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An Afternoon with Josette Simon - October 2016

An Afternoon with Josette Simon, OBE
The Lost Theatre, Wandsworth
Sunday 2nd October 2016


Introduction
On 14th September, Ian Kubiak announced the sensational news that Josette Simon would appear in the first of Cygnus Alpha's new intimate 'Afternoons With...'. This was a rare opportunity to meet Josette and hear her speak about her career and charity work, but with only six weeks between the announcement and the event itself, many of her fans were unable to go. Despite this, it was a very successful afternoon. Funds were raised for the Alzheimer's Society, and the raffle of a teleport bracelet raised a further £100 for Parkinson's UK. Those of us who were lucky enough to go had a wonderful time, and we hope Josette will appear at future events.

Report by Susan Bowden
Dayna Mellanby sated her curiosity with a kiss in her first encounter with Kerr Avon. The envy of every woman in the country? Well, it didn’t stop me liking the young weapons expert who would soon become a member of the Liberator crew. I admired the character and hoped to meet the actress – but as time went by, glimpsing a dodo in my local shopping centre seemed more likely than ever encountering Ms Simon at a convention.

I took a break from Blake’s 7 in the late '90s and will always regret missing out on unique events. Ian Kubiak’s announcement of ‘An Afternoon with Josette Simon’ meant I had to find a way to attend the Lost Theatre on Sunday 2nd October. I didn’t want this to be a lost opportunity.

Selling all the tickets within a six week time frame wasn’t going to be easy. And on the day there wasn’t a massive queue outside the theatre - the same venue as Cygnus Alpha 1. But it did mean we all had great seats.

There were quite a few familiar faces at the event, with a tangible buzz of excitement amongst the audience at the thought of meeting Josette Simon. Travisina, Mistletoe Minor and I were joined by Anniew, with Mr Olag and the Supreme Commander rounding out those representing Horizon.

The day’s schedule followed the same format as previous Cygnus Alpha events, and included a photoshoot, an interview with Josette and an autograph session.

Everyone commented on Josette’s beauty; her stunning good looks are seemingly timeless. I admit to feeling a bit nervous. I’d never met her and wasn’t sure what to expect. But her smile is instantly recognisable; she exchanged pleasantries with everyone and looked relaxed throughout the photoshoot.

Ian had clearly done his homework and it showed throughout his interview with Josette. Her fascinating career includes television, film and stage, even though she didn’t originally have any plans to become an actress.

Josette described herself as having been a shy child; head down at the back of the class, with a “Don’t look at me” expression on her face. Her decision to attend drama school came following performances in the chorus of Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. A slow realisation; she knew it was what she wanted to do. It probably didn’t hurt that the late Alan Rickman, obviously recognising her potential, told her she should pursue acting.

Josette touched on her film career, recalling the meticulous research she undertook in order to play Dr. Ramphele in the 1997 film, Cry Freedom. She talked a bit about Richard Attenborough; how he called everyone ‘darling’ and ‘luvvie’ on set because he couldn’t remember their names.

Josette mentioned her preference for guest roles, rather than a long-running part, in television series such as the hospital drama Casualty. And during a discussion about Death in Paradise, she and everyone in the theatre agreed that filming in the Caribbean is infinitely preferable to a location shoot in Peckham.

Moving on to talking about her stage career, Josette admitted to finding Shakespeare dry at school. She learned to appreciate it while studying at the Central School of Speech and Drama, but was told that she wasn’t likely to be cast in leading Shakespearean roles. This warning wasn’t issued because she lacked passion and talent… it was all down to her skin colour. Josette is an advocate of colour-blind casting and she certainly didn’t allow outdated ideas to deter her from becoming a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Josette explained the RSC process: if you do well in a minor role, you move up a level and are offered a slightly bigger role, which leads to moving up another level, and should all go well, you will eventually (hopefully) be offered a leading role. Happily this happened with Josette in 1985 when she played the lead role of Rosalie in Love’s Labour’s Lost.

During her interview with Ian, Josette revealed she will be playing Cleopatra in the RSC's production of Antony and Cleopatra from March 2017. The show will run for seven months at Stratford-upon-Avon before transferring to London for a further six months. Josette will have a say in casting, and during the audience Q & A session, Anniew asked who would be her Antony (a question I whispered into her ear.) And although Josette told us she hasn’t yet made a decision – the actor will have to be available for the full run – I couldn’t resist asking if she had someone in mind.

“Yes,” she replied. She has a list of possible leading men! We were obviously waiting for her to divulge names from her list, so she added with a smile, “but I’m not going to tell you here today.”

I’m really looking forward to the production – it will be a real treat to watch her in Antony and Cleopatra.

Josette further talked about a future guest role in a TV series; so secret she couldn’t reveal what it was to anyone. But if I had to guess, I would take a stab at Broadchurch. Mostly because she described how the scripts for this ‘secret show’ were watermarked and thrown away once they completed filming.

While Josette’s principle reason for attending Sunday’s interview was to highlight the Alzheimer’s Society, she was more than happy to discuss her time on B7. She talked about Dayna as a role model; it wasn’t about colour or gender – Dayna was simply a skilled crew member.

Josette spoke about how the cast were all great friends: as the youngest addition to the cast, she recalled Paul Darrow’s paternal protectiveness as well as his renowned teasing, while Jaqueline Pearce, a far cry from the manipulative Servalan, was always maternal towards Josette.

She talked about some of the costumes Dayna wore, preferring the practical jumpsuits to the more flimsy outfits. She also spoke about her memories of filming Moloch. The actors couldn’t stop laughing at the puppet and were reprimanded with the words: "Yes, it was funny the first time, but can we get back to work now?" As we know, they never did manage to keep straight faces, and the original scene had to be adapted accordingly.

Josette does believe Dayna died in the final episode, but had the BBC commissioned a fifth series, in line with Chris Boucher writing in anyone who wished to return to the show, then depending on work commitments, she would have liked to resume playing Dayna in Blake’s 7.

Contrary to comments she’s read on social media which accuse her of snubbing her role as Dayna and her time on Blake’s 7 since the show ended in 1981, Josette explained that she doesn’t like to revisit previous projects – she prefers to “keep moving forward.” Her philosophy is “Do something that scares you.”

Ian asked Josette about working at Big Finish on their Doctor Who audios. There were those in the audience who were pleased to hear that she’s recorded a second audio, this time with Tom Baker, in a title yet to be released. Naturally, this led to the question: 'Would you consider resuming your role as Dayna in their Blake’s 7 audio range?'

I held my breath, already knowing the answer but hoping, somehow, here at the theatre, there would be a different response. But no, she won’t be returning to her role as Dayna; she’s quite adamant about that. But with the addendum, “Never say never.” It’s a tiny grain of hope, perhaps!

I can’t pretend it didn’t leave me disappointed. Having the original Dayna on any future B7 All Cast releases from Big Finish would be wonderful. I would also very much like to hear a story that focuses on Avon and Dayna following the events in Aftermath - exploring through the medium of audio what I still regard as their paternal/big brother relationship.

Why doesn’t Josette attend conventions? Well, she did talk briefly about her reasons. I feel her ideas about conventions have been a bit misguided. She believes people at events want her to stay in character as Dayna.

Josette is involved in extensive charity work, some of which she discussed with Ian during her interview. She raises awareness and funds and has participated in memory walks. “Memory Walk sees thousands of people raising money for a world without dementia across England, Wales and Northern Ireland.” Memorywalk.org.uk

Josette’s mother suffered from Alzheimer’s, and speaking poignantly about dealing with the debilitating illness, she reminded us that everybody has a story – someone slowly counting change at the supermarket check-out could be living with a dementia-related illness. Showing patience rather than ‘tutting’ may make all the difference to somebody who’s already feeling confused.

Explaining her reasons for becoming involved with several deaf charities, Josette told us about her friend’s son who was born deaf. She decided to learn sign language because she wanted to communicate with him. Josette is an accomplished signer who is qualified to teach – which she demonstrated on Sunday - patiently instructing an audience member to introduce himself using sign language.

Josette engages with her audience, she’s inspiring and compelling. At the end of the interview, everyone in the theatre gave her a standing ovation. And because we’d listened avidly to her signing tutorial, we were further able to thank her in sign language, waving our hands in the air for silent applause.

A short break at this point gave us the chance to buy refreshments, whilst indulging in everyone’s favourite convention pastimes: talking, laughing and cringing at their pictures from the photoshoot. It should be noted that Josette looked amazing in all of them.

The autograph session followed, and happy to chat as she personalised photos, books and memorabilia, Josette signed with the same friendliness she’d shown throughout the afternoon. I told her I admired her work with the Alzheimer’s Society and chatted a bit about how much I liked Dayna. I made sure I passed on everybody’s good wishes, explaining how many would have liked to meet her but couldn’t make it today. She asked me to return her best wishes to all at Horizon.

Ian Kubiak and his team should be justifiably proud of what they accomplished. I believe the event at the Lost theatre benefited from having fewer attendees than at Cygnus Alpha. We probably numbered around forty in total. Everything ran smoothly with coordinated organisation, and Ian’s interview with Josette was probably his best to date. I will look forward to attending more of his planned ‘Afternoon with...’ events.

Josette Simon is amazing, beautiful and has a great sense of humour. She couldn’t have been more accommodating. I admire her passion, honesty, kindness and dedication. Thirty-six plus years since Dayna Mellanby first graced our TV screens, I can honestly say it was worth the wait to meet such a talented and classy lady.

Mr Olag had to leave to catch his train, but a few of us rounded off the afternoon with hot drinks at Waterloo station. It’s always a pleasure to sit and talk with friends about Blake’s 7 and this was a lovely way to complete a truly brilliant day.



***

Report by Anne Worrall
Travelling by train to a Blakes 7 event is the perfect preparation for it. Steel gantries give way to scrubland, iron sheds with rotating protuberances on their roofs hint at strange science, warehouses clad with opalescent plastic wink in intermittent sunshine and cupolas suddenly thrust themselves into the sky: the unmistakable B7 environmental mix of deserted places, industrial, classic (early maniac) and modern architecture and corrugated metal. Relating the landscape to scenes from the series racks up my excitement that Dayna will be waiting to greet me at the end of my journey and I'll meet the real, flesh and blood person who created the role.

There she is: Josette Simon - even more beautiful than she was thirty odd years ago - gracefully arranged in a red chair. No sooner have I muttered, "Age shall not wither her," than it’s announced that she will be playing Cleopatra for the Royal Shakespeare Company next year!

And what an infinite variety of experiences her interview with Ian Kubrick reveals:

Acting Career
The first thing Josette tells us is that she had no intention of being an actress. She planned to go to University to study languages. As a child she was shy and intensely private and spent spent much of her time quietly observing others from the back of the classroom - she was about as undramatic as you could get. Then a friend persuaded her to go with her to an audition for a role in the chorus for Joseph and the Amazing Coloured Dreamcoat. They were both accepted and for the first time she performed on stage and enjoyed the experience. The show was revived over several seasons and she continued to perform in it alongside Alan Rickman who became a dear friend. We can thank him for suggesting to her that she should make acting her career. But she still resisted until, in her final year at school, she suddenly knew that it was all she wanted to do. Despite the protests of her parents and Headteacher, she applied for and obtained a place at the Central School for Speech and Drama.

I was surprised to learn that Josette was still at drama school when she played Dayna, and shocked when she told us that the head of the school informed her that being black would be an obstacle to obtaining the leading classic roles she dreamed of acting. Thank goodness times have changed. Fortunately, she didn't let the warning deter her, and over the years the quality of her work has been recognised and she is now a respected leading actress with companies like the RSC. She sees herself as an actress who is black, rather than as a black actress, and expects to to get work because she is right for the production, not because of her ethnicity.

Ian then led Josette to talk about her performance in the film Cry Freedom, in which she was controversially cast by Sir Richard Attenborough as Dr. Mamphela Ramphele. Black South Africans were up in arms because she was a British born actress, but she researched the role thoroughly to do it justice and her performance mollified them. It was fascinating to hear Josette's views on this controversy. While she acknowledged it would have been ideal to cast a South African in the part, she explained that getting the right balance of actors in a piece is essential if a film is to work, so it isn't always possible. In the course of this exchange she also revealed that Sir Richard became another close friend and the amusing insight that he only called people ''darling'' because he had an exceptionally poor memory for names.

Encouraged to talk about her career in popular programmes, Josette admitted to loving her stint on Casualty because Frances Liveley was a strong female role. Death in Paradise was great because she got to visit the Caribbean and also to be Don Warrington's worst nightmare. Merlin was her first experience in acting against green screen. Her appearance in the show impressed her daughter, because following the transmission of her episode, she was mobbed at the school gates for her autograph.

We also learned that Josette has strong views on how Shakespeare should be taught in school. She hates classroom dissection of scenes; she believes they must be acted to be understood. She is proud that the BBC children's version of A Midsummer Night's Dream, in which she played Titania, was not dumbed down. Every word spoken was written by Shakespeare, yet it was still an accessible production. Josette obviously has a penchant for strong female roles, and we can see her Cleopatra, (the ultimate in strong female roles, except, possibly, that of Supreme Commander), in Stratford-upon-Avon in March 2017 and later in London. Her Antony is yet to be cast.

Charity Work
Ian then moved on to ask Josette about her contributions to various charities, particularly the Alzheimer's Society. They revealed that each of them had a parent affected by the disease. The popular phrase, "suffering from Alzheimer's" is, they agreed, a misnomer. It's not something the suffer endures but a life-changing illness that they live with daily. Although the popular perception is that it's all about memory loss, in fact it cruelly twists perceptions. For example, a black mat outside a supermarket may be perceived as a deep hole, and crossing it becomes impossible for someone with the condition. Josette's mother saw the swirly patterns on the family carpet as snakes and and for the rest of her life felt the same terror as if they had been real. We were urged to remember these examples and to be a little more patient if we encountered someone with Alzheimer's.

Josette, we discovered, is also a patron of Life and Deaf, having learned sign language in order to communicate with her best friend's little boy. She went on to master it up to NVQ level 3 so they could talk in depth as he got older. One attendee was given a master class in basic signing and, either because of Josette's superior teaching or his ability to learn, quickly mastered how to sign his name!

Altogether, Josette is a patron of five societies. Her OBE is not only deserved but hard won.

Blakes 7
Then, just as I was beginning to resign myself that Blakes 7 was off the agenda, Ian brought the conversation round to her time on the show and addressed every question we fans have been asking for the past thirty years!

He began by asking whether, as is often reported, Josette was ashamed of her time on the show. Her reply was a natural and immediate denial. She told us that she had loved being Dayna and was proud of her work on Blakes 7. It was very good fun.

Was it true that there had been friction between various cast members? Was this why she avoided conventions? Again, Josette's reply was immediate: this was not true at all. They had been a close, happy group. As the youngest, she had felt protected; Paul and Jacqueline had acted like parents. Well, not so much Paul, she admitted. She had been very naive and he had teased her a lot. But Jacqueline was very motherly. Josette had only happy memories of that time.

So why doesn't she go to conventions? This of course was the $64,000 question. The one we all wanted answered.

Josette reminded us that she had attended two conventions after the show finished, but she hadn't enjoyed them. She felt that she was required ‘to be Dayna’ all day, and had found this tiring. As we all suppressed the urge to assure her that it wasn't Dayna we had queued up to see, she told us that she is as intensely private today as she was as a child, and I for one felt that this was a more likely explanation. Being Dayna, rather than herself, would have provided camouflage and ensured that she didn't let slip anything she would prefer to keep private, but it would also have been exhausting.

While we digested this disappointing news, Ian questioned Josette about her work for Big Finish. Could we at least hope she would reprise Dayna for them? Again, disappointment.

Josette loves working for the company Big Finish - their lunches are legendary - and she enjoyed contributing to two Dr Who adventures, one with Paul McGann and one with Tom Baker. But she does not want to play Dayna again. As far as she is concerned, that is over for her, and returning to the role would not provide the creative challenge she is looking for.

Then, a ray of hope. Perhaps moved by our piteous groaning, she did promise she would never say that she would never play Dayna again.

Buoyed by this, we listened attentively as Josette reminisced more about her time on the show. Quarries (she reckons they must have gone to every quarry in England) and being cold all the time were vividly recalled. She also remembers that they were all very naughty and got told off a lot - particularly for laughing helplessly at some of the monsters they encountered.

Here Josette gave an affectionate account of meeting Moloch (we think) but as she mixed him up with the Kairopan eating spider and seemed to place the encounter in Dorian's cave, it was difficult to be certain! Further questions from Ian and the audience revealed that her memories of the show are warm but a little hazy. Of course she was very young when she did Blake’s 7 and hasn't revisited it at any point since the 1980s, so it's understandable.

We also discovered that Josette hadn't watched any of season one and two before being cast in the show, because she doesn't really like science fiction. The episode Blake was a shock to the cast when they realised they were all going to die, and yes, as far as she's concerned, Dayna did die in the tracking gallery - in fact, as far as she’s concerned, they all died. She didn’t know that Chris Boucher said that if the series had been renewed, he would have resurrected any cast member willing to return. She would probably have returned for another season if she'd been asked.

Curse you, BBC, for not commissioning that fifth series!

All too soon, the interview was over and it was time for autographs. And how patient and welcoming Josette was as she signed our pictures, books, CDs; home at last among her fans.

Thank you Ian Kubiak, for organising such a super afternoon. Your organisation was faultless, your team efficient and helpful, the interview wonderful.

Thank you Josette, for being such a lovely guest.

We stood, we clapped, we waved our hands in the air to demonstrate our love and appreciation.

Back on the train, as the Blakes 7 landscapes were slowly swallowed up by the encroaching dark, I hoped that Josette had taken as much pleasure as I had from the interview. I was disappointed, of course, that she isn't itching to play Dayna again and keep the character alive, but I understood her decision. It chimes with her life motto: "Always choose the most frightening path." Playing Dayna again would not provide a big enough challenge - though perhaps if she had been more strongly characterised, Josette might have been more keen to return to her.

I just hope that she agrees to do another intimate signing and interview some time in the near future, so that more of you get a chance to meet her.

She really is a very special human being.




***


Photos of Josette at event by Diane Gies
Josette in Loves Labours Lost and Merchant of Venice by Reg Wilson and Joe Cocks, copyright RSC
Josette as Dayna copyright BBC











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