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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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The late Jacqueline Pearce on the Actors Studio, Blake’s 7 & “crying and crying”

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.

JOHN: Why?

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.

(BLAKE’S 7 ENDED WITH SEASON 4)

 

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Actress Jacqueline Pearce RIP: from convent to Hammer horror to Blake’s 7

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.”

JOHN: You starred in The Reptile and The Plague of the Zombies and, on both of them, you worked with make-up man Roy Ashton.

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)

… CONTINUES AND CONCLUDED HERE …

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Writer Terry Nation talks about “Blake’s 7” and how to write TV adventure series

A few days ago, I posted the introduction to and an extract from my 1978 interview with writer Terry Nation, a former comedy scriptwriter who, as well as creating the Daleks for Doctor Who, created the BBC TV series Blake’s 7 and Survivors.

In this second extract, he talks about Blake’s 7. The interview took place after the first series of Blake’s 7 had been transmitted and before the second series aired,

___________

The first series of Blake’s 7 was widely criticised for having cheap production values.

What can I say?

They looked pretty cheap.

They were. Yes, they were by any standards. I mean, you have to know the current state of the BBC. They were the best we could produce and we have never done less than our best. But, finally, if you want to buy a motor car and you can afford a second-hand 1948 Ford Anglia, that’s what you go after. So yes, OK, to the buff we are not in Star Trek’s class, but we attempted more than Star Trek ever did.

But with no decent budget.

Well, it would have been nice but that wasn’t possible – it wasn’t achievable – so you go with what you’ve got.

The secondary character of Avon seemed to me to be a far more attractive and dominant character than Blake himself.

Aaah. He (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. I enjoy watching him all the time. This is how stars emerge, I suppose: it’s the actor’s doing.

Was Blake’s 7 easier to write than Doctor Who? Presumably because it is longer it is easier to pace.

Yes. Tempo is vital. Years ago a radio producer told me that all of drama is shaped like a ‘W’. You start at a peak, but you can’t ride on that peak all the time because it’s just very boring. Hammer movies are interesting: when they do all their heavy horror sequences, somewhere in there is always the light relief.

You also tend to have two or three sub-plots going on in your series. Not just in Blake’s 7 but also in your Doctor Who stories.

Always. Always. I maintain it’s the only way to write those things and they don’t do it enough. Always my aim in episode one was Split them. Get them all going off in different directions so the moment whatever Doctor Who was doing was getting dull or he was getting to the edge of a precipice or his fingers were slipping, then cut to the other one. Cut to the other one so you’ve got this intercut situation. I think what’s happened to the Doctor Who series now is that they haven’t done that enough. I think they tell one story. They mainline it, following Tom Baker, and there isn’t enough diversion of secondary and tertiary stories. I did that (using sub-plots) in Blake’s 7 all the time.

The central idea of Blake’s 7 is wildly subversive, isn’t it?

Well, the Daleks are Mark 1. The Federation is the Daleks Mark II, if you like.

But the audience is asked to identify with rebels who are going round blowing up official installations – people who might be called terrorists.

In a way, yes, you’re absolutely right. But I disapprove entirely of that kind of political action. That’s why, in the first episode, I made The Federation so beastly and monstrous.

In the Blake’s 7 episode Bounty, starring the Irish actor T.P.McKenna, you had a community which was going to be torn apart by two internal factions fighting each other. The Federation’s plan was to send in a supposed ‘peace-keeping’ force which was, in fact, an occupying army. That sounds like you were thinking of a particular, real, situation. Were you?

Syria. It’s a political device that happens all the time. That’s what was happening at the time with Syria. (The Syrians sent a peace-keeping force into Lebanon.)

You were sneaking in a serious idea. 

Yes. But I guarantee that 99.9% of people in the world who see that show won’t see any political significance at all. Though, God knows, I’ve got to get all those people to relate to some truth, some honour or some dignity somewhere. It is not just people tearing around in spaceships, although that may appear to be what it is.

My Blake is the true figure of good. Do you know the story of the Last Crusade? – I think it’s the Third Crusade.

All these guys set off and they were really going to wipe out these heathens and they got as far as Venice, I think, and ran out of money, ran out of boats and a million other things. And the Venetians said, “Okay, fellahs, listen. There’s a Christian community over there. You’ve got the men and the arms. Go and wipe out that town and we’ll give you the boats.”

So they wiped out the Christian community so that they could get the boats to wipe out the heathen community. It’s that kind of deviousness that I see in The Federation. They have no regard for Man; they have regard only for the mechanics of Man – for that machine. It all works neatly and efficiently. It doesn’t matter what the cost in manpower; it’s the Final Solution. Get rid of the Jews and the world is going to be lovely; get rid of the gypsies and the world is going to be lovely. That metamorphosis doesn’t ever work. Finally somebody has to be on the line that says, “I, at least, am honourable and I believe in my honour.” The awful thing for me would be to find out that honour is the true evil – which would be devastating and destroy my life.

Do you find that people don’t treat you seriously as a writer because you write ‘fantasy’?

Oh, I’m never taken as a serious writer.

That must be frustrating, isn’t it? Not getting credit for hard work.

Well, perhaps. But if you’re a popular entertainer, then that’s the kind of badge you carry, I suppose. I don’t mind that too much. I mean, I have yet to prove that I’ve got something very valid and good to offer. I’ve yet to do that. I think I will, because I’m learning my craft and I’m beginning to get it right now. I think it will come. I’ve always believed I’m a late developer, so I think it’s just taking me longer. My intention always is to entertain because, if I fail to do that, I think I’ve failed to reach an audience. But, within the context of primarily entertaining, I like to say some things that I believe are valid and good and honourable, if you like. I don’t want to use the medium simply for adventure: I’d like to educate. – Oh! I take that word back! – But, all right, having said it and retracted it, you know what I mean.

To intellectually interest?

(Laughs) I wish I’d said that. But, having said it, I would never actually let that be said aloud, in a way. I hope it’s subversive in that sense. What they must see is a good entertainment. If it has an additional value, that’s terrific. That’s really what I would like to achieve.

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Terry Nation, creator of the Daleks, “Blake’s 7″ and “Survivors” really wanted to be a stand-up comedian

(A version of this piece was also published by the Huffington Post)

Yesterday, someone read my piece about Doctor Who in the Huffington Post in which I mentioned that the series’ original budget was £2,000 per show.

They pointed out to me that the BBC science fiction TV series Blake’s 7 initially inherited the special effects budget of the BBC’s (for the time) gritty, realistic police series Softly, Softly – which was £50 per show.

Blake’s 7, unlike Softly Softly, involved model space ships, explosions, physics-defying events and interstellar warfare.

It seems to me a little unlikely that Blake’s 7 actually did inherit Softly, Softly’s effects budget, because Softly, Softly ended in 1969 and Blake’s 7 started in 1978. It sounds like it might be a fan-based myth. But, to mis-quote The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “When the legend sounds fascinating, print the legend”.

It got me thinking, though, about Blake’s 7 (yesterday was a slow day) and reminded me that, in 1978, I interviewed the show’s creator Terry Nation, who also created the Daleks for Doctor Who.

The interview was published in the January 1979 issue of Starburst magazine.

Terry Nation died in 1997. As a writer, he will be remembered for those two things – the Daleks and Blake’s 7 – but he was far more interesting than that.

My introduction to the interview (with some clarifications for 2011 readers) ran like this:

_____

Terry Nation was best known for his fantasy writing, as creator of the Daleks and Blake’s 7. But it was not always that way. He originally wanted to get up on stage and be a stand-up comedian.

Born in Cardiff, he grew up during World War II. His father was away in the army and his mother was an air-raid warden, so there were times when he would sit alone in the air-raid shelter as German planes bombed Cardiff. He said he believed in the only child syndrome: “Being an only child (as he was) you have to invent your own persona and your own stories.” As for other influences, he said: “I grew up with a marvellous BBC radio service that had a thing called Children’s Hour. I read early. And I also grew up in the front row of the local Odeon cinema.”

He started his working life at eighteen, as a commercial traveller for the family furniture factory. But, aged 25, he gave up this career and moved to London with hopes of becoming a stage comedian. These hopes were dashed. As he said: “To play your best jokes and receive back absolute silence is pretty devastating.”

Eventually, a talent broker told him: “Son, the jokes are funny – it’s you that’s not.” If there was a turning point in Terry Nation’s life, then that was it.

Fortunately, he encountered the comedian Spike Milligan who saw Nation was starving, gave him £10 and commissioned him to write a Goon Show radio script. At the time, Milligan was involved in a talent agency which included Ray Galton & Alan Simpson, Eric Sykes and Johnny Speight. It was a small world and Nation’s successful comedy script led to writing work for such major comedians of the time as Peter Sellers, Tony HancockFrankie HowerdTed Ray and Harry Worth,

In all, he wrote more than 200 radio shows; he also contributed to attempted Goon Show TV spin-off The Idiot Weekly, Price 2d and to The Jimmy Logan Show and Val Parnell’s Startime. But, by that time, he had decided his comedy writing “wasn’t really very good”.

So he turned down the chance to write four episodes of ITV’s The Army Game (ironically co-starring the future first Doctor Who William Hartnell). Instead, he wrote three scripts for the ITV science fiction series Out of This World. He adapted Philip K.Dick’s Imposter, Clifford Simak’s Immigrant and wrote an original screenplay Botany Bay.

He then returned to comedy, writing for a Tony Hancock stage show in Nottingham: “I leapt at it,” Nation said, “because he was the greatest comic in the world.” At which point, “the BBC came up with this idea for this crazy doctor who travelled through time and space. They called my agent, my agent called me, Hancock said Don’t write for flippin’ kids and I told my agent to turn it down.”

Luckily, Nation and Hancock then had a ‘dispute’, parted company and Nation agreed to work on Doctor Who…. But then Eric Sykes offered him a comedy writing assignment in Sweden, so he wrote the seven episodes of the first Dalek story (The Dead Planet) in seven days and left to join Sykes.

Doctor Who first appeared on screen in 1963. Within  three weeks, it was drawing the largest audience for its time-slot in BBC history. After a four-part introductory story, The Dead Planet introduced the Daleks.

In 1965, Dalek merchandising (toys etc) reportedly earned Nation £50,000. The Dr Who and The Daleks feature film (1965) reportedly brought him in £300,000. And Daleks – Invasion Earth: 2150 AD followed in 1966. By 1977, the Daleks were still one of the four top TV toys and their creator was reportedly earning £40,000 a year from scripts.

But the Daleks were only a small part of his output.

He wrote a dozen scripts (more than anyone else) for the original ITV series of The Saint. That success led to a job as script editor and writer on The Baron TV series. He also wrote for The Champions, was script editor on The Avengers (the series which co-starred Linda Thorson), was script editor and associate producer on The Persuaders! He created Survivors and Blake’s 7.

_____

I met Terry Nation at the Reform Club in London’s Pall Mall (the base for Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days) and talked about the fantasy world which he had created. I thought he was rather shy and insecure. I think he was a new member of the Reform Club and rather over-awed by the fact a middle class boy like himself had broken into what he saw as ‘the Establishment’.

(Extracts from the interview appeared in later blogs HERE and HERE)

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