C08 – RUMOURS OF DEATH (and a bit about death)

“One screaming face among so many screaming faces?”

With Blake’s 7 being the full-blooded show it is, I thought it was time to take a key element and dissect it in order to understand its properties.  So it’s time to talk about the different depictions of death in Blake’s 7.

The silent death

Before Blake’s 7 entered my life, I had faced death many times through Doctor Who.  This consisted of many characteristics known to anyone with a love of television and film of the era; hearty screams, dramatic postures, slow falls to the floor, dying remarks that were a clue to the rest of the story, gasps, groans and then – when the final moment happens – the crucial question; do you die with your eyes closed, or do your stare wide open to the camera.

There were two moments in Doctor Who that stuck out in my mind as being really dramatic, precisely because you didn’t hear what the Collector in ‘The Sun Makers’ (1977) described as “the deeper notes of despair, the final dying cadences.

The first moment was Nyder’s death in ‘Genesis of the Daleks’ (1975), which was all about not giving the audience what they wanted.  Looking back, it’s a brilliant decision from actor Peter Miles.  Take a bad guy, make him super-duper nasty throughout, and then keep all that hatred bottled up inside as he finally gets zapped.  It’s wonderfully frustrating for the audience that we don’t get to hear his comeuppance and perversely ensures that his character lives on in our minds long after the story has concluded.  He denies us death.

The second one is technically not a death scene, but it is where characters face the inevitable. It’s actually a single shot during the traumatic ‘end of the world’ parallel Earth scene in episode six of ‘Inferno’ (1970).  Here, two everyday employees (or forced labour) involved with the drilling project look on at the destruction facing them.  The drama isn’t that they show anguish, terror or pain, but more in that they are silent, dumbstruck, impassive, paralysed.  Soldiers run around desperately for a route to safety that clearly doesn’t exist.  But they just stand there, and that is terror.

And I think that’s what sticks in my mind when I think back to the first depiction of death in Blake’s 7.  I refer to this as the ‘beardy man death’.  ‘The Way Back’ sends a clear message about the tone of the show during the very first massacre of civilians in the concrete complex.  We hear the familiar screaming, panic, and terror, but there’s something about the fact that a bearded, elderly gentleman is given some good screen time, which results in us noticing that little bit more when he is ultimately gunned down.  And like everyone else in the moment, it is bleak and clinical.   It tells us that this show isn’t going to be like the other series that sits around it.  Even Graham Williams and his script writers, who were under instructions for the BBC management to tone down the violence in Doctor Who, knew how to pen a nasty epitaph.  The first season of Blake’s 7 quickly establishes that it is not afraid to show death in a brutal, sometimes Hinchcliffeian way.  In fact it makes me wonder what Mary Whitehouse thought of the series at this early stage.  Maybe its later time slot spared Blake’s 7 of her attentions.

I’m sure I’ve mentioned this elsewhere, but I think the death of Pilot Four Zero in ‘Children of Auron’ is horrible, not because of the plague make up or yellow custard, but because of Andrew Morgan’s direction, which focuses on his silent suffering, and his hopeless lurch forward into the camera, all combined by some arresting lighting, video and audio effects.

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So Blake’s 7 can do the silent death with ease.  But this show is far from silent.  It’s noisy in a multi layered way, and likes to let the audience know this.

The ‘give it all you’ve got’ death.

When I use the phrase “give it all you’ve got“, I’m thinking of one of the chapters featured in ‘Resistance is Useless’ – the documentary about Doctor Who broadcast on BBC2 in 1991.  Here, we see how some deaths are often loud and shouty; a very theatrical take on the way death is depicted.  We’re talking gurgly, spitty, croaky – the last desperate breaths to gasp the vital words before turning to the camera and widening the eyes.  A good example of this is in the two parter ‘Deliverance’ and ‘Orac’ at the end of season A. Tony Caunter’s portrayal of Ensor (junior) was simply trying to ensure his father received the medical attention he needed, and his death reflects that.  It’s a nice contrast to Derek Farr’s quiet, gentle death in the underground passage, which is strangely quite moving.  We’ve invested in this storyline for two episodes, and for the main character it comes to nothing, which is as Blake’s 7 as it comes.

Raiker’s death in ‘Space Fall’ is really effective due to its technical execution – it bats well above its budgetary weight.  Apart from some gasping early on, we are reminded that in space no one can hear you scream, unless you are Brian Blessed, whose bellowing at the end of ‘Cygnus Alpha’ can be heard throughout the galaxy.   Suitably, it is even more powerful than the thunderclap that accompanies his death.  Sometimes you have to throw caution to the wind, and just go for dramatic license.

Provine’s death in ‘Countdown’ is pretty sharp writing, as his attitude is carried with him to the grave, or whatever will be his final resting place.  Although he and Blake trade references to hell, he does give Blake a hint of the information he requires, which he does with all the spite and arrogance that makes his character so memorable.

Other deaths are a case of ‘blink and you’ll miss it.’  As we reach the end of the second series, characters are tumbling forward left, right and centre, and this tumbling is happening very quickly, without any final words or poignant expression.  Le Grand’s scream is full of energy, Gola’s is one last croak, the duplicate alien technician on Star One ends on his face with blood on the walls, and the moment when Travis falls down the nuclear reactor is a great end – his reverberating screams amplifying the quick fire hatred that consumed him throughout his history.

This often brutal and unsentimental depiction of death feels perfect for a period of the series, where the stakes are raised and final victory can be won or lost.

But it was time for a change and, broadly speaking, Season C removes political intrigue and high stakes, in favour of melodrama.  The benchmark for this is the very first death of the series, that of Hal Mellanby, whose demise includes a valiant attempt to bring down as much furniture as humanly possible – all in the name of heroism.

Season D is a mixed bag, but Lynda Bellingham has fun in ‘Headhunter’ as she is bear hugged to death by the android.  In ‘Assassin’, Caroline Holdaway performs a very memorable death scene as Piri is bitten by her own pet.  It almost feels meta; like an actor demonstrating how to act out a O.T.T theatrical death.  The director has to take the blame here, although I am secretly quite fond of it.

Equally distinctive are Roy Boyd’s grand gestures as Viktors Ritelis directs a handheld camera around a four walled set in ‘Warlord’.  As good and innovative at it is, I think that Finn’s death in the air lock is the winner by a nose – his facial features stretched and screams double tracked.  It’s well executed technically, and timed brilliantly.

The death that screams comeuppance.

The final groans of the Kommissar in ‘Horizon’ work because we need to hear how he rationalises what is happening in his final moments.  His conviction that he thought Ro was “one of us” closes the storyline, hands Ro the crowning character glory, and gives us, the audience, a final understanding about this officer’s attitude to life and his powerful role within the Federation.

The death of Mori in ‘Volcano’ is a lift of the death of Travis in ‘Star One’ but, the fact that he falls that bit more slowly, allows us to enjoy his final scream and do a little chuckle.

In ‘Powerplay’ Klegg’s death is wonderfully grandiose thanks to the face he pulls when throttled by the quietly satisfied Dayna.  Also in ‘Ultraworld’ the final Ultra bites the dust thanks to the fact that he has to pull a Jon Pertwee style facial grimace in order for the face paint to crumble effectively.

The weird death.

Sometimes the methods used to show the death of a character can linger in the mind, such as the use of yellow custard (or whatever it is) for Largo in ‘Shadow’ and Pilot Four Zero in ‘Children of Auron’.  I still think one of the most distinctive deaths – even if unintentional – is the moment where Pinder floods the base with radiation in ‘Orbit’.  The shot of a skeleton still with its hand on the button strongly feels like the ultimate middle finger to his abusive colleague and partner.

Bayban the Butcher enjoys a fabulous moment of death purely because we see the final action that causes his demise, and then a simple cut to the exploding city.  We don’t need to see anything more – his facial expression is more than enough.

The final scene of Kasabi in ‘Pressure Point’ is interesting in that I can’t quite pinpoint whether she is actually at the point of death, or that is still to come, off-screen.  Once Servalan administers what is suggested to be a fatal dose of the ‘we have ways of making you talk’ drug, Kasabi appears to rally and deliver a powerful line of sorrow towards the Supreme Commander.  I like to think that she is not dead at that moment, her strong character intact in our minds, rather than the image of death.  It’s a great scene.

When a character dies in an unconventional manner it can be quite impactful.  ‘Killer’ sticks out in my mind, as Dr. Bellfriar’s last moments consist of him forgetting how to read, then looking at his hands, holding them up to his face and leaning back in his chair.  It’s quite out of the ordinary, and feels appropriate for this reasonably sympathetic character.  It’s exactly the same action I pull when I look at my work inbox first thing on a Monday morning.

Conversely some sympathetic characters get the full treatment.  The final moments of Deeta Tarrant are shared by everyone in ‘Death Watch’.  But its drama comes from the prolonged way he falls from a number of different angles.  The slow motion doesn’t necessarily convey heroism or climatic energy, but it does suggest that it is a big, big deal for everyone who shared it with him.  “Just pick a champion, join the fun.”  It is sensitively written and directed, and is fitting depiction of death for such a thoughtful episode.

The Doctor Who adventure ‘City of Death’ was the very first VHS cassette tape I bought when I finally had enough money to buy a video recorder in the early 1990’s.  In it Professor Kerensky dies in ‘stages’ as he ages to death.  It’s like a number of deaths for the price of one.  So perhaps I’m naturally drawn to this type of demise, where from a production point of view, everything has to be lined up very carefully.

In Blake’s 7, the alien in ‘Sarcophagus’, Dorian in ‘Rescue’ and Egrorian in ‘Orbit’ all die in this way, and if it is possible for a death scene to be ‘entertaining’ perhaps this is the best method, allowing us to celebrate or affectionately smirk at the stages, the extra make up or the additional facial hair that appears.

Even Paul Darrow gets this treatment in ‘Timelash’ which conversely was the very last VHS cassette tape I bought.

Sometimes the most memorable scenes are ones that throw up questions.  One of my favourite death scenes in Blake’s 7 is when Cally is caught up in the explosions in the underground complex on the planet Terminal.  It’s one of those scenes where something great comes from a difficult circumstance.  Imagine you are start the beginning of a season, and with a former cast member unwilling to record anything other than a couple of words, you know that you have to make those words count.  Chris Boucher could have gone for the immediate “Avon” for example.  But no.  He goes for the enigmatic “Blake!” It’s a brilliant decision, reminding us that there is always an extra layer to be unpeeled in the overall story of Blake’s 7.   It’s also the type of final word that ensures that her character is still living in our mind, and we are still thinking about her after she has gone.

The off-screen death

Some death scenes benefit other characters.  The death of Tel Varon and Maja in ‘The Way Back’ is not just about how a couple of sympathetic characters are doomed in a nasty and vicious world.  The fact we don’t see them die, suggests the silent, cold and clinical approach that is associated by Dev Tarrant and the Federation as a whole.  It goes a long way in establishing the threat of the Federation, perhaps more so than the massacre at the beginning of the episode.  Tarrant’s nastiness is amplified by the fact that we never see him bite the dust, and we see him limp disrespectfully across the dead bodies.

Occasionally the off-screen death denies me the chance to see how characters would have reacted to their final moments.  Take Samor in ‘Trial’.  The Liberator punctures a hole in the court, resulting in the demise of the occupants with the obvious exception of Travis. It would have been fun to see the expression on the face of ‘old Star Killer’, and see if he afforded himself any kind of expression at all.

The final moments of Coser in ‘Weapon’ are quite effective.  I like that we don’t get to see the death that he created himself.  The impact of Imipak had already been delivered by the destruction of the creature in the dark.  The focus of the story has now turned to Rashel and clone Blake, so naturally at the precise moment of Coser’s death, we see their reactions and not the death of the major character.

In ‘Traitor’ it is really hard to work out what is actually going on in the final battle on the surface of Helotrix, so I can only guess who actually dies.  The fate of other characters are also unclear, such as Napier in ‘Stardrive’.  He simply disappears during the episode, but if we were to use our imaginations, his fate at the hands of the Space Rats can only be undignified to say the least.  Sometimes a kick ass death scene can happen in the imagination.

‘Games’ is interesting in that the deaths of the two key guest characters happen off-screen.  Belcov disappears from view with a manic laugh, and Gerren at the end of Servalan’s gun.  For actor David Neal, his best death scene will come a few years later as his is pushed down a lift shaft in Peter Davison’s final Doctor Who adventure ‘The Caves of Androzani.

I really like the fact that these strong characters, one of whom is very larger than life, are alive the last time we see them.  Keiller in ‘Gold’ is similar in that we don’t see him die.  Maybe we want to see the moment they bite the dust, but it’s sometimes interesting to see the precise moment of death as being secondary to what they bought to the episode in the first place.

The sucking air through your teeth death.

This relates to the nasty, unpleasant ways of going.  Take Nova in ‘Space Fall’.  We don’t see the actual moment of death, because we’re too busy thinking it’s horrible way to go, and imagining whether his imprint would look like Han Solo following his carbonation at the end of ‘The Empire Strikes Back’.

Perhaps the most brutal, and least theatrical death in the entire four series is the poor Slave who helps Blake defeat the Alta’s in ‘Redemption’.  His demise is quite gruesome, shot in the back, on cold grainy film with a shrill alarm in the background.  His silence and the attempts to hold back the guards for just a few extra seconds make this one of the grimmest moments in the series.

Sometimes a death doesn’t make me want to suck air through my teeth, but makes me want to clear my throat in order to hide the fact that I’m actually quite moved.  The perfect example of this is Zen’s slow disintegration in ‘Terminal’, which had far more impact for me than Gan’s death in ‘Pressure Point’.

(Very) final thoughts
Sometimes an episode is characterised by the way death is depicted.  ‘Rumours of Death’ features some memorably dramatic death scenes which is in keeping with the melodrama, whereas ‘Moloch’ – broadly speaking – treats death as an unpretentious, nasty and simplistic event, tying in with the fact that it is one of the more brutal and corrupt episodes in Blake’s 7.  Sometimes it’s just as well we don’t get to see everything that happens on Sardos.  Actually thinking about it, Ben Steed’s next written contribution is also similar, as ‘Power’ contains death by cross-bow, point-blank blaster, and a telekinetic stabbing.  In every case, there is no doubt at the overall result.  Perhaps this represents one of the tensions in the way Blake’s 7 was produced – the mix of multi-camera video and single camera film, and with that, the clash between theatrical and filmic conventions and approaches.  I’m always noticing the operatic depiction of death, such as the way Doran and Chesil fall in a blaze of light, as opposed to the more frequent use of realistic deaths, such as the images of various troopers dead in misty swathes of Sardos, or the quick fire dispatch of Grose and Lector.  Tom Baker mentions disagreements with the production team on Doctor Who, arguing that there should be more violence, but it should be on a more operatic scale.  With ‘Moloch’ it’s death for sure, but it lacks the drama.

But perhaps it’s appropriate to finish by thinking about the very final episode of all.

I know all the ‘deaths’ of the Scorpio crew are technically silent, through the overdubbed slo-mo blaster noise, but somehow Soolin’s slow silent fall feels befitting for her character, which rarely uttered more than a handful of lines per episode.  We don’t even see her face.

Have you ever imagined what Avon’s death would actually look like?  I find it hard to imagine, just as Dirty Harry lives to fight another day.  Either way I reckon it didn’t happen at the end of Blake – it wouldn’t look cool.  This kind of death is reserved for Blake himself.

Blake’s 7 is a perfect encapsulation of action adventure, and melodramatic theatrical conventions.  Death in this universe, swerves from nasty, gruesome and gory, to subtle, symbolic and suggestive.  It gives us the full range of depicting this most dramatic of events thanks to the way television was produced, by merging the worlds of film and theatre.  It gives us the best of both worlds.

Postscript.

In the 2001 film Amelie, director Jean-Pierre Jeunet composes a wonderful little collection of shots, as the title character ponders how many people are in the throes of orgasm across Paris, at that specific moment in time.

In order to celebrate the amazing depictions of screaming, blood curdling death in Blake’s 7 here’s a quick edit in the same style of Amelie – even if the last croak isn’t a death.

EPISODE DISCUSSION

Have I mentioned that I love it when Blake’s 7 episodes cut from the main titles straight into the action or the middle of something?  I’m sure I must have.  It’s something that seems to often happen during the big ‘meaty’ episodes across the four seasons; Gambit, Pressure Point, Countdown, and this one.  There’s no introductory music or model sequence, and there’s no establishing shot either.  Just a feeling that we are late to the party.

Mind you, there is no chance of calling this scene any kind of party, as we open with the bare walls and ominous hum of a prison cell somewhere.

The camera turns towards a very tired looking Avon, but not before we hear approaching footsteps and the scream of a prisoner in the distance.  It’s a curious mix of sounds and gives me the impression of Shrinker walking nonchalantly down a corridor, merrily inflicting pain on someone without even stopping.  He just keeps walking toward this cell.  He has been looking forward to this moment…

As Shrinker enters, I realise that this is a very cleverly designed set.  I love how the entrance is actually very low, giving John Bryans an imposing presence.

Oddly, Bryans doesn’t really need to be imposing.  He’s not muscular, nor tall and broad, and doesn’t have strong features.  No, he belongs to that far more dangerous breed of imposing characters – that of the ‘senior’ figure.  The one who knows all the tricks, even if the body has seen better days.  Like ‘Star Killer’ Saymor.  Unwavering.  Unmovable.

The trouble is, as good as the performance is, he’s been Bercol in ‘Seek – Locate – Destroy’ and ‘Trial’ and at first it is hard to see him in this new light.  But he soon wins me over.

It is worth noting the little details in the portrayal.  The most obvious moment is when he says “It’s a laser probe!” But the highlight is the very sinister lick of the lips between the line “Is there anyone… …who thinks you are worth dying for?”  This is someone who relishes his job.

Avon switches off the homing device.  And Tarrant and Dayna appear in a low angled shot.  It is the perfect choice – all youthful enthusiasm as a counterpoint to the unwashed, tired prisoner and the clinical interrogator.

We know Avon is super tired for one simple reason; when Shrinker says “You’re Blake’s people!”  There’s no cutting repost towards his former crew mate, just a simple “That’s right.

And as they all teleport away from the detention centre, we hear that wonderfully Blake’s 7 sound effect, the sound of a troop of solders approaching, and a loud bang.

What a great opening four minutes or so.  It’s full of questions, and manoeuvring, and all kinds of witty bi-play.  It’s the perfect theatrical experience; lots of things going on, in a simple, confined space.

And in we go into another great scene, in another confined space – the teleport section.  Lots of things are happening again.  Tarrant and Dayna continue to enjoy the goading of their new prisoner, Vila is playing nurse as only he can, and Cally is openly questioning what is going on, notably Avon’s position as ‘leader’ of the group, and with that the question of what is it that he is actually leading them to?  I would have liked to see a little more of this during the season.

And there is some highly theatrical blocking as Vila, Dayna and Tarrant circle Shrinker, before Cally puts a halt to proceedings in an uncharacteristic moment of attitude – by third season standards at least.

And then Dayna hits on the real concern – “Why is the Earth still controlled by creatures like him?”  In this new ‘stand alone’ approach to Blake’s 7 it is interesting to think about what the series would have felt like if more was played on the idea of a rebellion on Earth.

On Earth, Sula and Chesku talk politics, and immediately their characters stick out.  This is not just down to the dialogue and the performances, but it is about the direction. Check out that close up of Sula as she turns around to make her statement about Servalan’s character.   It is brilliantly done.  Such impact.  It’s at this moment I knew that this was being directed by someone who really understood the dramatic potential of even the smallest of moments.

As Sula disposes of Chesku we meet two more people whose characterisations are quickly established.  Forres and Grenlee are afforded some excellent dialogue, considering that their main function is to provide exposition at this stage.  It’s something that Chris Boucher does so well, in the same way that Par and Lye establish the events of ’Trial’ so skilfully.

And look, Boucher is even throwing in some effortless backstory involving Forres and his Mother.  A story all of its own!

Avon and Shrinker are in a cave.  It’s another confined space, where plenty of drama will take place.  But Avon has embellished this space with a nifty touch – a whopping great big picture of Anna Grant’s face.   It says as much about Avon’s obsessiveness as much as his interior design skills.

The moment Avon activates the lights with a whoosh and Anna’s face appears, is the moment where the episodes shifts into melodrama.  Dudley Simpson is right there with the synthesised string.

Correct me if I am wrong, but I think this is the first time since ‘The Way Back’ we’ve actually seen a flashback that sits outside of the action established within the series.  Blake’s 7 is full of tales of the past, from Blake’s recounting of the first time he encountered Travis, to Cally’s backstory in ‘Children of Auron’, but to actually see a moment in the life of one of its characters is both rare, and oddly unsettling.  I think the fact that we never actually see the pre-Blake Avon during these scenes is a great directorial touch – it keeps us centred on the Avon we see during the series and also it puts the emphasis squarely on Anna.  There is more to this character than we might think.

We’re into Avon’s backstory now.  It’s fascinating stuff, but it’s also very wordy, which is in no way a criticism, in fact it’s a sign that this episode is going to be very, very significant indeed.

We’re 15 minutes in, and the word ‘Bartolemow’ is mentioned.  Boy, so much has been crammed into this quarter of an hour.

Sula and her team are attempting a bit of sabotage, as they interfere with the CCTV around Servalan’s ‘Residence One’.  Recently I somewhat foolishly made a video that catalogued how planetary atmospheres are created with a small budget.  The thing that stood out for me, were the sound effects used.  Earth is by far the most interesting planet, as every time Blake’s 7 is set there it creates a strange dystopia.  The eerie wind doesn’t feel like it belongs here, but creates an interesting post-apocalyptic feel.

Inside the residence, Servalan is acting out ‘To the Manor Born’.  The image below, if you looked at it without any context, would surely be the least Blake’s 7 type shot ever.

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The supporting artist who Servalan delivers her verdict on the arrangements of the dining table, is clearly not going to receive the fee that a speaking part commands.  He leaves a curious performance, which hints at a million things going through his mind as he closes the door, yet he emotes very little.

Servalan’s office is a curious mix of minimalist design, and classic features.  It’s a distinctive look, and the first time in this series we get to see a predominantly white HQ, which I think should be the default setting for Federation aesthetics, as opposed to the ‘space whale’ interior that features throughout this season.

There is a typical Blake’s 7 fight sequence, one of ‘grassland intimacy’, which ends with a shot, and with that the next phase of the operation in two hours time.

This episode is so full of stuff, although it is paced very carefully.  For a moment I forgot about the big scene in the cave.  Again, I am drawn to the blocking of the actors, as both Avon and Shrinker look in different directions.  Both staring into the abyss.

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The resulting scene is so full of information, possibilities and the unfathomable.  To this day ‘Rumours of Death’ remains quite an enigma to this viewer.  And I quite like that.

There are references to “kicking the corpses“, a first attack on central control, and the switching of sides.  However for Shrinker, the information he can offer has run out, and a way out is all he has left.  It’s one of the grimmest deaths in Blake’s 7 – the one that exists only in our minds.

What is it now?” snaps Orac – a reminder that in the most dramatic of Blake’s 7 episodes, humour sometimes exists in the established norms of a super computer.

It’s funny to note that upon his arrival on the Liberator, Avon has regained a little of his fizz.

The second phase of the operation begins, as ‘Chesku’ and Sula make their way back to a waiting President Servalan.   The scene where Forres and Grenlee see them on the monitor feels a bit cod “It’s a race” but that is soon forgotten as we move to more familiar Blake’s 7 territory – alarms and shooting.

And the result?  Forres is dead, and Servalan is now a prisoner, but not before she delivers the kick ass line “I take it these creatures belong to you”.

There’s a little ‘respite’ scene involving Avon and Dayna.  It’s a moment for a natter, whilst digesting yet more important information from Orac, but it made me realise something.  This episode does not differ from many others, in that some characters get more screen time than others, but in ‘Rumours of Death’ everyone is important.  Vila provides a bit of functionality and humour, while Dayna, Cally and Tarrant are important in how they interact with Avon and his harebrained schemes.  They engage with Avon and are unshakable, rather than merely playing second fiddle – something that is very evident as they all decide to teleport to Earth with him.

Hob argues it out with Sula, and it’s a pretty wordy scene, although at one point I was completely distracted when Hob says “Did you expect gratitude” – both line and delivery sounded just like Brian Croucher’s Travis.

There’s a touch of wobbly wall (which I thought I’d gone blind to over the years) as the door closes and Grenlee comes out of the woodwork to raise an alarm to Command HQ.

The scene on the teleport bay, as the crew convince Avon to let them accompany him, is a good example of a number of third season traits.   As I watched the scene I could hear the familiar hum of the Liberators engines, and for a moment I realised that this wonderful ship has lost something of its identity since ‘Star One’, becoming simply a home for the crew, with some odd moments of jeopardy thrown in.

And there the crew are, all ready for teleport on a mission that has nothing to do with immediate strategy or survival, more a case of solidarity – for better or for worse.  It’s a fascinating new dynamic for the unit, and a theme that subtly runs through this season, and the next.  Even with the initial loss of the Federation as a significant threat, there’s a need to stay together, in order to survive.

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And then I was reminded of the change in shift once again a few seconds later, as the crew walk through a sumptuous interior, at dusk, with the distant sound of a rebellion that is not of their own making.  There’s no featureless corridors, or banks of flashing lights.  There’s a less urgent manner in how they infiltrate the house – they don’t even kill the guards on the way in.  Tonally, it’s the antithesis of the first two seasons.

There is still plenty of posturing going on  – always a Blake’s 7 forte.  Tarrant’s pose is pretty dynamic when he and Avon burst into Servalan’s office, but the pose that he adopts has he bursts into the security room is pure arrogance, even getting in the way of Avon.  Great stuff.

And then finally to complete the season C aesthetic, there is wine.  Lot’s of it.  This season is the heavy drinking season, which means season D is the mother of all hangovers.

And as Avon wraps his hand around the neck of Servalan, who is chained to her waiting old wall, Blake’s 7 has never felt so grown up, so visceral.

And while all the regulars play a big part in this, the performance of Anna Helbrion is the clincher.  She almost whispers her performance throughout, and it is emotionally very powerful as a result.  “Why won’t you touch me” is a great encapsulation of Blake’s 7’s ability to hit those grown up notes in a way that many other fantasy dramas could not.

Yep, this is a great episode.

There is so much about this scene that is significant in the story of Blake’s 7.  But it is the directorial touches that are so clever and appropriate, such as the way Fiona Cumming directs Anna’s death in a way that doesn’t feel like a death, until she simply loses consciousness.  There’s also the powerful close up of Servalan’s anguished features, how close the camera is to Anna’s face as she embraces Avon, and the long periods where there is no dialogue but you can imagine a pin dropping on the studio floor.

It feels like the perfect climax, but there’s still three minutes left to go with this episode (two if you take out the credits) and as this story demonstrates, you can fit an awful lot of content into it; a Federation attack, a Vila misfire, the death of Hob, a moment of pure Servalan goading, and a final ending on the teleport bay which is only slightly dodgy by the standards of Blake’s 7 endings – even when you consider the nod to Mark Twain.

‘Rumours of Death’ is a truly unique episode of Blake’s 7.  But it’s one that has been a slow burner with me, over the 25 odd years that this show has been a part of my life.

I remember the first time I watched it, or rather a part of it.  When I bought the VHS of this story, alongside ‘Children of Auron’, I ended up with a dud tape, with the BBC logo appearing as usual, and then a few minutes of black, before the action began, not with Auron, but with the final scene with Avon and Shrinker in the cave.  I got a refund, but the initial impression of this story had been tainted – both incomplete and lacking with the action that my 15-year-old self was seeking.

A couple of years later I bought the video again, with a correct transfer, and I started to understand that this was a significant episode.  But I was still slightly cold to it.  I don’t think I was able to keep up with the complexities of the episode, the subtleties, and areas of the story which required the audience to fill in their own gaps.

Then as I hit my mid 20’s and early 30’s, I started to recognise the emotional impact of it, and how it felt more grown up than any other episode I could think of.  The internet had arrived, and I remember doing an Infoseek/Altavista/Lycos/Excite search for ‘Blake’ – I clearly hadn’t grasped the fact that there was a ‘7’ key I could press.  The result was a ton of images of William Blake, illustrations that focussed on “human existence itself”. (1)  Somehow these became inextricably linked to the events of ‘Rumours of Death’.  Don’t ask why – it was probably just a case of the right images at the right time.

And today, the episode has matured.  Like one of the bottles in Servalan’s cellar.  The dialogue is sharp, cynical and caustic, the characters are well drawn, and clash with others.  The theatrical melodrama is so well judged by Fiona Cumming.

And it’s worth telling this story, because the title of this blog is ‘Watching Blake’s 7’ and ‘Rumours of Death’ is the one Blake’s 7 episode that has truly grown up with me with each viewing.

This rewatch has brought even more to me.  A thirst for knowledge.

Lets take the location of ‘Residence One’.  It would appear that Blake’s 7 isn’t the only series that Cornbury Park in Oxfordshire has hosted.  The inside, designed by interior designer John Fowler (1906 – 1977) is of particular note.  As Fowler started to establish his reputation, he worked with fellow designer and ‘tastemaker’ Nancy Lancaster, going into business together.

“The working relationship between the two was always bracing. Lancaster’s formidable aunt Nancy Astor called them “the unhappiest unmarried couple in England.” It was the unique combination of their enthusiasms and talents—Fowler’s knowledge, attention to detail and color sense and Lancaster’s eye for scale and insistence on comfort—that led to the creation of their English country house look, a style that has lasted half a century… He formed a private language of color names such as “dead salmon” and “mouse’s back”—to which Nancy Lancaster added the infamous “caca du dauphin” and “vomitesse de la reine.” (2)

My poor French roughly translates this as “the princes poo”, and “the vomit of the queen.”


Cornbury Park appears to be one of Fowler’s final major projects, and was completed in 1967.  Looking at the photos today it would appear that the preservation of his work is impeccable.

Naturally, I got curious.

There’s the dining room, where Servalan inspects the arrangements for the conference.

Then we have the entrance vestibule, where Avon and the crew make their way through the double doors and into the residence for the first time.

and across the room towards…

…the staircase (main) hall, which features the little corridor where Dayna and Cally listen to Hob and Sula rousing the troops.

Turn the camera to the left slightly, and the door to Servalan’s office is visible.

The outside ain’t too shabby either.

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Some more ‘then and now.’

At the rear of the main house, in the middle of the built environment is the chapel and rear courtyard.  This was where most of the ‘battle of the Federation helmets’ took place.


Lorna Heilbron has appeared in lots of things, but for this viewer will always be remembered for her role in the episode of ‘Taggart’ which seems to give many the creeps when they saw it – ‘Nest of Vipers’.  John Bryans makes this third and final appearance in Blake’s 7 – it’s perhaps his best role.  Donald Douglas pops up in Doctor Who, on the receiving end of experiments conducted by a Sontaran, while David Haig ends up as a baby.  Mind you his role as Steve Fleming in ‘The Thick Of It’ is perhaps the most chilling thing ever!

Peter Clay has notched up plenty of roles in series we will recognise, while the smallest of small parts feature Philip Bloomfield who has a good few credits to his name, and David Gillies – a Canadian born New Zealand actor who has even popped up in a James Bond movie.


MUSIC SCORE
What sounds like synthesised strings add a melodramatic feel, even by Dudley Simpson’s standards.  It’s a great score and a good indication of how the series had changed post Blake.


SET DESIGN

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Paul Munting and Ken Ledsham were responsible for the design in this one.  Ledsham will continue to be discussed elsewhere, so I wanted to focus on the studio contributions of Munting.

Perhaps his most familiar designs are for the interiors of ‘The Good Life’ (BBC, 1975-78) where the design approach was to remove the feel of a proscenium arc feel of typical studio based sit-coms, in favour of a more realistic drama based feel – as much as possible within the confines of the multi camera drama.

And I can’t help but feel that there is a similar approach to ‘Rumours of Death’ where, action isn’t simply shot from the fourth wall, but from deep within the set itself, such as the debate between Sula and Hob in Servalan’s office, and the variety of angles captured in the cave.

The cave set is excellent, a tight, taut space which is lit so atmospherically.  The security room feels like a little step up from a 1970’s aesthetic to something that looks like it could belong to the 1980’s – more in the way of straight lines, as opposed to intricate detail.  Servalan’s office is also interesting, from the tapered cube designs seen in many other episodes, to some interesting artefacts that make up the opulence of ‘Residence One’.  But for all of the interesting design on show here, it is the cellar – complete with ‘old wall’ that is perhaps the most effective.  Again the lighting plays a big part, giving the space the atmosphere that is required in this most emotionally bruising moment of Blake’s 7.  From the concrete walls of the detention centre, to the wine racks of the cellar, this is BBC multi camera studio design at its most versatile.

Now I rub my hands with glee as I talk chairs.  Let’s start with the fact that I couldn’t work out Servalan’s presidential chair – for now.  But luckily there were another interesting chairs in her office that looked familiar from other films or television series. I’m talking about the ‘Moby Dick’ chair designed in 1971 by Alberto Rosselli and produced by Saportiti.  Rosselli was in fact an architect, and his designs were often innovative in nature.  Another fibreglass example is the ‘291’ dining chair designed in 1969 for Cado, by Danish furniture designer Steen Østergaard. His ‘290’ and ‘265’ chairs are probably a touch more famous, but all of them are great designs.  Funnily enough both chairs feature in ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ (1977).

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HOW TO SELL THIS TO AN UNBELIEVER
As part of a a box set consisting of ‘Space Fall’, ‘Breakdown’, ‘Countdown’ and this episode.  It’ll be called ‘Kerr Vol.1 – Before the event.’

MY FAVOURITE MOMENT
Cally’s “And what am I doing, Avon? Just following orders, like him?

THE MOMENT I’D RATHER FORGET
“It’s a race”

VERDICT IN 10 WORDS EXACTLY
A full-blooded emotional bruiser, that doesn’t give everything away.

Further reading

(1) Wilson, Mona. The Life of William Blake. The Nonesuch Press, 1927. p. 167.
(2) https://www.architecturaldigest.com/story/fowler-article-012000
https://jjmedia.com/locations/cornbury-park
http://nicolasdepompadour.blogspot.com/2016/05/cornbury-park-for-sale-sort-of.html
http://www.countrylife.co.uk/country-life/cornbury-park-field-country-fair-85374/attachment/the-back-of-the-house
http://www.from-the-archive.co.uk/2013/05/a-royal-command-performance-of-good-life.html

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