“All right, I heard, I heard!”
This is a blog post about the ensemble.
The power of an ensemble cast was something I became aware of quite quickly in my childhood. I have memories of the early 1980’s TARDIS line up – Doctor Davison, Adric, Nyssa and Tegan. As a four-year old I remember the clothing; dark pink, maroon, yellow (with gold star) and the cricketing garb. This mish-mash really did stick in my mind, and it complemented their bickering, contrasting characters. Yet it still communicated one important thing – they were my heroes. It was only later in life, when I became older and more cynical, that their bickering started to annoy somewhat. But the silhouette of those four travellers stuck with me.
And then there are the BBC comedies that were broadcast around the same time. These were usually penned by David Croft and Jimmy Perry; Allo Allo, Dad’s Army, and Are you Being Served? Whilst some of the humour would come out of the situation, it was through the character interactions where the laughs could really be found. I enjoyed the television adaptation of ‘The Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy’ for the same reason. But it was children’s classic ‘Rentaghost’ that sealed the enjoyment of watching a group of people bumbling their way through this, that and the other, and how at the end they would all gather to do some kind of conga or assorted hi-jinks whilst the credits would appear on-screen.
The warmth that many people will have for these series will have come from the chemistry of the ensemble – something that the ‘You have been watching’ motif during the end credits would emphasise. When Gareth Roberts and Clayton Hickman created their fabulous Blake’s 7 take on ‘Voice from the Past’ in this style, it kind of hammers home how possible it is to be very fond of an ensemble appearing together for our entertainment. These are not just actors names on a credits list, these are performers whose impact comes from being seen together, perhaps more so than any little individual moments we love.
And it’s perhaps that chemistry that is responsible for much of the spirit of Blake’s 7. A gang, a motley crew of individuals who we grow to care about on-screen.
But there is more to it than that. Any Blake’s 7 fan who is in the know will explain that, behind the scenes, the cast really did get on with each other. So when we hold fondness for the Liberator crew, I think it goes hand-in-hand with the fondness the cast had for each other. There were no big conflicts or raised voices. These were a group of people who worked super hard, and super fast on a high demand show, and just like we care for the characters, we start to care about the cast too. The result? An awareness of the close-knit ensemble. We just love them that little bit more.
People come and go, but there are two main ensembles that make up Blake’s 7.
Ensemble 1 – Season A &B
Extra marks on the appreciation index for this group. They were the original seven. These are the ones who stuck through the demands of that first tough, long series. Of course there were good healthy creative tensions between cast and the production team – David Jackson not having many lines, Gareth Thomas wanting more directorial control, Sally Knyvette and Jan Chappell finding it increasingly frustrating that their characters were falling short of their potential. But they gelled as a unit, and quickly at that. And they needed to. I can’t think of a better episode such as ‘Voice from the Past’ that demonstrates this.
Ensemble 2 – Season C&D
This perhaps is the greater achievement. It can’t be easy for newcomers to come in and take over from major established characters. But season C really does communicate a close-knit cast, performing characters that, despite all the snapping and biting, really do need each other, even in this safer universe. Steven Pacey and Josette Simon join, and they fit in effortlessly. Jan Chappell and Michael Keating are comfortably established. It should be mentioned that Chappell is still enjoying it, and chose to sign on for another year. Paul Darrow is relishing his new status of lead. And Jacqueline Pearce is quoted as saying that she had the best time in season C. When I watch ‘Children of Auron’ and see the chemistry between each other, I know how good this ensemble was.
Whilst the dynamics of season D, for this viewer at least, is a little less tight, it still remains very good indeed. Everyone bar Chappell chose to return to a series they thought was dead and buried, and that is significant. However I did feel that Simon was muted, Pearce was struggling with both her role and private life, and Glynis Barber was wasted in a barely sketched out character. But when I watch them walking arm in arm for a charity walk in 1981, I look at them and take enjoyment in the fact they worked so well together.
But does it matter? Surely as a member of the audience I should only care about what I see on the screen, but when you like a show so much, the intrinsic chemistry of the cast behind the scenes adds an extra dimension. I think it is part of the DNA of being a fan.
Blake’s 7 is a series about sticking together, no matter what. Gan said it right from the beginning, and by Terminal they were still doing their best to convince Avon that it would be better to deal with things as a collective. By the time the group made their way to Gauda Prime, it was Avon himself who knew that finding a new figurehead was the only way to keep the group together. Whilst these behind the scenes observations are generally irrelevant to the casual viewer, they at least translate to a closeness and understanding on-screen, and that enhances the enjoyment of watching Blake’s 7 no end.
Ah, the perils of live television! There’s a clip from 1977 of the gallery talkback for the BBC’s coverage of the Eurovision Song Contest. It has a connect with ‘Voice From The Past’ in that it was filmed in the same auditorium that Governor Le Grand met her demise. But it’s also what I imagine the recording of this episode to be like. An exhilarating if not altogether successful ride. Even though it wasn’t recorded as live, director George Spenton-Foster and his crew were still up against the clock. Run the roller!
Nosing around various reviews from the internet, this episode doesn’t seem to be particularly high on many people’s ‘best of’ lists, but I really love ‘Voice From the Past.’ It’s certainly not dull. It’s my guilty pleasure. I used to think it’s not the sort of episode I would show to someone who I was hoping would like Blake’s 7. But now, I totally would show it to them. It’s fun, it’s pacey. It has its share of funny moments and great lines – for better and for worse. I’ve always found ‘Assassin’ to be not only bad Blake’s 7, but pretty bad television too. But it has enough fun to keep it ticking onwards. ‘Animals’ is conversely not the worst attempt at a Blake’s 7 episode, but it spectacularly fails through being so joyless. But ‘Voice From the Past’ is the episode to watch when you have had a really tough day.
There are times when I need Blake’s 7 to be a comforting experience, full of all the established things I find familiar. Studio sets on video. A bit of film work on location, some good, classic theatrical performances, multi-camera direction, and ensemble casting. I wrote about this episode on a train coming home from a long, long day. And it was the perfect choice.
We’re into the later stages of the second series. A lot has gone on. The death of one of the crew, a raid on central, an empty pretence, talk of Star One, talk of an alliance, talk talk talk! And we’re still here, keeping an eye out for our gaggle of rebels on their still super-duper starship.
And they are still trying to find ways of relaxing. A nice little nod to ‘Horizon’. If they were feeling lousy then, goodness knows how they are feeling now. As with ‘Horizon’, Cally is behind the attempts to improve the wellbeing of the crew.
I love the three-shot with an earnest Cally, a crouching Avon, and perhaps a more cynical and amused Jenna. Things must be bad for Avon to actively participate in anything. Yes I’m very fond of this group.
And then there is Blake. The centre of attention. It’s funny, but after watching a few episodes of Avon as the series lead, I sometimes have to remind myself that this is Blake’s show. The clue’s in the title.
When Gareth Thomas says ‘tone oscillation’ I think what a great acting voice he has. And he can do that thing where you can move the muscles above his ears to make it look like he is wearing a loose-fitting wig.
Is that the thing that is used to diagnose Gan in ‘Breakdown’ at the back of the rest room? And also isn’t the rest room the same set as ‘Sub control 4’ from Redemption? It’s lit completely differently, and tricked me for years into thinking it’s a totally unique set for this episode. Good theatrical skills there, BBC.
On the fight deck Vila talks of an ‘Ultra planet’ – I’d love to know more. And Blake actually stands in Jenna’s position and sets course for Liberator by himself. He’s actually pressing buttons on his own. OK, something is wrong.
According to Zen we are due to arrive at Asteroid PK118 at around 1855. Just in time for ‘The One Show’. (For overseas readers this is a reference to a populist early evening show on BBC1. Sorry, I can’t believe I actually typed this.)
Vila gets all shouty. I’m thinking this one is where the crew are going to let their hair down, at the expense of high tension.
Cue some very progressive Dudley Simpson music over a shot of the Liberator turning on its axis. It sounds like a chainsaw, or something from the Miles Davis ‘electric’ era.
The bombshell is delivered. Vila says to the crew “Blake’s just switched”. But Darrow is the star here. I love the way Avon say “He whhwat?” Pure melodrama.
Cue a four-shot. We don’t see that often. George Spenton-Foster must have been feeling confident with this one. It’s nice that the cast are lined up and take it in turns to say a bit of dialogue – a gentle reminder that some get more than others. And then he moves in for a none-to-flattering up the nose shot of Blake, which must have pleased Gareth Thomas no end.
I think Paul Darrow is secretly enjoying this one. “Renounce renounce” he says with a cool, smooth swagger, as if he is trying to seduce someone. It’s a great chat up line.
Jenna does the pointy finger thing and tells Avon to check with Orac. Avon gives a look of ‘I hadn’t thought of that.’ Another slightly out of character moment.
Back in the rest room, Jenna is selected to test out the characteristics of Blake’s conditioning.
The acting is reaching fever pitch. Blake reaches pressure point, and Avon does one of those judo chops that avoids the leading character from nursing a broken collar-bone – one thing Gareth Thomas had up on Tom Baker anyway. And in comes Vila. “You’ve all gone mad, stop it!” It’s all rather OTT. And I bloomin’ love it.
Not sure of the timing again. Orac states that the rehabilitation time for Jenna will be around 26 hours. I’m not sure the episode will reach that long. So the Liberator is re-routed and will arrive at Del 10 at 045+1. OK, I don’t think there is anything listed at that time.
There’s another wonderfully odd moment, where Spenton-Foster throws in another four-shot into the mix, as Blake is wheeled onto the flight deck like some kind of model exhibit. It’s such a curious set up, which makes me snigger. As usual it made me wonder the origin of the chair. It looks suspiciously high a high-backed variant of Charles Pollack’s executive chair designed for Knoll (see ‘set design’.)
Now it’s Jan Chappell’s turn to enjoy a little OTT moment, something that’s rare for her, as she haughtily tells Jenna that what she needs is “a haught drink and a rest.” In terms of pronunciation, that’s the least of this episode’s worries.
I love it when Blake starts getting all manipulative. Although it’s because he is under the influence, it also fits in with his more intense second series persona.
Vila goes up to Zen to re-route the ship once again, arriving at PK118 in just over half an hour, at 1908, well into another episode of ‘Emmerdale’. (For overseas readers, Emmerdale is…oh forget it.)
Spenton-Foster finally gives us a killer shot, as Vila talks to Zen, reminding us that it is not only a great computer, but a massive one too.
This episode is really plundering through the model shot catalogue. Every minute or so it seems.
There’s a nice little detail as the sound of the Liberator’s engines change, something of which is noticed by Jenna. It’s a reminder of just how ‘sonic’ the series is, how important the range of sounds are to Blake’s 7, and how it’s easy it is to forget this. Although as some Foley artists will confirm, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s there doing its work at a more unconscious level…like a trigger signal.
Blake asks how long it will take to reach PK118. Vila’s response is still around 30 minutes. This is a long half hour. Perhaps time has now decided to stand still, like something out of Sapphire and Steel.
I’ve decided that the way Avon thumps the door lock and communicator is cool. Cally hints at some interesting developments regarding ‘controlled beaming’ developed on Auron. Every time Cally’s home is mentioned, it adds to a mystique that surely can only lead to an episode of it’s own…written by the same writer.
It’s the turn of Gareth Thomas for a theatrical moment, as he is attacked by the tone again, turning around to the camera in a very startled way. But this is soon forgotten as he is upstaged by one of the lousiest and loose-fitting space suites known to science-fiction audiences. I swear I can see the floor manager in shot to (our) left of Blake’s visor.
Into the artwork we go. There are some curious effects in this episode. Once on the surface of Asteroid PK118, Blake takes a journey that can only be described as hallucinogenic. He walks through some cotton wool, string, and cardboard mobiles, smack bang into the outline of a yellow penis in front of a cardboard box, and into an intriguing mix of green and red lighting. It’s what ‘The Invisible Enemy’ could have been like if they had even less money spent on it, if that is even possible. Bliss.
My design radar was operational – “Air lock” uses the ‘Countdown’ typeface (see Headhunter). And I enjoyed Spenton-Foster’s low angled shot of Vila at the teleport desk, which brings a little bit of intensity to an otherwise mundane scene.
Finally it’s Sally Knyvette’s turn for a wonderful spot of overacting. “Wretched mining companies. No sense of aesthetics!” And Darrow stands there narrowing his eyes with consumate ease. In fact that entire scene is a great illustration of how comfortable these actors were with each other.
On PK118, Blake has company. A man with a gun, and Pat Gorman, Harry Fielder and his friends. And the water dispenser from ‘Killer’ in the background.
And we get to see Shivan. He will get a lot of stick from a lot of people, but I want to say that even before he had even uttered a word, he looked pretty ridiculous, slouching in his green cape and bizarre bandaged head.
“Izzzzy come?” (Has he come?)
“Blayche? Iz zit Blake-ker?” (Blake? Is it Blake?)
“Our corrrrzzz-er.” (Our cause.)
“Distrave, as pruvers” (To strive, as brothers.)
A voice scan really is incompatible with that tracheal vent.
And we meet Ven Glynd. I really feel for Richard Bebb. Like Brian Croucher it must be difficult to come in and make sense of a character previously played by someone else.
None the less, he is perfectly respectable on his own terms. And whilst it is easy to say that he lacks Robert James’ subtle deviousness, that is unfair, as the character is completely different since the last time we saw him.
The thing that I can’t get my head around, is that it is all well and good having all this evidence, but to get an honest and fair hearing to indict the Federation is, as Avon and Cally suspect, mildly improbable to say the least. And in my mind, considering the power of the Federation in the galaxy, it’s totally impossible. For this story to work, previous episodes needed to establish that the Federation doesn’t hold quite enough power to make it impervious to the kind of evidence carried by Ven Glynd.
Zen says that arrival at Atley zone will be at 2115. They’re packing a lot into this evening. In fact I would loved to have worked out how time is measured in Blake’s 7, in the same way we got a sense of what speed ships can travel.
There’s lazy direction from Spenton-Foster as Jenna gets a close up in her blue evening dress, even though we haven’t established who is going to the conference. And we haven’t even met Governor Le Grand yet.
On space command, Servalan chats with Le Grand. This scene might be my favourite Servalan moment ever. It’s like a cat playing with it’s prey. It is a short scene, but it is delicious.
“Behold the mutants shall wither.” For once here is a line of dialogue that was perfectly clear in its pronunciation, but this time I was uncertain of its meaning.
Back on the flight deck, I love the mix between Dudley Simpson’s synthesised music, and Shivan’s groaning. They both complement each other very well. And Shivan’s badge looks just like the kind of thing I used to create in C.D.T lessons at school.
I do like the idea that the scientists of Auron dispensed with the idea of tying to influence computers to change course, and to aim for the human mind instead. The response to the idea of locating the device and restoring Blake to his senses “The two don’t necessarily follow” is perfect material for Avon.
As Avon and Cally become the duo who can possibly save the day, it feels like the seeds of season C are approaching, as they will also share a lot of action together in two of the three remaining stories of this run.
Back on the flight deck, the drawl continues…
“Prot-a-cole for your prop-erbley.” (Protocol for your puppet, eh?)
“But they most of all Glyeend. Whid-dis.” (But most of all, Glynd, with this.)
“So you known-hum.” (For you alone.)
“The evie-nonce. Green!” (The eminence grise.)
“YOU IMAGINE I HAVEN’T SMELT YOU OUWT?” This is also hilarious because it sounds like it has been dubbed on.
“Enthrone your puppet plague to poistureandproclaim whilst you enjoy ther reallfruits of powaah.” (Enthrone your puppet Blake to posture and proclaim whilst you enjoy the real fruits of power.)
“You still need me braaa-there.” (You still need me, brother.)
Le Grand breaks the fourth wall…and again in the scene where they are all sat on the flight deck sofa.
Digressing for a moment, I have to thank Blake’s 7 for playing a part in the seduction of my now wife. As someone who studied ancient history at university, I think she was impressed when I dropped the word ‘triumvirate’ into casual conservation, as you do. I didn’t really know the exact origins at first, but as she learned about Roman power triangles, I was on to a winner. The result was the impression that I was way more cultured and intelligent than I actually am, and suddenly I was irresistable.
There is a nice, extended model sequence. It’s helping to keep the running time of the episode to the right level. It’s also lit very nicely, with a lovely background.
Poor Nagu is the red herring. His job is done. And his time has come. Martin Read had a tough job. He had a reasonable stab (sorry) with his rather clichéd role, but it was always going to pale in comparison to groany, grizzly Shivan.
On film we reach the conference. This scene is Blake’s 7 at it’s finest. An expressive mix of lighting, considered shot composition a glut of emotional and symbolic intent. Love it. Well done George Spenton-Foster. In terms of quality this scene is worth the price of admission alone.
I’m so used to seeing outdoor footage on film, that when they do filmed interiors it makes me wonder what the series would have been like solely shot on video, or filmed on 16mm. It’s clear that during this location block, the director was seeking out the use of London landmarks from the South Bank Centre, to the newly built Wembley Conference Centre.
Travis is revealed. In my review of ‘Trial’ I wanted to lay down a bit of a defence for Travis II, but out of all the episodes he features in, it is this episode that the prosecution can rightfully draw upon a wealth of evidence. But the responsibility for this has to be down to the writer, script editor and director.
Everyone gathers for one last hurrah in the antechamber. And lets not forget the stock BBC computer. Once more proving that its primary function isn’t to calculate things, but to block doors.
It’s a foolish decision for Ven Glynd to try to strangle someone in a neck brace, but 10 out of 10 for trying. But I really, really enjoyed listening to the shrieking, and groaning of Ven Glynd and Travis, especially over the shot of Jenna trying to get the teleport bracelet onto Blake.
And of course the ending is typical of Blake’s 7. But when you consider what has come before, it might be the most understated of them all.
As the DVD was ejected, I started to think about the ensemble theme that started this post. I won’t go as far to say that the regular characters are badly drawn in this one, more like the dialogue they are asked to say is so theatrical, so O.T.T, that this is the one where everyone maybe, just maybe, starts enjoying themselves a little too much. It’s like how the cast and crew are so comfortable with each other, that they perhaps forget that they are performing a dystopian future, drawing to a crisis conclusion in the closing episodes of a second series story arc. But it’s infectous, and so enjoyable to watch. Perhaps this something I enjoy more, in the knowledge that in a few episodes from now, the regular cast will have changed dramatically. But for now, they are taking everything a little further and having a ball, as they would do again with ‘Gambit.’ So yes, this is the recording block, where everyone went a little bit mad, at the behest of the man in the white suit – George Spenton-Foster.
‘Countdown’ was so resolutely straightforward in its tone, that it is hard to work out how different a show can feel between episodes.
Whilst this review is probably the most frivolous I have written so far, the truth is that I feel it mirrors the episode. As mentioned earlier, ‘Voice from the Past’ is one of my guiltily pleasures. I find it really entertaining and enjoyable, often for reasons that perhaps were not intended, but also for many reasons that are.
Turning my attention to what behind the scenes detail caught my eye. This is the debut of Roger Parkes, a man no stranger to telefantasy. It’s well paced, there is some good dialogue, and a few cod lines too. It’s not quite what I have been used to, but why should I complain about a new writer coming into the series, and getting a feel for things?
On screen, Frieda Knorr has appeared in all kinds of things, from The Haunting to The Avengers. Richard Bebb, was known for the quality of his voice work throughout his career, and listening to his performance here, that makes sense. Martin Read also appeared on our screens from time to time, and is the only guest actor in this episode I recognised from an appearance in Doctor Who.
In addition to the regular faces that appear as supporting artists, such as Pat Gorman, and Harry Fielder, this episode features Jamaican musician Count Prince Miller – he’s the one casually reclining on the sofa as Blake enters the asteroid quarters. Miller’s most famous output is ‘Mule Train’ (there’s some great live footage of him on youtube) but he also appeared in one of my favourite sitcoms as I was growing up in the 1980’s/90’s – ‘Desmonds’, which is another example of a close-knit ensemble cast. Also on the same sofa is Karen Cooper, who also popped up in ‘Gambit’, but also appeared frequently in season C as one of Servalan’s mutoids, and one of the mourners in ‘Sarcophagus’.
Onto the serious business of cataloging as many types of chair featured in Blake’s 7. As mentioned earlier, I think that the chair Blake is wheeled into is a knock off of the chair designed for the Knoll studio. As are the yellow Brno Chairs seen in the Atlay anteroom, designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe – another 20th century design classic.
The rest room features a familiar chase-lounge – the 1928 LC4 by Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret, and Charlotte Perriand. It features in a ton of episodes. (See ‘Orac‘)
But there is another one that Jenna relaxes on – the Vitra Eames ES 106.
The idea for the design of the Soft Pad Chaise came from a longtime friend of Charles and Ray Eames, the film director Billy Wilder, who was in search of a recliner for taking short naps or for resting on during breaks between film shoots. (1)
Elsewhere, Ken Ledsham’s curved corners are very much on display here. This is a low-budget episode, with the re-dressed control from ‘Redemption’ now becoming the rest room. Ledsham’s skills as a designer are perhaps better served in ‘Gambit’, but the base on PK118 has a certain Space 1999 aesthetic, and the antechamber is functional, rather than memorable. As most antechambers are.
This one is quite something. Dudley is really going for it here. A few of the compositions are fairly conventional – take the Atlay shuttle docking for example. But for the most part, short and often staccato passages of music are the order of the day, firing off in all directions, accompanying as many stock model shots of the Liberator as can be squeezed into 50 minutes. But it’s the arrangements that are…somewhat idiosyncratic. We’ve got the most monophonic three note synth of them all, when Avon and Jenna prepare to teleport from the Liberator, sticking out like a sore thumb amongst the scratchy quality of it all. There also hints of background Cello, keeping the suspense going later in the episode. I’ve already mentioned one of the early shots of the Liberator is accompanied by what I can only describe as the sound of metal being scraped against metal. Oh, Dudley I love this score.
HOW TO SELL THIS TO AN UNBELIEVER.
You won’t have to. This is the sort of episode that will appear out of context on some kind of retrospective series that illustrates how things used to be made.
MY FAVOURITE MOMENT
“Le Grand?! Well well well.”
MOMENT I’D RATHER FORGET.
I don’t want to forget any of it. It’s great fun.
VERDICT IN 10 WORDS EXACTLY
The mind still sharp, but the accent, as you see.