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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

… CONTINUED HERE

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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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Ricky Gervais – “I haven’t really watched comedy for two years”

“Live long enough to punish the world…”

A couple of nights ago, I went to a preview of the first two episodes of After Life, Ricky Gervais’ new series for Netflix – available from next Friday (March 8th). He created, wrote, directed, executive produced and stars in it,

I have never really followed his career with that much interest – mea culpa – so I was taken aback by just how a good a writer – and director – he is.

The screenings were at BAFTA and there were loud, genuine laughs aplenty: sometimes because of tiny little subtleties in the scripts. A terrifically well-made six-part series. The premise is:

“Tony (Ricky Gervais) had a perfect life. But after his wife Lisa dies, Tony changes. After contemplating taking his own life, he decides instead to live long enough to punish the world by saying and doing whatever he likes from now on. He thinks it’s like a Super Power — not caring about himself or anyone else — but it turns out to be tricky when everyone is trying to save the nice guy they used to know.”

The ending of Episode 2 was very very dark indeed and I can’t see a terrestrial broadcaster having the confidence – well, the bollocks – to commission it. Whether it is better described as a dark sitcom or a drama with comic elements is a matter of opinion. The cast is full of comedians and comedy actors – Kerry Godliman, Penelope Wilton, Roisin Conaty, Paul Kaye, Joe Wilkinson etc etc and a dog

In a Q&A after the screening, Ricky Gervais talked about the series, including why he chose that cast:


“It’s easier to tell someone to be dramatic than to teach someone to be funny”

It’s easier to tell someone to be dramatic than to teach someone to be funny. If you’ve got people who haven’t got a funny bone and you are trying to make them funny, forget it.

But, if you’ve got a comedians and you tell them, “Just do that,” they get it.

It’s not really just a sitcom; it’s a drama. 

I haven’t really watched comedy for two years. I’ve watched ‘Scandi Noir’ – The Bridge, The Killing, Before We Die, Black Lake, Greyzone. They’re amazing. The pacing’s different. Uncompromised. It’s for grown-ups.

That’s where HBO made their mark. When HBO came out, people said: “Why would I pay for stuff?” – “Well, because you can’t get The Sopranos.” on ABC. You won’t get The Wire anywhere.

Now Netflix have done that even better. They drop it all at once.

Everyone who’s interviewed me, I say they have to watch all six episodes. It’s better to watch them all at once or two or three a night. It does matter. (Each episode) does start where it left off. There is a story. It’s like a novelisation: one long story. If you don’t watch one, you’ll be a bit confused. You can’t watch them out-of-order or miss one, because everything comes back. So it’s perfect for binge watching and Netflix are the perfect broadcaster. They tick every box slightly better than anyone else.

To get final edit (in the past), I’ve had to compromise a bit. So it was BBC2 instead of BBC1 or Channel 4 instead of ITV or HBO instead of NBC.

Then Netflix come along and there are no restrictions – less than anyone – the sky’s the limit – 140 million subscribers – and they’re very generous. They even have the ‘C word’ in the trailer. That’s never been done.

I think when you get older, you just want to be more honest.

It’s about someone struggling. He doesn’t want to feel anything. He’s trying to make himself a psychopath so it doesn’t feel so terrible every day. He used to be a nice guy. He had the perfect life and that was taken from him.

Imagine if a man lost everything and he had nothing left to lose. Ooh! That’s interesting! He can do anything he wants. We are constrained, restrained every day about consequences. But, if there wasn’t any… or you didn’t care that the worst consequence was being dead… you’ve got nothing to fear. 

So that’s the journey for him though, obviously, it’s not going to be as simple as that.

The worst thing is your partner dying. He had a perfect life, didn’t care about anything else. That goes and you’ve got nothing… in his mind.

That’s why he’s saying awful things. In the split second where you think: Shall I say something? – Oh, I’d better not… He doesn’t have the ‘better not’ now. He thinks: Why the fuck not?

He’s experimenting. You know how a toddler pushes the boundaries? He’s a bit spoiled. And he’s not well. He’s in the second phase of grief. He’s depressed and he’s angry and he’s just trying to lash out to make himself feel better for a split second. He’s an owl in a trap.

The overall message is Life is amazing and you are definitely going to die so things have got to be really bad for you to blow that little gift. Is it worth living another ten years? It just might be. And I think that. That is me. I’m an atheist. We didn’t exist for 13½ billion years; then we get 80 or 90 years, if we’re lucky, of this amazing experience. And we’ll never exist again. So you don’t want to go too early but, when the really bad days outweigh the good, then I’m all for it – let’s knock it on the head.

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“The Secret Service” – Gerry Anderson’s weirdest puppet/live action TV series

The ‘real’ Stanley Unwin starred in The Secret Service

Yesterday’s blog was a profile of eccentric British performer Stanley Unwinstar of Gerry Anderson’s very bizarre and mostly forgotten 1969 part-puppet/part-live-action series The Secret Service.

Here is the first half of a 1980 interview-based article about it which I wrote for Marvel Comics’ science fantasy magazine Starburst.


The real and the puppet Stanley Unwin drove a Model T Ford

The Secret Service is the story of an ordinary English country priest, Father Unwin, and his slow-thinking yokel gardener Matthew Harding. At least, to the casual observer, that’s what they appear to be. In reality, they are Secret Service agents working under orders from BISHOP (British Intelligence Service Headquarters, Operation Priest). The BISHOP personnel communicate with their operatives via Father Unwin’s hearing aid.

On special missions. Father Unwin and Matthew use a remarkable electronic device hidden in a book left in Unwin’s care by a late parishioner. The device can miniaturise a person or object to one-third life size – thus enabling super-agent Matthew to carry out daredevil missions which would be otherwise impossible.

Problematic miniaturised Matthew and his travel case

When Matthew has been miniaturised, Father Unwin carries him about in a specially-converted suitcase. The case has a chair and periscope so that Matthew can sit and watch the world go by. He can talk to Father Unwin through the hearing aid and has his own hearing aid for communication during missions.

This may seem a little strange.

The series becomes even more outlandish when you realise that it starred both the real ‘live’ Stanley Unwin and a Stanley Unwin puppet (made by Terry Curtis).

Although live-action hands had been used for close-ups in previous Gerry Anderson series, this was the first time that the team had used full live-action mixed with puppets. It was even more complicated because miniaturisation was an integral part of the plot.

Art director Keith Wilson explained to me: “The whole series had special problems because, when he (Matthew) was small, you had to have large sets. When he was large, you had to have small sets. When he was small, he was a puppet and everything else was real. But, when he wasn’t small, he was still a puppet and everything else was puppet sized.”

This was further complicated by the fact that, on location long-shots, the real Stanley Unwin was seen driving a real Model-T Ford. In close-ups, a puppet Unwin was seen driving a radio-controlled miniature model-T.

The miniature Model T Ford on a real road…

Gerry Anderson explains: “For example, we had sequences where the Model-T would drive – for real – into London Airport with Stanley Unwin driving. He would stop, get out and walk into this enormous (real) departure lounge and walk up to the desk. As he walked up to the desk, we would go bang into a close-up of the puppet and they were so cleverly matched, you couldn’t tell the difference.”

Keith Wilson agrees: “It did work. It was impossible to tell the difference.”

“We were able,” says Gerry Anderson, “to do all sorts of things that we weren’t previously able to do. Again, it was an endeavour to make the puppets appear to  be walking properly.”

Executive producer Reg Hill expanded on this to me: “All that happened was that, for certain areas you’d find difficult to do with puppets, we used live-action. It wasn’t a question of a live-action film with puppets or puppets with live-action. It was a question of using whichever was more advantageous at the time. In other words, they were complementary. For ages before, we had been using live hands for inserts, for the simple reason that you can’t get puppets to move their hands, to twiddle knobs or poke buttons. So we had been half the way there previously.”

ITC produced glossy promotions but the bizarre series failed to get a full ITV network screening in UK

Keith Wilson told me he thought the basic idea was “rather good” and Gerry Anderson used exactly the same words: “It was a rather good idea”.

When I talked to the show’s producer, David Lane, he agreed: “I thought it was ingenious,” he told me. “But it was a nightmare – an absolute nightmare – because of the different scales we were using. You can imagine the problems. You’re shrinking a puppet to puppet size on a puppet set and then you’re having to build it live-action size for the puppet because he’s supposed to be a small man in a full-sized environment. And then you’re using the ‘shrunken’ puppet in a normal set. I mean, it was a very, very complicated series. We had to work it out at script stage. It wasn’t always the director who worked it out – we had to work it out at script stage.”

ITC/ATV publicity stills for the “difficult” Secret Service

And, of course, puppets are often more difficult to work with than live actors, as David Lane explains: “Everything is pre-planned in puppets. It’s no good going on (stage for shooting) and saying We’ll change that line of dialogue and we’ll do it this way because you haven’t got anyone there to change the line of dialogue. You’re stuck with what you’ve pre-recorded.”

The one thing the series did arguably have, though, was charm.

Gerry Anderson told me, “I thought it was one of the most charming series I’ve made, but then I was in love with it. It was a beautiful country church and a vicar and young Matthew who used to help out in the garden and they had their regular Sunday services. (The title The Secret Service is a pun.) 

ITC’s Production Notes for The Secret Service

Because it was so strongly connected with The Church, of course, we made sure that the missions were always Good against Evil.”

The production notes for the series say: “Father Unwin is as conscious of his  spiritual responsibilities as any other priest. If his experiences can provide him with any material for his sermons, he conveys it to his congregation in symbolic and well-disguised terms.”

He is described in the production notes as “the sort of man who normally prefers to wear a cassock and is old-fashioned enough to go to bed in a night-shirt and night-cap.”

With such an out-of-the-ordinary series, it was felt that the music, too, should be something special…

… CONTINUED HERE

This is the first episode of The Secret Service…

and the crime-fighting possibilities of miniaturisation and a mix of puppets and live action were further developed in Gerry Anderson’s later, unscreened pilot The Investigator. There are clips from The Investigator at the beginning of this online video.

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Who was Stanley Unwin in the forgotten and weird Gerry Anderson puppet series

Stanley Unwin – The Secret Service puppet

In 1980, I wrote an article, based on interviews, for Marvel Comics’ Starburst magazine about the little-remembered 1969 Gerry Anderson series The Secret Service.

The lead role was played both by the ‘real’ live version and by a puppet version of eccentric performer and ‘professor’ of gobbledegook Stanley Unwin.

The series only lasted for 13 episodes. ATV/ITC boss Lew Grade apparently thought the Americans would have trouble understanding ‘Unwinese’.

In the next two days, I will be posting my 1980 article on The Secret Service as a two-parter.

But here, first, is a reminder of who Stanley Unwin was.


When The Secret Service was produced (it was shot in 1968), Stanley Unwin was nationally famous in the UK as the inventor and chief exponent of ‘Unwinese’ gobbledegook, an intelligible nonsense language. As the star of The Secret Service he enhanced the general air of weirdness that surrounded the ITV series.

At the time, he was 57 years old. He was born in South Africa in 1911 of English parents but, following his father’s death in 1914, his mother took him back to the UK, could not cope and, by 1919, he was living in the National Children’s Home at Congleton in Cheshire.

Unwin said he thought he had read his first science fiction story under his desk at school in Cheshire. The school master caught him and he “lost an enchanting story forever”. But he maintained his interest in science fiction and became a Ray Bradbury enthusiast after reading part of The Martian Chronicles.

He studied radio, television and languages at the Regent Street Polytechnic which, coincidentally, was where I studied a (totally different) course in radio, TV, journalism and advertising half a century later.

For ten years, he ran his own business as a wireless engineer then, in 1940, he joined the BBC as a sound engineer and part-time war correspondent in the BBC’s War Reporting Unit.

He joined the BBC as a sound engineer and war correspondent

In 1947, he was the BBC technical expert chosen to go on a Royal Tour of South Africa and it was around this time that he discovered his talents for “double talk”. The story goes that he made his first, accidental, transmission, when based back at BBC Birmingham.

While testing equipment, he handed the microphone to broadcaster F.R. ‘Buck’ Buckley, who ad-libbed a spoof commentary about an imaginary sport called Fasche. Buckley then got Unwin to join in and introduced him as ‘Codlington Corthusite’. Unwin started speaking in Unwinese.

The recording was played back to two BBC producers, who added sound effects and it was eventually broadcast on the Mirror of the Month programme in 1948. This was well-received and culminated in another sketch in which Unwin, playing a man from Atlantis, was interviewed about life in the sunken city. The broadcast produced Unwin’s first fan mail, from comic performer Joyce Grenfell and this whetted his taste for showbiz.

He claimed he had developed his talent for Unwinese by telling bedtime fairy stories to his two daughters.

“I found they enjoyed the stories even more when I used double talk,” he explained. ” I was also interested in speaking like this because I had always been intrigued by the lack of communication between people when talking to each other and I realised that they listened far more attentively if you said something strangely.

“As I first used my treatment of language to amuse children to relieve the boredom of fairy stories often repeated, there was a good connection with Gerry Anderson’s puppet films”.

No nonsense: “I prefer to think of it as garbled sense.”

He claimed the reason he could talk ‘nonsense’ whose meaning could be immediately understood was because: “I prefer to think of it as garbled sense… The degree of perception depends on the listener. I believe it works partly because the sounds, inflections and rhythm seem to express ideas to the listener. There are visual components too, like facial expression and occasional hand and head movements. All these are used to communicate as in normal speech. I think a lot of it is partly heredity.”

His mother once told him that, on the way home, she had “falolloped over” and “grazed her kneeclabbers”.

Stanley, though, said: “I prefer not to get too analytical because that detracts from the imaginative side of it.”

Whatever the explanation of Unwinese, his initial broadcast for the BBC in 1948 was such a success that it led on to regular radio and TV appearances in such programmes as Beyond Our Ken and Does the Team Think?

BBC producer Roy Speer also introduced him to the comedian Ted Ray, who said simply: “I want him in my series” – The Spice of Life, co-starring June Whitfield and Kenneth Connor.

In 1956, he ventured into the film industry in the Cardew Robinson film Fun at St Fanny’s.

He became so popular that, in 1960, he resigned his job as a BBC Senior Recording Engineer and, aged 49, began a full-time showbiz career. He appeared in hundreds of TV shows, in commercials, pantomimes, the Carry On films – Carry On Regardless – and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

In 1968, the year The Secret Service was shot, he was also invited to narrate Happiness Stan, a six song fairy tale which took up the whole of Side 2 of the Small Faces’ No 1 album Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake.

When he was approached to star in The Secret Service, he saw it as a challenge to do something new: “Gerry Anderson has a wonderful imagination and I found that he and his team were in tune, so to speak, with my vehicle. This was something new. Why shouldn’t it work? It was an attempt to add a new dimension to the puppet field and the ‘all-consuming’ medium of films and TV surely needs encouragement in new ideas. It was a bit bizarre, but then aren’t many new ideas a little odd at first?”

Unwin did have some doubts about how the series would fare in the US.

“Gerry Anderson,” he said in 1980, “is a better judge of the American comprehension of Unwinese than I am, but I certainly had misgivings because of the preponderance in their population of people of non-Anglo-Saxon origins. If we assume one-third of the American population came from the British Isles, I believe that those in cosmopolitan America would largely understand.

“But it would be difficult to assess idiomatic appreciation across the States as a whole. The Secret Service never succeeded commercially. But there are some minority aspects of humour which are so strong that, in spite of their non-commerciality, they can be worthwhile. I received letters of appreciation from places like Australia, Canada and the Far East right up to last year — ten years after the series was made”.

Stanley Unwin died in 2002, much mourned, aged 90. At the church service after his death, the valediction began: “Goodly Byelode loyal peeploders! Now all gatherymost to amuse it and have a tilty elbow or a nice cuffle-oteedee – Oh Yes!”

He is buried with his wife Frances, who died before him. Their joint gravestone has the inscription: “Reunitey in the heavenly-bode – Deep Joy!”

… CONTINUED HERE

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