Otherworldly talents

Long live the golden age of British television, when great actors imbued classic roles with risky, multifaceted complexity

This article is taken from the December/January 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

With three shots to the gut, poor old Roj Blake is dead. Having, courtesy of the most spectacular of misunderstandings, just murdered the very man and former leader he’d long sought, Kerr Avon remains frozen to the spot. The rest of his ill fated and largely less memorable crew are fatally picked off, one by one, by newly arrived Federation gunmen. 

Soon enough surrounded by his enemies, Avon flashes that knowing showbiz smile for the last time, before the screen goes to black to the sound of more shooting. A December Monday night on BBC One, 40 years ago. Blake’s 7 had just left our screens for good. Its climax was chaotic, brutal and unexpected. Science fiction on British TV hasn’t hit such heights since.

Downbeat about the show’s direction and the dramatic straitjacket that came with his heroic Blake, the Welsh RSC actor Gareth Thomas wanted out by the end of series two and seldom appeared thereafter. A Blake less 7 seemingly posed a problem for its creator, TV veteran Terry Nation. There was, after all, hardly a conventional substitute heroic lead waiting in the wings, ready to take these intergalactic rebels to unlikely victory.

What to do? Cast a similarly principled courageous type, ready to take up the fight where the other had left off? The alternative was altogether more intriguing and risky. Having spent two series endlessly sniping and scowling at Blake’s simplistic crusade against the evil totalitarian folk, that same crusade underpinning the whole premise of Nation’s show, Paul Darrow’s cynical computer genius Avon (“computer genius” was still exotic in 1978), was no Captain Kirk. Certainly never a Blake. His was the ruthless, self serving, shoot you in the back world that Blake had refused to tolerate. Didn’t this TV morality tale of good battling evil oppressors still require immoral Avon to be kept in check?

Not a jot. Nation opted to put Avon at the helm and the shackles were off. Free of the intolerable freedom fighter who’d thwarted him too long, Darrow, now in all his multifaceted, sexy pomp, wasted no time flourishing in the newly enhanced role. Unsurprisingly, saving the world no longer came so high up on the list. There was definitely a villain to deal with: vampish arch enemy Servalan needed to be killed, but more for Avon’s sake, rather than those of the Federation opposed masses, and preferably after they’d first enjoyed a dirty weekend.

Brett was the best Sherlock bar none

Avon wasn’t the only powerhouse of British sci-fi to fall in 1981. The greatest Time Lord of them all had bowed out that March after six years, when Tom Baker regenerated into the young chap from All Creatures Great and Small. Baker’s Doctor had of course also proved himself one of TV history’s most enigmatic, unconventionally heroic figures. All curls and manic smiles, complete with strange booming vocal rhythms, this Gallifreyan Doctor had appeared more alien than any Doctor before or since.

While fans mourned the post 1981 absence of Avon’s world, daring to hope the BBC might still grant his unlikely escape from the jaws of death, devotees of Baker’s Time Lord (naturally the two tribes very much overlapped), saw precisely what a post-Tom galaxy looked like. 

Successor Peter Davison made a decent fist of it for three years, only for the ailing show to be unceremoniously shunted off the airwaves before the decade was out. Watching the demise of Doctor Who, Darrow’s followers could be forgiven for quietly wondering whether their man’s sudden departure, however controversial, may have been a blessing after all.

The game’s afoot

Federation marksmen aside, by the mid-eighties, BBC execs were fast becoming British television science fiction’s biggest enemy. And this in an age where Star Wars was carrying all before it, and Star Trek had returned in the cinema.

While Darrow and Baker ended 1981 in search of pastures new, by 1984 a third member of this triumvirate of unmistakably British otherworldliness would emerge. Just as Darrow and Baker before him, longtime TV regular Jeremy Brett had found his defining role, successfully inhabiting the old bones of Sherlock
Holmes to sometimes unsettling degree. 

While Darrow and Baker had to contend with the odd obvious turkey of a sci fi script, not to mention those obligatory shaky sets and daft Broadcasting House aliens, Brett thrived in the more dramatically settled world of Arthur Conan Doyle’s England. It’s no great leap, of course, to say that Sherlock could have been Avon; and Avon, Sherlock. Doubtless, hazier memories confuse the pair to this day. Having both so successfully brought their pouncing theatricality to the screen, they seemed kindred spirits.

Brett as Sherlock

Darrow would later go on to joke at his own expense that job offers would only come his way when Brett proved unavailable. Baker, meanwhile, wasted little time trying to turn into Sherlock himself, in 1982’s BBC adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles. Though swapping the Doctor’s scarf for the deerstalker hadn’t proved the logical career transition hoped for.

All three men brought to these great roles an all important unknowable. A magnetism of unrestrained eccentricity, lurking never far from the permanently bonkers. “Backstories”, all too present and laboured devices today, attempting to justify who/why they were, seemed mercifully sparse. We had our imperfectly formed weirdos, all complexities, contradictions and surprises attached. 

As viewers, they had us precisely where they wanted us, the gaps not needing to be endlessly filled. Twenty first century incarnations of Sherlock and the Doctor, by contrast, find themselves regularly obliged to explain. Have these ever fuller character circles, endlessly needing to be drawn, really caused us to feel any closer to modern day versions?

Brett, Darrow and Baker would kill/capture/thwart bad people/bad aliens at regular intervals. Yet you were always satisfyingly unsure. There wasn’t a “people person” among them. Brett’s Earth based Sherlock was as alien and remote as Baker’s time traveller Doctor. Being good wasn’t a straightforward business. And it was all shown rather than didactically told.

Baker was replaced by a waxwork when his fellow Time Lords posed for the publicity shoot

Show pony Avon, keener than the others to be seen as the bad boy, still ended up risking life and limb more than once to rescue Blake, the man he affected to despise and want, well, shot of. It wasn’t problematic to the plot that one week Avon was only in it for the money or preparing brutal betrayal, only for the next to be ready to put his life on the line for something resembling the “cause” after all. He, like Sherlock and the Doctor, endlessly kept us on our toes. We were never in safe hands with these heroes. Who would have wanted to be?

The mask and the face

The roles consumed and confined one and all. Good luck ever trying to prove where Paul Darrow ended and Avon began. But this was far from the celebrated world of Dustin Hoffman type method acting. When all is done, accomplished and acclaimed, a Hoffman moves on to the next challenge. Avon, Sherlock, the Doctor, were in the DNA. 

Regardless of whether they were technically “playing” these characters at the time, putting these alter egos back in the box wasn’t an option. Just as with Darrow’s Avon, Jeremy/Sherlock and Tom/Doctor were interchangeable. Did this make them technically lesser actors? It surely hardly mattered, what with their power so splendidly evident on screen.

Brett’s mental and physical deterioration tragically made its presence all too evident during his later Holmesian portrayals. The best Sherlock bar none, those piercing, handsome features were to remain fixed in late middle age, with Brett dead from heart failure by September, 1995, just over a year after his last TV Holmes.

Baker initially wanted the Doctor gone from his life. Refusing to take part in 1983’s 20th anniversary show, featuring all five incarnations of the Doctor up to that point, the actor was laughably replaced by a waxwork when his fellow Time Lords posed for the required publicity shoot. Only in later years, and with the commercial power of Doctor Who thriving, did Baker, now 87, at last properly embrace his fate and agree to be coaxed back into the fold. His association with Soho bohemia, meanwhile, however romanticised and exaggerated, had only added to the aura. This Doctor was a thirsty fellow.

Following Lord of the Rings heart throb Orlando Bloom’s widely ridiculed “A Life in the Day” Sunday Times interview last year, when the 43 year old talked of a miserable LA diet, including “green powders mixed with brain octane oil”, some wag offered a compare and contrast with Baker, speaking to the same publication at almost the identical age in 1978. Slap bang in the middle of his Doctor Who heyday, the idol of millions of British children announced: “I woke up at 5.15am in a brown cork lined room in Soho and then got into bed. But where am I? I dreamt about a tall, thin woman, but who is she? I suffer recurring images of tall, skinny ladies.” 

Amid a relentless account of the drinking itinerary, along with a contemplation of suicide, he added: “I then popped into Ronnie Scott’s club and sat there at the bar, self consciously affecting a knowledge of jazz that I haven’t got … after I’d cadged a Valium from someone, I went home to my padded cell.” No one sneered at this in the 70s.

Darrow most readily publicly embraced his other self. While Baker initially resisted, Avon never wished to go away. Like countless fans, Avon hadn’t wanted Avon to perish on that December night in 1981. He actively contested the fact, supported by an insistence by Nation himself — absent for the last Blake’s 7 series — that Avon had indeed somehow survived.

As well as Darrow’s own Avon related literary endeavours, matters appeared to be getting very real when he was unveiled as the star attraction of a proposed screen reboot more than 20 years after the last series — only for a falling out with producer Andrew Mark Sewell to bring his involvement to an abrupt end. Inevitable audio adventures continued to cheer the diehards; but by the all important laws of television, Blake 7’s true and original home, Avon remained surrounded on the planet Gauda Prime. Just as he should be.

British actors’ alien men

While frank in conceding it was a career that could easily be deemed “unfulfilled” post Avon, Paul Darrow embraced the convention/fan circuit with an admirably generous spirit. Unlike some who have tasted the adoration of the crowd, Darrow managed to enjoy both fame and its shrivelling. Addressing devotees during an informal gathering in a Manchester bar, Darrow was bluntly asked by one unimpressed drinker standing nearby: “Who the fuck are you?” Perhaps not for the first time, he swiftly replied: “I’m Harrison Ford.”

In his entertaining memoir entitled You’re Him, Aren’t You?, Darrow was accepting of his status in TV’s celebrity hierarchy. Avon had been a gift that had given. Not in a subsequently career enhancing, particularly lucrative way (though all those Darrow voiceovers on trailers and promotions presumably kept things ticking over), but in the universe he’d largely created for himself and countless others to happily reside in. “There is no getting away from fandom … I am a part of it, whether I like it or not. I like it!” he later wrote.

Ready to embrace his tribe of all shapes, sizes and persuasions, he was once seen at a convention courteously accepting the gift of a yellow rubber duck for his bathroom from a more mature admirer. When a young blonde female appeared wanting an autograph immediately afterwards, “I’d rather meet you in the bath” was not a line time or mores stopped him from offering. Even as death approached in 2019 — both legs had been partially amputated five years earlier — the old devil reassuringly proved as frisky as ever.

Avon kills Blake

In Darrow, Baker and Brett, we had stars without conventional star quality; all were equally ill versed in the arts of conventional publicity too. They’d have struggled to convincingly deliver those well rehearsed, carefully placed celebrity anecdotes we now endlessly hear on Graham Norton’s TV sofa. As personalities they wouldn’t have been made for such times — they’d barely been made for their own. The game didn’t interest them. There was always distance.

While no new Avon appeared on screen, there would of course be successive Doctors, and reinterpreted Sherlocks. And in David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch, thespian Britain gave its best to both roles. The commercial success of the BBC’s rebooted Sherlock, now set in the 21st century, prompted claims that Cumberbatch might give us a Holmes worthy of challenging Brett’s all those decades before. 

Through no fault of his great detective, the case began to unravel when his writers’ increasingly convoluted plot lines entered a maze from which even clever Sherlock couldn’t return. Having initially impressively updated the Holmes form, the game, and, most crucially, the story, got away from its now power drunk creators, unchecked by the kind of BBC execs willing to say “No” to Terry Nation and co.

Darrow, Baker and Brett were equally ill-versed in the arts of conventional publicity too

The good Doctor is, these days, definitely good, and he and she has romped along with better budgets and generally better looking actors. Even during its stronger periods over the past 16 years, the modern show has been unable to resist glancing over its shoulder, anxiously ticking worthy boxes and sometimes satisfying demographics before drama. When attempting to pass comment on the real world, the programme’s obsession with itself has proven tiresomely distracting. 

Is the modern Dr Who more fascinated with itself than the worlds it once marvelled at a consequence of the fanboys now calling the shots? Are those who adored the Bakers, Bretts and Darrows in their youth now, in middle age, the owners of the best toys in town? Does reverence to the “legacy,” “the brand,” and adherence to the “show bible” (setting out the world Who exists in) bring with it a compulsion to elaborate all the more? To overcomplicate, now we have Wikipedia to help us?

Those pulling the strings for Baker’s Doctor — Nation, Robert Holmes, Terrance Dicks, to name but a few — were born at a time of real British power. Doctor Who — travelling in a police box, battling foes across time and space — was undoubtedly a cracking premise. But stories were all they were considered to be. They wrote some mighty fine ones between them. 

By December 1981, Kerr Avon was British TV sci fi’s last big act in town. The BBC, however, apparently wanted no more. Producer Vere Lorrimer and writer Chris Boucher, understanding their man as they did, knew this couldn’t possibly be a goodbye wrapped up in ribbons and comfortable resolution.

Disastrously misinformed that Blake, of all people, had somehow at last betrayed him, Avon would end up killing the best person he’d ever truly known. His own death was seemingly about to follow. Had Avon really taken us all this far, only to end matters in such a sorry, catastrophic fashion? Thankfully, he had. Stories should come to an end. And franchises should be saved for burger chains.

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