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Gareth Thomas 1945-2016

Gareth Thomas 1945 – 2016

Best known for his portrayal of rebel leader Roj Blake in Blakes 7, Gareth Thomas' acting career spanned five decades, during which he played over a hundred different roles on stage, screen and radio.

Gareth was born in Ealing, West London, but always thought of himself as Welsh. He should have been born in Wales, but his heavily pregnant mother had gone to meet his father who was in London on leave from the army. She went into labour, and so Gareth was born and had to be registered there. As soon as his mother was well enough after the birth, she took him home to Aberystwyth, and he spoke Welsh until the age of six. The family subsequently moved to London, Edinburgh and Leamington Spa.

Gareth said that he became an actor 'by accident', because he wanted to carry on being a student. He was accepted into the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA) in 1964, discovered that he really enjoyed acting and decided to see if he could make a living from it. After graduating from RADA in 1966, his first job was understudying Peter Jones in a play at the Yvonne Arnaud theatre in Guildford. He then spent four months as an assistant stage manager at the Liverpool Playhouse – a job he hated – before joining the company as an actor.

He did not want to be thought of as 'a Welsh actor', but as 'an actor who happened to be Welsh' and who could play English and Welsh characters with equal ease. This proved to be true, and over the course of his career he played numerous regional characters, including a Scottish Lawyer in the BBC series Sutherland's Law and a Yorkshire farmer in Chelworth as well as many London-accented characters. However, his two BAFTA (British Academy Film and Television Arts) nominations for Best Actor were for Welsh characters: the policeman Herbert Griffith in Stocker's Copper in 1972, and in 1984 for his portrayal of Welsh hill farmer Morgan Thomas in Morgan's Boy - a role Gareth was particularly proud of.

Gareth's first TV and film roles were in 1967, as an uncredited 'Assassin with Sunglasses' in the Avengers episode Murdersville and a non-speaking role as one of the workmen who discover mysterious remains in the London Underground in the Hammer film Quatermass and the Pit. This small part was used as the trailer for the film and led to Gareth being recognised in the street when it was shown on TV in Los Angeles.

In 1968, Gareth joined the Royal Shakespeare Company. While there, he understudied Patrick Stewart, who was playing Hector in the 1969 production of Troilus and Cressida. In later years, Gareth said that he found it fascinating that nobody seemed to have picked up on the fact that Roj Blake had understudied Captain Picard!

Throughout the 1970s, Gareth appeared in many TV series, which covered almost every genre, from classics to period drama, contemporary drama, fantasy and science fiction. Most notable among those were How Green Was My Valley, Star Maidens and the haunting Children of the Stones.

And then came Blakes 7...
There is little that can be added here to the many interviews and anecdotes that Gareth has recounted over the years. Suffice to say that it was his skill and dedication to his craft that made the character of Blake so convincing, and the first episode in particular such compelling viewing. After Gareth's departure at the end of Season 2, the series continued to bear Blake's name, and the character cast a long shadow over the subsequent adventures of the Liberator and Scorpio crew. Gareth agreed to come back for the final episodes of the third and fourth series, and his request that he be 'definitely killed off' at the end of Season 4 resulted in one of the most powerful endings to any TV series.

After leaving Blakes 7, Gareth returned to the Royal Shakespeare Company and continued his prolific career on stage, screen and audio.

He had a regular role as Area Commander Bulstrode in the long-running series London's Burning. Bulstrode was based on a real-life fire chief who retired, and the character was written out in 1994. Gareth's last line was, "I'm thinking of retiring at the end of the year." However, he went on to ad-lib, "That's a good way to write yourself out of a series," and landed himself in trouble with the director for wasting film!

In 1985 Gareth played Major General Horton in the BBC's civil war drama series, By the Sword Divided, in which he had a sword fight with the actor Timothy Bentinck. The two met again in 2013 when recording the Big Finish all cast B7 Audio Battleground, in which Timothy played Abel Garmon. Timothy not only remembered the fight, he had brought it to show Gareth on his camera! It was an impressive sword fight that had taken a whole day to shoot, and the props and action crew had said afterwards that it was the best television fight they had ever seen.

In 1987 Gareth played Owen Edwards, a Welsh rebel leader in Knights of God, a futuristic retelling of the Arthurian saga that starred Patrick Troughton as Arthur. Gareth said that despite the potential for comparison to Blakes 7, Edwards was a different type of character to Blake, "more of an undercover agent." He enjoyed working with Patrick Troughton, and said that when he told Patrick that he was going to join the English Shakespeare Company touring with the Henry plays, Patrick replied: "Good God, I don't do any more theatre - all that shouting in the evenings! I'd rather have my feet up and the dog beside me, with a glass of whisky."

Gareth had many guest roles in series such as Granada's Sherlock Holmes, Maigret and After the War. He appeared in one episode of Granada's medical drama Medics. He had been interviewed for the lead role, but it went instead to Tom Baker! He also appeared in episodes of Taggart, Casualty, Midsomer Murders and Torchwood.

On stage, his roles included Frank in Educating Rita, Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Judge Danforth in The Crucible and Dysart in Equus. One of Gareth's favourite roles was playing Lear in King Lear at the Northcott theatre, Exeter. In 2001, Gareth played Joseph Leibovitch, a refugee from the Holocaust, in Moving Objects at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The play had been written especially for him by Mark D. Thomson, and it won a Fringe First award. His last stage appearance was in 2013 as Cadfael, a role he had always wanted to play, in Cadfael: The Virgin in the Ice.

Gareth loved audio work, and brought to it the same professionalism that he did to his stage and screen roles. "The great thing is that you have nothing but your voice to create a complete character for the audience. I'm deeply instinctive and quite often I say to whoever's directing, 'Can I go back and do that again, because the way I said that gives it completely the wrong meaning.'" He enjoyed being able to play any age on audio: "I can actually play my entire career. I started at 20 and I can play 20 through to 68, with maybe one or two slight technical differences which I'm aware of and can do and a listener, unless they knew me, would never know."

One of his favourite audio roles was Mog Edwards ("Mog Edwards, a draper, mad with love for Myfanwy Price") in the 1988 production of Dylan Thomas' Under Milk Wood. It was led by Anthony Hopkins, with an all star cast including Sian Phillips, Jonathan Pryce, Shirley Bassey and Tom Jones.

For Blakes 7, Gareth narrated the audio book of Trevor Hoyle's novelisation The Way Back, and in 2012 he returned to play Blake for Big Finish's new range of audios, reuniting him with his fellow former cast members in The Liberator Chronicles and the full cast series. He was very happy doing this, and said he could 'recognise a lot of the old Blake coming back'. But he was aware that although he was now in his late sixties, with a lot more experience, Blake was still 30 or 35, and he had to remember to react like a 35 year old. He liked the Big Finish stories, and thought highly of the writing. "They haven't done what I dreaded, when we were doing the television series, 'with one bound they were free' and inventing silly monsters and things like that. They've gone back to the original idea of us being rebels and trying to find who else was on our side, that sort of thing."

Although Paul Darrow had a reputation for breaking props on Blakes 7, Gareth had his share of mishaps early in his career. He recounted: "In my first theatre production my big scene involved walking on stage and opening a door for somebody. "I walked on to the stage, opened the door... and it came off its hinges. So at the end of my first ever professional stage appearance I had to pick up the door and walk off stage with it." Speaking about Quatermass and the Pit, he said:  "They built up this very expensive plaster of Paris tube station wall with real clay carefully put in and the alien skeleton set behind it. The director told me to take a pickaxe and hit the top of the clay so that the whole section of wall would fall away. He suggested a rehearsal first, and warned me not to actually hit it. So I swung the pick, stopped it dead an inch from the wall... and the head flew off and smashed the whole thing. There was a moment's absolute silence, broken only by the director yelling "Props!" It took three hours to rebuild."

As a hobby, Gareth enjoyed writing short stories and poems. One of his stories, Blythe Spirits, was made into a booklet and two others were performed by Nicholas Courtney in Volume 1 of Mark J. Thompson's The Actor Speaks series of CDs. In 2003 Gareth was interviewed by Nicholas Briggs for his Myth Maker documentary series. Part of it was filmed in Betchworth Quarry - the location that served as many an alien planet in Blakes 7.

Gareth Thomas was married three times. He had two children from his first marriage; a daughter, Anna, who pre-deceased him and a son, Glyn. Gareth's second wife was Blakes 7 make-up artist Sheelagh Wells. After their divorce, he married Linda, and they were happily married for 25 years.

Gareth was kind and generous to his fellow actors and his many fans. Stories about his friendliness abound, from putting a young Stephen Greif at ease in his first term at RADA, to the time he took to speak with fans at conventions. The tributes to him posted on the forum show how many people have treasured memories of meeting and chatting to him over the years. At conventions, he would always thank the audience for their support. At the end of the Cygnus Alpha convention in June 2015, his were the parting words: "I've said it many times before, and I'll say it again – we wouldn't be here without you, so thank you!"

"I've got two ambitions in this business," Gareth told Horizon in 1988. "My only theatrical ambition is to play Othello in one of the major companies. The other one is that when I die, I want my fellow professionals to say: "That's a pity. He was a damn good actor."

***


Photo of Gareth Thomas in 1988 by Jackie Ophir Emery
Photo of Gareth Thomas with Brian Croucher, Paul Darrow and Michael Keating, courtesy of Big Finish

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