.

And that Starburst Award I won has pride-of-place in my home. That’s the reward, the contact with the audience, which you don’t get on television. In the theatre you get it because you get the applause at the end. And it’s marvellous and I love it.

JOHN: Especially from children?

PAUL: A nine-year-old sent me a script. It was very funny, because it said:

SCENE ONE: Avon and Blake and Villa teleport down on the planet.

SCENE TWO: They arrive on the planet. Avon says: “I don’t like the look of this place.” Blake says: “Neither do I – Let’s go back.”

That was the end of the script. I thought that was hilarious. What a great idea for a gag!

JOHN: Is writing something you would like to get into yourself?

PAUL: Yes, I would. If an actor does a particular character for any length of time, he gets to know that character better than anybody else. You get to know how that character reacts with other characters and consequently you know more about the other characters than perhaps a lot of people.

JOHN: So maybe you should write a Blake’s 7 episode…

Paul Darrow wrote a Blake’s 7 novel

PAUL: I wouldn’t mind, actually. The only trouble is that, if you write for yourself, everybody says: “Oh dear me! He’s just writing so that he looks that much better!” So that’s a dodgy thing.

I’d probably have to write it for another character, so they wouldn’t be able to say that. But then you defeat the object of the exercise because your character’s the one you know about, so… A lot depends on the writers, actually.

Chris Boucher (the script editor on Blake’s 7) was very much on the right wavelength for this kind of thing. Terry Nation’s original idea was a good one. And then they got in one or two other interesting writers.

JOHN: Like Tanith Lee. As well as writing for Blake’s 7, she wrote the radio play The Silver Sky which you starred in.

PAUL: I did that because she wrote it. I didn’t even read the script before accepting because I didn’t need to. She writes well and it was a marvellous part; I think it calls out to be televised. It’s a love story set in a time warp. And those two people, who come from two different areas of time, meet and fall in love and then are destroyed. She is destroyed physically; he is destroyed as far as his personality is concerned, because he suddenly realises everything’s worthless.

JOHN: You haven’t done much radio.

PAUL: No.

JOHN: But, during the breaks in Blake’s 7, you’ve done stage plays.

PAUL: Yes. It’s to keep my hand in, really, because they’re different techniques.

JOHN: What’s the difference?

PAUL: Well, projection (of the voice) for one. With a microphone, you can be very quiet; in the theatre, you’ve got to convey a quiet emotion loudly. So it’s a different technique. Also a live audience means sustaining a performance with a beginning, a middle and an end. In television, of course, it’s all shot out of continuity.

Blake’s 7 was scheduled in peaktime on BBC1

JOHN: …but the money’s better in television.

PAUL: (LAUGHS) Well, I was about to say money’s not important but, of course, it is… As long as you get a fair whack, as long as it’s a reasonable amount to live on. But the BBC, you see, is faced with all sorts of cutbacks…

Actually, I must put in a plug for the special effects boys. Having mentioned money and cutbacks, that’s the kind of department that is faced with them and what those boys do with limited resources is amazing. It is staggering. They come in and they say: “We’ve made this gun for you” or “this bomb for you”. And it’s a working model! It works! They’re marvellous.

JOHN: Ian Scones used to do the Blake’s 7 effects and now he’s off to do the House of Hammer series for ITC.

PAUL: Yes, I’m in one of those. All about vestal virgins being sacrificed on the altar, so I’m going to spend most of my days sitting among a group of beautiful girls – it’s going to be terribly difficult, isn’t it?

JOHN: Keeping up your image.

PAUL: (LAUGHS) What image? Avon never got the girl. I’d quite like it if he did once in a while, but then I don’t think they’d cast Raquel Welch would they?

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Life on a cult TV show – Paul Darrow on “Blake’s 7” scripts, squabbles and laughs

Yesterday’s blog was the first part of a 1980 interview with actor Paul Darrow, whose death was announced this week. 

In August 1980, I interviewed him for Marvel Comics’ Starburst magazine. He was then known for starring as Avon in Terry Nation’s peaktime BBC TV science fantasy series Blake’s 7. 

Yesterday, he talked about how an actor can turn a villain into a hero.

In this second extract, he talks about movies, fans, scripts, other members of the cast and the then-planned fourth series. 

Blake’s 7 was notable for killing off central characters – rebel leader Blake himself disappeared in Series Two and jaw-droppingly – SPOILER ALERT – at the end of the fourth series, all the remaining rebels with whom the audience had identified were killed off; in effect, the baddies won and the heroes lost.

You do not have to have seen Blake’s 7

Jacqueline Pearce and Paul Darrow relax between filming scenes for an episode of Blake’s 7


JOHN: A lot of people I interview say they were brought up in the front row of the cinema.

PAUL: I can do the whole of The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca and Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid. 

JOHN: Casablanca is over-rated.

PAUL: (PUTTING ON A HUMPHREY BOGART VOICE) Casablana’sh a grate movie… And there are lines like

  • “Rick, why did you come to Casablanca?”
  • “I came four de watersh.”

And Claude Rains says: “But we’re in the middle of the desert!”

There’s a slight pause and Bogie says: “I wash mishinformed.”

That’s a very witty line and it was written the year I was born.

In fact, Chris Boucher (script editor on Blake’s 7) and I are both mad on films, so I used to say: “Listen, I’ve remembered a great quote from a great movie – Can you slip it in somewhere?” And occasionally he slipped one in.

There was one that was a pinch from Butch Cassidy where Redford turns to Newman and says: “Stick to thinking, Butch, that’s what you’re good at.” And Chris put that in an episode for me, so I actually turned round to Blake and said it. You’d be surprised the people who pick it up, too. 

Tanith Lee wrote some wonderful lines. Steven Pacey (who plays Tarrant) had a great long speech to me saying: “I’m better than you, I’m faster than you, I’m younger than you, I’m harder than you; you didn’t reckon you’d have any trouble with me but you’re gonna have trouble with me!” and so on and so on. And, at the end of all that, I had one line which was pure Humphrey Bogart: “You talk too much!”

JOHN: Do you get a lot of male fan letters?

PAUL: A fair amount, but more from women. The men who write, I suppose, would like to be this sort of person and I can understand because so would I. I don’t think I am quite him, but it’s what I quite admire. 

If you actually look at the people in films today that do capture the imagination, they are the strong men. And, as I say, I was brought up on them: my favourite actors are people like Marlon Brando, Clint Eastwood… You know where you stand with people like that. John Wayne: no-one knocked over his glass of milk and got away with it.

Whatever you think of John Wayne, when you went in to see one of his pictures, you knew exactly what you were going to get. That, I think, is the most important thing: you must never disappoint.

When we get a Blake’s 7 script where I don’t think the character is treated properly, then I’ll complain. Not because I’m trying to be difficult or give myself a better part – you can cut the part out if you want to – but don’t give the people what they don’t expect, because they’re far more intelligent than they’re given credit for.

Terry Nation created Doctor Who‘s Daleks as well as Blake’s 7 – He had overall say, but only wrote a few of the Blake scripts

That’s a fault with writers: they think they have to hit everything over the head with a sledgehammer to explain. Actors are stupid and the audience is stupid: that’s the theory. They’re not.

In fact, the audience tends to know more than the actors – not about a character, but about what’s going on. I often get letters saying that, when I said such-and-such a thing, it actually isn’t possible. And that’s from children.

JOHN: Children are very perceptive.

PAUL: You can’t fool them for a minute. There are two little boys who live over the road – 9 and 11 they are – and one day they said: “What episode are you working on at the moment?” And I was working on the one where the girlfriend rolled-up. 

And the little one turned to me and said: “Oh no-o-o! You don’t kiss her, do you?” (LAUGHS) And then his eyes widened and he said: “I bet I know what you do! You kill her, don’t you? You would!” That redeemed me in his eyes. And, of course, that’s exactly what Avon did.

We had this one episode where Avon met his only friend in the Universe. And David Maloney (the producer) said: “Don’t worry – You kill him on the last page!” 

So I’ve killed my only friend in the Universe and I’ve also killed my only love in the Universe. It’s wonderful, isn’t it? Where’s he going to go?

JOHN: The new producer is Vere Lorimer. Are you going to be in the next series?

PAUL: As far as I know. What’s happened at the moment is that Vere’s rung us all up personally to say: “We are thinking of a fourth series and would you be interested in doing it?”

Then it’s a question of what’s going to happen in it – Where’s it going to go? I think it has to develop and that’s part of its appeal. We’ve lost four of the Seven – five if you count the Liberator (the space ship).

We’ve lost the Liberator, Zen, Blake, Jenna and Gan. That’s quite a change, really. Now we’ve got a situation where really Avon is in charge, isn’t he?

JOHN: Yes, what do you think Avon felt about old softie-liberal Blake?

Avon and Blake had a fraught relationship in the Blake series.

PAUL: I think he really admired the commitment – we were talking about commitment earlier on – and that’s why he stuck with Blake to a certain extent. Also, he had nowhere else to go. As he made clear halfway through the second series, Blake could have what he wanted but what Avon wanted was the Liberator and eventually he got it. 

JOHN: It was really a case of “This spaceship isn’t big enough for both of us”.

PAUL: Yes. what happened at the end of the second series – we discussed this quite carefully – was that, as far as the personalities were concerned, one of those characters had to go: Blake or Avon.

I used to expect an episode to arrive on my desk entitled Showdown or Gunfight at Jupiter Junction or something and it would be Blake and Avon saying: “I’ve had enough – This is where you get yours!” Gareth (Thomas, who played Blake) expected that too.

But, in fact, what happened was that Gareth got a good offer to go to the Royal Shakespeare Company  and he said: “I don’t want to go on playing the straight up-and-down hero”. He was – I think you can quote that… I don’t think he was happy. I think he’d agree.

JOHN: It was a boring part – having to play the man in the white hat.

PAUL: And it wasn’t his fault. He’s actually quite good, you know. But the character had to be ‘morally sound’ all the way through.

When the third series started, David Maloney said to me: “What we’re going to do is introduce a streak of morality into Avon.”

I said: “Oh no, no, you mustn’t do that!”

But he said: “No, we’re going to.”

And I thought, well, if they introduce a streak of morality in him, I can play it in such a way that he looks as though he’s amoral. So I left it at that. An actor can do all sorts of things. You can say the phrase “I love you” in 9,000 different ways. What was good about the series was that there was a marvellous balance between everybody and we all got on well. 

The Blake’s 7 cast minus Blake etc; Josette Simon is on the left

There was very little hassle among the actors. Once or twice we obviously got a bit annoyed but, generally speaking, it was pretty good. 

Josette Simon (Dayne) was straight out of drama school. I saw her recently and she’d been to do an episode in another TV series, which must be nameless, and she said: “I had the most horrendous time. I thought everything was going to be like Blake’s 7, but it isn’t. It was awful! They didn’t speak to me, they were rude when they did speak and it was dreadful.”

She hated it – It was so unlike Blake’s 7.

(Left-Right) Gareth Thomas, Paul Darrow and Michael Keating relax between takes on Blakes 7

… TO BE CONTINUED TOMORROW…

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Paul Darrow of “Blake’s 7” in 1980 – How an actor turns a villain into a hero

Actor Paul Darrow’s death was announced yesterday. In August 1980, I interviewed him for Marvel Comics’ Starburst magazine. He was then starring as Avon in Terry Nation’s BBC TV science fantasy series Blake’s 7. 

When, in a 1978 interview, I had asked Terry Nation about the character of Avon, he told me Paul Darrow “took hold of the part and made it his own. It could have been a very dull role, but this particular actor took hold of it and gave it much better dimensions than I’d ever put on paper. He is an enormously popular character. He is incredibly popular – and rightly so. He’s a good actor. I think he’s terrific.”

In a December 1980 interview, co-star Jacqueline Pearce, who played Servalan in Blake’s 7,  told me: “Paul always knows what he’s doing in front of a camera; technically, he’s quite brilliant”.

In this first extract from my 1980 interview with Paul Darrow, he talks about how an actor can play “a bastard” sympathetically and, by talking about Avon, perhaps also reveals a lot of his own thoughts.

You do not have to have seen Blake’s 7

This is the 1980 article, starting with its introduction…


Paul Darrow was born in Surrey. As a child, he wanted to be a sugar planter because “it seemed terribly romantic”. He thinks, perhaps, he saw a film about sugar planting. He used to go to the cinema a lot and eventually decided he wanted to be involved in the film industry in one way or another. The best way to go about that seemed to be to become an actor. So, after education at Haberdashers’ Aske’s public school, he went to RADA (the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art) in London.

After graduating, he worked with repertory companies in this country, went to Canada with a play and toured the Netherlands for six weeks, playing one-night stands as Jimmy Porter, the working class rebel in Look Back in Anger.

Darrow appeared in small parts in cinema movies The Raging Moon (1970) and Mister Jericho (1970) and starred as a James Bond figure in the television movie Port of Secrets (1974) for Norway’s NRK. More recently, he starred in the tele-movie Drake’s Venture (1980) for Westward Television. But he is best-known as Avon in BBC TV’s Blake’s 7 series, a part he has played in 38 episodes over three series.


JOHN: The obvious question is are you too strongly identified with Avon?

PAUL: No. Someone else asked me if I wasn’t typecast as a villain. But, take Shakespeare. That means I could play Cassius, Iago – you name it – I wouldn’t call that typecast. I happen to like playing that type of character and also I was able to develop Avon.

JOHN: You said you like playing “that type” of character. What type?

PAUL: The type of character that I’m able to develop on my own – the loner, if you like. I can really go anywhere with him, can’t I?

JOHN: Why did you develop him the way you did?

PAUL: The Blake character was very much the straight up-and-down hero, the man in the white hat, and I thought: Well, life isn’t like that. It isn’t like it now; it’s certainly not going to be like that in 300 years’ time or whenever. So I thought: What is the series about? It’s really about survival and, if you look at the Federation as Nazi Germany, then we’re heroes; if you look on the Federation as Britain, we’re the IRA, so we’re villains. It’s a matter of whatever point of view you happen to have. 

From Servalan’s point of view, we’re terrorists.

So I thought: If you’re a terrorist, you must behave like one and you must have some kind of commitment. Whether you agree with it or not doesn’t matter; you’ve got to admire the commitment. So I thought: If he’s going to kill somebody, he’s going to kill somebody. It doesn’t matter if he shoots them in the back or if they’re unarmed – it doesn’t matter – he MUST do it. So I thought I’d play him like that.

JOHN: He’s an untrustworthy egotist, isn’t he?

PAUL: No, he’s not untrustworthy. If he gives his word, he’ll stick by it. It’s getting him to give it that’s difficult. And I admire that.

JOHN: Is that why viewers admire him?

PAUL: I think you know where you stand with him. If he does give his word, then he’ll back you, as he always did with Blake. He never backed down at the crucial moment. Blake actually had a line: “If we get into a tricky situation, Avon may go, may run”. Well, no, he wouldn’t. In that very episode, Avon was the one who pulled them all out of it. The reason he, the character, didn’t get on with Blake was because Blake was a woolly-minded liberal.

Blake didn’t know what he wanted.

“I want to finish the Federation,” he says. 

And Avon says: “And then what?”

Who cares? You’re never going to stop corruption. You’re just going to replace one Federation with another. What I like about Avon is that I am able to keep back quite a lot and let him come out every now and then because the basic storyline is an adventure story.

JOHN: What do you mean “keep back quite a lot”?

PAUL: Keeping back a lot of his personality.

JOHN: Isn’t that a bad thing? The audience doesn’t know what’s going on if you keep him too enigmatic.

PAUL: No, because occasionally he does reveal something else. For example, when his girlfriend rolled up, I don’t think there was any doubt that he loved her. But what I liked about it was that, however much he loved her, she betrayed him, therefore – BANG! He killed her. Very painful, very nasty but very necessary. He’s the supreme pragmatist, isn’t he?

JOHN: Sounds emotionless, though.

PAUL: No, that’s not emotionless, because he loved her. But he’s not going to share the pain with anybody else. That’s private; that’s his business.

JOHN: And the audience finds this attractive…

PAUL: As an audience, you’re objective and you look at the man and say He is feeling the pain and, every now and then, when he’s on his own and The Look comes, you can think Oh dear! Poor fellow! And he is a poor fellow. It’s a sad situation in which he finds himself but that’s tough, that’s show business and he’s got to fight and he’s got to continue and go the way he thinks is right.

One of the guest artists said to me: “I love this series because it’s the only series that has the courage to have a right bastard as the hero”. 

And I made the point to him as I did to you that he isn’t a bastard; he’s a wonderful, warm human being. (LAUGHS) Because, you see he doesn’t think he is a bastard. That’s the secret of playing somebody who is apparently unpleasant: that he doesn’t think he is.

JOHN: What does he think he is?

PAUL: He thinks he’s just realistic, sensible and, above all, going to come through. He’s going to win. They’re all playing a game and he’s going to win the game. If he can’t win the game, he doesn’t play.

JOHN: What’s his background, do you think?

“What’s his background, do you think?”

PAUL: I did discuss this with Chris Boucher (script editor of the series) and I said: “It’s all very well saying we’re Earthmen, but where from? It does make a difference what school you go to and all that sort of thing.”

And the one remarkable thing I noticed was that the class system still prevails in the future. Avon, if anything, certainly feels himself an elitist and I would imagine, if you look at him in a cliché way, he was probably a Prussian or a South African or very, very aristocratic English.

He obviously went to a very good school. He doesn’t like people en masse and I personally (LAUGHS) find them a bit frightening, so that wasn’t too difficult to play.

JOHN: Away from work, you’re interested in military history and particularly the Napoleonic era. Why Napoleon?

PAUL: He’s my kind of man. One of the Blake’s 7 fans wore to me – it’s one of the greatest compliments I’ve been paid – and said: “There’s something distinctly Napoleonic about the way you play Avon”. That was a compliment.

JOHN: Why is he your kind of man?

PAUL: Because he was a realist. He was able to combine romantic idealism with realism. Somebody once said to him: “We can attack in flank on the Austrian Army, but it will mean going through these rather beautiful gardens and destroying them.”

Napoleon said: “How long will it take you to do it?”

And he said something like: “Forty minutes, preserving the gardens.”

And Napoleon says: “How long will it take not preserving the gardens?”

And he says: “Twenty minutes”. Half the time.

So Napoleon says: “Go through the gardens. Win. We can always rebuild the gardens.”

Which is sensible.

JOHN: Very Avonesque.

PAUL: Yes. He wouldn’t think twice. The actor Audie Murphy, in his book To Hell and Back, wrote about when he was in the American Army in Sicily and they suddenly came across two Italian officers riding two magnificent white horses.

They were armed; they came round the corner and the American officer and all his men froze. Murphy went down on one knee and gunned down the Italians and the horses. He had no choice and that was the professional in him. When everybody else froze, those Italians could have blown them to smithereens. 

Jacqueline Pearce as Servalan with Paul Darrow as Avon…

So the kind of realism that allows a man to do something like that instinctively – sad though it is to kill beautiful horses – appeals to me. He was the most decorated hero of World War II; he was fascinating.

You see, being brought up in the cinema, those are the sort of people I admire. I was brought up on Humphrey Bogart and a situation where men were men and women were women. Now, alright, that’s a cliché, but I like that. I don’t like all this unisex stuff.

… CONTINUED HERE

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Britain’s Got Talent did not tell you this about harpist Ursula Burns last night

Britain’s Got Talent has to appeal to a mainstream audience, but that doesn’t explain why they had to blandify ‘Dangerous Harpist’ Ursula Burns in the live Semi-Final last night. Most of her YouTube videos are currently blocked lest BGT viewers see them.

Ursula Burns on a fluffy cloud in mid-air on BGT last night

Alright, lyrics with four-letter words – well, seven – “I’m your fucking harpist” – might be out and Dry Your Eyes, Jesus might be a bit too controversial, but that is no reason not to allow her to simultaneously play a harp and a grand piano (except that someone sang a comic song with a piano the previous night).

When she was younger, she ran away to join the circus and can play a harp while walking on stilts! Instead, we got some horrendously manufactured twee story about her loving her harp so much she wanted to marry it.

And let’s not even mention minimising her harp-playing and minimising her ability with a song she didn’t write.

These type of TV programmes used to be called ‘real people shows’. Now they are over-produced with as many unreal people in them as a manufactured boy band.

As for Ursula Burns, this extract from a blog of mine written at the Edinburgh Fringe in August 2013 – the year she was nominated for a Malcolm Hardee Award for Comic Originality – may be of interest.


Born in the Falls Road: Ursula’s Dangerous Harpist album

She was born in the Falls Road, Belfast, in 1970 – not a good time or place to be born.

“Bombs, shooting, war. Miracle that I actually survived,” she tells her audience (several of whom have never heard of the Falls Road).

“Total and utter war zone,” she tells them in her Ulster accent. Then she switches to a Spanish accent to say: “Now I will sing my song for you: Being Born.”

Her aunts play the piano and sing; her grandfather was a fiddle player from Donegal; her dad “sings funny songs in bars”; and her mum plays the harp – which is why Ursula never wanted to play the harp while she was a child.
She sings comic songs while playing a very glamorous Paraguayan harp. Her songs include I’m Your Fucking Harpist and Get Divorced and Join The Circus.

When she was 14, she actually did run away from home to join the circus – “They were dark, dark times,” she told me – and, when the Fringe ends, she is going to France with the Irish Tumble Circus.

Ursula, circus-trained, plays her harp on stilts in Belfast

Ursula, on stilts, plays her harp while walking through Belfast

She cannot read music but she can stilt-walk and taught herself to play the harp only when she was an adult. She accidentally won an Irish music comedy award.

During her show, she says:

“People think, because I play the harp, that I’m actually cultured. They think I care about the history of the harp and how many strings it has. They think, because I play the Paraguayan harp, that I know stuff and I’m cultured. But, actually, I just do it for the money.”

Her show is called Ursula Burns: I Do It For the Money, which is true – because she has to support her 9-year-old son who is, she says, very successfully flyering for her in Edinburgh “because he is cute and everyone likes him on sight”.

After the show – in Fingers Piano Bar at 3.10pm daily (except Mondays) until 24th August – she told me:

“I had always written funny songs and I’ve always composed music, but I never associated what I was doing with ‘Comedy’. Then I accidentally won the Irish Music Comedy Awards last year.”

“Accidentally?” I asked.

Ursula accidentally wins an award (Photo by thecomedyscoop.com)

“I uploaded a couple of videos to YouTube,” Ursula explained. “The Hospital Song  and It Does Not Rock (aka I’m Your Fucking Harpist)

“People shared them round and a comedian in Belfast – Stephen Mullan – used it in his comedy night and he said You should forward your video to the IMCA Awards, which I’d never heard of.

“I tried, but the deadline was the next day – in March last year – and I couldn’t do it. But another guy had forwarded my details and just got in before the deadline.

“The IMCA people got in touch with me and asked me to come down to Dublin and play in the finals… and I won. I only had two funny songs at that point but, in the next month, I wrote the hour-long show.

“I had accidentally got on the comedy circuit and I found that really difficult because I was getting up there with a harp, sandwiched on the bill between two stand-up comics. I found the comedy world quite rough; I didn’t understand it; I was a fish out of water. They were all men and I’d turn up in a ball gown with a harp. I’d won this award and people were looking at me: Go on! Prove yourself! I need good sound and some of these gigs wouldn’t even have proper sound set-ups.

“The comedy scene doesn’t pay very well. I live off gigs; I live from gig to gig. There’s months where there’s nothing coming in and my life is expensive – I have a 9 year-old son. That’s why I wrote the song I Do It For The Money. I’ve been performing all my life. I’ve paid my dues. Everyone who was on the scene when I was learning my craft has either got famous or given up, but I’ve hung in there.

Ursula packs her gear into her van after the Piano Bar gig

Ursula and her portable accommodation in Edinburgh, 2013

“People said You’d go down well at the Edinburgh Fringe but, at a basic, bottom reality, I couldn’t afford to come here. So I applied to the Arts Council of Northern Ireland for a grant and I only found out I was getting it at the very end of June (too late to be in the Fringe Programme) and I only got the money the week before I arrived. I couldn’t have come here without their help. Sustaining yourself as an artist with a child is hard and ends do not always meet.

“When I first started,” said Ursula, “I would write really violent lyrics and put them with beautiful melodies and I would be travelling round with bands in vans. I’ve played everywhere from the Albert Hall to tube stations.

“The thing for me about the harp is breaking down the boundaries and comedy is just another aspect where I can do that. I don’t imagine that I will stay in comedy. I need to explore all things in all directions.”

She is a stilt-walking harpist who won an Irish comedy award by accident…

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David McGillivray’s pitch for a new and sexually shocking Maugham feature film

My previous blog here was about writer-producer-hyphenate David McGillivray’s upcoming autobiography Little Did You Know.

At the end, he mentioned that he had optioned movie rights to Robin Maugham’s scandalous novel The Wrong People, which he is pitching to prospective financiers.

Non-producers/financiers seldom see actual pitches. They only see the finished product if it ever gets made.

So I thought it would be interesting to print the text – with his permission – of McG’s sales pitch for The Wrong People. Here it is. The photos in the pitch were taken in the 1970s by actor Sal Mineo.


SECRETLY PUBLISHED

FORGOTTEN FOR MORE THAN 40 YEARS

ROBIN MAUGHAM’S SCANDALOUS NOVEL
IS ABOUT TO SHOCK A NEW GENERATION

From award-winners David McGillivray and Peccadillo Pictures

Robin Maugham’s

THE WRONG PEOPLE

Set in the UK and Morocco in 1967, The Wrong People follows the torments of English schoolmaster Arnold Turner, who has the misfortune while on holiday in Tangier to be seduced into the dangerous world of Clarence Baird. A rich and unscrupulous expatriate, Baird entraps Turner into bringing him one of his most troubled pupils, Dan Gedge, so that he can be groomed. The monstrous plan, involving a dead-of-night kidnapping and a secret passage to Marseille, has a shockingly unexpected conclusion

Robert Cecil Romer Maugham, 2nd Viscount Maugham, and author of The Servant, took the advice of his famous uncle Somerset when he wrote The Wrong People.

The book’s theme – a sexual predator living in Morocco tries to persuade an English schoolmaster to procure him a boy he can groom – was too shocking even for the “swinging” Sixties. Maugham published the book under a pseudonym. But the revised 1970 edition, under his own name, was well received. “Grippingly told,” said the Sunday Times. “A gripping thriller,” agreed the Sunday Express.

The book was discovered by former Hollywood star Sal Mineo, the kid who adored James Dean in Rebel without a Cause. Mineo wanted to direct his first feature and in 1971 came to London with his partner Courtney Burr to begin pre-production. Nobody wanted to be associated with this hot property.

A succession of writers, among them Peter Shaffer, David Sherwin and Edna O’Brien refused to write the screenplay. Actors including Martin Potter, Leonard Whiting and John Moulder-Brown wouldn’t even meet Mineo. Eventually, a script was written by Murray Smith, known for cheap exploitation pictures made for independent producer-director Pete Walker. Mineo went to Morocco to scout locations. But the authorities wouldn’t allow him to film there. Mineo returned to the US without a deal in 1974.

Two years later he was stabbed to death.

40 years later writer-producer David McGillivray read a new biography of Sal Mineo, which includes a long chapter on The Wrong People. McGillivray had been aware of Mineo’s attempts to film the book since 1973 when, like Murray Smith, he worked for Pete Walker. McGillivray’s screenplays for Walker include the cult classics House of Whipcord and Frightmare. Later, McGillivray produced a gay horror film, In the Place of the Dead, in Morocco and the erotic fantasy Trouser Bar, which premiered at BFI Southbank in March 2016 and caused a furore. Both films received awards internationally.

After re-reading The Wrong People, McGillivray was convinced the time had come for a film of Maugham’s gripping thriller. In 2017 he secured the screen rights and wrote a new screenplay, which has received the blessing of both Courtney Burr – “I enjoyed your script very much. I found the characters clear, distinctive and true to my memory of the book” – and Robin Maugham’s former partner William Lawrence.

Robin Maugham wrote The Wrong People based on his own experiences, both in the UK and Morocco.

Robin Maugham in 1974 (Photo by Allan Warren)

Robin Maugham

Robin Maugham (1916-1981) is known throughout the world for his novel The Servant (1948). In 1963 it was adapted into a celebrated British film, directed by Joseph Losey and written by Harold Pinter, and later included in the British Film Institute’s Top 100 British Films. A stage version premiered in 1958 and is still on tour throughout Europe.

Maugham wrote several other novels, some of which were also filmed. When he showed the manuscript of The Wrong People to his uncle, Somerset Maugham, the great man declared “that it was the first novel for years that he had been obliged to read straight through at one sitting.” Many subsequent readers, including producer-writer David McGillivray, also have found it impossible to put the book down.

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