“Is there some other function you wish me to carry out?”
In my review of ‘Countdown‘, I started a Top of the Pops ‘Top 10’ of things relating to Blake’s 7 that stand out when I watch it. Here is the top five, in no particular order.
Growing up, Doctor Who and Blake’s 7 were the mainstays of my televisual life, but I would often find connections with other television series of the era, and the methods of production they used. The production of multi-camera studio work is something that I still appreciate, the theatrical techniques used to tell stories appeal to me – see Orbit for more on this.
There was something quite fascinating about the rather dystopian television studio itself. The BBC series ‘The Old Grey Whistle Test’ (1971 – 1987) contained some of the music that has stuck with me over time. A lasting memory is the strange fascination I had with those bleak bare walls and acoustic panels, which had their own peculiar aesthetic – a cross between garden shed, and industrial space age container. I saw these studios so many times, that I started to recognise whether they were broadcasting from Oxford Road in Manchester or Television Centre in London, simply by the design of the wall panels! When the world’s first ever ‘dead’ rock star appeared on Eric Idle’s ‘Rutland Weekend Television’ (BBC 1975 – 76) it was a seamless fusion of those presentation styles and – thanks to the use of video feedback – sci-fi trappings.
There are other television series where connections are made. ‘The Tripods’ was the series that I resented and enjoyed in equal measure – I worried that it was a permanent replacement for Doctor Who. There was ‘Top of the Pops’ – the soundtrack to my youth – until the late 1980’s. ‘By the Sword Divided’ gained added significance when I discovered the involvement of Janet Lees Price and Gareth Thomas, and ‘The Adventure Game’…well, more about this later.
On a DVD compilation of ‘The Old Grey Whistle Test’, T.V Smith, the lead singer of the punk band The Adverts, talks about a momentous occasion where the programme finally embraced punk. With a wry smile, he recounts how the group were a last-minute booking, travelling up to Birmingham to record at the same studio complex where the “really conservative Richard and Judy type show” was being recorded at the time. The resulting performance includes two very differing statements of how punk had arrived on Whistle Test. There was the sneering “At last, the 1978 show” uttered just before the performance of ‘Bored Teenagers’, and the wonderfully BBC representation of punk – the safety pins stuck to the lens of the camera.
The ‘conservative’ show that T.V. Smith refers to, is a series that really sticks in my mind as having a connection with television I love, even if it wasn’t a ‘must see’ television programme when I was younger. I’m talking of that ‘bastion from Edgbaston’ – the genesis of live daytime television, ‘Pebble Mill at One’ (BBC 1972 – 86).
For those not familiar, this was a BBC lunchtime magazine programme, broadcast in the foyer of the BBC’s studios in Birmingham. It’s the thing you watched when you were unwell, not at school, a student, or if you worked from home.
When I look at Twitter or various television forums, it appears to be fondly remembered by the people who were in a position to watch it. I reckon there is an interest, or at the very least an unbridled love for this show which no one fully owns up to. I know I’m fond of it.
In a nutshell, here is the story of Pebble Mill – the show, the foyer and the studio – with it its connection to Blake’s 7 and Doctor Who. At the very least, it’s an entry in the television encyclopaedia that I’m sure someone will find interesting.
It’s 1971, and the BBC opens its new Broadcasting Centre in Birmingham – Pebble Mill. It contains two television studios, including a medium-large television drama studio (A), a smaller news studio (B) and a range of other broadcasting facilities. It is designed to house the production areas at the front of the complex – in the face of the public. The administration is tucked away at the back.
Like many buildings of the era it contains an impressive foyer, with large glass windows, leather bucket seats and marble reception desk – the epitome of 1970’s chic.
1972. A new daytime series is launched to rival ITV’s drama ‘Crown Court’. This lunchtime offering is suitably entitled ‘Pebble Mill at One’.
The decision is made not to record this live magazine programme in the large television studio available on the complex. The controller who devised the series decides that the foyer will be a good idea. A lighting rig is installed, the cameras move in, and the foyer eventually will become known as ‘Studio C’.
The early editions were recorded while the foyer is used for its original purpose. The receptionists and visitors to the building appear in the show. There are ongoing challenges with sound and lighting – after all this isn’t your traditional studio.
Soon after, the reception is moved, and the series settles into a popular mix of ‘light conversation and features’ – derided by critics, but enjoyed by those who watched it. One week Morrissey will be reviewing video releases, keeping the same seat warm for Su Pollard, who will talk about Hi-De-Hi or something. Throughout, the series is building an archive of material that will be plundered by fans of UK telefantasy for decades to come.
And it’s live – so there are wonderful moments to enjoy, such as a drunken Molly Parkin telling her life story to Donny Macleod, and Owen Paul enjoying his favourite waste of time – without hearing the soundtrack.
These are golden days for the complex. Apparently 10% of BBC output is coming from Birmingham. Producer David Rose is behind the English Regions Drama department, designed to give a voice to writers and dramas outside of London. It is responsible for some culturally significant television productions from the ‘Second City Firsts’ strand, to ‘Boys from the Blackstuff’.
The main ‘Studio A’ is well used, from ‘Poldark’, to ‘All Creatures Great and Small’, from ‘Howard’s Way’ to ‘Telly Addicts’. Even ‘Horror of Fang Rock’, ‘K9 and Company’, ‘Rentaghost’ and ‘The Adventure Game’ tick the telefantasy box.
Bit by bit, the foyer is spruced up, and the leftovers of its days as a reception are cleared out. The ceiling is removed, heightened and painted. Gone is the marble desk, replaced by an increase in pot plants, and Japanese shoji screens, and that huge mental canopy above the doors also disappears in the mid 1980’s – a vile and grotesque act of architectural vandalism if ever there was one! There is also an increase in space for the usual audiences shipped in from Conservative clubs and social groups around the Midlands, who delightfully fail to clap at the right places.
Like Doctor Who, Pebble Mill at One was on Michael Grade’s radar, and in 1986 it is given the boot – even though the viewing figures are pretty healthy. The presenters appear genuinely sad to see it go, not to mention 30,000 viewers who wrote to the BBC about its cancelation – presumably including sewists up and down the land, and the man who wanted Marion Foster to get her tits out in that final live edition.
A year or two later, it returns. But only the format. It’s no longer ‘Pebble Mill at One’. New titles appear, such as ‘Daytime Live’ and ‘Scene Today’ which is very much of its time. There is a new presenting team, and while it retains its topical mix, there is the ominous addition of soul saxophone to the theme music.
The foyer has been further extended, with the glass windows being moved back towards the railings. There is a bit more room for everyone. By 1990 Pebble Mill is linking all daytime programming under the banner ‘Daytime UK’, but it is stopped in its tracks by the Gulf War and a decline in audience.
By 1992 the foyer is home to a proper set, with added conservatory towards the back, for ‘Good Morning with Anne and Nick’ (1992 – 96), which went up against Richard and Judy in the battle for daytime.
Meanwhile, Studio A is still busy. Not only does it host the fabulous make-it-up-as-you-go-along drama ‘What’s Your Story?’, hosted by Sylvester McCoy, but ‘Pebble Mill’ – the programme – now becomes a chat show in the studio, with all the garish colour schemes of the 1990’s.
Occasionally I would recognise someone who had appeared in Doctor Who or Blake’s 7. It’s professionally produced, but lacking any of the joyous unpredictability of a live television show recorded in a glass fronted foyer.
By 1996, Paul Shane has sung ‘You’ve lost that Loving Feeling’ and the show is axed (not connected – probably). While there is more daytime pre-recorded programming from the Mill, the days of live daytime broadcasting is at an end. The end of the series appears to mirror the fate of the Pebble Mill studio complex, which has slowly diminished in importance, thanks to John Birt’s ‘Producer’s Choice’ policy, and despite a multi million pound refurbishment of studio A, both the studio and the foyer are closed as a broadcasting resource in 2001.
By the time I visited Pebble Mill in 2003, the decision had been made to close the entire complex and relocate to smaller premises in the city centre of Birmingham. Around this time ‘the Mill’ was using the former ‘Studio A’ as a cheeky sound stage (until the accountants found out) and the foyer as the principal location for the daytime drama ‘Doctors’. The windows had been boarded up, and blacked out – but in the very first scene of the very first episode, you know exactly where the surgery is.
Finally in 2004, the cameras roll for the last time. The foyer is blown up dramatically in ‘Doctors’ and soon after the bulldozers move in for real. The complex lasted less than 35 years.
The thing about ‘Pebble Mill’ – both the show and the building – is that it has a connection with Blake’s 7 and Doctor Who, namely an intrinsic relationship between the programme and reason for watching television in the first place.
Doctor Who captured my imagination early on, and I associate it with the utter excitement and anticipation of sitting down at a certain time on a certain day, ready for that opening ‘sting’ of the theme tune to begin, and being hooked for the rest of the episode.
Blake’s 7 was different. It came as my interest in television production was solidifying. To watch Blake’s 7 was to enjoy the storylines, characters and scenarios. But it also was consumed when I had discovered ‘In-Vision’ (more on this in my final blog post) and Andrew Pixley’s television research, which was published more publicly – notably through the archive section in ‘Doctor Who Magazine’. The irony is that I could find out anything about the production of Doctor Who, but Blake’s 7 was more tricky.
Two things stick in my mind about ‘Pebble Mill at One’, and its offshoots. Firstly, there is the memory of the era. Being off sick from school was a key element. This wasn’t a series that, as a young boy, I would choose to watch – I wanted Chock-a-block or ‘Play School’. Yet there was a strange curiosity – it was live, which made it interesting to watch, and the fact that there was a world going on behind those foyer windows, set it apart from the claustrophobia of the traditional television studio, and made it seem more accessible to watch.
In fact, the programme makers at Pebble Mill always seemed to open up the complex to the viewer, making it a fascinating site for anyone with a growing interest in television production. Often the courtyard would stage a concert, and corridors would feature in promotional music videos. This combined with the use of the foyer made Pebble Mill ahead of its time, eschewing the traditional studio for other locations. It’s just that those locations were often Pebble Mill itself. To me, there is an unfortunate irony between how well utilised the entire building was when making television, and the key reason given by management for its demolition – the under utilisation of its main studio due to the decrease in multi-camera television production.
Pebble Mill at One is also the series that is revisited the most when it comes to archive interviews and features to do with Blake’s 7, Doctor Who and other series of interest. It even seems to beat ‘Blue Peter’ in this regard. Gareth Thomas features several times, notably alongside Jacqueline Pearce in the early 1990’s, and there is the Radiophonic Workshop feature from the late 1970’s, which features on the DVD’s.
And let’s not forget, interviews with Rod Lord, and Alan J.W. Bell for Hitchhikers fans, and a ton of content for Who fans, notably the peculiar tension between Doctor and interviewer when Patrick Troughton was interviewed in the early 1970’s and Sylvester McCoy in the late 1980’s. To be honest, if you wanted a good supportive sci-fi discussion, the interviewer really needed to be the late Donny MacLeod, who, whether facilitating ideas from the public about how Peter Davison should play the role, or cheerfully passing by Tom Baker’s more eccentric bi-play, always seemed to enjoy talking about this particular realm of fantasy.
It’s easy to be snooty about ‘Pebble Mill at One’ – critics were at the time, and indeed ‘TV hell’ countdowns will include examples of the show because its was perceived by some as being low brow, low budget, factory level output – thousands of editions were screened. Interestingly, I have memories of quite serious subjects being discussed, alongside ‘Five Star’ gyrating their way around the grounds. Of course, it reflects the times, so I’ll happily gloss over circus bears rolling around or black and white minstrels, in favour of memories of the BBC being particularly ‘Auntie’ which, when you are poorly, is just what is needed. In fact I can’t think of many shows that had such a close connection between programme and audience. And lets face it, the television landscape of today owes a debt to this slice of metropolitan fare, even more so when you consider the series that followed also started their lives outside of London – the view outside the glass windows of ‘This Morning’ being the Albert Docks in Liverpool, and the pilot series of ‘The One Show’ was Pebble Mill’s replacement building – The Mailbox. In short, Pebble Mill reminded me that there was more to television than London.
So the next time I’m in Brum, and I pass Pebble Mill Road, I won’t see a dental hospital and the like, I will still see, between me and a big glass window, Gareth Thomas licking a Liberator gun, a Cyberman knocking over a glass window of its own, that walkway, a couple of taxis, and those railings facing out to a green lawn.
There’s a lovely website if you want to discover more – http://www.pebblemill.org
On the subject of ‘Pebble Mill at One’, check out this moment from a 1977 edition.
Poor Marian Foster. You can hear it in her breathing. She must have been dreading this segment. This is live television at its most demanding. The morning rehearsal has probably thrown up more questions than answers. And suddenly you’re live, in front of a nation of those who work at home, those who have just woken up from night shifts, and sick children.
Foster uses all of her presenting experience and keeps going, happily using the voice of the computer expert out of shot and taking the credit, while sticking to the script about businessmen and “us housewives“. Using a slapdash method of calculation (sticking any old answer in) Foster creates a strangely compelling six minutes of television.
Generally speaking, the computers of Blake’s 7 – as we all know – were not passive boxes with buttons. The show sat between the worlds of conceptual computers with genuine people personality (GPP) and for set dressing, what computers sat in the store room of the BBC.
Take this beast. A Lyons Electronic Office (LEO) – a big bad-ass business computer that started to arrive in offices in the 1950’s – 60’s. It means business. In a modified form, it calculates things to do with destroying all life on Albian.
Then we have the tape drives that go with the computers of the day. At the time, IBM appeared to be the dominant share of the market. They are one of those intrinsic parts of the DNA that makes up telefantasy.
Whenever I see these machines in the background, I don’t think of how they date a series, but more how the BBC only purchased the best for their prop stores. Take the Honeywell 200 – introduced in the early 1960’s as competition to IBM. It stands – wonderfully out of place – in the Heart of Gold in the television adaptation of ‘The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy’.
In Doctor Who, I loved the Goliath that is destroyed by Zoe in ‘The Invasion’ (1968), which looked like the size of a mini. Then I noticed that season 7 in 1970, started to see a transition from those whoppers to a more familiar unit that was the size of a refrigerator.
By the time of Tom Baker’s reign, you couldn’t move for them. In Paris, Tara, even Skaro, they were often accompanied by radiophonic sound effects that involve staccato tones speeding up and slowing down.
And it seems fitting that they were phased out of the series, around the same time that Tom Baker hung up his boots. Although I’m sure I’m wrong, the last time I recall seeing one is, suitably, part four of ‘Logopolis’ (1981).
I was so familiar with these machines in Doctor Who, that by the time Blake’s 7 entered my life, they didn’t even represent an era, but their solid appearance represented the sturdy might of the Federation – even more so when you consider that following the destruction of Star One, they barely make an appearance in the series.
So when I think of these beasts, I think of the era of Blake’s 7, as being the last hurrah for these mainstays of space age drama. With the dawn of the 1980’s, a new Doctor, and a change of aesthetic for season D, on-screen technology was shifting towards the BBC microcomputer.
For more on this kind of thing, check out this rather lovely website. http://www.starringthecomputer.com/features.html
The mid 1990’s saw school finish and college arrive. I loved it. I studied Media Production and also got stuck into Graphic Design. Suddenly I started to take notice of typeface, layouts, serifs, and Quark Express. And Photoshop was still to come! Watching Doctor Who and Blake’s 7, I started to take notice of the evolution in the range of control displays and techno-speak. My appetite had already been whetted by the computer graphics (“Computer graphics? What computer graphics?”) of ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I loved anything that gave a futuristic appeal. There was the computer chatter of ‘The Tenth Planet’ (1966), and bold colours of the BBC micro in the maps used by Sharaz Jek in ‘The Caves of Androzani’ (1984).
Suddenly the far future had shifted again from psychedelic waveforms to ‘computer’ graphical content, and control read outs had shifted from dials and tickers to a more text heavy, digital looking presence.
And also there were logos. I love a good logo. You can take Martin Lambie-Nairn’s Channel 4 logo, or the Warner Brothers ‘W’, designed by Saul Bass – they’re great. But I really got into logos when I didn’t quite get what they were all about. Back in the days of ‘Knight Rider’ or ‘The Incredible Hulk’ I didn’t understand why the Earth had two rings around it when the Universal logo appeared at the end. But it fascinated me.
But the best ones were two logos that were broadcast in the United Kingdom, for the ITV regions in the midlands and the south-west. Both first aired in 1982, and they were both bonkers and brilliant.
Firstly, there was Central television, which broadcasted in the midlands.
You’d think the graphic designers might come up with a more literal idea that reflects the geographical nature of the title – central England, the heart of the UK, the middle of the island, or whatever. But no, they went for the new, unfamiliar and striking, and they both used ‘scanimate’ – see the title sequence post for more.
The Transdiffusion website noted:
(The preceding company) ATV had been a literal ident – the letters ATV superimposed over a shadowed eye (CBS shadowed in Britain, was the reasoning). Central went to the opposite direction, a UFO that split open as it came out of eclipse to reveal a world of Close Encounters-style industrial lights and magic. (1)
CLG (the Closing Logo Group) went for:
On a dark blue background, we see what appears to be a total eclipse of the sun. The “shine” disappears after a second and then the disc turns sideways, revealing it to be a light blue planet-like object. As the shadow gets halfway round, the globe opens up like an egg and a bright array of colored lights burst out. A couple of seconds later, the two halves come back together, the lights go back inside and the word “CENTRAL” appears in a white Erbar Neo Mini font below the globe, which now has a crescent shadow. (2)
Yes, that was Central television.
And it was the same where I grew up, in the rolling hills, green pastures, and coastlines of the south-west. The company here was TSW – Television South West.
The company that held the franchise beforehand, referenced a nautical theme – a ship, befitting the region it served. But TSW embraced the modern thinking of the 1980’s with a more graphical representation of…green fields, and blue seas? Possibly? Maybe?
CLG describe it with undisputed certainty:
On a black background, we see an overhead view of a staticky television screen with a red border around it. A blue square comes out of the screen. The square curves and starts to cover the screen as a pink volcano-like appendage rises out of the screen. Once the screen is covered, it is now a blue sphere. The sphere splits into three and then six in a “mitosis”-like effect. The spheres then flip to reveal that they are green hemispheres with a blue interior. The hemispheres then form pairs at various angles (looking a bit like the Sydney Opera House, but actually supposed to represent an abstract sailboat shape similar to the Golden Hind in the Westward TV logos) and move toward the center of the screen. A blue zigzag line appears below them and “TSW” appears below the line. (3)
Transdiffusion also made a good attempt to describe it:
The starting point is obviously (?) a TV screen. It is suddenly enveloped by… something, which provokes (why?) a ‘splash’ from the screen. The enveloping continues until the TV screen has faded away, then becomes… a bubble of water? This divides first into three, then, like cell division, into two – making six bubbles. The bubbles rotate, and suddenly they’re not bubbles anymore, but rather… cups, maybe? The cups turn sideways-on to reveal they’re not cups but something else – hills perhaps? Or palm leaves? Then TSW’s initials hurry into view, accompanied by a wavy line. (4)
These are graphical elements from yesteryear, that still linger in the imagination.
Where was I? Oh yes. Blake’s 7.
Blake’s 7 is a very visual experience, when you look a little closer. Sure the special and visual effect teams were working super hard to get the series made, but there is plenty of additional graphical detail that sits outside Bob Blagden’s rather fine comic book logo.
You have the font used in Terry Nation’s ‘Survivors’ as the sign that announces a top security installation – proof that the Federation did have an ironic sense of humour. There’s the use of the Aquarius font (see ‘The Way Back‘) as an overall Federation identity, and an interesting mix of serif and sans-serif fonts scattered throughout the series.
But the logo I really like is the ZVP featured in ‘Gold. A quick google search will reveal a world of limitless possibilities.
In recent years there has been a playful vogue for taking graphical motifs from our favourite fantasy series and immortalising it on the front of a t-shirt. And why not? It’s a classic convention of t-shirt design, from branded independent street wear to more globally recognised corporate brands. And it totally speaks to me. While I’m not a designer, there is something so wonderfully romantic about the second life of a graphical element designed by someone in the graphics/design department in the BBC, who were trying to create something in the space of whatever man hours had been allocated, only to see it for a split second on-screen. I love the fact that these designs are immortalised by an appreciative section of a community who recognise that these design elements for what they are; a cultural reference in their own right.
These designs live on! There’s hope for that weird TSW logo yet.
Ah the mole crane. Every time I hear about it, I think of two things. 1) How they were used to create wonderfully effective shots, of course. 2) How they could be used as a weapon in the ongoing battle against temperamental stars, such as director Paddy Russell speculating how she thought the Pebble Mill team were going to run over Tom Baker on the set of ‘Horror of Fang Rock’.
I always felt that Blake’s 7 allowed a greater range of elaborate camera moves. The expanse of the flight deck set was a good opportunity to show off the imagination of the directors and what the camera crews could do. The moment of discovery in ‘Space Fall’ is made all the more exciting thanks to the slow track into the flight stations, as Blake, Jenna and Avon discover the ship for the first time.
From that moment onwards, there are lovely shots galore, as each successive director appears to be excited by the opportunities of Roger Murray-Leach’s design.
Derek Martinus uses the mole to get the camera into nooks that are rarely used. Take the shots looking at the set in reverse from its normal position. Examples include the end of ‘Trial’ where Cally, flicks a switch and walks down the steps to join her comrades, and a couple of lovely shots in ‘The Keeper’, including when Avon is talking to himself. He cuts a lonely figure thanks to a high up angle.
Gerald Blake also uses nice slow tracking shots at the start and end of his episodes, creating a sense of scale that the flight deck doesn’t need to prove, but is nice to look at anyway.
Top of the shots is Andrew Morgan, who uses ‘Children of Auron’ to remind ourselves what a fantastic set design it is. He says he wanted to create a feeling of space flight when he used that fast track across the entire length of the set. It’s a gorgeous shot.
Here’s a sped up GIF, showing off some of those slinky camera moves.
Finally on the top 10 list, we have those little moments that take the language of multi camera studio drama, and give it a little lift. I’m talking about the visual tools of the trade available to the director to convey emotion, high drama, tension and any other emotional state.
Lets start with the humble transition. Most of the time we’re witnessing a cross-fade from one image to another, usually to convey time passing, or a deliberate point in time between two scenes. Sometimes cross-fades are used as an effect in itself, such as the succession of images that make up the defence mechanism on Liberator, towards the end of Space Fall.
Sometimes it is used to create a stylised depiction of time passing, such as the roll-back-and-mix arrival of the doomed Obsidians as they meet Servalan. Sometimes it is used to suggest something more than a simple mix of images, as evidenced by the merging of Cally’s eye and her link to the alien tomb in ‘Sarcophagus’.
David Sullivan-Proudfoot elects to use a series of screen wipes in a couple of his episodes, which are intriguing in that they don’t necessarily suggest the passing of time. It says ‘meanwhile in another part of the universe.’ Of course, this echoes the epic feel of Star Wars, however in the hands of the BBC, it feels a bit more clunky.
But the best one of all is used by Mary Ridge in ‘Blake’, as a foreshadowing of the reunion (and connection) between Blake and Avon. We know it is an important moment in the series, and this is reenforced by the positioning of the two characters, while the mix between images does the rest.
Crash zooms are very familiar to any fan of telefantasy. There are millions of examples to choose from. If I was to choose two that stick out to me, I would go for a couple of examples from the Jon Pertwee era of Doctor Who. Firstly, there is the dramatic zoom into the mutated technician Harry Slocum, who is freaked out when the phone rings. In this instance Douglas Camfield shows off how intense he wanted ‘Inferno’ to be.
The second example comes at the end of episode 5 of ‘The Green Death’ where Stevens blankly rumbles Mike Yates. In both cases, there’s real skill in the camerawork, and the speed of the zoom is exhilarating.
The end of episode cliffhanger wasn’t a part of the Blake’s 7 fabric, but zooms could still be used effectively, for example the moment of realisation for the fool, at the very end of ‘The Keeper’, which is given added gravitas, thanks to Dudley Simpson’s synthesised sting, and best of all, the moment where Zeeona feels the death of her father in ‘Warlord’.
In fact I would say that out of all the directors of Blake’s 7, it is Viktors Ritelis who uses the techniques of the multi-camera studio for the full.
Ritelis is responsible for my favourite visual styling in Blake’s 7, the moment where the alliance is confirmed, the goblets clank, and the power of togetherness is expressed in a wonderfully cartoon style. There are those who have questioned this moment, but you can’t unsee it – now go and imagine the scene without the crackle of energy. It would be a lesser moment.
There are other lovely instances; the power of the close up, such as Servalan’s face on the cinema screen in ‘Voice from the Past’. There’s the impact of Deeta’s death in ‘Death-Watch’, which uses slow motion powerfully, and the punchy editing of ‘Duel’ and ‘Shadow’. It’s easy for these moments to be buried under the strong characters and plotting of this show, but these moments often become great thanks to the directors choice of technique.
I’m typing this on a very hot summers day. And it’s been a good month since I last watched an episode, which in this blog series is a lifetime.
The episode begins, like ‘Weapon’, with a bang and a lot of dialogue, which suggests that Felden crystals are at the heart of this episode. Somehow this type of opening infodump feels very much like a season D episode – one that is eager to give us the opening facts as early as possible and then let the episode crack on.
The final line in the scene, sums it up neatly. “Where do we steal the Feldon crystals from?”
As an aside, it’s interesting to hear Avon explain how uneconomical it would have been to transfer the population of whatever planet just blew up. It sounds simply like the Federation of old. There’s no talk of expansion, or rising up from a ruined empire. It’s simple cold blooded decision making.
We are introduced to Gambit the computer, and Belcov off of Z-Cars. And as a group of people try to gain access to an orbiter, I’m enjoying the casual demeanour of Belcov, in contrast to an agitated looking Gerren.
Back on Scorpio, it may be Avon explaining everything, but these scenes appear to be some kind of Vila greatest hits package, as we are witness to his humour, selfish interest, and defensiveness.
On the orbiter, the ‘players’ are dressed in attire lifted from ‘The Power of Kroll’.
On Scorpio, Avon is still explaining stuff, as we start to understand a bit more about a previous dealing with Gerren. So far, it’s very wordy this story, as though an unseen episode has aired before this one. In my head I’m imagining that writer Bill Lyons commissioned a first draft that tested Chris Boucher’s metal more than any other.
A stricken Gerren teleports onto Scorpio, luckily he is going to be looked after well, as he is plonked onto a Corbusier LC4 Chaise Lounge – a Blake’s 7 mainstay.
And Avon is still explaining a ton of stuff.
Servalan is hinted at, but my attention is drawn to a wonderfully Blake’s 7 image – namely a shockingly recognisable artefact in an alien setting. In ‘Cygnus Alpha’ we have medieval torture devices, in ’Powerplay’ we see the hospital gurney on Chenga and here, we have one of those metal containers that carry large amounts of booze and soft drink bottles into various Tesco Express stores (other supermarkets are available).
The 1980’s is rearing its head through multi level perspex games of strategy.
Hello Servalan. She’s looking particularly mean today. And that is even before she clicks her fingers.
She meets Belcov, and the gamesmanship immediately commences. This is the point where I really felt I was starting to get into this episode, after its heavy backstory. The idea that Belcov is using Feldon crystals to do a deal with Servalan, in order to buy his survival, is what I needed to care about this game.
Is it me, or has Orac’s voice changed somewhat in season D? It sounds more tiny, and lacking the whiney background noise that accompanies its activation.
I enjoyed Vila response to Dayna’s trusting Belcov as far as she could throw him.
And Stratford Johns is bumbling his way through the bafflegab, and while he stutters through a couple of lines, he does so like a consummate pro.
On Scorpio, Avon is talking his way through another very intricate strategy. It makes me feel like the ambition of the script isn’t matched by the resources available to the production team. Nonetheless the episode is ticking along nicely.
And it is at this point the action ramps up a little, thanks to Vila blowing the crews cover on Mecron, and a resulting fight scene resulting in a nasty death, and immediately after that, the smashing up of Belcov’s quarters by the guards.
I’m really enjoying the scene with Servalan and Belcov. Both stubborn, quick fire and petulant. There is a real energy in the ways these scenes are handled.
Back outside, Tarrant and co hide behind a rock, while we hear the familiar rhythm of Dudley Simpson’s Federation March.
In fact the inclusion of this score harks back to earlier episodes. There are little moments including: familiar costumes and props from earlier series, Vila unlocking a security door, and not least of all a sunny location (season D always seems so cold and grey). Yes, this is the later era episode, that feels like one of the earlier ones.
Dayna gets a brilliant riposte to Vila’s ‘blood’ line. “Tell them you’ve already given.“
Vila enjoys a famous scene involving his hand being stepped on by a Federation guard. As famous as it is, it doesn’t mask the fact that it is a somewhat clumsy thing to do.
During the scene where Avon and Soolin discuss Gambit with Orac, Paul Darrow launches into one of his deliciously theatrical moments, as he shouts, spits and gesticulates with wild abandon. It’s like he is trying to make a point on Question Time. It’s stratosperic, and while it might be a far cry from his measured and highly effective Avon of old, it is pretty mesmerising.
There’s explosions and flaming guards, diversions and distractions.
And when the dust settles, Vila gets chummy with Gambit, rescues Tarrant and Dayna, obtains a micro circuit, and gets the girl. OK, that was in another episode. But here he is displaying every facet of his character, alongside a few others, including shooting a guard in cold blood, which feels very odd.
Poor Gerren, left on his own to face Servalan. Sometimes it is better not to see the moment of his death, the lead up can be dramatic enough.
So we go into the final set up. The end game. A greatest hits package of all the key attributes of our favourite characters. Avon gets to do some fast typing, Soolin some nifty shooting, Vila does some detective work, and Dayna…well poor Dayna plays the substitute, her character somewhat redundant now that Soolin has emerged as the sharp shooter.
On the orbiter, the screen tells Soolin that she is “very good”. It’s good to see that the grammar is as appalling as mine.
Avon tells Tarrant to get on with it, as he handles one of those L.F.T’s that was clearly nicked by ‘The Krypton Factor’ later in the 1980’s. I love Steven Pacey’s “All right, all right, taking her up” as though he is not in a TV studio, but in a pub somewhere.
Old model footage from season A briefly makes a return, as various planets fly past the camera.
No one wins this game. Belcov meets his match with a suitable laugh, and Avon finds the balance between positive and negative. The bafflegab has won! Our heroes are safe to fight another day. Which is the perfect summing up of the first 12 episodes of season D.
End game to Belcov.
‘Games’ will never win the title of deepest episode of Blake’s 7, but it is certainly one of the most enjoyable stories of season D. Even though it relies on a ton of backstory and exposition, there is plenty of action, quick fire dialogue and plot twists. It’s one of the most humorous and good-natured episodes of the final run, and a nice respite from the overall feeling of doom and gloom that often characterises the series. Sometimes a story can be dominated by its guest star – Colin Baker and Brian Blessed are very strong personalities, and their presence loom large over the episodes they featured in, but ‘Games’ doesn’t feel like it is simply a showcase for Stratford Johns. The involvement of David Neal, and the fact that the episode nips along at a sprint, means that Johns does not dominate. The fact that his personality and screen presence is matched by Jacqueline Pearce results in their scenes together being hugely enjoyable. Compare this episode to ‘Traitor’, which at time feels like it is going through the motions, ‘Games’ feels like the boundless enthusiasm of many of the earlier episodes – in fact there is a distinct Blake era feel to this one.
In ‘Gold’ I mentioned that season D takes the safe and established route in the way it is directed in the first half of the season. ‘Games’ marks the tipping point. Lorrimer elected to give Vivienne Cozens a chance to demonstrate her directorial nous on the series, and she gives ‘Games’ a good sense of energy and budget. The studio scenes nip along well, and she captures the fiz between Servalan and Belcov nicely, with some expressive big close-ups as they trade pleasantries. But it is the location work in Dorset that sticks out to me. While it is helpful that the sun is out, giving the usually drab, grey settings of Blake’s 7 a bit of a lift, she puts in some serious effort creating the mining operation on Mecron 2, with plenty of extras, bangs and other visual effects. In this regard I think that this episode, alongside ‘Gold’ and possibly ‘Blake’ are the standouts of season D on location.
But perhaps the main reason I am fond of this episode, is that it belongs to an era of television viewing that involved people simply trying to solve things. Playing games no less. I remember watching the BBC’s ‘Play Chess’ in the early 1980’s with its militaristic brassy music, and overhead chessboard graphics. Then came ‘The Adventure Game’. This fondly remembered series is remembered for many things; Moira Stuart, talking teapots, planets, drogna, Arg-o-vsion, and ‘the vortex’ which blew my mind when people I recognised from Doctor Who and other TV series ended up being vaporised by a laser beam if they stepped onto the wrong spot in the vortex above the expanse of space. I seem to recall Janet Fielding facing this challenge, but I can’t remember whether she made it to the other side. And even Paul Darrow, complete with facial hair, made an appearance in an early series, recorded at some point between ‘Terminal’ and ‘Rescue’.
For all these memories of the later series, I have a hazy recollection of the intrepid celebrities walking into a TV studio and into the outer reaches of space. While researching this for this blog, I was delighted to find this clip, which features a group of recognisable faces get out of a taxi, walk down that platform that was instantly recognisable as the bridge that you could see outside the windows of the ‘Pebble Mill at One’ foyer, into studio A at BBC Birmingham, onto some kind of carriage, which stops at a signal, and off into space. For a young boy watching this, it is a lovely sequence, and one that no doubt cemented a lifelong fascination with the possibilities of television production. And as a now grown up young boy – what I have just described is perhaps the most brilliant television journey ever!
While these series were aired around the same time as ‘Games’ was broadcast, the fascination of watching people solve puzzles and play different kinds of games reached its peak in the late 1980’s – early 1990’s. There was the joy of shouting at the television screen while mortgage brokers, and chartered accountants attempted to navigate the ‘The Crystal Maze’, a situation brilliantly parodied by ‘The Mary Whitehouse Experience.
But for my money, the most satisfying video of this series features the well shared outtakes, where the poor contestants are given some marvellously caustic gallery talkback from the director – “Ron, send for the child of three please.”
Around this time Stratford Johns seemed to have a monopoly on BBC sci-fi, recording his Doctor Who contribution ‘Four to Doomsday’ – Peter Davison’s first recording. Gravelly voiced David Neal, featured in Davison’s final adventure ‘The Caves of Androzani’ – as mentioned in the ‘Rumours of Death’ blog post, his death scene is a really quite brilliant small screen moment. Around this time he could also be seen in ‘Flash Gordon’. Federation officer James Harvey was active in the 1980’s but is buried in a sea of other actors called James Harvey, while Rosalind Bailey enjoyed a regular role in the BBC’s ‘When the Boat Comes In’.
As with ‘Sand’, Eric Walmsley and Ken Ledsham are responsible for the set design, some of which appear to be used in both episodes, notably the same chairs, and the set design that is the Gambit computer. The bit that stands out for me is the orbiter games room, which is a curious and sometimes garish mix of reds, purples and silvers, chain motifs and circular backgrounds. It’s almost impossible to dissect!
Chairs. You win some, you lose some. I couldn’t identify Belcov’s swivel chair, but it gives me an excuse to upload this Eames Time-Life Executive Chair by Charles & Ray Eames for Herman Miller. It’s a narrow call. There’s also an intriguing high-backed chrome dining chair in at the back of his quarters. This looks similar to the Milo Baughman ‘Z’ Dining Chairs for the Design Institute of America. But again, it’s a case of close but no cigar.
As I reach the end of this blog series, I’m starting to see familiar chairs pop up once again. I mentioned the Le Corbusier Chaise that I first glimpsed in ‘Orac’, and the Vertebra armchair which also pops up in the same recording block – see ‘Sand’ for more on this.
Nothing out of the ordinary for this one. Some religious chanting previously heard as library stock makes a return appearance – see ‘Cygnus Alpha’ for more on this.
HOW TO SELL THIS TO AN UNBELIEVER
If you are a fan of the BBC’s ‘The Adventure Game’ or ‘Play Chess’, then this is the one for you.
MY FAVOURITE MOMENT
Dayna’s “Tell them you’ve already given“.
THE MOMENT I’D RATHER FORGET
Vila shooting at someone.
VERDICT IN TEN WORDS EXACTLY.
Jam packed fun, but fifty minutes cannot take the strain.
Sources and photo credits
http://www.flickr.com/photos/51154315@N04/4915770014 – (c) Robin Sunderland.