In my last two blogs, American publicist Dan Harary talked about his life, his PR company, his flirting with the famous and about sex, his rock drummer background and three of his four new books. That was in the last two encounters I had with him. This is, as it were, a close encounter of the third kind…
JOHN: So, your fourth new book… After They Came – out next Spring – aliens… Surely a movie?
DAN: Absolutely! It’s the best thing I’ve ever written.
DAN: In 2017, my dad passed away. He was my hero. He worked for the US Government for about 50 years. He invented missiles and radars and drones and satellite stuff. He always said he helped the US win the Cold War.
I’ve been studying UFO research for about 25 years. I absolutely believe there are others out there and they know all about us and the major governments in the world know all about them.
After my dad passed, I asked my mother: “Do you think dad knew about aliens and UFOs?”
My mother told me: “When he first got the job at Fort Monmouth in New Jersey, in the very earliest days, they took him into the vaults and they showed him something and he came home and he was white.”
My mother asked him: “What’s wrong?” and he goes: “I saw something remarkable. I can’t tell you what it is.”
But my mother said he was scared. He was frightened and he never spoke about it to anyone ever.
There’s no way to know what he saw. But I’m pretty sure my dad knew.
Everything he did flew. My dad invented things for the US Government that flew; they all spied on Russia, North Korea, North Vietnam I know, Cuba… That’s what he did for 50 years.
So my dad passed. I went to a diner by myself to mourn my dad and thought: Right, I love UFOs, my dad passed away. What if my dad knew about UFOs?
So I’m at the diner waiting for my sandwich and on the paper napkin on the table I started writing ideas down… and I came up with ATC.
I’m thinking like: ATC?… After They Came?… ATC. After They Came. Yeah! I like that! That was the birth of it.
The storyline is a man turns 60 years old. He hates his life. He hates his job. His children don’t speak to him anymore. He’s depressed. He commits suicide on his 60th birthday.
He swims out to sea and drowns because he doesn’t wanna live anymore.
As he’s drowning, an enormous UFO comes out of the ocean and then, right above him, beams him up into the ship and revives him. There’s two benevolent aliens on board who we learn, through reading the book, have history with this guy’s dead father.
They save the guy’s life and they present him to the world at the Dodgers’ Stadium in Los Angeles.
The Dodgers’ Stadium – shaping up for a UFO encounter
The UFO goes to the Dodgers’ Stadium; they beam themselves down. All the media, the cops, sirens, the ambulances are there. It’s a tribute – a cousin – to The Day The Earth Stood Still.
They basically say: People of Earth, we’re here to help you. We wanna help solve your problems. We’re benevolent. We saved this man. If you have ideas on how we can help mankind, he’s the conduit to us. We have a relationship with this guy.
So they leave; he remains behind.
Now, he just tried to kill himself…
He’s taken to the President of the United States who, in my book, is based on Oprah Winfrey. You remember a few years ago, they said Oprah was going to run for President? In my book, she’s Tameka Winfield, an African American.
She says: “Who are you? How do you know aliens? How did this happen?”
He says: “I have no idea. I haven’t the slightest idea. I don’t know.”
But she sets him up with an office at the UN.
The aliens come once every month to meet with him and they say: “How can we help mankind?”
And he’s like: Climate change… Guns… Mental illness… Disease… Water shortages… Famine… Over-population.
Every month he presents a problem and the aliens, with their technology, help to solve them.
That’s the basic premise. I don’t want to give away what happens.
JOHN: That’s a film.
DAN: It’s Close Encounters meets It’s a Wonderful Life meets The Day The Earth Stood Still and the book is coming out next March…
A long time ago, in a lifetime far, far away, I saw an amazingly original British animation and decided to chat to its two young directors. The animation was made in 1977. Below is the resultant article, exactly as it appeared in the March 1979 edition of Starburst magazine. Yup: 41 years ago…
For two years a film made by two National Film School students has been surfacing in some of the most unlikely places. Starburst has tracked down the creators of Max Beeza and the City in the Sky, two young film-makers called Philip Austin and Derek Hayes, and now presents an exclusive look at this rare animated movie.
The film’s hero is a spiv, a con-man/comedian/magician…
Starburst: How much did it cost to make the movie?
Philip Austin: About £4,000. We put our budgets together and came up with that amount.
Derek Hayes: The point is that at film school you’re not paying for a lot of things.
Starburst: I liked the credit at the end. Head Grip: Albert de Salvo.
Philip Austin: That’s good. Not many people get these things. Few people even notice.
Few people have had the chance to notice the Boston Strangler’s name at the end of Max Beeza and the City in the Sky. National Film School graduates Philip Austin and Derek Hayes have made one of the most original and inventive animated films since the heyday of Tex Avery and Chuck Jones. Technically, it looks flawless. But almost no-one has seen their movie. It has been shown only at the 1977 London Film Festival; during lunchtimes at London’s Essential Cinema in early 1978; and at the 1978 Edinburgh Film Festival and Ottawa Animation Festival.
“The entire population of Britain now lives in a tower city”
It is a future world. Poison gas has spread across the planet and the entire population of Britain now lives in a tower city twelve miles high ringed by clouds. Mrs Ron Weetabix is making her way home along a narrow ledge — until she falls off. A clergyman is preaching a hellfire sermon on sin — until he gradually lapses into the title song of Champion The Wonder Horse. Max Beeza is entertaining a laughing audience — until The Airship attacks.
The original idea for the 24-minute film came partly from a dream of Philip Austin’s and partly from the “strange tower cities” which fan Derek Hayes used to draw at school. Austin and Hayes met at Sheffield Art College, where they made Custard, a cartoon satire on the obsessions people have in a northern industrial town.
You can see Custard on the BFI website
Thiswon them places in the National Film School at Beaconsfield. Because that was “such a dull place to be”, they decided they would have to resort to pure imagination for their next project. It took 18,000 drawings and 20 months to complete.
The film’s hero, Max Beeza, is an Arthur English-type spiv, a con-man/ comedian/magician, whose stage act is a cross between Bruce Forsyth (constantly insulting his audience), a slightly demented Max Bygraves and (according to Austin) Elmer Gantry — the sort of person whose only talent is getting on well with an audience. Billed as Max, The Merry Missionary, Beeza’s latest show is in aid of ‘Bison for the Deaf’.
“Are you thinking?” he asks his audience: “Don’t! You can’t see if you’re thinking.” In his hands, a brick becomes a chocolate biscuit. In fact, it is a chocolate biscuit. Just as a top hat could be, can be and is a flower-pot, a frog-catcher, a bucket, a catapult for custard pies, a frisbee and … a top hat. “Are you thinking?” he yells: “Don’t! You can’t see if you’re thinking. After all, you thought it was a brick — didn’t you!” Suddenly shells whistle through the air, blood spurts, people panic, grenades and bodies explode.
The tower city is under attack by an airship. In the chaos, a game of cricket has an explosive ending, a suicidal man has problems killing himself and a drunk can’t drink until his head is blown off. The newspaper headlines scream: “War Declared. Win 365 pairs of naughty knickers.”
Scream: “War Declared. Win 365 pairs of naughty knickers.”
But who is sending the Airship? No-one knows. They can’t see because they’re thinking. Members of the Soccer Hooligans’ Union meet city leader Victor Troutskillet for emergency talks, the war rages on, devastation is everywhere, the bright colours become dulled, Victor Troutskillet forms a Secret Police to stop subversion, Max is excused military service and starts a new show in aid of shell-shocked gulls.
Part of the enjoyment of Max Beeza and the City in the Sky is the detail. Small bits of graffiti barely-glimpsed in the background; the baroque architecture; in-jokes and obscure references. Directors Austin and Hayes, in fact, think there are too many details in some places. “The script as we originally conceived it would have made a longer film,” says Hayes…
“We had to cut a lot of the story,” says Austin.
Both are interested in the idea of an animated documentary. “You can make a documentary on a thing that doesn’t exist, like that city,” Hayes claims: “That’s what science fiction does best. It takes people and people’s emotions and it says Right, what IF this happened? How would people react? And some of the best science fiction comes out of that. What we wanted to do with all the characters was to try to make the city look like a real place. Shove everything in and repeat things. Repeat characters — have them pass by in the background — people you’ve seen before — so that it seems to expand outside the confines of the frame and you think there’s something more going on.”
Beware of the innocent-looking but actually armed chair…!
Some of the details can only be seen on a second or third viewing. “That’s where thinking it through quite well is helpful,” continues Hayes: “Even if you don’t get everything right up-front, it’s there in the background and it gives that rich feeling of depth to it.”
The two directors are also aware that, in the future, people are likely to buy films on videocassettes. An animated feature for that market will have to be able to stand up to repeated viewings:, “You just put it on in the evening and just see what you can see in it this time. If it’s very, very dense, it will actually stand up to repeated viewings.” Meanwhile, back in the sky . . .
As Mr Ron Weetabix sits at home listening to a radio speech by Victor Troutskillet, he mutters: “Rubbish.” Arms rise out of his armchair. He is swallowed by the chair, which walks off-screen with him. His son yells out. The settee hits him on the head with a mallet. Gradually, as the film progresses, this surrealism increases. Max discovers who is sending The Airship, but our hero is under the surveillance of four neo-Nazi pieces of furniture, all members of the Secret Police … A chest-of-drawers, a cooker, an armchair and their leader The Deadly Lightshade (a standard lamp). They decide to kill Max.
Lights burst out! – Sitting on its motor bike is… the cooker…
One dark, snowy night, as Max is trudging home, lights burst out of the blackness. Engines rev up. There, sitting on their motor bikes, are the chest-of-drawers, thecooker and the armchair. They drive their bikes at him, but he escapes by climbingup a scratch on the film, which leads him to a caption: The next scene contains 20startling revelations — count them all.
“A lot of the film is to do with Tex Avery, I think,” says Philip Austin: “Going up the scratch is a Tex Avery gag. He never actually used that gag, but he must have come close to it. He did hairs in the gate and running up the side of the film — stuff like that. Those sort of free-wheeling gags. Disney knocked them out of cartoons. We saw a lot of Tex Avery films at college and we were really knocked out by how zany the gags were and amazed that nobody was doing that sort of stuff any more. So we’re very strongly influenced by Tex Avery. Loony non-sequitur gags . . . chuck them all in.”
And so to the film’s climax — the confrontation between Max and Victor Troutskillet, the city’s ‘Big Brother’ — a Billy Bunter figure with traces of Frankie Howerd in his voice. The original design for Troutskillet was much thinner: both in name and in style he was originally conceived as a Mervyn Peake-type character. But when his voice was pre-recorded (as it had to be for synchronised mouth movements), the thin character did not work — “So we tubbied him up and turned him into a Bunter-like thing.”
But Troutskillet is not the ultimate villain of the film, as we discover in the final 20 startling revelations. In the climactic confrontation. Max faces The Deadly Lightshade, The Wicked Stepladder (from Snow White), an array of gun-toting armchairs and The Airship itself, which turns out to be none other than . . . No, Iwon’t tell you. But look out for the hare — a rather mangy-looking relative of BugsBunny, who turns up without warning and without explanation throughout the film.
“Look out for…a rather mangy-looking relative of Bugs Bunny”
Max Beeza is well-worth seeing — if it’s shown. Part of its success is due to the fact that both Austin and Hayes have also worked on live-action films. They try toshoot and cut animated films as if they were live-action ones. “What we’re tryingto do is incorporate two things,” says Hayes:
“One is the live-action way of doing things with its emphasis on cutting — because in a live-action film, as opposed to a cartoon, usually you have a lot more cuts and the action is shown through the cuts whereas, in a cartoon, you have things develop within the shot. Also, we wanted to be able to keep on the cartoon things: the kind of graphic shot that leads you into things and gives you fluidity.”
For some time now, Philip Austin has been working at the Richard Williams animation studio in Soho. Early in 1978, Derek Hayes worked on BBC Bristol’sAnimated Conversations: a series of six programmes which combined real conversations with animated visuals. And, in Autumn 1978, the two worked together for two months on an animated sequence featuring Sid Vicious in the Sex Pistols’ film The Great Rock and Roll Swindle (directed by Julian Temple, anotherNational Film School graduate). Austin and Hayes’ next project together will (hopefully) be about a man who keeps an alien in his bedroom. Hayes is also threatening a story entirely, people with animated furniture.
As for Max Beeza and the City in the Sky, they are still trying to get British distributors to accept it as a supporting feature, if the mechanics of the Britishdistribution system will allow that — there are problems because it was made bystudents as a student film. It took four years for the brilliantly inventive US movie Dark Star to be publicly shown in this country. I hope Max Beeza doesn’t take that long. It’s British, highly inventive, highly entertaining and well worth seeing.
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….
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.
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?
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: (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 Companyand 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
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.
Actress Jacqueline Pearce died two days ago. So it goes. She is remembered, among other roles, for being the iconic main villain Servalan in BBC TV’s science fiction series Blake’s 7.
Yesterday’s blog was taken from the chat which I had with her in December 1980, as published in Starburst magazine in April 1981. The chat happened between Series 3 and Series 4 of Blake’s 7. This blog concludes that interview.
JOHN: Getting back to te way you approach roles. Between 1967 and 1971, you were in America. You joined the Actors Studio in New York, which is the home of Method Acting – Marlon Brando and so on. Why did you go to America?
JACQUELINE: I got divorced. I just wanted to get away. I joined the Actors Studio because I wasn’t working and so I was going crazy. I didn’t have a work permit. I knew I had to do something, so I went to the Actors Studio and auditioned and passed and was accepted, which meant I could work there. So it was a way of saving my sanity.
JOHN: Did you learn anything useful?
JACQUELINE: I think one always does, even if it doesn’t seem to have much value at the time. I think Lee Strasberg (who runs the Actors Studio) tends to be a little bit of a dictator. His way is the only way and that’s it. It’s like religion. If you’re not Catholic, you won’t go to heaven. And, if you don’t do the Actors Studio, you won’t be a good actress. That’s rubbish..
JOHN: Just like being back in a convent?
JACQUELINE: Yes, it is.
JOHN: And you react against that?
JACQUELINE: Yes, I do. I always do react against it.
JOHN: Why did you not stay in America?
JACQUELINE: Well, I love New York passionately, but Los Angeles is like a planet all on its own. It’s hard enough to cope if you’re a man. It’s virtually impossible if you’re a woman. Also, I didn’t get a work permit from working with Strasberg. I just became a member of the Studio. It took about three years to get my work permit, by which time I was so homesick I just had to come home.
JOHN: Did you come back a Method actress?
Jacqueline as Servalan and Paul Darrow as Avon in Blake’s 7
JACQUELINE: I came back with an understanding of it, but not necessarily a way to work with it. I’m very instinctive in the way I work – You ask Paul Darrow! (Avon in Blake’s 7) I love working with him. We work together very, very well. Paul always knows what he’s doing in front of a camera; technically, he’s quite brilliant and I rely on him for that. He will make sure I’m in the light or not blocking myself. He lets me go completely intuitively and he responds to that. It’s like a wonderful marriage: very rare and wonderful when it happens.
JOHN: You have had to contend with two different actors playing the part of Travis.
JACQUELINE: That was very difficult.
JOHN: They were slightly different characters.
JACQUELINE: Totally different.
JOHN: It must have been very difficult to…
Jacqueline (Servalan) with Brian Croucher (Travis) in Blake’s 7
JACQUELINE: … adjust. Yes, it was. Steve (Greif), the first one, I could bounce off. Brian (Croucher) is a totally different type of actor. And the reason he had to go on being (a character called) Travis was that Terry Nation (the show’s originator) insisted on having that name.
But, instead of letting Brian find HIS Travis, they tried to make him follow Stephen’s. Fatal. He’s actually a wonderful actor. I’ve seen him do wonderful things. But Brian’s not really a heavy. He’s lightweight and cuddly. He’s not really menacing, which Stephen was.
JOHN: Menace is indefinable. Your character is sort of menacing.
JACQUELINE: I think it’s the danger of Servalan that makes her menacing: the opposites that are in present in her all the time. No-one ever feels totally relaxed around her except Avon.
JOHN: Avon has two facets to his character, too.
JACQUELINE: Well, we have always felt they were opposite sides of the same coin.
JOHN: He’s nice with nasty bits and you are nasty with nice bits?
JACQUELINE: That’s right, yes.
JOHN: Was that conscious?
JACQUELINE: No. In the third series, we got more and more to do together because we insisted on it. When we had the love scene: that brought in loads of fan letters. And, in another episode, I kissed him as well and the audiences loved it. They like people to relate.
JOHN: The new character Tarrant is a sort of Blake Mark II. The first Blake character didn’t seem to work out, because it’s difficult to get any humanity into a straight up-and-down hero.
Audience thinks: “I’m not quite so bad after all”
JACQUELINE: Impossible. No-one really likes a nice guy.
JOHN: Why do you think villains like you are more interesting than heroes like the original Blake?
JACQUELINE: The straight up-and-down characters tend to make most people resentful because they’re being good and, God knows, we are not. Whereas someone who is a villain is fallible and makes mistakes and is cheap and rotten and we all are that sometimes. So, seeing someone be that, an audience thinks: Oh, I’m not quite so bad after all. They can identify and empathise. Well, Servelan’s a bit over-the-top: there aren’t many people who go around like her. (LAUGHS)
JOHN: You are maybe not a Hitler figure, but you are a sort of female Napoleon?
JACQUELINE: Yes, but I think if Servalan did get full power, full control, she would rule very fairly. I don’t think she’s into power for its own sake; I think power means something different for her. It might originally have been power for its own sake but, when she fell in love with Avon, she realised that the main power is love.
JOHN: Ah! You should be a scriptwriter.
JACQUELINE: It requires tremendous self-discipline, which I don’t have. What I would really like to do is produce.
JACQUELINE: Because then I could pick the directors I wanted, the crew, the actors and the script.
JOHN: You would just produce?
JACQUELINE: I would act as well. But I would love to produce, even if it were just once – which it probably will be. I would love to do it on film. You know – go for broke. (LAUGHS)
A BBC TV fan photo signed by Jacqueline
JOHN: Why film rather than stage or TV?
JACQUELINE: Of all the media, I love film best. It is free-est. It uses the imagination in a way you can’t in theatre and don’t on telly. The options are enormous. Ideally, I would like to do films all the time.
JOHN: So what have you been doing since the last season of Blake’s 7?
JACQUELINE: I went straight off to America the day after we finished the show and spent some time in New York and Mississippi and then went out to Los Angeles and I saw Terry Nation when I was in Hollywood. He doesn’t want to be in England any more. You can understand. It takes so long to get anything done here. Anyway, I came back from there and I was offered a film which I turned down. It was vulgar, cheap and exploitative.
It was a science fiction film, of course – you can see how their minds work. My part consisted of sitting on a loo doing something extremely intimate and then I got murdered sitting on the loo and I could see no justification for this. I thought: No! I am not going to sit on a loo, dear! Awful film! I can’t even remember its name.
JOHN: And then?
“… I collapsed and was resting in hospital …”
JACQUELINE: Then I went into hospital. I collapsed and was resting in hospital for a while. Then I came out and I was going to do one of the first Hammer House of Horror (TV) films and I found I had a lump on my breast and had to go and have that taken out. I had never been ill before. I came out of hospital again and went off to do (the Tom Stoppard play) Night and Day and apparently anaesthetic stays in your system for about a month after you have had a general anaesthetic and I didn’t allow enough time and I’m quite highly-strung, as you may have noticed.
So I finished Night and Day, which is a very, very tough job, came back here, tried to keep going but I got to the state where all I could do was cry. The other Saturday morning, I was just sitting in a heap here crying and crying and crying.
JOHN: Night and Day has the female lead on stage most of the time, doesn’t it?
JACQUELINE: Yes, it’s a huge part to carry, particularly when you’re not well. But now I feel absolutely wonderful.
JOHN: You have done Blake’s 7 for three years. There’s the obvious problem of being typecast.
JACQUELINE: Well, we will just have to see. I mean, I’ve always been typecast as a strong lady. I think being dark-haired you tend to get put into a category. If you are blonde, you play the wife and, if you’re dark, you play the mistress.
JOHN: I am surprised Blake’s 7 has developed such a following. The BBC scheduled it against Coronation Street.
JACQUELINE: I know. And one year we were put up against Charlie’s Angels, which had a very, very big following. But, last season, we averaged 10 million viewers a week, which is a lot of people.
JOHN: What happens if Blake’s 7 stops after the upcoming fourth season?
JACQUELINE: Well, the way it looks to me, it could go on forever, if they keep giving the public what the public seems to want and not trying to give them something they want the public to have, which is very different. There is no reason why it couldn’t go on forever.
Actress Jacqueline Pearce’s death was announced yesterday. So it goes. Aged 74, she died at her home in Lancashire, a couple of weeks after being diagnosed with lung cancer.
She was possibly best known for playing the part of Servalan, the villainess in BBC TV sci-fi series Blake’s 7.
I chatted to her in December 1980 at her then home in London, before shooting started on what turned out to be the final, fourth, series of Blake’s 7. The interview was published in April 1981 in Starburst magazine. This is Part 1 of that interview…
Jacqueline Pearce at home in London in 1980, holding her Starburst Award for Best Actress
Jacqueline Pearce was born in Woking and grew up in Byfleet, Surrey. Her father was an interior decorator and her family background is East End. At the age of six or seven, she started having elocution lessons to get rid of a “slight Cockney accent” and she was educated at the Marist Convent in Byfleet.
It was there that a lay preacher (ie not a nun) encouraged her acting talent. But young Jacqueline’s time at convent school was not altogether happy. She says she hated the rules and couldn’t abide the discipline. She could never understand why the nuns said she should walk upstairs when to run would have been much quicker. Now, she says, “Every time I go on as Servalan and I’ve got one of those dresses that’s slit down to the waist and up to the hips, I look in the mirror and say: “Up yours, Reverend Mother!”
At the age of sixteen, she was almost expelled for performing outspoken dialogue from John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger at a local drama festival. The nuns thought it was “wicked and shocking” but Jacqueline won first prize and a cup to put on the convent mantelpiece, so she was forgiven. When she eventually did leave the convent, in 1961, she won a scholarship to RADA (the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, London) despite strong initial opposition from the nuns and her family.
Newly-married ‘Jacky’ Pearce and Drewe Henley appeared in Granada TV’s Watch Me, I’m a Bird
She spent two years at RADA with fellow students Anthony Hopkins, John Hurt, Ian McShane, Simon Ward and David Warner. During that time, she also met young actor Drewe Henley at a local coffee bar and they married.
Her first acting role on screen was with Drewe Henley, Ian McShane and John Hurt in the 1964 Granada TV play Watch Me, I’m a Bird. In the same year, she also appeared in the feature film Genghis Khan: “I was given as a present by Eli Wallach to Stephen Boyd. Not a word was said and I flew all the way to Yugoslavia for it.”
In 1965, she played Ian McShane’s girlfriend in the John Mills movie Sky West and Crooked. She also appeared in the Morecambe & Wise movie The Magnificent Two and the Jerry Lewis fiasco Don’t Raise the Bridge, Lower the River (both 1967). But her best-remembered movie roles were in Hammer horror pictures.
The Plague of the Zombies: “It was very strange walking in to make-up the next day and seeing my head on a shelf.”
JACQUELINE: Yes, for The Plague of the Zombies, he made a plaster thing of my face and head for a sequence where my head was chopped off. It was dreadful.
I had to stop halfway through because, at that time, I was very claustrophobic. Suddenly I was having this plaster of Paris all over me with just slight holes left for the nose and it’s very, very heavy and, at one point, I just said, “I can’t take it any more! You’ve got to take it off!” and then we had to start all over again. It was very unpleasant. I suppose it must have taken about half an hour for it to set. It’s – oohh – it’s dreadful.
I was married then and had my husband literally holding my hand and getting me through it. It’s clammy and then it gets hard and it gets so heavy and you know you can’t pull it off, so – oohh – not fun. I got more and more frightened. And it was very strange walking in to make-up the next day and seeing my head on a shelf. That was a little disturbing.
JOHN: You tested for Hammer, did you?
JACQUELINE: I went along for an interview and had a chat with the director (John Gilling) and he said: “I’d like you to play the parts because you have such a wonderful face for films.”… So he cast me (LAUGHS) as a zombie and a reptile.
Jacqueline Pearce starred as The Reptile: “I hissed a lot.”
JOHN: How did you act the part of a snake in The Reptile?
JACQUELINE: I hissed a lot. I think that was about it.
JOHN: Your movement was quite good too.
JACQUELINE: I know the bit you’re referring to. (LAUGHS) There was a bit where I was shifting under the blankets, which everyone seemed to enjoy a lot – I was shedding my skin.
JOHN: It’s a difficult part. You are cast as a snake. How are you going to act it?
JACQUELINE: Well, she was half-snake, half-woman.
JOHN: Like Servalan.
JACQUELINE: Do you think Servalan’s a snake?
JOHN: She’s a villainess.
JACQUELINE: But she’s got great style. I adore Servalan.
JOHN: How did you get the part in Blake’s 7?
JACQUELINE: I was working in Vienna at the English Speaking Theatre. I got a phone call from my agent saying that this series I’d never heard of was being made and would I be interested in playing a part. So I said: “Sure.”
It meant I started rehearsals the day I got back from Vienna. I got off the plane and went to the BBC. My hair was short at the time and they said: “Please, will you keep it like that?”
Jacqueline Pearce as Servalan in Blake’s 7 – “Short, dark and sinister”?
JOHN: I thought maybe you had cut and dyed your hair specially for the part – short, dark and sinister.
JACQUELINE: No. Most people love it. They find it compulsive and want to stroke it – Feel free – It’s simply because I’m no good at doing hair. I can’t put rollers in. I had lovely long thick hair that used to blow into my face all the time – When I put my head down, I couldn’t see.
JOHN: What did you know about the character when you started?
JACQUELINE: Nothing. Except that I knew she was the Supreme Commander. What we all did, really, was make our own personalities. When it came to costume-fitting, they said, “We’ll fit you up in trousers, a safari jacket and jackboots,” and I said, “No! If you’re going to do that with this haircut, you might as well have a man. I think you should go totally opposite.”
If she is a woman who has this kind of power, then make her so feminine, so pretty, you don’t know what she’s going to do next. So, when she is sitting there looking wonderful, saying Kill him! it’s such a shock. It’s the contrasts.
JOHN: How did you build up the character? A female Adolf Hitler?
JACQUELINE: No. I don’t think she is, actually. I think she is a very caring human being. No-one would believe that. (PAUSE) No, lots of people do – It’s surprising.
JOHN: Surely she’s nasty. She wants to get our heroes and do horrible things to them.
JACQUELINE: Yes, but if she were a man doing those things, everyone would accept it. I remember there was one episode (The Harvest of Kairos, in series 3) about a sort of precious jewel called kairopan and they said: “We can’t afford to get ALL the kairopan and all the men,” so Servalan said, “Well, get rid of the men – Kill the men.”
It was logical. One had to go. She wanted the kairopan, so the men had to go because they were less important. The scriptwriter put in that line and then wrote Laugh cruelly. Rubbish! She doesn’t get a kick out of killing people at all. She does what she feels she has to do. I’m not saying that makes her the girl next door.
JOHN: Has she changed?
JACQUELINE: She changed a lot in the third series. The miscarriage episode. It started there, where her personal feelings, her woman-ness, started to come through. I remember I did a personal appearance, opening (an event) Computers For The Home, and I was surrounded by some of the top brains in the country, who were all really avid Blake’s 7 fans. They rushed home from their computers on Monday nights to watch it. One of them said that he watched the scene where I had the miscarriage and found it shocking because it was so totally unexpected.
Jacqueline Pearce and Paul Darrow laugh, filming Blake’s 7
From then on, I tried to show the female side of her as much as possible. She does like men; she’s crazy about Avon (played by Paul Darrow) – that’s why she always lets him go. Otherwise it makes no sense to have this intelligent woman chasing these people around in a spaceship, catching them, then letting them go. I had to find a motivation – which was Avon.
JOHN: Is that the only change you’ve made? – She’s more feminine.
JACQUELINE: That’s a huge change to have made.
JOHN: Any resistance from the BBC?
JACQUELINE: For the first two series, I played her the way they wanted, which was as a substitute man. And she’s not; she’s 100% female. So I tried to get more of that over.
JOHN: Do you think the audience appreciates that?
JACQUELINE: I think they do, judging from the fan letters I get. Everyone responds to her in a very positive way. Some people, particularly women, love her – I think Women’s Lib love her. I think to men she’s a challenge.
JOHN: What sort of letters do you get?
JACQUELINE: I get lovely letters. There was one letter that made me laugh so much. A man wrote and asked if he could have a full-length photograph of me with no clothes on and hastened to add that this was not for any sexual purposes! (LAUGHS)
Concept by Jim Francis for a Vogon demolition ship in BBC TV’s Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
“…virtually impossible to read science fiction”
JOHN: Are you actually interested in science fiction?
DOUGLAS: Yes and no. I always thought I was interested until I discovered this enormous sub-culture and met people and found I knew nothing about it whatsoever. I always used to enjoy reading the odd science fiction book. Having done The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Doctor Who for this length of time, I now find it virtually impossible to read science fiction, which is simply a measure of the extent of which I’ve been saturated with it. I’m a bit nervous, at the moment, of being pigeon-holed as a science fiction writer, which I’m not. I’m a comedy writer who happens to be in science fiction.
JOHN: There’s the double problem that you’re thought of as a science fiction person and as a comedy writer. So, if you wanted to write a serious book…
DOUGLAS: I don’t think I could do a serious book anyway: jokes would start to creep in.
JOHN: You’re not like a stand-up comic who, deep down, wants to play Hamlet?
“I was being fairly flippant about it”
DOUGLAS: No, you see, I actually think comedy’s a serious business, although I may not give that impression. I was being interviewed the other day by a woman from the Telegraph Magazine who’d read the new book (The Restaurant at the End of The Universe) and was asking me all sorts of questions and I was being fairly flippant about it and I think she got rather disappointed, because she expected me to be much more serious about it than I was being.
I think that comes about because, when you’re actually working on something, you have to take it absolutely seriously; you have to be totally, passionately committed to it. But you can’t maintain that if you’re going to stay sane. So, on the whole, when I talk about it to other people I tend then to be quite flippant about it. Because I’m just so glad to have got through it. (LAUGHS) You say: Ah well, it’s just that. It’s just jokes. She was saying she thought the second book was much weightier than the first, which surprised me. I wasn’t aware of that.
JOHN: Presumably the reason the first book didn’t include the last two episodes of the original radio series was that you hadn’t totally written them yourself and you weren’t totally happy with them.
DOUGLAS: Yes. I also wanted to keep those last two episodes for the end of the second book.
JOHN: Were you not totally happy with the second radio series?
BBC Radio 4’s The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “Most of the second series was first draft…”
DOUGLAS: No. You see, the first series was written and re-written and re-written and worked on very, very heavily. The second series I had to do under immense pressure while I was doing other things as well. There was an element of desperation in writing it. Also, the first time round, it was my own, private little world which only I really knew about. Writing the sequel series was like running round the street naked because suddenly it’s become everyone else’s property as well. Most of the second series was first draft, as opposed to fourth draft. So about two-thirds of the second book actually comes from episodes 5 and 6 of the first series.
The first third of it was a re-structured plotting of aspects of the second series. I think it works out better like that, although it meant I had to write the book backwards, I couldn’t get the thing started and it held me up and held me up and held me up and eventually I wrote the last bit, then the bit before that and the bit before that – and the beginning was worked out, more or less, by a process of elimination.
Special Effects designer Jim Francis’ concept for BBC TV’s Alpha Centauri
JOHN: It’s all been very successful, though.
DOUGLAS: I now have a company and everything goes through the company. It’s called Serious Productions. I decided most people I know with companies had silly names for them, so I decided I wasn’t. I was going to have a Serious name.
JOHN: How do you get out of the trap of being forever ‘The man who wrote Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy‘?
DOUGLAS: Well, by doing something else, really. I think we’ll probably do a second TV series, although it’s by no means certain. I think it’s on the cards and, if we did, then it would be a totally new series written for television rather than adapted. And that, as far as I’m concerned, would be the end of Hitch-Hiker.
JOHN: And you would go on to .. .
DOUGLAS: I want to write a book from scratch to prove that I can do it. I’ve now written two books which are based on something I’d already written. That’s not quite kosher. And I would like to write a stage-play because that was the one failure Hitch-Hiker had. And I’d like to write a film. These are all fairly wishy-washy ideas at the moment, but that’s what I’d like to do… Oh, and I’d like to be a guitarist.
(DOUGLAS ADAMS, 11 March 1952 – 11 May 2001, R.I.P.)
JOHN: There was talk of a Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy feature film.
DOUGLAS: Well, I’ve been into that twice and each time I’ve backed out. I knew we were going to be doing it for BBC TV anyway and I knew we could do it all on telly. In the first film deal that was being set up, the American guy who was going to be directing it… I began to feel we were talking about different things and he wanted to make Star Wars with jokes. We seemed to be talking about different things and one thing after another seemed not quite right and I suddenly realised that the only reason I was going ahead with it was the money. And that, as the sole reason, was not a good enough reason. Although I have to get rather drunk in order to believe that. (LAUGHS)
It had got to the stage where I just had to sign a piece of paper and would instantly have £50,000 up-front, so I was quite pleased with myself for not doing that. I thought: There’s no point in doing a film at the moment. Then the whole thing re-opened when Terry Jones of Monty Python, who’s a great friend of mine, said he’d like to think about making a film of Hitch-Hiker. So I thought That sounds like a nice idea but the original idea was to do something based fairly solidly round that first radio series and I just didn’t want to do that again. I’d done it on radio, on stage, on record, in a book and was now doing it on television. It just seemed a pointless waste of time to do the same story again on film.
So we then thought it would be much more worthwhile to do a new story. But then we had the problem of having to do a story which was, on the one hand, totally consistent with what had gone before for those who knew what had happened and, on the other hand, totally self-contained for the sake of those who didn’t. And that began to be a terrible conundrum and I just couldn’t solve it. So, in the end, Terry and I just said: “It’d be nice to do a film together, but let’s just start from scratch again and not make a Hitch-Hiker.”
(The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – no hyphen – movie was eventually released in 2005, four years after Douglas Adams’ death)
JOHN: I was surprised when I first heard about the TV series and the film because I thought the radio series was un-visualisable.
DOUGLAS: Well, obviously, there are things you lose when you move onto television in that what you actually see restricts what you imagine whereas, on radio, what you hear provokes what you imagine. On the other hand, there are all sorts of things I think are worthwhile. One of the great strengths of the television series is those wonderful animated graphics. If you’d been sitting down to do something like Hitch-Hiker for television to begin with, there are all sorts of things it wouldn’t have occurred to you to do. Like having a narrator who talks all the time: you just don’t normally have that on television.
But we were committed to that because of its success on radio. Having to translate something from one medium to another, you have to find solutions to problems which normally wouldn’t have posed themselves. Finding those solutions is interesting and that’s how we got those graphics. If you were doing a BBC television programme normally, you would just not gratuitously attempt to have one character with two heads. It just poses far too many problems. But, being committed to that, we had to do it.
BBC TV Special Effects designer Jim Francis tests his radio controlled head for Zaphod.Beeblebrox. (Photograph by John Fleming)
So they built this head which is a quite remarkable construction. It’s moulded from Mark Wing-Davey’s own head and the neck movement side-to-side and up-and-down, the eye and the mouth and the eyebrow and the cheek are all radio-controlled. It’s an extraordinary feat. Something you would not have got except in the process of translating one medium to another. You’re committed to things you otherwise wouldn’t have tackled.
JOHN: Like those wonderful computer read-outs for the book.
DOUGLAS: The computer read-outs are all animated. I’d assumed one would do it as computer graphics and actually use a real computer to do it, but apparently that is incredibly expensive. So it was done by animation, which is more effective.
JOHN: I saw the completed version of the first episode at the Edinburgh Television Festival way back in August. Why was it finished so early? Because it was a pilot?
Concept sketch of Marvin by Jim Francis for the TV series.
DOUGLAS: Well, a sort of pilot. ‘Pilot’ can mean several things. In some cases, a pilot episode is made and broadcast to see how the audience reacts to it. This was a different sort of pilot. The BBC had said: We’re committed to doing the series. But we want to do the first one separately so we can see we’re doing it right. And then we have the opportunity of changing things. In fact, that isn’t quite how it worked out. When the bills came in for the first programme, there was a certain amount of stunned shock and back-peddling on whether or not they were going to do the rest of the series. Then they said: Yes, we will go ahead, but try to be a little more careful. (LAUGHS)
DOUGLAS: I suppose so. But in that previous generation one major programme sat on the top of the pile, which was Python. I think all my way through Cambridge I desperately wanted that to happen all over again. I wanted to function as part of a group of writer-performers. But, you see, a radical change had come over the way things were organised.
The Cambridge Footlights’ ADC Theatre in 2005 (Photograph by Andrew Dunn)
In those days – the time that produced Python – the writer-performer was the kingpin. That was true in the Cambridge Footlights and in the shows that those guys then went on to do. So it was the guys themselves who were doing it and they came together and a producer was given to them just to get it onto the screen and make it work. By my day. The Footlights had become a producer’s show. So a producer is there to say what the show is going to be – a student producer or, more likely, someone who was at Cambridge two years previously who’s come back to do it. He says I want so-and-so in it and I want so-and-so to write it and they’re appointed and the producer calls the tune. I think that’s wrong.
That’s what’s true in Not The Nine O’Clock News. I’ll get into trouble for saying this but I think that’s wrong: it just makes it slightly too artificial. My year in the Cambridge Footlights was full of immensely talented people who never actually got the chance to really work together properly, because they were all working for somebody else rather than getting together. So it was very fragmented and you get on the one hand Hitch-Hiker, which is written by one person with actors employed to do it, and on the other hand Not The Nine O’Clock News, which is a producer’s show being sort of driven from the back seat. And there’s nothing central that has come out of my Cambridge generation.
JOHN: How many years of your life have you spent on Hitch-Hiker now?
DOUGLAS: Four. The first time it actually crept into my life was the end of 1976.
JOHN: Are you actually interested in science fiction?
DOUGLAS: Yes. John Lloyd and I had known each other for years and, at one stage, actually shared a flat together and kept on half-producing ideas which never really came to fruition… Actually, there was one thing! About two or three years ago, he and I wrote a couple of cartoons for a Dutch television company. They were making a series called Doctor Snuggles. (LAUGHS) It was being made internationally, so the scripts were being written by British writers and it was being performed in English with Peter Ustinov doing the voices. I gather one of the episodes we wrote actually won an award last year. I think it is eventually coming to British television and it’ll be rather curious to see it.
JOHN: What was it about?
DOUGLAS: Well, if you can imagine a cross between Professor Branestawmand Doctor Dolittle… It was quite fun working on that, actually. The writers’ fees were rip-off time. But it was immense fun – there were all sorts of things we could do in animation.
JOHN: It sounds a busy time.
DOUGLAS: The way things went, yes. I was writing Hitch-Hiker (the first radio series) for a lot of 1977 and we were making it at the end of 1977/beginning of 1978 and it went out starting in March 1978. During that time, I was living at home with my parents and the fee for writing the first radio series was miserable – something like £1,000 for the six episodes – which is not a lot for something over six months’ work. So I was thinking I’m such a slow writer and it looked as though Hitch-Hiker might do OK; but there was no precedent for a radio series meaning very much in the long run.
So I was then offered a job as a BBC Radio producer and I thought I ought to do it for the money. During the six months, Hitch-Hiker began to be a success and I was producing Week Ending, which was quite fun. In fact, the first job I was given was compiling a programme about practical jokes. I had to go out and interview Max Bygraves and Des O’Connor. I thought: What am I doing here? But I knew people had put themselves out to help me get this job and it was a staff job, not a contract job, so to leave after six months would be ridiculous.
JOHN: Then you were offered the job as script editor on Doctor Who.
DOUGLAS: Yes, which caused an immense rumpus. And I did Doctor Who for fifteen months and it was a terrible, terrible time. It was great to begin with, while I felt I was actually managing to juggle all the balls at the same time. Because, at the end of 1978, I was writing the first Hitch-Hiker book, trying to get down to writing the second radio series, which kept getting put off and put off, and I was script editing Doctor Who and having to produce lots and lots of storylines for writers.
And I was also doing one fairly major last job as a radio producer — a pantomime show for Christmas called Black Cinderella Two Goes East. Everyone involved in it – the writers and all the cast – were ex-Cambridge Footlights. So we had Rob Buckman playing Prince Charming and Peter Cook was his brother Prince Disgusting and John Cleese played the fairy godperson. John Pardoe MP played the Fairytale Liberal Prime Minister – on the grounds that you only get Liberal Prime Ministers in fairy tales. The Goodies played the Ugly Sisters, Jo Kendall played the wicked stepmother and Richard Murdoch was in it too. It was terrific, but the BBC gave it no publicity whatsoever.
Years later, a BBC publicity shot for Black Cinderella Two Goes East with John Cleese and Peter Cook
JOHN: And after that you were able to devote more time to script editing. What exactly does a script editor on Doctor Who do?
DOUGLAS: Everything. Oh god! I was very naive when I wrote Pirate Planet because I’d always assumed that, basically, writing the script is the writer’s job and coming up with all the ideas is the writer’s job. So I worked very, very hard on The Pirate Planet scripts. Then, when I came to be script editor, I discovered other writers assumed that getting the storyline together was the script editor’s job. So, all that year, I was continually working out storylines with another writer, helping yet another writer with scripts, doing substantial re-writes on other scripts and putting yet other scripts into production – all simultaneously.
When you’re doing 26 half-hours in a year, that’s a helluva lot. And, at the same time, writing the first Hitch-Hiker book. And also trying to do the second radio series. It was an absolute nightmare year. For four months when I was actually in control it was terrific – when you feel you’re actually in control of all that and actually getting it done. Having all these different storylines in your mind simultaneously. A writer suddenly phones you up at midnight and you’ve got to know exactly what he’s talking about and exactly what his problems are and sort them all out. You actually get very high on that, as long as you cope. But, as soon as you stop actually coping (LAUGHS), it becomes a nightmare.
JOHN: You finished working on Doctor Who in January 1980 and by then Hitch-Hiker had really taken off on radio and become a cult. It had even been on stage.
DOUGLAS: Well, it’s been on stage three times and the one which got all the notice was the one that didn’t work. Ken Campbell did two. His first one at the I.C.A. (Institute of Contemporary Arts, London) went very, very well. The audience was put on a hovercraft and the action all took place round the edge of the theatre. I didn’t believe it till it actually happened. We were turning away 1,500 people a night from that show, but only getting 80 people in, because that was all you could fit on the hovercraft.
Then Theatr Clwyd did Hitch-Hiker with a touring company in Wales. They would sometimes do two episodes in an evening and, at other times, the whole lot – which was a long evening. That went very well. I didn’t know anything about Theatr Clwyd: I just thought it was going to be a load of Welshmen going round saying Hello, boyoh! But it wasn’t at all; it was a very good production. So they were then offered The Old Vic but, by then. I’d already offered the stage rights to Ken Campbell, who wanted to do another production.
He decided to go for broke and put it on at The Rainbow (in Finsbury Park, London). I should have known better, but I had so many problems to contend with at that time I wasn’t really thinking awfully clearly. The thing at The Rainbow was a fiasco.
DOUGLAS: The first two productions had worked well largely because they’d been performed to relatively intimate audiences. The I.C.A. was only 80 and I suppose the largest Theatr Clwyd audience was about 400. But you put it in something the size of The Rainbow – a 3,000-seater theatre – and, because Hitch-Hiker tends to be rather slow-moving and what is important is all the detail along the way… You put it in something that size and the first thing that goes straight out the window is all the detail.
So you then fill it up with earthquake effects and lasers and things. That further swamps the detail and so everything was constantly being pushed in exactly the wrong direction and all the poor actors were stuck on the stage desperately trying to get noticed by the audience across this vast distance. If you’d put the numbers we were getting at The Rainbow into a West End theatre, they would have been terrific audiences – 700 a night or whatever. But, in a 3,000-seat theatre, 700 is not a lot. particularly when you (the producers) are paying for 3,000 seats. So the whole thing was a total financial disaster.