A10 – BREAKDOWN – and a bit about David Jackson.

BREAKDOWN

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I think this picture is great.  It’s taken from an episode of ‘The Saint’ broadcasted in 1965 called ‘The Spanish Cow’ – a tale of jewellery and robbery on the French Riviera.   It’s interesting to see actor David Jackson playing such an active presence in the proceedings.  There’s a moment where Roger Moore comes face to face with the imposing frame of Jackson, looks up and says “Shall we dance?” – pre-dating his encounters with the even taller ‘Jaws’ in Moore’s James Bond films of the 1970’s.   Perhaps because it is such a familiar face to me, I’m drawn to Jackson’s involvement more than anything else in the episode – including Moore himself.

But it’s seeing Jackson in such an unfamiliar context – no I’m not talking about the accent – but the fact that he gets proper screen time, that has made me think it’s time to explore his contribution to the universe of Blake’s 7.

It wasn’t until episode ten that Gan finally got his moment in the limelight.  And ‘Breakdown’ should have been his finest hour – his headline episode.  But for Jackson, it must have felt like another dispiriting example of how his character was never going to be anything more than the one at the back of the queue.

Judging by what I have picked up over the years, there is a clear sense that he was not best served by the scripts during his one and a half years on the series.  Jackson himself handed Chris Boucher a note with the words “four lines“; a reference to his contribution to an episode, and something of which seems to have become legend.  So while it is true that in terms of action and dialogue Jackson gets short shrift, his presence on and off camera is something else entirely.

Something I understand from interviews with cast and crew, is how David Jackson was a really key figure within the ‘rep’ of Blake’s 7; a solid, supportive presence and someone who was keen to contribute ideas to the production team.   In fact I once had a back issue of the Horizon newsletter which contained an interview with him. I wish I still had it.   I remember how he suggested ideas such as Orac being miniaturised and being placed inside his brain, with filming taking place inside his psyche.  Another idea was of Avon giving Kayn the elbow, and conducting the necessary surgery on Gan’s limiter, meaning his allegiance would be with Avon instead of Blake.  Great stuff!  I wish I knew where I put the damn copy.

So what does Gan do?  Perhaps knowing that he was doing little, and that he might be at risk of not even being noticed in the series at all, Jackson plays Gan as though he is acting like a silent movie.  He concentrates on non verbal cues and small details.   Look at him at the very start of Time Squad’; adopting an arms outstretched pose that makes us notice him that little bit more – not in an egotistical way, merely in a way that says this isn’t someone who should simply be in the background.  While Blake is talking to Jenna about the dud blaster in ‘Project Avalon’ I’m looking at the discussion between Gan and Avon in the background, as Gan leans over him to locate some kind of switch or something.

Even at the very end of the episodes he is throwing little details into the mix that make us notice his character that little bit more – packing up the first aid kit in ‘Time Squad’, using that space age ‘Walkman’ in ‘The Web’ and thoughtfully looking off into the distance in ‘Shadow’.  It could be argued that it is a bit desperate when you are picking out tiny moments that a character brings.  But these tiny details suggest a whole lot more.  In ‘Weapon’ Avon asks Gan “You would stay with him?” Gan replies “Yes” but in a slightly disdainful way that suggests he is quick to call out Avon’s motivation for asking the question in the first place.  In “Horizon” Gan says “I’ll get the guns” in order to cut through the antagonistic bullshit between the rest of the crew, and in ‘Pressure Point’ he runs with Vila across the minefield because he knows that time is ticking.

Yes, they are small details, but somehow in a drama such as Blake’s 7, where the characters live out of each others pockets, and are often interacting in close proximity to each other, Gan provides a kind of shorthand for the audience.  I realised that I was more often than not looking towards him to get a sense of the mood of the crew, and what needed to be done next.  In essence he was the barometer of the group, and in the quick fire pace of a series like Blake’s 7, that is important.

Jackson does even more.  He’s clearly thought about this character in great detail, performing Gan as a man who is locked in a perpetual battle with himself.  There are obvious signals – look at him during ‘Space Fall’, adopting yogic positions in the background, and the measured way he gets into the bunk bed early on.    There’s the emotion in his voice when he explains himself to Jenna in ‘Time Squad’, the grimace in the cypher room in ‘Seek – Locate – Destroy’, the hesitant hand to head as he wonders about his limiter in ‘Duel’ and the pill popping in ‘Project Avalon.’   These are all things that hint at a man who is trying to keep himself under control.  In fact a lot of his dialogue and expressions suggest a real self-preservation; someone who needs to trust others in order to survive, but also shows that he can be quite suspicious when the occasion calls for it – a fascinating conflict.

The security he requires usually manifests itself in moments of positivity, motivational behaviour and team flag waving.  He needs the group to keep going.  As a viewer it is this aspect that I find a little irritating to watch, but conversely that is the most tragic thing of all – he has to be optimistic because the alternative is simply giving up.   I think that this struck a chord with Blake, making Gan one of his most trusted followers, someone whose death affected him a lot more than Cally’s apparent demise in ‘Seek-Locate-Destroy’.

When Jackson is occasionally called to deliver some meaty scenes, he either rises up to the challenge simply because he has been waiting patiently for something to come up, or more likely, he is a very good actor.   Check out his between bars confrontation with Blake in Cygnus Alpha, or in ‘Breakdown’ where he veers from calculating and manipulative when convincing Cally to release him, to downright terrifying as he throttles her with a happy-go-lucky expression.   There’s also the moment in ‘Horizon’ when he asks Vila whether he would want Cally to take his place.   The irony is that when Jackson does get some dialogue and screen time, it actually feels out of character.

Gan’s quieter, more in the background approach has one big advantage in that when he does challenge Blake, it’s really worth standing up and taking notice of.  Take his confrontations with him in ‘Shadow’ and his frustration with the plan when trapped in the crypt during ‘Pressure Point’.  When Gan pipes up, it sends alarm bells to the audience, and gives the signal that Blake’s teetering between the lines of freedom fighter and fanatic is shifting dangerously close to the latter.

Despite the later time slot and more grown up sensibilities of Blake’s 7, than say Doctor Who, I reckon the children loved Gan.  I recall a story that David Maloney told where a child led his mother up to Jackson and Maloney in the street, and flanked by Jackson’s larger frame, looked up and said wide-eyed in wonderment “It’s Gaan.”  To which the mother dismisses the childs words.
But it’s Gaan” the child once again says, before his mother leads him off down the street.    There’s something about the way Maloney told the tale that leaves a little lump in my throat, and makes me think that behind the complex and unsettling backstory, Gan was the trusting gentle giant that children would love – and in terms of the popularity of the series, he’s serving a reasonable chunk of the audience.

‘Breakdown’ is the ultimate representation of Gan. For better and for worse.  He gets only a moderate share of screen time, and during that time he is either inactive, or unable to contribute much, while the other characters get the juicy lines.  The usual story then.

But watching ‘Breakdown’ this time made me realise something I’ve never quite been able to put my finger on after all these years.    Being in the background is an integral part of Gan’s character, not a weakness.  All the clues were there; the little moments that say bigger things, the small details that suggest how the crew are operating, the straightforward common sense, and the periods of inactivity that mean we sit up and take notice when he does something.  No, being in the background isn’t a sign of unpopularity, nor limiting.  Probably frustrating for an actor.  But not a weakness.

Because, for this viewer, Gan (and David Jackson in Blake’s 7) is the type of figure that I’m sure we all recognise in our lives – the one who never reaches the top of the mountain himself, but who helps everyone else do the climbing.

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EPISODE DISCUSSION

We open with one of Vere Lorrimer’s wonderful plundering of space library images.

And onto the flight deck.  I wonder what Gan is pondering?  Perhaps he is thinking about whether he will ever get anything more than four lines in an episode?

It’s a sign of how the crew trust him that he is alone on the flight deck in Jenna’s station.  O yes – only a privileged few get to pilot the ship.  He is seen there in ‘Shadow’ and ‘Horizon’ as well, so he obviously knows enough to take control.

But Gan has a headache.  It’s a bad one.  There’s been signs that it is becoming a thing.  But there’s enough vestige of sanity to suggest to Jenna that she needs to make the call to help – quickly.  It’s as though he knows all too well what is coming.

And Jenna makes the call, with Blake’s tannoy voice on the other end of the line coming a little bit too calm to be convincing.  Tannoy voices are something that Gareth Thomas and the directors of various season A episodes never get quite right.  I’ll talk about this in ‘Time Squad’.

David Jackson delivers quite an impressive throw of a stunt Jenna onto a crash mat – assuming the pitiful first season budget actually stretched to that.  In fact it reminded me of the care taken to communicate great strength when actors perhaps aren’t actually as strong as they appear.  Richard Kiel’s Jaws, from the James Bond movies of the same time, worked hard with his stunt directors, not only to ensure a safely choreographed fight, but also to mitigate the fact that Kiel, whilst big, and formally a doorman, didn’t actually possess a great deal of strength.

None the less, David Jackson’s brand of anger and insanity is conveyed in a very different way – an Elvis style curled lip, which leaves Blake all shook up.  (I’m sorry – I tried so hard not to type those words.)

Blake has a go, and is thrown against various parts of the Liberator scenery.  Once again, I can imagine Roger Murray-Leach standing on the wings, with his head in his hands.  (Even if he didn’t design this one.)

It’s a good fight, with the camera right in the middle of the action, so much so that at one point we get a nice view of the rest of the studio. and someones elbow.

It is stated that the tranquiliser pad would flatten one of the crew for at least 100 hours.  Perhaps Gan should be classed as two characters instead of one.

Full marks to the cast for their out of breath acting, which starts with Blake’s spitty drawl, and finishes with Avon’s “begin“. It’s a very particular type of “ber-gin” – the sort that can only be delivered with a deep exhale.

On film, we get to see a close up of Gan’s limiter.  I’m trying to work out whether it is David Jackson’s real hair we see in close up.  If so, film doesn’t do it any favours.  It looks like a wirey cat fur.

I enjoyed the fiction between Blake and Cally regarding the need to keep Gan secure, it’s another sign that Cally’s days as hard-nosed fighter are gone.  With nurse Gan out of action, we are entering the era of Doctor Cally.  But as usual it is left for Vila to deliver the final touch, as he gently but assertively secures the giant.

I’m picking up little details:
I’m enjoying Avon’s costume here.  It looks like a control panel on his chest.
Blake orders Zen to stop the Liberator to stop, and Richard Yeoman Clark’s sound effect obliges.
The medical diagnosis voice sounds a bit like Derek Farr’s Orac.  (@MakingBlakes7 tells us that it Jackson himself.)

There’s also some excellent futuristic medical equipment on show.  I particularly liked the Radio Sensor.  But what I really like is the way Avon tells Blake to “give me the side view” and later when he says “slowly” – it’s such gentle and encouraging instruction.  I can image that student nurses would have been terrified of working with him.

Out comes the navigation charts.  And the snappiness of the crews discussion results in Avon walking away from Blake and Jenna, and into his own “I’m thinking about doing a runner” type shot.

I love the idea that Epinal, a planet that is aggressive towards homo sapiens in general, is the best option, and one that is seriously considered by Blake.  Once again the studio appears behind the glass shot.

But Avon knows better – space station XK72.  But Zen knows even more, even if he doesn’t know much about why the Liberator cannot directly fly there.

There another lovely little moment, when Jenna shouts “Gan is dying” – which halts any further resistance from an anxious Vila.

This is the pinnacle of Zen’s character.  It’s still that the stage where there is just enough mystery about the Liberator for the audience to expect some danger and conflict.  However Orac is just around the corner, and with that the death of Zen as an evolving character.  It just flatlines from that point onwards.

With the automatic functions of the ship now disabled, Blake walks to a new bit of scenery, the balsa wood secondary screen.

I loved Gareth Thomas’s “Damn” when Avon reminds Blake about how computer control is part of the basic design of the Liberator.  It’s the sort of “Damn” a wartime general utters when the enemy gets one over him.  Thomas just needed a Kitchener moustache, a glass of finest whisky, and a cigar to complete the deal.

Mind you all the crew all need a little drink at this point, as Avon and Jenna get shouty and physical.  Jenna’s absolute determination is brilliant.  I wish we saw more of this.

Lorrimer takes his eye off the ball slightly, as we see more of the studio walls when there is a nice shot of Gan through the hoops of the surgical bench, and later the same shot of Vila is used twice in quick succession as he points at something unknown on the radar.

I have to say that David Jackson is pretty convincing when in full aggressive mode.  Theres something quite chilling about his attempts to escape, and the suddenness at which he stops as he realises that Cally is approaching.

This is Gan’s episode, and it is clear at this half way point that he is still not going to get much in the way of action or dialogue, but the short scene when he chats to Cally and appeals to her to release him is played with an inevitability, and sure enough the somewhat happy drunk face he pulls when throttling Cally is quite adult.

It matters not though.  We’re approaching the Mandragora helix, as Ian Scoones and his team pour as much Ribena down a sink as possible.  It’s a good effect though.  And one of its time.

Gan’s on the rampage, and Avon’s face as he is thrown around is priceless.  But it’s the moment after that I really got the sense of Avon reaching the end of his tether.  He is on the floor, being jostled around by an unknown force, all in the name of a crew member who is lying unconscious next to him, having tried to attack him and the computer systems.  This is a bad day.

But Avon has repaired the computers, and Blake smugly decides to fly straight through the centre of the vortex, Jenna haughtily skips along the flight deck and Avon stands there, hands on hips.  He’s had it…

…and Blake’s reply “Now you’re just being modest” is the best line in the episode.

As we build to the mid-point climax, bit of debris fall from the studio, the medical unit transforms from film to video, and the Mirrorlon is used to great effect.  Even Jenna has had a quick change of clothes.

Into the final half of the story we go, and there’s another great Blake line – “Use your charm” to Avon.  I’m loving their friction in this one.

XK72 appears, and there is a nice moment of silence as the camera tracks towards the model.  Following the intensity of the sound effects used during the vortex sequences, and the strain of the Liberators engines, it is a nice contrasting directorial touch.

On the space station, the same interior designers who designed Servalan’s office are no doubt collecting their performance related bonus.

Farren and Kayn’s first scene jumps into gear once Blake arrives, and Kayn’s biting dismissal of Farren’s officiousness is wonderfully played as he teleports up with Blake without going through the official channels.

There some more hideous thigh slapping between Blake and Jenna, as she is persuaded to use her charm on Dr. Renor.

But it is here that Blake’s leadership – his ability to foresee the potentials – is at its strongest.  He’s zipping around all over the place; arranging treatment for Gan, priming Jenna about getting further information about XK72, and finally asking Zen about a range of Federation offensive possibilities.

Well, well well!”  We are treated to some good ole 1970’s gender stereotypes.  It’s of its time for sure, but the put downs, especially from Jenna, are great.

As we get to know a bit more about Kayn, I marvel at how quickly Julian Glover manages to make the audience despise him.  When I watch this performance, I’m not drawn so much to his role as Count Scarlioni in Doctor Who ‘City of Death’ the following year, but more of his charming yet blankly villanous turn in the James Bond movie ‘For Your Eyes Only’ in 1981.  He smiles, but never with the eyes.

With the criticality of his friends condition, Vila finally shows some gusto and points a gun at Kayn.  But it is Blake’s “I’ll destroy your hands” that is the clincher.  It’s a great line, and an important one for Blake, the single-minded character.  I remember watching this episode for the first time and thinking that Blake is the real deal.

We move into some nice Dr. Kildare type montage; full of cross fades, sweaty dabbing of the brow, echoey medical music and relief all around.

The post-mortem on the teleport bay is a little too relaxed considering the imminent arrival of the Federation ships.

As Farren and Kayn fight about protocol over ideals, Glover’s ability to convey intensity is clear to see.  This scene is a microcosm of Glover’s finest traits as an actor.

There’s a little mish-mash of model footage as the Liberator makes its escape.  But as the plasma bolt bounces off the Liberator, and bares directly on XK72 the best scene of all is the panicked voice on the intercom requiring instruction and protocol rather than just getting the hell out of there!

To be honest, Breakdown is merely OK.  It is an episode where the sum of its parts do not make up a satisfying whole.   The star of the episode is comatose.  The production is a little sloppy, and while there are many excellent interactions between the crew, and a snappy dynamic which is very satisfying, it’s all a little rough around the edges.   When XK72 was destroyed, I wanted to applaud Ian Scoones and his team for such a satisfying explosion, and one that will be re-used again in the final shot of season A, but I remember thinking, I wish the rest of this episode was as good as this final blast.

And as for the final scene, it’s one of the worst.  Blake’s 7 has much that is great about it, but it will never win any awards for its endings, although the end of season cliffhangers are certainly in with a shout.  This final scene feels like a bit of a snub for David Jackson, and if nothing else, the fact that everyone is laughing at the line “welcome back” really sucks.  I always imagine the moment when the floor manager shouts “CUT” and the laughter suddenly turns to tired jadedness and eye rolling.  The cast were real professionals.

The guest actors all had well established careers around the time of Blake’s 7.  Ian Thompson was knocking around in ‘The Sweeny’, Christian Roberts was a Nazi officer in ‘Secret Army’ and someone called Julian Glover was downing Absinth whist in disguise as a French count.

MUSIC SCORE
Gentle synths, rumbling woodwind, brass, and splash of crash cymbal.  It’s trademark Dudley Simpson.  There is some suitably plinky-plonky medical music once the surgery finally begins.

SET DESIGN

Peter Brachacki is a name many will recognise as the man responsible for the interior of the TARDIS back in 1963, and as such, possibly the only designer that I can think of who has been played by someone in a television drama.  His contribution towards Blake’s 7 happens in a later part of his career, and is the polar opposite of his Doctor Who input, in that he was required to come up with original designs that would last for a series, where in Blake’s 7, he is required to ‘do what he can’ with designs that have been already established in the series.  This all signifies that this episode is budgeting in reverse, where the man hours of existing designs from other episodes might actually contribute to a completely different story.  Of course that is not how it works, but it’s fun to imagine how David Maloney might have held up a one pound note into his eye line and said to Chris Boucher “well comrade, this has to last us four episodes.”  So this is a make do and mend approach that sees familiar designs from ‘Project Avalon’, Servalan’s office from ‘Seek Locate Destroy’ and of course the Liberator flight deck and teleport.  Brachacki’s only true original design consist of the computer area that Avon tries to control, which is a lash up of ITC panelling, coloured tape and flimsy surfaces, and also the secondary main screen – the portaloo of main screens.

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In fact this might be the episode of Blake’s 7 where we see the studio, as much as the set, proving that the four walls of a BBC space could never match the ambition of the series.

HOW TO SELL THIS TO AN UNBELIEVER
As close to a medical drama as it is possible to get.

MY FAVOURITE MOMENT
Blake’s “I will destroy your hands“, and Avon’s impressed look.

THE MOMENT I’D RATHER FORGET
The ending.  As usual.

VERDICT IN 10 WORDS EXACTLY
Another opportunity for David Jackson to put his feet up.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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