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Interview with Paul Darrow
with Jude Constable and Diane Gies
Paul Darrow played Kerr Avon from Episode 2 through to the end of Blake's 7. Arguably the most iconic character of the series, Avon was the last crew member left standing at the end of the final episode. Now Paul is reprising his role for Big Finish's Liberator Chronicles and the new all-cast audio dramas, as well as narrating Blake's 7 novelisations for the BBC and writing his own trilogy of novels that follow Avon's further adventures set after the end of the TV series.
As the studio space was small and the Green Room occupied, Paul and I went out to the car park for his interview. He first wanted to ensure that I introduced it properly on the recorder.
Jackie: I'm standing outside with Paul Darrow...
Paul (interrupting): Outside where?
Jackie: Outside Big Finish's studios in Wadhurst. Are you interviewing me?
Paul: Well, otherwise we could be anywhere. We could be outside a public convenience in the middle of Walthamstow!
However, once we had established where we were, the interview got underway...
Horizon: Here you are, playing Avon again for Big Finish. Do you feel you are portraying the same character, or are you creating it afresh with these new stories?
Paul: You were listening to the recording just now. Do you think I still sound the same?
Horizon: Yes, you do.
Paul: The worry, of course, is that Blake's 7 was over 30 years ago, and the voice obviously changes over the years. One could end up talking like Joe Pasquale, you know.
(puts on Joe Pasquale voice) "I don't think you should go there, Blake. I don't think so, ooh!"
(normal voice) No offence, Joe! But we used to have a lot of fun like that when we were making the series. We'd get bored in rehearsals and suddenly start playing it in silly voices, or do it like the Rat Pack:
"Set course for so-and-so."
(Humphrey Bogart voice) "Any time you're ready, pal!"
Horizon: When making the original series, you had the sets, the costumes, the physical moves and so on. How do you then replicate that just with the voice do stance and body language affect performance?
Paul: Yes, they can do. And obviously, the look. The eyes. I remember Burt Lancaster always saying - well, he never said it to me, but he said it to Michael Winner they'd give him a thick script and he'd arrive the next day and it's down to about a quarter.
They'd ask him, "What are you going to do, Burt?"
And he'd say, "I can do that with a look."
Which is something you can't do on audio, of course.
I was talking to George Takei I'm name dropping here, aren't I? (As I said to Her Majesty, "I hate name droppers, don't you?" And she said, "I do, but I drop yours every now and again!") Anyway, George Takei and I were having a discussion about this at a convention, and he said the thing about Blakes 7, the difference between that and the early Star Trek, was that the dialogue was so good. So that obviously helps. If the dialogue is good, and you've got your character established and the through line of it, it works.
Horizon: I was watching while you were recording earlier, and saw at one point you did a hand gesture that went with a kind of cry of pain. Do body movements like that affect the voice and performance?
Paul: It affects the breath, yes.
Horizon: You were doing those scenes on your own. Were you performing the lines cold off the script or could you hear the others - were you being fed pre-recorded lines?
Paul: No, I was doing it cold off the script. Sometimes I do a recording on my own with the others' voices already recorded, but I usually don't bother to listen, because I know how Michael is going to do it and he knows how I'm going to do it. Same with Gareth, too. It works fine.
Horizon: If you were given the character of Avon new, at this point in your life/career, how would you set about playing him?
Paul: At my age, I would not be considered for the role. But if my younger self, knowing what I know now, I might play him a little 'harder'. Like Dirty Harry/Clint Eastwood. Mary Ridge, rest her soul, she used to call me 'Blint' because she said I was a combination of Burt Lancaster and Clint Eastwood. I liked that!
Horizon: There's a quote from Churchill that says, We can always count on the Americans to do the right thing after they have exhausted all other possibilities. Can the same be said about Avon?
Paul: Churchill was a canny man, wasn't he? I'm a great fan of Winston Churchill. Yes, quite right, I'd say. Avon won't go anywhere unless he's sure he's going to get back.
Horizon: Much has been made of Avon's relationships with Blake and with Vila, and romance has been speculated with Cally. But what do you think his relationship was with Jenna? Given that Avon had learned to fly the Liberator by Episode 4, and may feel that he doesn't need her assistance, does she have other strengths that he would appreciate?
Paul: Avon was indifferent towards Jenna. However, in one or two Big Finish audios, Sally remarked that he and she seemed to be getting on better than they ever did in the original series. A degree of sentimentality on behalf of the writers, perhaps?
Horizon: In the final episode, if it had been Servalan and Blake in a showdown with Avon at the end, which one do you think Avon was most likely to have shot? (And would you agree with his choice!?)
Paul: He would have shot both of them! Wouldn't you?
Horizon: In terms of 'how are you like/unlike Avon', what are the three main traits you share in common with him, and what are the three main differences?
Paul: As I 'created' the role, there's a lot of me in him. Also a lot of what I would like to have been. I find it difficult to trust anyone - unless/until tried and tested, and even then am a bit wary. I am philosophical when things go wrong - can find humour in a dire situation. I quite like my own company - solitariness. In these ways I am like Avon. I am unlike him in that I am IT ignorant, I don't wear black leather all the time and I've never killed anyone - and hope I never have to.
Horizon: If you don't wear black leather all the time, how often do you wear it?
Paul: Well, now.....!
Horizon: In the Liberator Chronicles stories, Avon has appeared in stories with pretty much everybody Vila, Cally, Blake,Tarrant, Jenna and even with Del Grant. Which have you liked best, so far?
Paul: I enjoy making them, but as for a favourite, I don't really know. I haven't listened to any of them. I rely on the reaction of the people who do listen, and you get it on Facebook well I don't, I steer clear of Facebook. Anything beginning with 'F' I steer clear of! So I rely on reports from other people. They'll say, "Oh we really liked that one," or "We didn't like that one so much, but you were alright," or whatever. But doing them, making them is great fun. Armageddon Storm was very highly thought of. There was also one that I did with Jacqueline that was particularly well received - the one about the clone, Kerr.
Horizon: How did you approach performing the clone? Because he was Avon and yet not Avon...
Paul: I used a slightly different timbre. Big word! The extraordinary thing, of course, was that I recorded it on my own, and Jacqueline did her recording on her own. But when the recordings were put together it worked very well.
Horizon: Would you like Avon to have a solo adventure in a future Liberator Chronicles, rather than being paired with another character?
Paul: I haven't really thought about that. It's an idea. But then I'd have to be talking to myself!
Avon mutters to himself, "I don't think I'll go there."
(Different voice): "Oh go on, go on!"
I suppose you could call Lucifer a solo adventure, although obviously there are other characters.
Horizon: Let's talk about Lucifer. When we interviewed you in 1985...
Paul: Good heavens!
Horizon: ...you told us then that you had an idea for a fifth series of Blake's 7 and suggested it to Terry Nation. You then started developing the idea together. Is Lucifer now the realisation of that?
Paul: Terry and I talked about it. At that time, two-part mini series were popular you would have one episode on Monday night and the next episode on Tuesday night. They would be feature length, so two mini films, if you like. That's what Terry wanted to do. We sat on the terrace overlooking Topanga Canyon, sipping cool beers, and we came up with some ideas.
I said, "You're going to kill Avon off, aren't you?"
and he said, "Well yeah, I think so." Terry was very cool, laid back, you know.
Then I asked, "How am I going to go?" He said he didn't know, so I said, "I've got to go with all guns blazing, flying across the screen, with about 200 of them! Like the end of The Wild Bunch."
And Terry said, "Oh, all right then!"
He'd had the idea that Avon had been dumped somewhere and forgotten about, and that's how Lucifer kind of starts off. But Terry had nothing about the Chinese, I brought them in. They feature quite strongly in Lucifer, and in the next book as well. Because of course China is becoming more and more powerful - and I like Chinese food! But I would hope that Terry would be pleased. I emailed Kate and told her all about it.
She said, "Go for it darling, he would be pleased. He'll be looking down on you, you know."
I said, "He's more likely to be looking up!"
and she said, "Yes, you're right there!"
Horizon: Despite protestations to the contrary, throughout the TV series Avon comes across as a team player working with the others. But in Lucifer he's very much a lone wolf. Do you feel that's a progression for his character, or is that how you felt about him all along?
Paul: It's how I felt about him all along. Avon was part of the team because he wanted to be. He's like Luis Suarez, he wants away from Liverpool and Avon wanted away from the others, but he couldn't leave because he had nowhere to go. Once he had somewhere else to go, he went - and made sure nobody followed him.
Horizon: Fans have had fun picking up all the classical references in Lucifer, the biblical references, the lines you put in like "You're him, aren't you?" Did you do that as a fan-pleasing exercise?
Paul: Well, it pleases me! I have a little chuckle if I come up with a line... for example, there's a bit in Lucifer where Avon first lands on the planet, and the young woman comes up to him and he hits her, knocks her out. And he just says, "Welcome to my world!" I thought, heh - I love that!
Horizon: And the dancer called Rudolph?
Paul: Yes, that was intentional. And the names I gave some of the other characters. For example, the lady who edits the books is named Xanna, and I've got a character called Xian. Xanna emailed me and asked, "Was that intentional?"
I said, "Yeah, do you like it?"
and she said, "I'm thrilled!"
I find it interesting to read or hear criticism of Lucifer - apparently, it is scientifically inaccurate. But then, how do we know? Galileo was imprisoned for being 'inaccurate'. I hope that won't happen to me!
I've now finished the second volume, Lucifer: Revelation. I'm bit stuck on the third one, and I'm thinking, what do I do now? I've still got 40,000 words to write! There's only so much you can say about Servalan growing up. I mean, how many nappy changes did she have? It gets repetitive! But I've got her there now. Because that's when you're really interested, once she's got the power. I describe how she gets it. But I mustn't give too much away, must I? Or nobody will buy the book!
Horizon: Are you going to be recording audios of the next two books?
Paul: I don't know. It depends if there's the demand. A lot of people like it that way, hearing me perform it. People like to drive along in their cars and listen. And also, there are people who have reading difficulties. There's a lady I know, I offered her a copy of Lucifer, and she said, "Well no, there's no point wasting it on me, because I have problems. I'll wait for the audio."
Horizon: People picked up on differences between your book as written and as narrated. The script had slight changes to it.
Paul: I know there was one bit where I thought, "I don't remember writing that." I checked and I was right, I hadn't written it like that. It had been changed around.
Horizon: What would the reason be for that?
Paul: A mistake in the copying, you get them in books. I've just been reading a book about a fellow talking to somebody and then it says ...she walked across the room. It can happen!
Horizon: How do you find the difference between narrating a book that you've written, and something like Project Avalon, which was written by Trevor Hoyle?
Paul: Well, I don't want to sound big-headed, but I thought my book was better! But there's no difference, really. Obviously, if you've written it, you want to narrate it in such a way that it conveys what you were thinking when you were doing it. If you didn't write it, you just have to play, as it were, the character.
Horizon: And how does that compare to being main narrator on Liberator Chronicles, which is another kind of audio book?
Paul: It's a different sort of reading, that's Avon telling his story. I really enjoy doing those. You get Avon's well, it applies to everybody you get their attitude to the other person, what they're thinking, what Avon REALLY thinks of Blake! And vice versa.
Horizon: Another audio drama you've done is Minister of Chance, in which you play Lord Rathen.
Paul: Oh gosh, yes. Is it good? I've not listened to it.
Horizon: It's fabulous. We did an interview with the producers, Dan and Clare, and one of the things that Clare said was: "I shall never forget the sight of Paul aggressively threatening Jenny Agutter with a banana!"
Paul: We did that for a bit of fun, yeah.
Horizon: What was that like to work on?
Paul: It was quick, it was fun. I enjoyed doing it. And what a cast! Obviously I'd worked with some of them before; Sylvester McCoy of course, and Paul McGann. Jenny, of course, I adored - she's lovely. So is Beth Goddard.
Horizon: They're trying to raise money now to make the movie. Would you like to play Lord Rathen in the screen version?
Paul: I suppose so, if they asked, but I think that's a long way off. It costs an awful lot of money to make a picture. And if they're raising it through what I suppose you'd call fandom who's got the money? You need millions! I know there was one lady who had offered a thousand pounds actually, she was Canadian, so maybe it wasn't pounds, it was dollars. Anyway, Dan called me and said, "Look, she wants to donate the money, but she'll only give it if you do an interview with her. Will you do that?"
I said, "Sure, if she pays for the call from Canada!"
So she called me and I did a brief interview with her and she sent the cheque! Every little helps...
Horizon: You're one of the voices of the radio station, Jack FM, making regular appearances telling jokes. Do you write them yourself?
Paul: They're pretty much scripted for me, but I twiddle around with them.
Horizon: How does it work - do they call you into studio?
Paul: No, I do it down the line. I have ISDN at home - just don't ask me what that stands for! They email me the script three times a week, Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Unless Monday is a Bank Holiday, in which case there's no script, but then I have more to do on the following Thursday. It's all a bit of fun, but some of the jokes are very clever.
Horizon: Other television work you've done recently has been the recurring role of Justice Prentice in Law & Order UK. What do you like most about playing a judge?
Paul: Playing a judge is easy. You get to sit down and you don't really have to learn the lines!
Horizon: The more senior the Judge, the less emotion they usually display. How does it suit an actor to play a role which is so dead-pan? Is there the opportunity to introduce a bit of humour?
Paul: Sometimes a little humour is allowed. But most of the 'fun' is off screen. Bradley Walsh is one of the nicest and funniest actors I know.
Horizon: You've recently done some wonderful Fantasy Photographs with photographer Oliver McNeill.
Paul: He's a nice guy, Ollie. I met him while I was doing a signing somewhere, and Oliver was exhibiting pictures of Tom Baker. We had a chat, he said he'd organise something and that was that. I spent the day doing the shoot down in Hastings, and it was a lot of fun.
Horizon: Some of the photos are Avon-esque, some are in the style of a Western and some are naturalistic. Do you have a favourite?
Paul: I always wanted to be in a Western. So - !
Oliver also organised an evening of Tales of Mystery and Terror in aid of St Michael's Hospice. I did that together with Tom Baker and Toby Hadoke. It was nice to see Tom I've known him a long time, of course - he was actually at drama school with my wife. I read The Raven by Edgar Allen Poe. They said they'd provide me with a copy of the poem, but I told them I'd got one. I had been given a book of Edgar Allen Poe when I was in New York. It had some very weird designs, garish pictures and so on. And I suggested to them, "Look, this is for a hospice, and it's important. It's where my wife might have ended up had she not died. Why don't I get Tom and Toby to sign it, and I'll sign it, and the hospice can auction it and maybe make a few bob." So we did, and somebody bought it for £5,000! The event sold out and altogether that night we raised £14,000 for the hospice. They were over the moon!
Horizon: Another recent appearance you've done was the Whoovers Evening With Paul Darrow in Derby.
Paul: Just don't ask me to go there again - I spent 50 minutes driving around Derby trying to find the hotel! It was there, you could see it, but the road was up and you couldn't get to it. But it all went well in the end. It was fun, they're nice people. The guy who runs it, Steve Hatcher, is a good bloke.
Horizon: They've released a DVD of your talk.
Paul: Is it any good?
Horizon: Yes, it's very nice. They did one with Jacqueline Pearce a couple of years ago, too.
Paul: That's right, I saw the DVD for sale there. It was a fun evening, I enjoyed it once I got there!
At that point, Paul was called back into the studio to record a scene with Sally Knyvette. We picked up the interview afterwards, with Paul reminiscing about his time at ITV.
Paul: You used to meet all sorts of people, because in those days there was a huge commissary dining place. Nowadays, if you're a big star you'd probably get a private room, but back then, you just found any seat at a table. Anyway, Janet and I were having lunch one day, and Tom Jones came in. He introduced himself to us (Welsh accent): "I'm Tom Jones." He was friendly and we got chatting. Then he said, "I'm in the studio with Ted Rogers."
Back then, if you weren't needed and had a bit of time off, you could pop into another studio where they were doing a cabaret show or something and watch that. In fact, if you told Ted Rogers you had a spare hour, he would invite you to come to his studio and fill out the audience! And so we went and saw Tom performing his very first song It's Not Unusual. He was just starting out then, and it was Tom Jones and the Squires - that was his backing group.
Then another time, I was filming but Janet wasn't needed and she went in. She was sitting next to this young woman, and they got quite friendly, chatting away. Then at one particular point, the woman said, "You're going to have to excuse me now, Janet - I'm on." And the announcer said: '"Here she is Marianne Faithfull!"
You would bump into people like Frankie Vaughan, they'd be wandering around the corridor and stop for a chat. I once met Des O'Connor in the men's lavatory.
He said, "Did you see my show last night? What did you think?"
I said, "I thought it was good."
"It was terrifying! I'm hoping it will go well."
And I said, "Des, you're all right."
I was right, it did go well! We're talking about 50 years ago, now. We've all passed a lot of water since then...
When we would go out filming on location we used to call it monocular in those days, which was one camera - we would have to be there really early, and you'd meet all sorts of people who were also there early for something. I once had coffee with James Mason and Stanley Baker we were all queuing up for a coffee, and he said (James Mason voice): "Good morning."
I introduced myself and he said (James Mason voice): "I'm James Mason - do you know Stanley Baker?" So we just sat down, had a doughnut and a cup of coffee together, chatted away. Then they went off to their filming and I went off to mine. Those were the days!
Horizon: We know that you have a life-long interest in cinema, but what about books? Who were the authors that appealed to you, and what stories fired your imagination?
Paul: I am an avid reader and am particularly enamoured of good crime fiction. Raymond Chandler; Dashiell Hammett, etcetera. Modern writers such as Lee Child, Matt Hilton, R J Ellory. Also, I read a fair amount of history. Curiously, my love of books stemmed from visits to the cinema when I was young. I would read the stories upon which the film was based - thus familiarising myself with the works of such as Hemingway, Faulkner and so on. Later, I began to love the 'ancients' - Homer, Plutarch........... (I'm getting a bit intellectual here!) Suffice to say - reading is a very important part of my life.
Horizon: Are there any parts you haven't played, that you would like to play? From silent comedy like Charlie Chaplin or 'The Artist' right through to James Bond or Mr Darcy - absolutely anything!
Paul: I should, of course, have included Shakespeare in the above question. Coriolanus is a part I've always wanted to play - but I'm too old now. I might get away with portraying Shylock. It is a role that has everything - great humour and a terrible sadness. James Bond would have been fun - and lucrative!
Horizon: The last stage production we saw you in was Guards! Guards! back in 1999. Might you consider more stage work if offered, or are you happier to stick with TV, radio and audios?
Paul: If offered, any work bears consideration. I have to eat!
Horizon: If a new movie or TV series of Blakes 7 is ever made, which actor would you like to see playing Avon?
Paul: George Clooney springs to mind of course, but I don't think George would be up for it! When people have asked me this this in the past, I always said that I thought Christopher Walken would be brilliant, but he's not as young as he was. Damien Lewis might be good - yes, I think it should be Damien Lewis.
Horizon: And would you like a cameo role in it?
Paul: Yes, just show me the money! But I'm a great believer in David Niven's dictum - How much, who with and where? If it's in the Bahamas with Michelle Pfeiffer, the money is secondary. If it's a wet Thursday in Doncaster with someone you don't like, the money is paramount!
Horizon: And finally, we like to end our interviews with a silly question: Which Blake's 7 character would you like to take to a bar, and why?
Paul: Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Servalan would be my choice. But it wouldn't be to a bar - I'd take her to a Michelin starred restaurant!
Horizon: Thank you for your time, Paul.
Paul: Not at all!
Paul's autobiography You're Him, Aren't You? is available here: Autobiography
Lucifer is available as hardback and eBook from Big Finish here: Lucifer Book and as an audiobook here: Lucifer Audio
Lucifer: Revelation will be published in May and is available now to pre-order here: Lucifer Revelation
The Liberator Chronicles Volumes 1-7 are available here: Lib Chrons
Warship and the all-cast classic adventure audio dramas are available here: Classic Audio Adventures
You can find your local Jack FM Radio station here: Jack FM
The Minister of Chance sonic movie is free to download from their website here: Minister
Oliver McNeil's Fantasy Photographs are available here: Fantasy Photos
Oliver is offering Horizon members the chance to buy unsigned prints at the special discounted price of £60 + £10p&p. Call him on 01582 830178 quoting "Avon Lives!"
The Whoovers Evening with Paul Darrow DVD is available from organiser Steve Hatcher. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.