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Interview with Sally Knyvette

INTERVIEW WITH SALLY KNYVETTE
by
Jackie Emery and Jude Constable

This interview was conducted on 7th August 2013, during a break in the recording of Episode 3 of Big Finish's Full Cast Audio Series.


Sally Knyvette played Jenna Stannis in the first two series of Blake's 7, leaving at the end of Series B to study for a degree. When Horizon interviewed her in 1985, she expressed frustration and disappointment at the way Jenna had been under-developed. This was one of the factors that had contributed to her decision to leave the show. Now, however, she's back playing Jenna for Big Finish and the first thing we asked was how she felt about returning to the character.

Sally: Well, I have to say I'm thoroughly enjoying myself doing these new episodes, especially the full-cast stories. I'm older now, it's fun to be seeing everybody again and to be doing new Blake's 7 work. I think we all understand and know our characters really well, which is great - and fun.


Horizon: Do you feel that you're returning to Jenna or rediscovering her?

Sally: In truth, I would like to rediscover a bit more – I would like to rediscover her ability as a real intergalactic space pirate - give it to me! Let's have some really imaginative stuff in that area. What did she really do? What are her special talents that the others haven't got? I mean, Cally has the telepathy, but Jenna's never had a chance to show what she can do. And her qualities should be able to surprise the boys, and then perhaps they would respect her more.


Horizon: When you originally created the character, you had props, costumes and sets. Now you just have the voice.

Sally: My view is that everybody who's listening to these is listening because they've already seen the original show. And as we all know with radio, we create our own images when we listen to things. Everybody who hears this will be creating their own images in their minds, seeing what they want to see. They will remember the sort of clothes we wore in show - they do not want to see us now, at this age! They know the layout of the spaceship, they can imagine the planets. With our voices, we have to paint the pictures a wee bit more, and luckily we don't have to do any wobbling around on sets that don't move! When we recreate our roles, I think what we all have in our subconscious is the essence of our characters. And as long as we know what we've just done and what we're about to do and where we're going with this episode – it's there, and I think we all feel that it's pretty easy for us to play.


Horizon: When you were originally making the TV series, did you have any thoughts about Jenna's back story – her relationship with her family, and the circumstances of her arrest?

Sally: I was too young at the time to know how important that was. I'm afraid I just took what was in the script, and used that. I didn't really invent much of a back story for myself. Now, of course I would do it, but back then I was too inexperienced. I have been rather interested in the back story Big Finish provided in Epitaph, the Liberator Chronicles story about Jenna's brother.


Horizon: Epitaph gives Jenna a twist of guilt at the end, and the suggestion is that she had always wrestled with the guilt of betraying her family. Did you find that satisfying to play?

Sally: Yes, I loved doing that. Jenna cared deeply about her family, especially her father. Jenna's brother was an unpleasant piece of work, and in the end she just had to be pragmatic. She understood that they saw the world differently, through different windows. She had to do what she believed to be right.


Horizon: In terms of pairing you up with other characters in two-hander scenes and episodes, Big Finish initially paired you with Vila both in Warship and Epitaph, rather than Blake or Avon, who would have seemed more obvious choices.

Sally: Yes, that was an interesting decision. Blake would have been the obvious one, because we always had a subliminal relationship going on.


Horizon: What do you think attracted Jenna to Blake?

Sally: Jenna was attracted to Blake's integrity, his desire to help the dispossessed and to do good by fighting the Federation. But Jenna was a freedom fighter in her own right, fighting against the Federation in the best way that she knew how. The other characters all had a tendency to be 'slippery', but Blake was honest.


Horizon: In the Liberator Chronicles episode Jenna's Story, just before Jenna dies, she says: “Everything I've done since I was separated from the Liberator – it's always been for Blake”. Do you agree with that interpretation of her character and actions?

Sally: Jenna is dead? Jenna shouldn't be dead! Get the fans to petition to bring her back! I disagree with 'everything being for Blake'. Jenna does what she does for her own sake, she's off having her own adventures. She kept Blake in mind, because she had been utterly loyal to him, but she also has her own integrity and her own strength.


Horizon: What about Jenna's relationship with Avon?

Sally: Well... they were two strong, bright people with different values. There was also a little bit of sparring, but it could have been taken much further. I mean, Avon and Jenna really didn't like each other much most of the time, so you could have a really good set-to and a break-up of some sort. I would love to do that. Avon is out for himself, while Jenna is much more of Blake's persuasion. She is out to help people, but she's got a tough, ruthless side, as we've discovered. She would always look after herself, when push came to shove.


Horizon: What does Jenna think of Vila?

Sally: Well, he's good at opening locks and telling jokes. Also, he's a bit pathetic and gets frightened! I think if they were up against great problems, she would always be the one who took over. He would probably hide behind her skirts – or lack of them! I don't think she's got anything against him, but I think she's much more of a bloke than he is! I get on with Michael Keating very well - he's a lovely man. We have fun together and maybe that comes through, even though I think that Jenna would get impatient with his character. I don't know about Michael, but I feel much more relaxed now than when we made the original TV series. Funnily enough, I bumped into Travis recently – Stephen Greif - and he said, "Back then, I didn't really know you at all." And I said, "Well, I was like a mouse in those days." But I'm certainly not, now.


Horizon: And how about Cally?

Sally: I'd love to do a two-hander story with Jan - The Girls Take over the Liberator! That would be terrific; many fans have asked for it over the years - 'When are the women going to take over the Liberator?' Why not? Let's put the men down on some planet and then we'll take charge. Maybe a planet full of Amazons who would overwhelm the guys and the only people who could reason with these women and rescue Blake and Avon would be Jenna and Cally. Might be quite amusing to have the shoe on the other foot – the girls taking control!


Horizon: The impression is that Jenna saw the Liberator as her ship - while the men were arguing over it, she was the one who had bonded with it right at the beginning.

Sally: She was the only person who knew how to fly it from the start, and that should always be primo. But usually it's anything but that, unfortunately.


Horizon: Do you prefer making the two-hander stories or the all-cast ones?

Sally: I like both, if I get a good crack at it. I do like working with the full cast, but I also like the two-handers, as long as they're not too expository, with me telling the back story. I believe it's better if the episodes have real drama and interaction with the characters, and I prefer it to be more complex. If I'm being picky, I would have to say that while it was nice to be the main narrator in Epitaph, it was just me talking about what happened to me - as opposed to an episode which could have featured Jenna interacting with people from her past. I would have preferred to play out the story, as opposed to have simply spoken it. I just think that would have had more dramatic impact.

I'm enjoying today's recording with everybody, but there does however seem to be a lot of Orac and Zen in this particular episode. Alistair's awfully good – please don't get me wrong - but it seems as though the computers have taken a predominance in this one. Sadly, Jenna spends an awful lot of time saying the same old things.


Horizon: 'Standard by Three' and all that?

Sally: Not that so much, but I keep saying: "Watch out!" - "Look!" - "Go!" and lines like: "Do you think we're going to do this?" and "Shall I use the guns?" Jenna wouldn't be like that - of course she'd use the bloody guns! She's pro-active, she's an intergalactic space pirate! I did actually ask Marc Platt (writer) if he could give me a bigger part in the next one he writes, and he said yes, so who knows? It would be nice to see Jenna doing something a bit unusual and feisty, instead of simply being reactive.


Horizon: In the Liberator Chronicles story Risk Management, in addition to Jenna, you also played the voice of the automated Receptionist ("We hope your stay was.... beautiful") It had a very different, almost comedic quality, and I didn't realise at first that it was you. Was that fun to play?

Sally: It was - I love doing funny and silly voices, so I jump at any chance to do something different.


Horizon: There have been reports of a new TV series of B7 being made in America...

Sally: Yes, I'd like to be in it - very much so! It's on telly, so I would have to be a much older version of Jenna. However, we never know exactly what happened to her, do we? Blake reported that she's dead, but he could have been lying - nobody actually saw Jenna die. I think she's still out there. She's been beautifully preserved out in the cosmos, she's had to keep on her toes, going round the galaxy doing all sorts of stuff on her own; more of a one-man band than she ever was before. She hasn't lost her power at all, in fact she's gained in stature. She may be ageing – yes, she's an older woman, but I think older women are under-represented on television these days. I would like Jenna to come back as a feisty, healthy, older woman in her late 50s, who is still as powerful, still sexy, still on the ball, still able to do stunts, still able to have a good fight. Yes, I would like to see her do all of that. I think Andrew Sewell could do with me in his film – I'll have to get in touch with him!


Horizon: Tell us about some of the other work you've been doing recently?

Sally: I've played Goneril in Jonathan Miller's production of King Lear at the City Lit Theatre, and I really enjoyed doing that.


Horizon: What was it like working with Jonathan Miller?

Sally: Well, it was good to work with somebody who's a legend. But that's all I'll say at the moment.


Horizon: In the past, you've played Cordelia, and now you've played Goneril. Which is more fun, the 'wet' sister or the 'nasty' one?

Sally: Oh, the nasty one, definitely! I absolutely loved playing Goneril and I'd love to play her again - it was far too short a run.


Horizon: Will you be doing more acting?

Sally: I'd love to, but there's just not enough work for women over 50. There's a little coterie of actors – the Maggies, the Judis, the Imeldas, Helen Mirren and Geraldine James – they're all very good, but there are many, many others waiting in the wings. I do think casting directors are very myopic. For instance, some of them still regard me as a farmer's wife from Yorkshire, even though it's been 20 years or more since Emmerdale – extraordinary!


Horizon: What other roles would you still like to play – a) for an actor over 50, and b) as Judi Dench can still play Titania, then for an actor of any age?

Sally: I actually turned down Titania years ago, but I would do it now. I'd love to play Kate in Taming of the Shrew. I'd love to play all of the older women in Shakespeare - Lady Macbeth, the Countess of Rousillon in All’s Well That Ends Well, Tamora in Titus Andronicus, Volumnia in Coriolanus... Apart from Shakespeare, I'd like to play a Prime Suspect type of female role, or any of the women in Marigold Hotel.

My ultimate ambition would be to play a Jeanne Moreau type of older woman in French films. I speak French, and they really know how to portray their older women as something other than sad old grannies! I want Britain and America to go the way of France, where they respect their older actors and women don't suddenly have to go on the dump heap at 50. Women can be sensual, attractive, powerful and actually much more wise and knowing than they ever were when they were younger. I feel very strongly about representing women ageing well, and many other actresses feel the same. The trouble is that most writers are men, and they tend not to notice women over the age of 50. It's time to widen the net away from the select few older actresses and give others a chance to shine.


In audio, I can play youth and age. I've just played the Triumverate of Womanhood – Queen Carmilla – in the second Castlevania video game. She's pretty damn feisty, she's sexy, she's powerful, she's controlling, she's a bitch and she's wonderful! I've got young friends who play these games, and they say that apparently I'm too difficult to find; they can rarely manage to get to that level!


Horizon: Tell us about your directing. You've done a number of courtroom dramas – is there something about them that particularaly attracts you?

Sally: Oh yes. I've directed Twelve Angry Men, To Kill a Mockingbird, Inherit the Wind, Are You Now or Have You Ever Been?- which was about the McCarthy witch hunts - and most recently I've done Judgment at Nuremberg in two separate productions, one at the Tricycle Theatre and the other at the Bridewell.

I cast these productions with legal professionals – high court judges, solicitors and barristers. It's hard at times - when you've got a cast of 32, half of whom are off doing court cases during rehearsal time, it can be very demanding. They don't always have the actors' understanding and discipline that you must be in the rehearsal room on time. On the other hand, they don't appear to have the same egos as actors. I'm sure lawyers can be egotistical in their own world, but in the world of theatre, which they're not so familiar with, they are surprisingly open and receptive to direction. I worked very, very hard on Judgment at Nuremberg for four months, and we got fantastic performances out of them. I was thrilled – as were they!


Horizon: What's it like directing non-actors - or are these lawyers natural performers?

Sally: Some are easy, some are not - the same as with real actors. However, I came across one or two absolute naturals. One of them played Ernst Janning in Judgment at Nuremberg and now I've cast him in my new production of A World Elsewhere. He's a barrister in his sixties and very talented – he should have been actor. A lot of lawyers are Oxbridge educated, with backgrounds who urged them not to become actors but to become lawyers or doctors, and so they did. But some are miserable, because they always truly wanted to be actors! They do love doing these shows, and it's become something of a cult. So far, I'm the only person who has done these type of shows. They're always sold out, and they seem to be getting better and better.


Horizon: Do you think that the lawyers’ professional skills helped them in their acting? Such as the ability to learn lines quickly, or to spot a sub-plot quickly, or an astute awareness of audience/performance?

Sally: Frankly, some are better than others. Some, as I said, are naturally talented, but others tended to have low energy and had to be pushed out of their comfort zone and particularly encouraged not to use the same level of monotone all the time. I was also stunned at how much they needed to be helped with sub-plot. I was always looking for pace, re-energising the ends of sentences - the 'lift and separate' moments. Hilariously, they used to call it the 'Playtex moments', if any of you can remember those old adverts!

There's a possibility that I may in future be teaching young barristers public speaking, which I would enjoy. Public speaking is an art; some can do it naturally, but others need to be taught. It's about energy, pace and tone, ie using different tones for different ideas, using the different parts of your voice – head, throat, chest - so as to enhance the rhetorical impact.

My next play is A World Elsewhere, and I have cast only one lawyer, Crispian Cartwright.The play was written by Alan Franks, who's a terrific novelist, writer and musician. A World Elsewhere was written when he was at Oxford in 1968, when Clinton was there as a Rhodes Scholar. It's a brilliant play, which I've also cast with a great group of younger professional actors.

I also hope to direct another new play later in the year by Nigel Williams, who wrote The Wimbledon Poisoner and was nominated for an Emmy for his TV series Elizabeth I, starring Helen Mirren. He's written a play called All Four Wear Bowlers, which is based on two understudies waiting to perform in Waiting for Godot. It's brilliant, and I hope to direct it in Ireland.


Horizon: Which roles, on stage or screen, do you look back on with most professional satisfaction, and what has given you the most satisfaction as a director?

Sally: As a director, Judgment at Nuremberg and To Kill a Mockingbird have been the most satisfying so far, but I'm very much looking forward to directing A World Elsewhere. In the theatre, I loved playing Caroline in The Dearly Beloved, directed by Mike Alfreds at the Hampstead Theatre, and also Diana in Filumena for Sir Peter Hall. The only musical role I've played was Collette in Collette Collage, which I adored. And most recently, I've been lucky enough to play Goneril in Jonathan Miller's King Lear. On TV, I really enjoyed playing Kate Sugden in Emmerdale. I had a better time doing that than Blake's 7, because I was more experienced by then and more comfortable.


Horizon: Another of your projects, apart from acting and directing, was a fund-raising bike ride in the Far East.

Sally: I biked from November till December 2011, and it was amazing. We cycled 84km a day in incredibly high temperatures, from Angkor Wat in Cambodia to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, on behalf of the Catalyst Foundation. We raised £26,000 for a school for kids who had been living on rubbish dumps, and whose parents survive on $1 a day. Huang, the woman who runs the Foundation, is like a Mother Theresa. She's inspirational, and she's dedicated her life to getting families off the rubbish dumps. It is just unthinkable, when you actually see it and smell it, the stagnant water and kids without any shoes eating dead pigs. And these kids are so sweet and so open, it was incredibly humbling. I think everybody in the western world should go to places like that and just wake up! And if anybody wants to donate to the Catalyst Foundation, the money would be very well spent. Their website is catalystfoundation.org. I would also like to take this opportunity to thank all the wonderful Horizon fans who sponsored that trip. In the end, the £26,000 that we raised paid for half the school for those kids from the rubbish dumps. THANK YOU!

As for the immediate future, I'd love to do more acting work, but in the meantime I'm enjoying directing and teaching, and I also enjoy doing voice-over work, particularly for video games. And of course the Blakes 7 audios for Big Finish are terrific fun to do. I hope there will be more.



Horizon: And finally, we like to end our interviews with a silly question: which Blakes 7 character would you take to a bar, and why?

Sally: I think Cally and I would go to a bar and pick up unusual individuals. We'd hang around for some interesting space pirates who show real potential and zest for life, and who have some get up and go!


Horizon: Thank you very much for talking to us.




*****


A World Elsewhere opens at Theatre503 at The Latchmere, 503 Battersea Park Road, London SW11 3BW on 22nd January 2014 for a four-week run.

Fractures, the first in the new series of all-cast B7 audio dramas from Big Finish is available now: Fractures

Jenna features in The Liberator Chronicles Volumes 4, 5 and 6 in the stories Epitaph, Risk Management and Jenna's Story, available from Big Finish here: Liberator Chronicles as well as in the all-cast episode Warship, available here: Warship.

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 is released on 27th Feburary 2014 for the Playstation 3, the Xbox 360 and Microsoft Windows.

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