Tag Archives: fantasy

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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Nigel Kneale on Quatermass and BBC TV production techniques in the 1950s

Nigel Kneale, interviewed in 1990

The great Nigel Kneale, interviewed about his career in 1990

In 1979, I interviewed Nigel Kneale, creator of the iconic and highly influential Quatermass stories.

A couple of days ago, I posted my original 1979 introduction.

This is the first half of the interview.


Rudolph Cartier was your producer on all three Quatermass serials in the 1950s and on the 1954 BBC TV production of 1984. How did you meet him?

Well he moved into the BBC at the same time I did. I realised he was a man who never took No for an answer – which is a great thing. All he needed to know was that it was practically impossible and he would immediately go off and do it. There was certainly no other director-producer who would ever have got those Quatermass things on the road.

The Quatermass Experiment monster inside Westminster Cathedral (it’s a glove puppet)

The Quatermass Experiment monster in Westminster Cathedral (a glove puppet)

In those days, television was live…

Yes. You had to have film inserts, of course, if you had an exterior scene, like someone walking through a park. The studio we shot that first Quatermass (The Quatermass Experiment) in was that old one at Alexandra Palace, where the cameras were literally the oldest electronic cameras in the world. They were the ones that were put into commission in 1936.

How did Quatermass start?

It was really an accident. They had a gap in the schedule and somebody said Oh! You must write something! So I wrote it (a six-part serial) as far as I could and it was being transmitted before I’d actually written the end of it. It was not a rave success. I dug up old notices recently and they’re quite funny because they say: This dreary programme started last night – it’s scientifically incorrect… and so on. Now, of course, it’s been transmuted into having been a great success.

Outrage was expressed in the House of Commons about the BBC’s version of 1984 with Peter Cushing & Donald Pleasance

Outrage was expressed in the House of Commons about the BBC’s version of 1984 with Peter Cushing & Donald Pleasance

You did 1984 after that.

I suppose they felt that, if we’d done one, we could do another. Technically, that was a very difficult one indeed – to get it into a studio live. (The rats scene was on film.) In a two-hour show like 1984, you would pre-film perhaps a quarter of an hour and the rest would be live, which was very heavy going.

The play caused a furore (in particular because of the horrific scene with the rats). Questions in the House of Commons.

Yes! It was a question of lying low after that one. Nothing like it had ever hit television before. They tended to use three-act stage plays and you got little intervals between the acts. Very well done and beautifully acted, but a little bit sedate. What you didn’t get was a purely television-type narrative, where you intercut in the middle of scenes: the thing that you do in any film script. That was new. And, I suppose, if one started writing in those terms, immediately the thing had far more impact.

You were interested in that technique.

I suppose I’d have liked to write films but, at that time, it was all locked up firmly in a closed shop. I could no more have got a (union) card to write film scripts than to fly. So I stuck to television.

You didn’t script the feature film version of the Quatermass Experiment?

No. There was the usual hurried deal by Hammer Pictures with some American people and they insisted on having an American actor and an American adaptor. So this chap came over who worked out some nonsense which turned my poor old Quatermass into a screaming, shouting person – probably like the last film producer he had worked for. It had no control over it at all. I still see that thing turn up and I hate it.

The feature film version of Quatermass II

The cut feature film version of Quatermass II

But you did co-script the movie of Quatermass II.

Well, there were some changes to the script – cuts – so it came out like it did.

Why the cuts?

The TV version was six half-hour episodes and they all over-ran by anything up to ten minutes. There was no way the BBC could stop us – except by taking us off the air – because we were live. We knew this and took a chance.

When you tried to compress those six episodes into a 90-minute film version, a lot had to go and too much went and the substitutions were not very clever. The characters are so cardboard you literally have to strain yourself to tell one from the other. It seems to me to be a lesson in how not to do it.

A special effects man applies titanium tetrachloride to make an actor smoke in the movie of Quatermass II

Special effects man applies titanium tetrachloride to make an actor smoke in the Quatermass II film

Quatermass II was about the evils of science…

No – not science. I’m not a bit anti-science, only occasionally some scientists. After all, old Quatermass himself is one: perhaps a bit more sensitive to his responsibilities than some. In the new serial (transmitted by Thames TV in 1979 simply as Quatermass), his main ally (Dr Joseph Kapp)  is also a research scientist. Even Kapp’s wife is a qualified archaeologist. The whole of the fourth Quatermass is about a last-ditch use of logic and dwindling technological resources, pitted against suicidal mysticism.

Quatermass II was about the evil of secrecy. It was a time when mysterious establishments were popping up: great radar establishments and nuclear establishments like Harwell and Porton Down for germ warfare. All the Quatermass things have been very much tied to their time.

Quatermass and The Pit was written at a time (1958) when there was a lot of building going on. So I thought, well, you dig down to an enormous depth and find a spaceship. Immediate recognition.

Quatermass and The Pit terrified me as a child

The BBC TV’s Quatermass and The Pit terrified me as a child

It absolutely terrified me when I saw it as a kid on television.

Well, we always really aimed at an adult audience for these things. And we hoped that the kiddies would be in bed. It was made very clear that this was not for children. I don’t mind frightening adults. They can take it. But not small children, simply because they haven’t the resources of fact in them to sort out what’s real and what’s unreal.

If a little six-year-old is confronted with some nightmare situation, that little creature is at the mercy of all your special effects, because he hasn’t really been in the world long enough to know what is real. And if he sees some dreadful thing – an apparition appearing out of the floor – he’s not to know that it’s been made by Jack Kine and Bernard Wilkie (of BBC Visual Effects). He thinks it may really happen to him and it may happen in his bedroom tonight. That’s not a thing to play with.

Do you find that Quatermass is an albatross around your neck?

Well, a little bit. It’s like an actor being in a series: you get stuck with the image. But I think the worst thing is what people expect things to be – the word ‘horror’. The Quatermasses were never meant to be ‘horror’ stories. There’s more humour than horror in them, I hope – certainly that applies to this new one.

The stars of Beasts - with a non-beast in the middle

Beasts – with (in middle) a non-beast

I liked your Beasts stories for ATV.

I liked them very much indeed.

There weren’t actually any beasts in them.

No! That was the trick! That you would never SEE a beast.

The series had very ordinary settings: a supermarket, a living room.

I always feel that the most interesting ‘strange’ thing has to have an ordinary setting. Once you have Dracula’s castle, it’s totally dead: you’ve just brought in a huge, tatty, cobweb-hung cliché. Whereas, if it just happens in somebody’s house, in a room like this, in my living room, then it can be very upsetting indeed.

The Thames TV production of the fourth Quatermass serial

Thames TV production of 1979 Quatermass serial aka The Quatermass Conclusion

There was a psychological strangeness in your play The Road.

Oh, it’s a favourite of mine. It’s only a little play, but it’s interesting. It’s set in the 18th century, but with a group of people doing what they imagine to be a scientific investigation – trying to bring rational minds to bear in The Age of Reason on what appears to be a haunting in a wood. Terrible noises are heard, which are extremely upsetting.

What they’re actually hearing is a motorway in our time on which a huge traffic jam has occurred, caused by people trying to escape from thermonuclear war. It ends with a nuclear blast which has actually blown itself back in time to the 18th century and produced a kind of back-reflection, a ripple. So these people have no conception of what they are hearing… The terrified voices on the motorway, people trying to escape… It’s all completely recognisable to us: it’s all in our terms. But they don’t know what it means.

… CONTINUED HERE

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How a US comedian and Jewish blogger ended up in a Japanese designer suit being stalked by a cannibalistic baby

One of Larry Cohen’s quirky masterpieces

One of Larry Cohen’s quirky masterpieces

I recently mentioned on Facebook my admiration for the talents of movie writer-director Larry Cohen who, among many other things, was ‘murder consultant’ on the TV series Columbo. I am particularly keen on the quirky God Told Me To (a very odd film about random killings in which the title actually IS the story) and Q – The Winged Serpent (about a South American flying lizard god which lives atop the Chrysler Building in New York).

It turned out that my Facebook Friend comedian Steven Alan Green had – among his many other careers as writer, producer, performer and currently radio show host and comedy blogger for the Jewish Journal… actually appeared in a Larry Cohen movie – as a stand-up comic in the horror film sequel It’s Alive III: Island of The Alive.

Radio host and podcaster SAG

Radio host, podcaster, comic, producer, actor SAG (Photograph by Dan Dion)

How did that happen?

“I was working at The Comedy Store in Hollywood as a comedian, but also answering the phones,” says Steven Alan Green, “and Larry Cohen calls on a Sunday and asks for ‘the talent department’ to get a comedian to come down that night and play a comedian in his film.

“I told him there was only me on the phone and he asked me. So I called the talent coordinator at home and he told me to take the job.

They met at Santa Monica pier...

After they met at Santa Monica pier…

“So, I got down to the Santa Monica pier and was hired as ‘an extra’. But, since I had lines (improvising a stand-up act) I asked Larry about ‘Taft Hartley-ing’ me – meaning, since I was speaking in a Screen Actors’ Guild union production, he could do the paperwork to get me into the union.

“He agreed to do this if I would come in and ‘loop’ – recording my dialogue in a studio another day – which I did.”

“How long did the filming take?” I asked Steven Alan Green.

“Just one afternoon and into the night,” he told me. “They didn’t mic me during the film shoot, except when I talked with the stand-up comedy mic on set.

“So, I end up in this recording studio in Hollywood, looping my stand-up set, just saying whatever comes to mind. Larry just said to wing it, then to get him a coffee. One of the things I said was So, here’s my impression of Steven Alan Green…. and Larry left that line in the final film.

“So, if you go to this clip on YouTube and get to the scene that starts about the 4min 11sec mark and turn up the volume, there are two comedians on stage… I’m the one closest to the camera who says to Michael Moriarty: You got an act to go with that suit, sir?”

“How would you describe the movie?” I asked.

“Ah,” replied Steven Alan Green. “A horror film with Apocalyptic implications predicated on the notion that Youth are always dangerous.”

“Was Larry normal?” I asked.

“What’s normal?” said Steven Alan Green. “He was a little too normal for the type of films he makes. Friendly, hands-on. I mean, he was the one who called the Comedy Store looking for a stand-up comedian for his film. What director does that?”

“Did you,” I asked Steven Alan Green, “make any good contacts during the filming or was there any follow-up from appearing in the movie?”

“One of the cannibalistic babies started stalking me,” replied Steven Alan Green.

“Anything you want to plug?” I asked.

Jerry Lewis is considered a comic genius in France

Jerry Lewis considered comic genius in France

“My new radio show and live podcast Stage Time with Steven Alan Green… and The Laughter Foundation, which has a big benefit planned for the Spring in San Francisco… and my blog for the Jewish Journal… and I Eat People For You Like Breakfast! my famed and infamous one-man show about my bringing Jerry Lewis to the London Palladium. I’m doing that show at The Marsh in San Francisco next Wednesday and on December 4th…”

“What does being blog writer for the Jewish Journal involve?” I asked.

“I write what I want and they publish it,” said Steven Alan Green. “My blog is called Enjoy the Veal and I review live stand-up as an art form and write open letters to Jerry Lewis. I try to review comedians’ shows in the ideal – somewhere between what they were trying to achieve and why they didn’t.”

“In the Larry Cohen movie,” I ventured, “did you choose your own costume?”

“What are you saying?” Steven Alan Green shot back. “That was my comedy outfit! A 3-piece Japanese designer with trainers. I mean, Doh!”

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Critic Kate Copstick attacked in Kenya

I have received a reaction to yesterday’s blog, in which I wrote about the frustration of trying to enter a London Evening Standard competition to take a flight into space, about a woman standing next to a Post Office pillar box, about comedian Bob Slayer in his underpants and about an excellent performance in London by Red Bastard, the talk of the recent Edinburgh Fringe.

Today, I am off to Leamington Spa for one of the occasional ‘Auction of Horrors’ run at The Old Elephant House in that most refined of towns. On the auction list today are 367 items including an animatronic alley cat, a vampire killing kit, a painting of the Kray Twins, letters from the Titanic, a human kneebone walking stick and Wasp Boy’s swallowed sword from the Circus of Horrors. The Old Elephant House bills itself as, among other things, “exclusive sellers of stage-used Circus of Horrors props, costumes and memorabilia”.

Circus of Horrors poster in the auction

A very non-PC Circus of Horrors poster – It is in the auction

Fantasy and quirkiness are entertaining.

I have to leave early to drive up to Leamington Spa which leaves little time to write this blog.

Fortunately, a message arrived from Kenya which I think is worth printing.

It was from comedy critic Kate Copstick, who oft-times pops up in this blog and who runs a Kenyan charity called Mama Biashara. As well as health care projects, Mama Biashara helps poor people (especially women) set up their own small businesses which may give them a lift to a better life. Copstick spends a large percentage of her time (unpaid) working for the charity in London and Kenya, where she has been for the past few weeks.

Mama Biashara’s Kate Copstick

Critic Kate Copstick in Kenya

The message from Copstick is complimentary. Normally that would preclude it from appearing. But what she says is:

Thank you for the blogs. They are keeping me sane here. Been robbed while I slept by a thief who hid in the house where I was staying, had to flee armed robbers waiting outside a workshop to get me, had mothers with sick children being threatened that of they let the Mzungu (white person) help them there will be ‘consequences’ and last night I was gang mugged by about 15 young guys while an entire traffic jam of people looked on. Not my best visit. Will tell all exclusively to you as soon as I stop having flashbacks.

This perhaps puts my jolly trip to Leamington Spa today for the ‘Auction of Horrors’ into a more realistic perspective of inconsequential superficiality.

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Comic Sarah Hendrickx has a mid-life crisis & plans to ride Gérard Depardieu

(This was also published by the Indian news site WSN)

Sarah Hendrickx yesterday

Sarah Hendrickx yesterday – from dreadlock kid to Depardieu

Comedian Sarah Hendrickx is 45, twice divorced, a mum of two, grandmother of twins and an expert on autism – she has published five books on the subject (plus one on student cookery).

She trains professionals – care workers, doctors, psychiatrists, foster carers, teachers – who have to deal with autistic people.

“And when you were a kid?” I asked her yesterday.

“Council house kid,” she said. “Scholarship. Private school. Croydon. Left at 16. Went to live in squats. For years and years, I was a squatter. Squatting in London in the early 1980s, as soon as I left school. Dropped out completely. Punk. Got pregnant. Lived in a van with my daughter. Dreadlocks. Dog on string. Travelling around a bit. Moved to Devon. I’ve only looked sensible in the last ten years. I’m a bit of a late starter.”

“And you have Tourette’s Syndrome,” I said.

“Yes,” Sarah said. “Facial ticks. Eye ticks. I used to blink around 100 times per minute. Now I have Botox injections around the eyes on the NHS – I get free Botox, which is what every middle-aged woman wants, isn’t it? But it’s a horrible, horrible process.”

“And you’re an international expert on autism,” I said.

“Apparently so,” said Sarah.

“Because…?” I asked.

“Because I’ve written books, I guess,” she replied. “And because not that many people know that much about it.”

“You’re autistic yourself?” I asked.

“Yes. The only people who really understand it are people with it, because it’s about a different neurology. Even people who are married to it don’t really understand it, because it’s a whole different way of seeing the world. It’s all about cognitive processing. It’s much easier to have set rules about something. There’s no grey. Everything’s black and white, because that makes your life easier and calmer. The logic is not necessarily perfect logic, but it’s your own logic. There’s always a logic; it may be a flawed or a skewed logic, but it’s not random thinking. You can’t make judgments very well, because judgments are grey.”

“But isn’t the whole thing about performing comedy that you can suddenly take off on a flight of fantasy?” I asked.

“Not my comedy,” said Sarah. “Because I have no imagination. I don’t get the surreal humour. The Mighty Boosh. I don’t get that at all. Oh I have a fish and you have binoculars! Really? Why is that funny? My comedy is all true.”

Hans Asperger in Vienna c 1940

Hans Asperger working in Vienna, c 1940

Asperger’s Syndrome interests me,” I told her. “Robert White, who won the Malcolm Hardee Comedy Award a couple of years ago, has it.”

“There was research on stand-up comics a few years ago,” Sarah told me, “which found many were quite unusual in standard personality-type profiles. They might be extrovert on the stage but, in their personal lives, they were socially awkward.”

“I’ve found with quite a few of the comedians I’ve tried to help,” I said, “that they’re extrovert on stage but do they want to publicise themselves? No they bleeding don’t. They want to hide in a cave rather than be interviewed.”

“Well,” said Sarah, “you stick me in a networking event or a party… I’ve been to autism events as a speaker and I’m the one out of 300 people who’s hiding round the corner because I just can’t bear to be visible.”

“So how can shy people who want to hide away be comedians?” I asked.

“Because,” explained Sarah, “they stand in front of people with a microphone, a script, a set period of time to talk and a plan of what they’re going to talk about and, when they’ve had enough, they get off. It’s not a two-way dialogue. It’s not socialising.

“My experience of the comedy circuit is it’s like a special interest group. Most people aren’t the traditional type of friends. We turn up and say Done any gigs lately? How you gettin’ on? What you doin’ next week? There’s very few other comedians, for example, who know the names of my children or what I do for a living or where I’m going on holiday – which is my understanding of what friendship is supposed to be about. But that suits me fine.

“I think the comedy circuit includes a whole bunch of people who don’t have many ordinary friendships – we are, after all, people who are happy to spend all their weekend evenings away from their loved ones, driving round the country by themselves. That totally fits autism or, at least, it’s a lifestyle that suits someone like me very well.

“To me,” Sarah continued, “comedy is a puzzle. It’s like a scientific experiment. These are the words. This is my material. Did it work? Feedback from the audience tells me whether it did or not. If it didn’t, I go away and try to work out why and try to fix it. To me it’s a system. Trying to write the perfect joke, the perfect set, trying to analyse it. It’s all about analysing it. I never go home and worry about having had a bad gig, because it’s nothing to do with ‘me’, it’s to do with ‘that’ which I’ve created. I am separate from ‘that’.”

“So,” I asked, “if you get a bad audience reaction, it’s not a personal rejection, it’s a rejection of the product you created?”

“Yes,” agreed Sarah, “it’s like baking a cake and it didn’t taste very nice. I don’t have any emotion in it at all.”

“So why did you want to be a comedian in the first place?”

“Oh,” said Sarah, “that’s a long story about wanting to be an actor as a child. I got pregnant at 18. I got a place to do Drama at Exeter. I got down there with my daughter aged three. I realised that drama courses and three year olds do not go together. I couldn’t do the course and that was the end of that.”

“So you were a frustrated performer?”

“Very much so. Now I’ve got a 25-year-old daughter and two grand-children and a 16-year-old son who lives at home. When my son got to the point where he was able to be left on his own, I took myself off and started doing a bit of comedy.”

“And now you’re preparing to do your first solo Edinburgh Fringe show in August,” I prompted.

“Yes. It’s called Time Traveller.”

“Why?”

Scene of horror - Sagrada Familia in Barcelona

Scene of Sarah’s panic attack – Sagrada Familia in Barcelona

“It’s about going back into my own past to an event which happened to me about twelve years ago. It was a pretty unfortunate time of my life. I was camping in Spain with my now ex-husband and kids. My mum had just died. I went up the Sagrada Família in Barcelona, had a giant panic attack, got agoraphobia, got relatively disabled by that though not house-bound.

So it’s kind of going back through that and saying Well, I was always a bit of an anxious kid and a bit of an odd kid. This thing happened. It all got worse. Stuff about my marriage. Stuff about my kids. Then this moment of clarity where I decide what I need to do is go back to Barcelona and sort all this shit out. And then I decide to go by bicycle.”

“And you are actually doing that?”

“Yes. I’m going to cycle to Barcelona at the end of May.”

“How far is it?”

“800 miles.”

“Have you done something like that before?”

“No.”

“And you’ve decided to do it, because…”

“I’m having a mid-life crisis. I’m just scared of everything. That’s the general premise. I need an adventure. I bought my bicycle off eBay. It’s called Gérard, after Gérard Depardieu. And I’ve written a song for the show.”

“You can play the guitar?” I asked.

“No,” said Sarah. “Playing the guitar when you can’t play the guitar is quite liberating.”

“I would pay to see this free show,” I said. “Have you practised for the bicycle ride by putting a scouring pad under your bottom and rubbing it backwards and forwards?”

“No. I haven’t even been on my bicycle for four months or so. I keep looking at my bicycle and thinking Ooh. I really should have a little go on it.”

“Will you be stopping at hotels along the way?”

“No. Camping. On my own.”

“Where will your camping equipment be?”

“On panniers.”

“Mmm…” I said.

“I know,” said Sarah. “It’s mad. I’ve never been camping on my own. I’m terrified. I’m terrified of everything. I’m terrified of being on my own. I’m an absolute weed. This is for the Edinburgh Fringe show but it is also because… well, I have been a mum since I was 19, my kids are now grown-up. This is genuinely a mid-life crisis. It’s the first time I’ve had the chance to do anything like this in my life, really.”

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“The Avengers” writer on directing for TV and film and un-made vampire films

Prolific TV & film writer Brian Clemens

Recently, I have posted a couple of blogs comprising parts of an interview I did with writer Brian Clemens in 1979. It was published in issues 29 and 30 of Starburst magazine.

In Part One, he talked about his background and the early Avengers TV  series. In Part Two, he talked about the style of The Avengers and about internationalising shows. This is Part Three of that interview…

***

Although Brian Clemens claims to have lived a bland life, it has been pretty tough. For ten years he was married to an ex-model called Brenda; they divorced in 1966. Then Diane Enright, Diana Rigg’s stand-in for the 1965-1967 Avengers series, was with Clemens for ten years. But, in 1976, she committed suicide. There was also a particularly acrimonious and very expensive court case in 1975 when Clemens accused writer Terry Nation of copying his idea for the Survivors TV series.

Clemens claimed he had registered the series format with the Writers’ Guild in 1965 and asked the High Court “to rule that the ideas were his property and told in confidence to Mr Nation between 1967 and 1969”. Nation and the BBC defended the case. To this day, both Clemens and Nation believe they were the innocent party and are reticent on the subject – neither will talk about the case except off-the-record.

One thing Clemens will talk about, though, is the astonishing fact that he seldom pre-researches any facts for his highly-detailed plots:

“I don’t really believe in research,” he says. “Usually I do the plot and then go back and research it. And it’s strange, really, because I’m usually 99% right. It’s curious that a layman’s knowledge is usually enough. After all, though, if you’re writing something about science, it’s got to ultimately appeal to a layman, so it works like that.

“I did a fringe theatre play about the Moors Murders which had a certain amount of success at the King’s Head and the Rock Garden (two London fringe theatres). And, as a result of the publicity, I met the Chief Constable of Lancashire who was in charge of the case. There were certain things I’d put in the play which were not in the public domain at all – I’d invented them – and it turned out they were absolutely true. That was only interpreting the known facts, really, from a dramatic point of view.”

Clemens directed the play but what he would really like is to direct another film.

“I could have done The New Avengers or The Professionals on TV or something,” he says. “But that’s not really… I’m not diminishing it… But I think you’ve got to be a really experienced director  to put anything on screen in ten days that means something. Having only directed one film (Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter, 1972) I’d probably direct a very bad Avengers under those circumstances. You need plenty of preparation time.”

A few years ago, Clemens was quoted as saying that TV directors don’t have a visual imagination, so he was starting to write visual directions into his scripts. But this is not a true reflection of his views. His point is much more subtle:

“I don’t think they’re idiots,” he says. “I think the system’s idiotic. Within (video) tape TV, they never get a chance to develop a visual sense. (Director) Desmond Davis told me that the difference between tape and film is that, with tape, you have to place the camera always just not quite where you want it to be, This is because a taped show is shot ‘live’ with three or four cameras which can get in each other’s way; film is shot with a single camera and each angle is shot separately”.

Clemens also believes “the machinery behind tape means that a director is always subjugated to the system and so never gets a chance to develop his own style. Filmed series like The Sweeney and The Professionals have probably liberated new directors more, in a few weeks, than they ever got in years in tape. You see, I believe that there is ultimately only one place a camera should be in viz a viz a certain scene or emotion.

“You just have to watch any Hitchcock movie to find that out. (Director) John Ford never zoomed in his whole career – a cut from wide to close-up is so much more incisive and more controllable too – and he rarely panned either. He just composed wonderful shots, played scenes within the shot, then cut to the next bit.”

Another factor which limits creativity on material shot exclusively for television is, according to Clemens, the internal restriction imposed by unrealistic time-schedules. He gives as an example any episode of his Thriller series (made by ATV).

The title sequence of Brian Clemens’ Thriller series on ITV

Each Thriller, he says, is made up of plot and atmosphere and, like a good joke, depends very much on exact timing:

“All the Thrillers I did I could improve 50% with an extra day and a half of editing. You see, you’re taken over by the system, where you edit from A-Z. As the time runs out, the last reel – which is the most important – is the one you’re doing quickly. And over that 3-day edit, you might have three film editors. Now that’s rather like having Van Gogh and his brother and sister paint a portrait and I don’t understand that.

“It offends me, because it means that what they’re putting on screen they don’t really give a shit about. If they really did, they’d say We can’t have three editors! It’s got to be one man. I mean, that’s traditional in all the media: you don’t change the director or the star of a stage play halfway through. It’s exactly the same. Getting back to the thing I said about television directors… There are some film directors… Lean, Ford, Kurosawa… if I see a shot of their work I can tell it’s theirs. You can’t say that about many television directors. If any.”

Clemens was involved in scripting major movies early in his career, such as Station Six Sahara (1964) and The Peking Medallion (1964 aka The Corrupt Ones) but it was not until after And Soon The Darkness (1970), which he also produced, that he decided he really wanted to be a director himself.

“My business partner (Albert Fennell) said You should have directed it and suddenly I thought Yeah, perhaps I should have done. I knew I could have directed it better. Then I wrote and produced a film for Hammer – Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971) – and, in the meantime, we wrote an original screenplay called Buff where Bryan Forbes (then Head of Production at ABPC) agreed I would direct. Then he was thrown out, so I was left with the script and that became Blind Terror (1971 aka See No Evil) with Mia Farrow, which Dick Fleischer directed.”

Clemens got his chance to direct when Hammer accepted his storyline for Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter (1972), now a cult film.

Captain Kronos reflected Brian Clemens’ desire to direct

“The name Kronos is Greek for Time,” says Clemens, “and I thought that, if the idea took off, I’d be able to move him through the centuries. A whole series of films. I even had some follow-up stories.”

For Clemens, Kronos represented the return of the film hero.

“You see,” he says, “in all the Dracula films, Dracula’s the hero so you’re rooting for a villain and you know he’s going to end up staked through the heart. I thought Well, it’s good to change the emphasis and have a proper hero. So I invented Kronos, who’s a swashbuckling character with a hunchback aide and he picks up a beautiful bird (Caroline Munro) along the way and they’re vampire hunters.

I think why people such as the Time Out reviewers like it is because I turned the genre upside down and had a speech from the hunchback which really liberated all vampire films. A guy says But these girls were drained of youth. They die very old. They can’t be vampires. And the hunchback, who’s the authority, says There are as many species of vampire as there are beasts of prey. Their method and motive of attack varies and so does the way you kill them. Some you can’t kill with a stake through the heart; some you have to kill by decapitation or hanging, drowning and so on.

“It’s a super scene in Kronos where they have a vampire, tie him to a chair, put a stake through his heart and he lives and they hang him and burn him and they gradually find out he’s got to be stabbed with a piece of holy steel. It did liberate the vampire lore.”

The film is a combination of Errol Flynn swashbuckler and Hammer horror. It climaxes in a three-minute sword fight between Kronos and the vampire.

“It’s got this marvellous moment,” says Clemens, “where Kronos stabs him with the wrong sword and this vampire walks around with this rapier through him. There’s quite a bit of humour in it.”

Tragically, Hammer/EMI kept the film on the shelf for two years, not releasing it until 1975 and then giving it poor distribution as part of a double feature. Clemens is uncertain why his film was treated in this way but thinks it was probably “a tax loss/tax shelter thing”.

He says: “I really enjoyed Kronos. I was on a peak then. I was ready to go into another thing and make it better, but it didn’t happen. I was hoping to make another Kronos adventure, but then I got into Thriller for TV – I did 43 of those, which is quite a lot, really. They’re 90 minutes each in America – 72 minutes running time – which is quite a lot of writing.”

Nonetheless, Clemens is so prolific that, at the end of the series, he still had another 20 plots lined up and ready to go. He says he enjoyed doing the Thriller stories and found them pleasant and rather easy to do: “Easy because they weren’t locked into running characters and you could just let things happen as you wanted.”

Plotting comes quite easily to him: “If, in a one-hour show, you’ve got four highspots, you’ve just got to link them. Sometimes it can be just a single brilliant idea. I mean, with Alien, people just went to see the thing burst out of his stomach; they didn’t really know what the rest was about. With The Exorcist, they went to see the bloke puked-on. In Bullitt, it was the car chase.”

TO BE CONTINUED… HERE 

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“The Avengers” was like a Doris Day comedy – says writer Brian Clemens

The Avengers’ style was dictated by the budget

In 1979, I chatted to writer Brian Clemens, the man behind British TV successes The Avengers and The Professionals. The interview was published in Starburst issues 29 & 30.

Yesterday I posted the first half of the first part of that interview. Now the second half…

* * * * *

The two words that epitomise everyone’s memories of The Avengers are visual style. How did that develop? According to Brian Clemens an important factor was economics.

“A lot of the evolution of the style was really because they didn’t have any sets. (Director) Peter Hammond was always shooting through wine glasses because, if he moved the camera over here, they didn’t have any windows or walls. A great deal of the evolution of the style was pure economics.

Women could be tied but not killed

“But, having seen the way it was going, when we started making the shows on film (with the Diana Rigg series) I introduced certain ground rules: that there shouldn’t be any blood, that women shouldn’t be killed and the streets should only be populated with people in the plot. They tended to be empty streets because if you put Steed, who is an anachronism – a pantomime character – alongside any reality, then you’ll stop believing in him.

“It’s really in the mould of a Doris Day comedy, where there are no upstairs rooms. The world of fantasy only works if you totally believe in the world it’s enclosed in and we tried to do that in The Avengers. In some of the plots we broke the rules. We did have one where it was necessary to show ordinary, busy streets in order to then say Now there’s nobody there. Generally speaking, we abided by the rules, but the rules were always totally flexible. One could always bend the rules for the sake of an exceptional plot.”

Another part of The Avengers’ style was the inversion of the dramatic cliché.

“We did that an awful lot,” says Clemens, “like Sherlock Holmes planting clues. And we had a marvellous teaser once with the body outline marked out on the floor and this chap comes in, they shoot him and he falls into the outline. We were always doing that sort of thing.”

Co-stars included Arthur Lowe (later star of “Dad’s Army”)

The series got more and more bizarre and, as well as debunking Sherlock Holmes, famous film plots started turning up – High Noon, The Maltese Falcon and Tarzan movies were just some.

“At one time,” says Clemens, “the premise was that once we attacked a subject nobody could ever do it again for real. But, again, we were ahead of our time and it didn’t totally work in international terms because, when you got to the Teutonic masses or the mid-West, they were all taking it for real. Today I think it would have a completely different impact.”

Throughout the various Avengers series, Clemens’ influence was considerable. On the early videotaped series, he had just been an occasional writer. After the Honor Blackman series, he was offered a job as general videotape producer-director at ABC Television. He turned this down when he was offered a job as script editor and associate producer on the new filmed Avengers series starring Diana Rigg.

“What they wanted,” he explains, “was someone who knew The Avengers and knew film and I was the only person who was qualified.”

Today he has no regrets about turning down the producer-director job. “If I’d produced and directed on tape, I could be sitting with Sydney Newman now. (Former Head of Drama at ABC and the BBC.) Sydney was a brilliant man but didn’t make any impact internationally. The thing about getting involved in something that was very successful internationally was that I could go to Hollywood four years later and people had heard of me and knew what I’d done.

“I don’t hold a great brief for America. But unfortunately, as we have no film industry, if you want something to be done these days, you have to think of America as the mecca of film-making. It’s sad. I mean, five years ago, I wanted to make Britain the Hollywood of television product – which it could easily be if you could find anybody who’s willing to take a chance. And it’s not much of a chance.

“If you’re a millionaire and I say to you Give me a million pounds and I’ll invest it in television product, you might not do a Jaws, you might not make £50 million, but you wouldn’t lose your million. I don’t just mean The New Avengers. Almost anything. I don’t think anything I’ve written has been transAtlantic, but they’ve always sold internationally and I don’t just mean America. Thriller has sold in 90 countries and The Avengers has sold in something like 120 and The Professionals is selling. I don’t think indigenous success (in Britain) means quite so much. It means people in the local pub like you, but it restricts you ultimately.”

One of Brian Clemens’ Avengers scripts

One reason Clemens’ work has always sold internationally is probably because he writes strong plots and, if he has to be pigeonholed at all as a writer, he could be called a ‘plot’ man.

“Yes,” he says, “I suppose I am a plot man. Of late, I’ve tried to be more, but I am a plot man. I think that’s fair. I’ve never pretended I’m a brilliant writer, but I can think up 400 plots today, if you want them, and some will be quite new.”

So is it an innate skill?

“I think it must be, yes. Or it may be that I’ve seen so many plots I understand them so well… I understand that, if you change one brick, you’ve got a different plot.”

Another trait that often surfaces in Clemens’ work is a quirky humour.

“You see,” he says, “humour is enduring. It’s like Dickens. Nothing could be more dated than Dickens – he’s talking about social injustices that have gone 50, 60, maybe 100 years ago. But, because he’s funny and he’s warm, we still relate to him. I think modern writing and modern concepts… People are resisting being funny or warm as if making people laugh or cry weakens them. I think that’s ridiculous. It’s just as dogmatic as certaiun MGM products of the 1950s which portrayed the American way of life as it wasn’t.

“Now we’ve got another way of life (on screen) which isn’t really like that either. It’s only showing one half of the truth. I don’t believe people can survive in our society without crying or laughing. You couldn’t. How could you exist in some of those coal mining places up North or in Wales if you didn’t have that asset of being able to release the optimism within you? I think it’s terribly important.

“Over the last six or seven years on television we’ve had a lot of programmes showing that people who lived between 1910 and 1950 had a terrible time. My father and mother grew up in the East End of London just beyond the turn of the century. My father’s written about it and told me about it and I’d rather be there then than here now. I run two cars and have a good life, but his life was richer.

“He was an engineer, but he lived in a real slummy area and all his memories are rich – even the bad memories are rich. My memories are bland compared with his. I didn’t suffer and struggle at my age as he did at the same age. At the end of the First World War, my father walked something like 22 miles a day just looking for work. He didn’t like it at the time but, along the way, he met all sorts of interesting people.

“At least he knew he was alive. Sometimes I think you have to have a little bit of suffering to me made aware that you’re alive. I think the antithesis of that is California, where they’re all very much alive but many of them might as well be embalmed.”

TO BE CONTINUED… HERE

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