For those poor, unfortunate unbelievers, here is how it usually goes. Doctor Who and Blake’s 7 are/were regarded as low budget, creaky affairs, rife with over the top acting and shaky sets. We’ve all heard this a million times. I doubt whether we actually register the words anymore.
Growing up in the 1980’s I started to get a sense of this reputation, but I felt that it was at its worst in the first half of the 1990’s, especially when the cast of both shows would make appearances on various chat shows and smile through the usual ‘wobbly walls’ remarks. For Doctor Who, the 1996 TV Movie seemed to ease that to a degree – for one night at least – however it never went away completely. When the series returned in 2005, I remember Russell T. Davies saying in Radio Times, that he would personally eliminate wobble.
But the sets won’t wobble. “They won’t! I shall lean against them myself, and I’m 6ft 6in. I will personally eliminate wobble.” He knew that the slightest chance afforded to critics, and the series would never shake off its reputation.
I remember reading RTD’s quote and really hoped that Doctor Who would been seen by audiences old and new as a production of high quality. I wished it on the show to throw off a lazy viewpoint that scuppered any chance of the rest of the it being celebrated for its outstanding qualities – I mean, didn’t all television drama have shaky sets?
Thanks to In-Vision (more about this in my last post), Doctor Who Magazine and the small industry that explored the critical and production contexts of my favourite series, I had come to realise that my favourite shows were not low budget at all. In fact when you consider the time and resources available to it, it probably was – on a minute to minute basis – quite money hungry, and in the eyes of the BBC management, blooming expensive.
I started to understand that the low budget label simply came from the method used to produce it – the world of theatre and stage design – a world where less is definitely more. In a theatre, you can suspend your disbelief, perhaps because you are in the same room. But when you are separated by glass, and a signal comprising 625 lines, perhaps the ‘wobble’ is seen quite differently.
To be honest, I never really noticed much in the way of wobbly walls anyway. Perhaps on occasions, I would notice the scenery shake when a door slammed down in ‘Invasion of the Dinosaurs’ or the drunken time rotors in ‘Warriors’ Gate’, but by in large, I felt that Doctor Who didn’t really suffer from this problem. In fact when Basil Fawlty would slam doors or tap on walls, that is when I noticed the shaky sets, as though the production of other shows would somehow curse Doctor Who itself.
‘Warriors of the Deep’ was perhaps the litmus test. Sure I saw green paint, and maybe I was blind to the bendy metal, but until it was pointed out to me, I saw a sturdy sea base, with some wobbly karate by a hammer horror star instead.
What I did see was how amazing it was that the set designs and physical elements were constructed in such a quick turnaround.
I stopped seeing ‘dodgy effects’ and started to see how amazing it was that video effects were often created, lined up and superimposed into the frame ‘live’ in the studio, with the best attempts to be precise as possible.
And finally I stopped seeing the occasional fluff of lines, and boom microphone in shot, and started to see how everyone was pulling together to get a take in the can, before 10pm lights out.
This quick fire, and limiting method of production also allowed me to used my imagination in a way that big budget filmmaking failed to capture. I liked to fill in the gaps – the corridors that couldn’t be made on time, the ‘hundreds of Cybermen’ marching out of shot, or the huge expanses of space that the model effects sometimes couldn’t quite capture.
I think I came to the conclusion that I connected with productions that didn’t lay everything out on a plate. And this is still true today.
When you have less in the way of resources, you can’t afford to be lazy.
In the mid 1980’s something really wonderful happened to Doctor Who – the show hit on a visual style that suggested a knockout budget. And it wasn’t lazy. It was still using the imagination to the max.
Colin Baker had taken over from Peter Davison, and while I still loved the show, Baker had taken over from ‘my’ Doctor. This explains why it took a bit of time to get used to this incarnation. But in the comic strip of Doctor Who Magazine, I adored him.
This was the era of Steve Parkhouse and other talented writers. It was the era of Poly the Glot and Voyager. It was the era of Frobisher and Dogbolter – characters who didn’t have a home in televised Who. And most importantly for me, it was the era of artist John Ridgway.
Ridgway’s ability to interpret the written material, was awe inspiring. Big, bold, fanstastical expanses of space were equally adorned with small intricate details, and colourful and alien designs. His fineline quality really appealed to me and, alongside the writers, took Doctor Who off into often surreal, uncharted territory. He was playing to a sympathetic audience, as around this time I was enjoying healthy doses of surreal imagery thanks to cartoons screened on BBC1 – ‘Space Sentinels’ and ‘Ulysses 31.’
Sometimes Ridgway’s environments felt grim, urban, dangerous. And space didn’t feel like a welcoming place, but somewhere where danger lurks around every proverbial corner.
Come to think of it, Ridgway’s translation of the story allowed danger to lurk around the expansive horizons of space too.
Aliens in service roles looked like humans in service roles – jaded. There was a slightly grimy, brow-beaten aesthetic to transit ships, military cruisers, and hospitality. The built environments seen – space stations, ships, cities and the like – all felt very futuristic. Ridgway depicted circuitry boards, metal, and memorably for me, the archetypal space typography. You know, the one that looks like hieroglyphics.
Looking back at the environments conjured up by Ridgway’s artwork, I’m often reminded of the design work of Ken Ledsham, who is no stranger to throwing in a good dose of symbolic space lettering. And this was proper lettering, which was impossible to understand. This made it even better than the rather brilliant ‘future’ typefaces developed in the 1960’s and 70’s, and seen frequently on both Blake’s 7 and Doctor Who.
Ledsham had a distinctive style to his designs. In fact, when ever I see a rounded corner, or glittering tinsel in front of a black backdrop, I know it’s ‘a Ledsham.’
While I’m not the greatest fan – in terms of personal taste – of Ledsham’s signature designs (his work lacked the intricate detail I enjoy), I do admire his work, and marvel at how he so often seemed to make the worlds bigger than a studio could contain.
In fact, it is another of Ledsham’s episodes that remind me most of John Ridgway’s ability to create imaginative and expansive futuristic space environments. ‘Gambit’ seems to be one of the most realised studio spaces, including a ton of extras and a fully realised background soundscape. On Freedom City, Blake’s 7 never felt so spacey and futuristic – a place where people and aliens from everywhere converge in the same room. A bit like the Restaurant at the End of the Universe, or Mos Eisley Cantina.
Although I mentioned how I liked it when not everything was served up on a plate, the comic strips of this era felt like they offered everything and anything. The budgetary constraints of the televised adventures were well and truly thrown out of the window and into an infinite starry background. It was around this time that I started to ask questions:
What would Ridgway’s drawings actually look like on the television screen?
How on earth would the production techniques of televised Doctor Who lend itself to the kind of imagery and storytelling seen in these comic strips?
Did it actually need to?
Did it really matter that the televised adventures often contained the same bit of corridor filmed from all angles?
Perhaps this was the moment I started to understand the limitations of making a sci-fi series on a BBC budget.
And realise that they we’re not limitations at all.
The way the stories were realised using limited televisual means, made me feel that what I couldn’t see, simply made me imagine the pictures in my mind instead. In this respect Doctor Who and other series I enjoyed, felt like literature – words on a page, that helped me to imagine images in my head.
And here I am today, still fascinated by some of those techniques used to up the imagination while keeping the budget down.
So cheers, Sixie, Peri, Frobisher and all who sailed with them. Take a bow.
Away from the page, let’s return to Blake’s 7 and the perennial problem of creating an environment when it is peeing it down in Berkshire and you only have a couple of hours before it gets dark, or you’re in the studio and you only have a couple of stock flats and an overrun from the previous studio session.
Let’s start with filming on location. My post about ‘The Web‘ includes a training programme about how to depict a planetary surface. It includes a free binder with part one.
But thinking about this further, what are the practicalities of dressing a location?
Prop list for the Southbank centre.
– Tin Cans (out of shot).
– Space age signage (as mentioned earlier).
– Coloured lights.
– Wind machine.
Prop list for the Ryvita factory, Poole.
– Tons of stickers with the letters ‘ZVP’.
– Assorted space age mechanisms – but nothing too heavy. We don’t want to interfere with the real factory location.
Prop list for assorted quarries.
– Vacuum formed alien plant life. (Too costly. Let’s do this for the first recording block only).
– Weather balloons.
– Cobweb spray effects.
– Dry ice.
Taking this a little further, there is something wonderful about ‘Project Avalon’, due to the fact that it contains so many ways of making the tuppence that was allocated to it stretch to the point where it actually feels like one of the biggest budgeted episodes in the 52 episode run. You have:
– Sound dubs
– Stock footage
– Criss cross shooting for the corridor.
– A general attempt to confuse the audience. Make a number of tiny, claustrophobic sets, rooms and corridors so that the audience lose their bearings, and are unable to navigate their way around. Familiarity breeds weakness, so the confusion can help make the budget feel bigger.
And scattered through the four seasons of Blake’s 7 there are frequent examples of low budget creating.
The first two examples seem to be something that are so blatantly low budget, that it straddles the lines between looking cheap, and looking deliberate – almost meta.
There’s the coloured lighting for three different levels in ‘Pressure Point’ – the same set.
There’s also the artwork in for Del 10 in ‘Voice from the Past’ which gives the audience a chance to believe that either Blake is experiencing a hallucinogenic trip (if you are watching it when sober), or that Blake is traversing the most realistic planetary landscape (if you are not).
Another example are the graphics that depict an incoming fleet of Federation ships, as opposed to model effects. The 1980’s were approaching, so it was healthy to throw in some grids. It’s all a lot cheaper, and gives a weary Ian Scoones a breather.
So for this blog post, as I near the end of ‘Watching Blake’s 7’, and the well is starting to run dry, I thought I would explore why ‘Death-Watch’ is a masterpiece of low budget television.
Re-use of sets
The reuse of the Teal Star space liner set acts as both a cheap budget device, but also acts as a neat narrative touch, giving a sense of symmetry or equilibrium point to the episode. Sure, they could have set that last scene anywhere. Luckily the combat computer had the same thrifty credentials built in.
Designer Ken Ledsham not only re-uses sets for this episode, but he also digs out his set designs from earlier episodes – IE the circular motifs, black drapes and decorative blinds used in ‘Gambit’ and ‘Moloch’.
But the most impressive reuse of scenery is the room that contains the sensor net charger, Max’s reception room, and Deeta’s quarters. The simple use of a curtain in the sensor net room background sets it apart from the pot plants and lounge chairs of the reception room, which in turn sets it apart from the sofa of the reception room. Various subtle changes in lighting for each room mean this viewer is blind to the fact that it is the same set.
The scene with Max and Deeta in the transport shuttle is so simple. Flash a light on and off to suggest movement, and our imagination will do the rest. The muted lighting also makes the simple design of the set look far more sophisticated.
It’s also worth reminding ourselves that the wonderful Liberator flight deck was at the end of its life, meaning a gentle gust of wind was liable to blow the thing to bits. Well, almost.
Compare the opening shot of Dayna getting off the couch, to an episode such as ‘Redemption’ where everything is given a bit of spit and polish. The lighting is toned down to hide the wear and tear.
All of this is a reminder of how lucky Blake’s 7 was in having Brian Clemett as its lighting designer for over three quarters of its lifespan.
Less is more
The claustrophobic set of the shuttle also allows us to focus solely on the discussion between Max and Deeta, expressing the growing unease of the first champion. It’s one of those lovely little sets that was probably positioned in the corner of the studio. It allows the camera to get right into the faces of the actors, and sends the message once again, that in Blake’s 7 the characterisation is far more important than the production design – as good as it is.
The music score captures the emotions that characters might not be able to express in words. Take the build up to the combat as Vinni and Deeta prepare themselves. We need to feel Deeta’s heightened awareness and emotion, but naturally he can’t express it to anyone. He’s just a man, at a door.
Meanwhile the ambient tones are doing their thing. Sometimes I’m guilty of failing to recognise their impact, as I’m so familiar with the various hums, beeps and howling winds. But it’s worth reminding myself of how intricate they are, right down to three slightly different hums for the three small reception rooms occupied by Max at one point or another.
Keeping check on the cast
‘Death-Watch’ uses the small cast to maximum effect. Stewart Bevan not only plays Max, but is also the voice of the Teal Star captain. Mark Elliot not only plays Vinni, but is also the voice of Teal space traffic control and the television director who has to work with Darvid. And let’s not forget that Steven Pacey was under contract, meaning the production team can squeeze another character for free.
‘Death-Watch’ is an episode where it is rare for a scene to contain more to two speaking characters at any one time (with the exception of the Liberator flight deck scenes). Two key examples bring to mind. There is Servalan holding a scene on her own, when you consider the two arbiters are non speaking supporting artists. Another is when the television presenter is talking only to a voice of a director.
Vinni’s death aside, the main effect used is the classic CSO ‘blue screen’ effect. Immediately I think of Atrios, Metebelis III and Berry Letts walking into shot with a microphone. It’s cheap, efficient and able to be achieved ‘live’ in the studio. It extends the established environment (outer space seen through the window of the Teal Star) and also allows the smaller details to be achieved (the various screens and the activation of the sensor net).
Model work isn’t a method to keep the costs down, it’s an important narrative device, establishing the situation, and creating a sense of place. But when used strategically, it can also be used as a cost saving measure. The opening scene of ‘Death Watch’ provides important exposition about what is occupying this part of the galaxy, without the need to create sets, book actors to play spaceship captains/traffic control, and add to the pressures of studio time. Of course, model work comes with its own costs, but if the left hand is talking to the right hand, there’s no reason why a sequence like this shouldn’t be a normal part of the model effect filming block, and integral part of the script and something that eases the endless hurry of filming/recording live action sequences.
Extending the world
BBC designer Richard McMahan Smith noted that the war room in The Armageddon Factor (1979) was mainly constructed from stock flats, a painted door with rivets, with his thoughts turning to what didn’t actually exist. The screen was presumably a separate flat with an octagonal CSO screen, but being positioned the way it was – at a height – allowed the actors eyelines to be raised, giving the impression that the room was bigger than it actually was.
Other episodes also make good use of use of maps, implying that the world out of shot is a lot bigger. An example of this is in ‘Ultraworld’, which looks suspiciously like Skaro – just turned 90 degrees.
There are also non-electronic effects, such as the wonderful glass shot of the Teal Star interior, possibly created by resident design effects specialist Jean Peyre.
‘Gambit’ sticks in my mind as an example of the the designer (Ken Ledsham) extending the eyelines through carefully positioned mirrors in the bar, which gives the appearance of other bars, other rooms. He uses this technique in ‘Moloch’ too.
But for me, it’s the simple use of tinsel on the studio sets, such as the arbiter’s room, that give the spaces a kind of extended feel. A space without a definite boundary, or wall.
The things we don’t see
Teichoscopy – where a character or characters describe something that is happening out of shot. Immediately I’m always thinking of Doctor Who – ‘The Invasion’ (1968) where Captain Turner says “It’s the Cybermen. We’ve just seen hundreds coming out of the sewers.”
But it can also be used very subtly, such as when Cally quizzes Vila about the lack of joyous multitudes. “There’s nothing here. Everyone’s gone home. Everything’s closed.” In that moment, I’ve stopped thinking about what Cally is drinking, or studying on her book magnifier thing. Instead I’m visualising what it looks like on the planet – not too dissimilar from the oft reported demise of the high street, or like the deserted opening of the movie ‘The Last Picture Show.’
The use of props from previous episodes are ten a plenty. For example, there’s Cally’s book screen thing from ‘Sarcophagus’, and a ton of control panels and light fittings from other episodes and shows.
It’s standard practice to seek and locate areas outside London in order to keep costs down. Using Southall Gas Work is a classic example of this.
It is clearly a go-to location where gritty, bleak brickwork and smashed glass is the order of the day. If you’re a crime/decective/gangster drama, and are looking for a location that doesn’t require an overnight stay, then surely this is the place.
Check out this fascinating archive clip posted by The TV Museum, from ‘The Television Programme’ produced by south west ITV franchise holder Westward in 1980. In this clip, Tristan De Vere Cole, the director of the Secret Army episode ‘Safe Place’, gets to grips with the location in question.
It’s also seen during car chases in ‘The Sweeney’ (you can see it in the background on one of the photos below).
It’s been the location of an ‘alternative’ community in Quatermass (1979.)
And of course it’s been the place where army vans nip in and out in the first and last seasons of Jon Pertwee Doctor Who.
For years the location was documented as being part of the Empire exhibition site in Wembley, London. But apparently it is part of Southall Gas Works. This makes sense, as it is a place that is no stranger to Blake’s 7 – the home of the maximum security communications base on Centero. Naturally I got curious. Can I pinpoint the exact site. Alas no. My educated guess is that it is just out of shot of this photo, taken in the 1930’s, although it could be one of the buildings within the frame. Richard Bignell, if you ever read this tosh, perhaps you could help?
And yet for all it’s shrewd economics, ‘Death-Watch’ feels like an episode that contains one of the most realised situations in Blake’s 7, simply because it gives us the framework that the dramatic conflict sits on, and understands that we are intelligent and imaginative enough to add all the set dressing from our own imaginations. It’s the perfect budgetary strategy = the BBC supplies 50%, and our imaginations supply the rest.
Let’s look closer.
We open with a typically Boucheresque sequence involving a spaceship captain and space traffic control communicating with each other. Unlike ‘Star One’ which captures the weary, jaded attitude that feels like typical Blake’s 7, here we have a surprisingly jaunty couple of folk who seem to be really quite happy to be alive and do the best they can!
As we will discover later the voices of these two are Stewart Bevan, and Mark Elliot, who will also pop up later as the TV director dude.
We then cut to a lovely glass shot of the Teal Star cruiser, and a lone figure standing on a balcony.
As the sequence continues, I like how the music disappears and, as the message is transmitted to the ship – for a few seconds there is complete silence as the ship glides through space. It’s a nice little touch.
A woman bumps into Tarrant – Deeta Tarrant.
Straight away I like him. He’s a little bit more subtle than his bro, but he still has a cutting wit. And a side parting. In fact I enjoy imagining that it’s the same wig Liz Shaw wears in the alternative Project Inferno.
Stuart Fell tries to assassinate Deeta, but ends up using the Chadwick modular sofa to break his fall. If you’re going to die, then die in style.
The slow rotation of Deeta’s arm as he points the gun at Karla. and the words “Tell me” suggest that we are seeing a very different character to his trigger happy little brother.
So we’re piecing together the situation of this episode. Two sides, each with a champion who will fight during times of war.
Karla bites the dust, and Deeta is transferred to a military cruiser. The introduction is over, as the Teal Star continues its journey to some lovely music from Dudley Simpson.
There is a slow cross-fade to that revolving shot of the Liberator, the one that is lit in such a manner that suggests the ship is glowing. It’s funny to think of all these model shots that are so familiar, but at this point in the series, we’re seeing them for the last time.
On the flight deck, Dayna gets an excellent and snappy first line, as the crew discuss the number of Servalan’s ore carriers that have evaded the Liberator. Quite how these vessels are slipping through the advanced technology of the starship isn’t explained, but this is a period of limbo – in terms of the overall narrative of Blake’s 7 – so this is the closest to a story arc we’ve got. ‘Rumours of Death’ indicates Servalan’s hold of planet Earth, ‘Moloch’ sees the crew choosing to follow Servalan into the outer darkness, and ‘Ultraworld’ hints at her expanding empire, which is reenforced here. But there is still a general lack of urgency about actually doing anything about it. Blake is gone, and Avon is hardly likely to be that demonstrative in keeping the Federation at bay.
As usual, it is down to Vila to break the usual train of thought, as he suggests a holiday, and reveals the conflict between Teal and Vandor.
Avon asks Orac to act as a viscast relay. With an incredulous tone, it seems to be surprised that Avon would suggest this. This isn’t going to end well.
There is another model shot that we are going to see for the last time – the one where the Liberator turns on its axis and then flies over the top of the camera. There’s another nice little voice over as Cally and Dayna round up on Vila.
What follows is the closest Blake’s 7 will get to a post-coital shot (with the possible exception of Vila and Kerril on the couch) as the drink and nibbles are out, and Avon looks like it’s all just happened.
Oh look, they’re all sat around the Liberator sofa. One last time. That sofa, gosh it’s seen some action. Vila comatose, a battle of wills between Blake and Avon, and of course there’s the moment where at the end of season A, they can sit down and enjoy a tipple, only to discover that their new acquisition – a box of lights – is predicting their forthcoming destruction.
And it’s been home to some of the finest dialogue to grace UK telefantasy.
Gan: “He’s cutting it too fine!”
Jenna: “Come on Blake, get out of there.”
I’m very much enjoying how Vila is holding court as the discussion turns to what happens when war is actually declared. There’s also a lovely line from Dayna towards Tarrant – “I haven’t seen you move that positively in weeks” – summing up the overall feeling of season C, a fascinating exploration about how a group of people who are used to living off their nerves, suddenly have to adapt to simply roaming around the universe, finding the time to realise they probably get on each others nerves.
It did get me thinking about Vila’s notion of a holiday. In ‘Horizon’ it seemed plausible, given the constant battle to keep safe from Federation forces. But here, with a diminished empire, it seems less a requirement.
According to Vila, there is “Wine, women and song”, which provides an amusing dismissal from Cally, and an equally amusing dismissal of Cally’s viewpoint from Tarrant. “Oh, I don’t know” might be Tarrant’s funniest line, perhaps due to its subtlety.
Then we move into one of my favourite scenes in Blake’s 7, as Orac protests at his use as a communication relay at Avon’s command. “You can do it any way you like. Just so long as you put it on the main screen.” When watching this scene, I love Avon’s detachment, but also it’s fun to watch Michael Keating’s performance as his face slowly turns from confusion to disregard towards Orac.
“Space, the final frontier as it was once called” – nice little knowing nod.
The presenter is suitably solemn, just as Runcible the Factuious was, when describing the Gallifreyian hi-jinks during ‘The Deadly Assassin’ (1976). In that show, there is a suggestion of a slightly fraught relationship with the camera crew. But here it is one step better, as there is a snippy and very amusing discussion with his director.
It’s funny how – in a sequence about the production of a television broadcast – the actual scene recorded is a little bit loose. A microphone briefly appears at the top of the screen, there is a long out of focus shot as the camera zooms in on the door containing the weapons, and poor continuity between the lines “which contains…” and “…protective clothing and specialised weapons”.
In fact I think I like the fictional director even more – he’s a snide, harassed gentleman. There’s a lovely little “No – no, no, no” from an assistant up in the gallery as whatever opportunity for an interview is lost, and the presenter gets the last laugh with a killer put down of the director’s critical reputation. Oh, it’s a cut throat world in showbiz.
Yet, this might be one of the weakest scenes in the episode. The exposition is a bit thickly laid on, but it’s still funny, waspish and helpful to get a sense of the build up to the combat.
The following scene is much more effective, playing on Deeta’s anxieties in the run up. We’re introduced to Max, who as diplomatic aide, makes a pretty good foil. The first words uttered by Max is “How do you feel” which will become the running theme between the two of them – it’s a effective introduction from Boucher.
The dialogue is great – all about trust, mistrust, fairness, diplomacy, and piecing together whatever can be gleaned. It’s also a very economic scene from a production point of view, reminding us how much can be produced from so little – a little set tucked away in the corner of the studio, a simple lighting effect, and some suitable sound effects. Excellent stuff.
The arbiters are mentioned. And who is the neutral? Of course, it can only be Servalan.
Vila puts his foot in it, with a reference to shooting a blind man in the back. It’s a nice little nod to the start of the season, and a reminder of how good Josette Simon is in the role of Dayna.
Tarrant discovers his brother is first champion, in a suitably cheesy way – zoom in on an actor, and make him look all misty eyed.
I really enjoyed Deeta’s gentle brushing off of Servalan’s enquiries about his brother – a nice and very subtle character note.
Another lovely scene follows between Max and Deeta. It’s full of wonderful lines, questions and subtle misunderstandings. Perhaps my favourite line is “They can use archive material for the obituary.”
Once again Deeta seemingly brushes off mention of his brother. I’m really liking him. He is written and performed sensitively.
Another little detail I enjoyed was when Deeta charges up the sensor net. I liked how the repetitious beeps start to trail off into a cacophony of sound.
But it’s the sparsity of sound that really makes this scene. There’s no music, just the background ambient hum. It seems to be a characteristic of this episode, where you can hear the quietness between each line, making this a thought provoking, sensitive 50 minutes, with well considered dialogue.
And the performances are so good. When I think of Steven Pacey and Stewart Bevan I think of an enthusiastic professor fighting for environmental awareness in Wales, and a mercenary with Federation training. Both are associated with high energy characterisations, so to hear and see them in this episode, exploring hidden thoughts, fear and contemplation in a quiet surroundings means I’m recognising their acting range. I’m seeing how good they are as actors.
The dialogue often hints at something more. Deeta displays resentment towards the society that allows the taxpaying citizens to “join the fun”.
Very much enjoyed Vila and Cally playing kiss chase. A little moment between the old guard.
But Cally’s peace and quiet will be short lived. Vila gets to deliver the news that Avon has gone to visit a “sick friend“. I always found that line hilarious, not only due to the description of Servalan, but also Jan Chappell’s delivery of it.
We’re half way through this episode. In ‘Deliverance’ I was full of admiration for the brilliant scene that splits the episode in two. In it Servalan and Travis discuss Orac, and how they will capture it. The whole scene is a power game between the two, whilst showcasing Servalan’s seductive persona. The scene also allowed a line to be drawn between the crew looking for Jenna, and the discovery of Meegat which offers an opportunity for Deliverance.
‘Death-Watch’ also has a half way scene, but this time it is not about power games, with a hint of sexual tension, it more about sexual tension with a hint of power games. There is more cat and mouse between Avon and Servalan. There are some more hilarious lines about ‘coming up now’ and ’major violations’. And of course, there is a kissy kiss time. It might not be a six minute scene, but its duration gives it a more trigger happy vibe – instant gratification, a quick finish, and they part without exchanging phone numbers.
Max explains the sensor net to Tarrant, and the catharsis that it provides, heightening the experience of war. It’s an important scene, that makes the overall premise of the story more believable.
And so begins the rat-a-tat-tat as the pivotal moment approaches. It’s slow. Controlled. Measured. Happy to make us wait. The pace of the edit is the signature of this episode overall. Expertly done.
And then battle commences – on film.
I’m sure we’re all very used to the jarring contrast between locations on grainy film and studio scenes on clean videotape – this is something I’ve always enjoyed for some reason. It’s part of the natural grammar of watching all the television drama that I have grown up with.
And here, the sudden switch to film, from what appeared to be an all videotaped story is pretty effective. It’s like the change in medium to grainy film suggests we are in a different type of environment, separate from the ‘real’ world. Dudley Simpson seems to understand this to, as his rat-a-tat-tat reaches its final bars, and leads into a coarse, gravelly synthesised sound as Vinni nips into the frame for the first time in a dystopian, abandoned and derelict building.
Hang on. I know this building! We’re back to the natural grammar of television of the era. This structure without roof, but still with the framework intact is so instantly recognisable.
I always hear a very strong Westcountry accent when Vinni shouts “Tarrant? You get one free shot Tarrant!”
Against a eerie howling wind, Deeta and Vinni get to work. I’m interested in what the camera is doing – frequently it’s right in there with the contestants. Rarely static, it’s always moving with them. There is good use of point-of-view shots and effective use of reverberation, making the gunfire sound brutal.
This reverberation is particually effective at the crucial point where Vinni is the fastest man. The sound of gunfire sticks as the camera captures Deeta falling to the ground from a collection of effective angles.
And then there is a poignant and melancholy voice over, full of regret and missed opportunities. It makes this particular death one of the most affecting in the whole 52 episode run. The visuals are also carefully framed from Deeta’s perspective, pointing at the roofing beams until Vinni looms over the shot and delivers the final blow.
It’s perhaps the most mature Blake’s 7 has and will ever be.
And then to finish off, Gerald Blake treats us to a lovely crane shot as Vinni claims victory over the prone form of Deeta Tarrant. It’s a long shot too, allowing us to see the victor nonchalantly wandering off. I’m glad we do, as it suggests we should really dislike Vinni even more.
The post mortem begins and Avon throws in the line “Well, Orac?” Which is always one of my favourite Avon lines, one that displays Avon’s arrogance, impatience and general laziness. Straight to the point. There’s a nice camera shot too. I don’t think I’ve ever read anyone complaining about it.
We’re into the Avon show, as he takes command. He orders Dayna to stop (but not kill) Servalan, and Vila to get the gun in the ‘test room’ – which must be a space that Dayna has created since her arrival. Finally he takes hold of Tarrant and asks him whether he has “no tedious scruples about cheating and lying” – one of the best lines in the episode.
Dayna does her bit, and her toying of Servalan is brilliant, as is Tarrant’s description of foolishness being a family trait.
Suddenly, in this measured episode, the scenes are happening thick and fast. We’re darting between the flight deck, the arbiters room and the antechamber.
And Cally does her bit. It’s nice to hear her telepathic voice away from an alien takeover. It’s a reminder of her very first appearance in ‘Time Squad’. For me, it represents a final flourish for this most understated of characters.
It is totally apt that the deep space liner chosen by the combat computer is the same set as the Teal Star – it gives the episode a symmetry that feels satisfying.
Also satisfying is the dispatch from Del, who like Deeta, doesn’t shoot Vinni in the back. Unlike his older brother he does claim victory, as Vinni disperses into a lovely green video feedback haze. Gaudy but effective.
The final summing up takes place with Max. It seems to cover the bases, and throw in a few funny moments, such as Tarrant’s look towards Avon when he describes Orac as their ‘legal advisor’, the look on Avon’s face once Max shakes his hand, and the final “Bring me up Cally” upon the revelation that Tarrant is the new first champion of Teal.
Death-Watch is such a good episode. In fact, it is one of my favourites, right up there with ‘Shadow’. While both are written by Chris Boucher, my favourite Blake’s 7 writer, I think there is another reason why I rate it so highly – the fact that it is Blake’s 7 at its most thoughtful, grown up, and considered. It offers an atmosphere that is very much unique to this show, and tonally miles apart from Doctor Who. And as someone who loves both shows, I think Blake’s 7 is at it’s best when it is doing something all of its own, apt for its time slot, and Raison d’être.
Oddly, it actually feels like it is the last episode of ‘normal’ Blake’s 7. The viewing experience of ‘Terminal’ feels kind of contaminated by the fact that we know it’s an end for so much we love about Blake’s 7. The entirety of season D is similarly contaminated through the knowledge that it’s the final run, and the overall situation for our crew is now just about surviving.
But ‘Death-Watch’ offers us one last moment of calm. Vila is drinking – but not ‘Allan Prior’ drinking. The booze is mainly due to boredom, rather than to cope with a desperate situation. The food and drink is out, and the crew can talk in a situation that isn’t tainted by all out stress. Mother Cally gets her magnifying thing out and enjoys a moment of clarity, until the boys and girls reappear sooner than she hoped they would. There is still a dynamic of sorts between the crew, with some nice banter between them, and an overall sense of cooperation.
I found it interesting to listen to Chris Boucher’s observations of the story during the DVD commentary. At times he appears slightly emotional about what he wrote, which could sound like arrogance, but I read it as a sensitive personality heavily invested in his own work – and quite right too, as this sensitivity translates onto the screen. Humour, wit, melancholy, missed opportunities, pent up anger that has to be suppressed – it’s all there.
It’s a very sensitively directed episode too. Director Gerald Blake is often more remembered for two recent productions that are somewhat larger than life. ‘The Invasion of Time’ (1978) is the Doctor Who production that somehow got made despite every brick thrown at it. Producer Graham Williams needed a director that could keep the cast and crew in good spirits – Gerry Blake was that man.
Also ‘The Harvest of Kairos’ is notable for big, bad alpha males, flamboyant humour and drunk spiders. These ingredients have made me ignore how it is directed. I’ve missed occasional visual touches such as frequent overdubbed dialogue over action, some sophisticated low angled camera shots, and nice crane shots on the Liberator flight deck.
Gerald Blake uses these techniques in ‘Death-Watch’, but because the written material is so controlled and reflective, it makes me really stand up and take notice of how good he is in conveying it on screen. The music is kept to a minimum and the silences between lines are highlighted. This is one of the most thought provoking episodes. I love it a lot.
And, going back to the main point of this blog post, the fact that is so thought provoking and reliant on us using our imaginations, means that this episode – and ‘Star One’ – might actually be the two stories that feel like the biggest budgeted episodes of all Blake’s 7 – episodes where the situations are grand, and the frugal production forces you to work with this – imagining ever more the things that are just out of shot.
It might be one of the most perfect season C episodes – the season where you can have fun with the running order. Don’t get me wrong, I’m perfectly comfortable with the order in which the episodes were transmitted, but I do like to have some fun imagining what order the season could run with a few tweaks. See ‘Sarcophagus’ for more on this.
Stewart Bevan will be very familiar to Doctor Who fans from his involvement in ‘The Green Death’, as will David Sibley from ‘The Pirate Planet’. Katherine Iddon previously appeared in a semi-regular role in Emmerdale Farm, while (Paul) Mark Elliott still performs today – he is recognisable as part of the firing squad in an episode of Blackadder Goes Forth.
The toughest actors to find were the supporting cast. The voice of the Teal Star cruiser Jean Hastings popped up in ‘The Gentle Touch’ while David Bartlett, who plays the medical orderly, has only one credit to his name – Blake’s 7. Beat that!
For the two uncredited arbiters (Roy Seely, and Philip Webb) ‘Death-Watch’ is a continuation of a series of uncredited roles, with Seely (with the green sensor net, I think) featuring in Enemy at the Door – you can see him on the left of the image, and Webb (blue sensor net, I think) featuring in everyone’s favourite Carry On film bar none – Carry on Girls (1973).
Although he is a regular, the final cast member I want to discuss is Steven Pacey. ‘Death-Watch’ is a really important episode because it re-affirms something important, that can be lost all too easily.
Tarrant joined a series half way through its run. He replaced the most important character of the series up to that point. When you add the fact that Tarrant was an often unsympathetic character who lacked persuasive charm (just like Blake, I hear you cry) it could be easy to associate these challenges with the performer playing the role. Steven Pacey replaced an actor who had some good experience, leading him to be cast in a major title role in the first place. But ‘Death-Watch’ gives Pacey a much needed opportunity to prove himself, without the baggage of a regular character who will always have an uphill challenge ahead of him. His handling of Deeta is both sensitive, subtle and really gives the audience a chance to imagine what is going on behind the persona. If I was to choose a scene that encapsulates this, it is the scene with Max when he says “Welcome to my brain“. Not only does it offer a perfect counterpoint to Del Tarrant, but it proves that Pacey is a young actor, able to deliver an experienced, wise and slightly melancholy performance.
For Ken Ledsham, this is a very economical production, effectively re-using sets from previous episodes (Gambit) and re-configuring them in order to create different spaces. His characteristic fluttering blinds, black drapes, and curved borders around doors and walls are all there to see.
But, let’s cut to the real chase. What has made me very happy is the range of chairs on display.
We have the ‘Frank Bough’ chairs first seen in ‘Redemption’. By this, I mean that I associate it with Tom Baker being difficult on ‘Nationwide’. I refer to the Chadwick modular sofa.
There is also the welcome return of a Pieff chair, usually associated with TV series that features a business setting. Mind you, it’s where the late great Pat Gorman is knocked off in ‘Powerplay’. As I write this, Gorman’s death had recently been announced, and I was more affected than I thought I would be. He clearly was part of the fabric of BBC telefantasy. Check out Toby Hadoke’s lovely article about him in Doctor Who Magazine, where Toby uncovers just enough about him to quench our thirst, but not so much that Gorman stops being an enigma.
Pieff was the must have name in high-end British furniture during the 1970’s. It described itself at the time as:
“Luxury furniture of the late 20th Century, characterised by its original design, flowing lines and usual blending of striking materials. Now used loosely to describe any design which is ahead of its time”.
“Tim Bates and his family designed and manufactured some of the most cutting edge, British made, modern pieces. Pieff designs had a touch of Hollywood regency and were made using the most glamorous materials. The trademark offering was furniture crafted from mirrored chrome, Brazilian Rosewood, high quality leather and Pirelli webbing. With a reputation for excellence and seen as fairly exclusive, Pieff Furniture was sold through Harrods, Heals and other high-end furniture stores.”
Once again this proves that the props buyers at the BBC only went for the best in their stores.
The chair that Max sits at when talking to Deeta is the German Wilkhahn ‘Delta’ office chair – a classic from the 1970’s.
In the antechamber, we have these rather lovely lounge chairs, and contour chaise lounges, designed by Richard Schultz for Knoll in 1966.
“Schultz designed this collection in 1966 at the request of Florence Knoll, who wanted well-designed outdoor furnishings that would withstand the corrosive salt air at her home in Florida. Through the years, the 1966 Collection has earned a special place in the world of outdoor furniture and is considered a classic design for the garden. The 1966 Collection has also been chosen to be included in various museums, including the Permanent Design Collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York (MoMA). The collection emphasizes exceptional durability and has been re-engineered to incorporate the best modern materials, including Teflon thread, powder coat paint and stainless steel.
The 1966 collection features a cast and extruded aluminum frame powder-coated in a variety of colors. The upholstery is woven vinyl coated polyester mesh outlined by solid pure vinyl straps all sewn together with Gore™ Tenara® sewing thread (Teflon). Both the upholstery & straps can be ordered in a variety of fabrics.” (2)
We also have the familiar De Sede DS 11 Sofa. Ledsham clearly liked this sofa, as it appeared in a number of his studio set designs.
I got so carried away, I started to see if I could find the dentists chair that Deeta sits in. Although I had no luck I do feel that I have a new found knowledge of dental history following this site – http://www.virtualdentalmuseum.org/exhibits/please-have-a-seat-the-evolution-of-the-dental-chair/
There also a Guzzini arc floor lamp on display. From the camera angles, it is hard to see if it is the genuine article or a similar model. For more Guzzini see ‘Gambit’ and ‘Killer’
There was other unidentifiable chairs from old. Take the two cream office/dining chairs that I last saw in Servalan’s office the very first time we saw her in ‘Seek-Locate-Destroy’. They reappear in ‘Death-Watch’, where they remain an enigma.
Dudley Simpson recognises the tone of this episode, and crucially understands the power of not scoring music as much as when to. It got me thinking about other episodes where there is little music throughout the episode – I’m thinking of ‘The Way Back’. That said, when there is music, it is memorable, from the lovely synthesised Liberator’s motif, the rat-a-tat-tat before the combat, and the suspense in the warehouse.
HOW TO DESCRIBE THIS TO AN UNBELIEVER
The overall concept should be familiar to many. I reckon this is one of the most accessible episodes of Blake’s 7, for anyone who wants to jump in.
MY FAVOURITE MOMENT
So many to choose from, but I’m going for the “Put it on the main screen” scene between Avon and Orac.
THE MOMENT I’D RATHER FORGET
Tarrant’s dreamy “He’s my brother“.
VERDICT IN 10 WORDS EXACTLY.
A lovely last breather before things start to go downhill.