‘Personally I prefer the edges a little blurred.’
As childhood memories go, there is little that is more nostalgic than the soundtrack of a black and white matinee movie, watched by my parents on a rainy Saturday afternoon, usually on BBC2, around the late 1980’s. The timbre of the recording, the way the music score is mixed with the dialogue, and those sounds. The distant thunder, the making of tea using the finest bone china, the engine of a spitfire, the sound of high heels on the pavement, the door bell ringing in an opulent looking hallway or the obligatory horn of a stream train. It’s the sounds that linger in my head, more than the visual imagery.
The impact of the special sound is something that held a fascination for me as long as I can remember. Recently, I watched some vintage footage of BBC Radiophonic Workshop composer Elizabeth Parker re-creating some of the special sounds for Blake’s 7, using a cup of water as the source material.
Her use of this everyday sound source reminded me of one of the earliest compositions that has stuck with me, and perhaps has made me appreciate quite how important the role of the sound is. I’m talking about the ‘Guggle Glub Gurgle.’
In the 1951 satirical Ealing comedy ‘The Man in the White Suit’ Alex Guinness plays Sidney Stratton, a brilliant graduate who invents a remarkable new fibre that is resistant to dirt. Stratton’s ‘contraption’, eventually discovered by other characters in the factory workshop is the main focus here. This is a myriad of test tubes, beakers and assorted scientific apparatus that houses various chemicals and liquids, bubbling away in the great tradition of the cinematic ‘laboratory’ so familiar in many a Hammer Horror film.
Mary Habberfield was a sound editor at Ealing studios for many decades. And it was her collaboration with director Alexander Mackendrick that resulted in the remarkable sounds that accompanies the apparatus. The bubbles, gurgles, and pops are in fact akin to a samba. Made using a range of musical sounds and ‘concrete’ sources, a score was created that read “Bubble, bubble, high drip, low drip, high drain, low drain.”
Much has been written about the creation of the special sound for telefantasy productions. No discussion of the aural elements of the Doctor Who universe will omit the integral contributions of Dick Mills, Brian Hodgson or Delia Derbyshire. In the universe of Blake’s 7 – ‘Hostage’ is the episode where a significant handover takes place. The ‘special sound’ from Richard Yeoman-Clark to Elizabeth Parker. And it is a significant shift too, from the futuristic tones and frequencies of Yeoman-Clark, to the more organic approach of Parker.
When Blake’s 7 started, the distinctive sounds were largely electronic, created using oscillators and various synthesized means. Yeoman-Clark came from very much an engineering background (and returned to that engineering career when he left the BBC Radiophonic Workshop around the time of ‘Trial’.) In many ways, this futuristic approach is perfect for the ‘space adventure’ of Blake’s 7. The activation of the force wall, the main screen, the hums of the flight deck, Zen, Orac, the teleport dematerialisation…and materialisation. It’s all about tones, and oscillations, and hums and things.
Then with his departure, we welcome Elizabeth Parker, who brings in a more concrete, multi layered and organic approach. As she mentioned in an interview for the DVDs – more feminine. In an interview for a music journal in March 1981, Parker’s approach to creating sounds for a contemporary adaptation of ‘Lord of the Rings’ is described.
‘To get a thunder effect, Elizabeth started off with tin foil, tearing it apart slowly to make a cracking sound. She likes this much better than using sound effects records or even a synthesiser, because it retains such a sharp edge which can be spliced and edited together using the live recording for multi-tracking at different speeds. Add to that two white noise tracks and various degrees of echo and you’ve got the final effect.’ (2)
This is a perfect illustration of Parker’s approach to Blake’s 7. Yeoman-Clark created an excellent canvas for the show, but it is Parker who really paints onto that canvas. It’s the polar opposite to her predecessor, and something that will greatly benefit the show for the remainder of it’s lifespan.
So what of ‘Hostage’ itself?
Being an episode directed by Vere Lorrimer, we are treated to his usual establishing shots of space. Accompanied by Dudley Simpson’s spacey music, they work in sets of three.
‘Ding dee ding’
‘Ding dee ding’
‘Ding dee ding’
(Trumpet – three notes from the theme tune.)
‘Ding dee ding’
It’s a device that will be used again in the next season episode ‘City at the Edge of the World. In fact it’s the exact same series of shots, and musical motifs. Excellent creative self plagiarism!
I enjoy the fact that we start with a quiet scene. Previous episodes have gone straight into the action or exposition. Two soldiers on Earth. Two Federation troupers at Space Command Headquarters. Two of Blake’s crew teleporting down to a communications base.
But here we wait. The characters are bored. This is a series comfortable with itself.
But not for long.
The latest attack begins…and Avon activates the force wall.
It’s no wonder this episode was helmed by Vere Lorrimer. He’s well versed with directing the attacks on the Liberator, as these early sequences feel like a retread of the events of ‘Redemption’ – even using some of the same shots. What is interesting to note is that this doesn’t just hark back to past episodes, but point to a way ahead, as I lose count of how much of the actual filmed material – the model shots, the zooms in on Zen, and the various explosions on the flight deck make their way into the opening scenes of ‘Aftermath’ in the next series. I say it again, Vere is an expert in borrowing from himself.
Also have I just turned a deaf ear to the space age ‘bafflegab’ spouted by the Liberator crew? For some reason I seem to notice this one more than others.
‘Delta 1 vector 2-9.’
‘Tangent 1 – 8.’
They could have made great titles for a Glenn Miller album.
This battle is one of the most sustained attacks yet, and is directed with considerable flair. The only iffy moment is when the Liberator travels through the ionised particles, and everything turns red. The crew do not act as though they are experiencing a rocky ride via a space phenomenon, but more like they are responding to the lighting director switching on the coloured lights in studio TC6.
We welcome back Allan Prior. This means that there will be some reference to Vila requiring Adrenalin and Soma, and a rescue of some description. I shouldn’t be too unkind about this script. As far as I understand, this was a last minute replacement for another script, so was a hurried affair. Perhaps. But something goes wrong here.
It sounds like this was a troubled production. The lead guest star Duncan Lamont (sci-fi fans will recognise him in Nation’s ‘Death to the Daleks’) died a month after location filming. Lamont had a craggy, gruff quality in his performances, and it is easy to see why he would have been selected for the role of Blakes ‘uncle or whatever’.
Following Lamont’s death, the production team hurriedly arranged for Welsh actor Ronald Lewis to take on the role. But this was quickly abandoned due to his ill-health. His is a sad story. An actor with considerable charisma (which I don’t believe would have worked for Ushton) he was a staple in the British film industry of the 1950’s – 1960’s. However marital disagreements, and financial difficulties followed and the work dried up. By the time of ‘Hostage’ Lewis had been credited on television for the last time, and it would appear that the health issues that prevented him from taking on the role of ‘Hostage’ were related to the decline in his career. He died in 1982 of an overdose, bankrupt, and largely forgotten by the acting profession.
It is always curious to imagine how characters would have been portrayed in those ‘Sliding Doors’ moments where perhaps another actor got the role. But in the case of Ushton, John Abineri was very much the right choice. Craggy and gruff – yes. But also physically active enough to take on the action sequences.
So what of the resulting location shooting? Well it’s a case of this episode being the one that defies time and weather conditions. We’re back at Betchworth quarry – Vere’s home from home. All of the scenes featuring Lamont had to be re-filmed. And inevitably, it shows. All of Abineri’s material is filmed in the bleak misty cold, in contrast to the bright sunshine of the other scenes – take the scene where Avon is trapped in the net. As night falls we are treated to successive shots filmed in different conditions at different times. After a while you get used to it. That’s showbiz.
Meanwhile the Mutoids are blond. And Andrew Robertson puts in a good turn as the Space Commander – a far cry from his comic turn as Mr Fibuli in ‘The Tom Baker Show’ the year before. Someone (not a Blake’s 7 convert) asked me why he was talking into a vibrator when watching this episode.
Amidst the nonsense, there is some good character development on show, but mainly it is centered around Avon. His line ‘I was rather hoping to sell them the idea’ is a great reminder of his self interest. Yet on the flip side, his concern for Blake’s is also an important reminder of the complicated relationship that these two characters have. And that, at this comfortable stage of the series is really important.
Servalan is painted well – under increasing pressure within the Federation – she is turning to more outlandish and unrecorded means to pursue Blake. The scene with Kevin Stoney as Councillor Joban is fabulous. It’s like those scenes in many a James Bond where he meets the villain for an afternoon tipple and suss each other out.
‘Personally I like the edges a little blurred.’
It’s a brilliantly acted scene, and left me wondering what are the methods that actors use to communicate insincerity. It’s all in the eyes. Check out the look Servalan gives Joban as he leaves.
But – and it has got to be said – Gareth Thomas looks so bored. Compare this performance to the previous episode, and you can see that a little bit of the spark has gone. Nonetheless Blake’s impassioned ‘as might you all’ speech is well delivered and is one of the few times Blake is seen to call in the crews debt, in a similar way as Avon calls in his debt in ‘Terminal’.
But for all the trouble that faced this production, the real issue here is the direction. It’s probably Lorrimer’s least effective, both in terms of the portrayals of the characters, and the more technical aspects.
Travis mentions a grid reference (BW 13O for those keeping record) like it’s a car number plate.
Servalan’s chair moves on it’s own free will in the Space Command set.
Jenna teleports someone with her back to the teleport bay.
After an excellent previous episode – Brian Croucher looses credibility.
Travis activating the hand – nuff said.
‘Flotilla’ – tricky word to say. Both Chappell and Knyvette both struggle to say it. I can picture it now. Take 9 – ‘oh, sod it, we’ll use use the best one.’
Characters get beaten up, and captured, and even netting makes an appearance. It is so cartooney. Take the scene where Travis has Blake and Avon where he wants them. It’s so sluggishly edited.
‘Two for the price of one.’ (Chewing gum acting.)
Net appears. (Nice wooshing sound)
Cut away to Avon.
Cut to Uston post throw.
Cut to Blake turning.
Cut to Ushton shouting ‘Get him!’
Cut to Blake again finally moving.
Cut back to Ushon.
This phase of the series is very much Blake’s 7 – the men’s show. It’s a little period where the show became about the men, at the cost of the women. It’s not simply a case that the women were not given enough to do, its more about how the men were playing the battle for themselves.
A good example is how Cally says something is wrong. ‘Lets go down.’ But Jenna says no because ‘the ball is in Travis court’ – so its all about the man battle, and there really isn’t the will power to involve the female characters. Bar a couple of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it trips for Jenna, the two female characters largely remain on the Liberator between ‘Horizon’ and ‘Gambit’ – over half of the series!
Other nauseating examples include:
Travis – ‘Your champion is coming to rescue you.’
Jenna playing mummy. ‘Now Vila, have you got everything?’
Jenna worrying about the approaching pursuit ship, met by insufferable cool as a cucumber Blake.
Oh, and was it acceptable to boff your 1st cousin in the 1970’s?
But after watching all of this unfold I asked myself whther I enjoyed it? Of course I did! It’s still full of amusement and fizz, and I often have to remind myself that I am not watching any scene stuck on Commissioner Sleer’s beige spacecraft set, which rendered any fourth series episode it featured in officially dull. And how can anyone not be warmed by the sight of a rotund criminal psychopath running away from a polystyrene rock with his arms flapping in the air like Daffy Duck did in the Looney Tunes cartoons of yesteryear.
The set design is functional, but not memorable. Chunky metallic feel for Travis’s base, and low lit subtle subterranean feel for Ushton’s hideaway.
Dudley Simpson’s music still has some spark throughout, with rumbling brass in during the space battle, and Vila’s ‘Chilly isn’t it?’ accompanied by a light entertainment style ‘Bomp-ity bomp-ity bomp-ity bomp BONG!’ It kind of sums up the direction really.
The episode does end with one little moment of genuine quality. The final scene with Travis and Servalan. A simple two-hander (three if you count the mutoid) played with subtlety and an air of wistfulness from both characters. It’s an important scene that opens up a little story arc that will run until the rest of the series. After all the capers of the preceding 45 minutes it is as excellent as it is welcome.
HOW TO SELL THIS TO A NON BELIEVER?
Watching paid extras running away and being ‘crushed’ by polystyrene rocks.
MY FAVOURITE MOMENT
The Joban scene
THE MOMENT I’D RATHER FORGET
Inga’s slightly over enthusiastic ‘Come on Father!’.
VERDICT IN 10 WORDS EXACTLY.
It’s bad, but I can’t help love it a bit.
So there we have it. ‘Hostage’. The Looney Tunes of Blake’s 7. Full of action, full of incident, and full of things going… well, generally wrong.
And where was Elizabeth Parker with the force wall noise when you needed it? Hand overs never run smooth.