All Memories Great and Small – Expanded Edition by Oliver Crocker (Book Review)

With one notable exception (Doctor Who) the production histories of many British television programmes aren’t terribly well documented. There are exceptions of course (the sterling work carried out by Andrew Pixley for a variety of series, David Brunt’s painstaking Z Cars tomes and recent books about programmes as diverse as Star Cops and The Brothers have all been more than welcome).

Until the original edition of All Memories Great and Small in 2016, the BBC version of All Creatures was one of those neglected series, but Oliver Crocker’s wonderfully exhaustive book certainly rectified that. Now reissued with additional interviews and fascinating production information for 35 of the series’ 90 episodes, it’s better than ever.

Since the original publication, several of the interviewees (such as Bill Sellars and Robert Hardy) have sadly passed away, which makes the book even more of a valuable resource as there’s no substitute for first hand recollections. The roster of those who agreed to be interviewed is impressive – not only key regulars such as Christopher Timothy, Robert Hardy, Carol Drinkwater and Peter Davison, but also a plethora of guest stars and behind the scenes crew who are able to share many stories about the series’ production.

The icing on this particularly succulent cake has to be a slew of wonderful production photographs with the odd studio floor plan thrown in for good measure,

The format of All Memories Great And Small is straightforward and effective. Each episode (from Horse Sense in 1978 to the final Christmas Special in 1990) is given its own chapter. All have reminiscences from a variety of contributors (some specific to that episode, some more general) whilst selected episodes also contain production info (handy if you’re looking to pinpoint specific locations used, for example).

Clocking in at just over 400 pages, it’s plain that this book was a real labour of love. If you’ve got the original edition then it’s still worth an upgrade for the additional material. But if you’ve yet to buy it and have any interest in the BBC series, then All Memories Great and Small is an essential purchase. An absolute treasure trove of a resource, I know that it’ll be something I’ll return to again and again in the future.

All Memories Great and Small can be ordered directly from Devonfire Books via this link or from them via this Amazon link.

Blakes 7 coming to Forces TV – September 2021

Blakes 7 will be teleporting to Forces TV (Sky 181, Freeview 96, Freesat 165, Virgin 274) from next month.

For us old sweats who have the series on DVD (and before that VHS) this won’t be news to get the pulse racing, but it’s always worth bearing in mind that most people have never really assembled DVD archives of any size, so this will be their first opportunity to see the series for a few decades (and it might even pick up a few new fans along the way).

Forces TV have made some interesting digs into the BBC archives recently (such as No Place Like Home, which was only ever partly commercially available) and hopefully they will continue in this vein.

The Day of the Triffids on Blu Ray

When The Day of the Triffids came out on Blu Ray late last year it was greeted with a chorus of disapproval. Having recently acquired a copy, I was intrigued to find out how the various reviews published at the time addressed the hotly debated picture issues.

Some quick Googling later, it appears that whilst most of the reviewers were aware of the negative comments, they went on to dismiss the concerns raised – either because they hadn’t watched the serial since its original broadcast and so were unaware of how it had always looked or they simply believed that VT interior shots would never have the same quality as the film exteriors.

The arguments against the BD were basically threefold. Firstly the film sequences (which make up approximately 60% of the serial) had been oversaturated, lending some sequences a bright, sunny feel (rather at odds with the gloomy feel of the original). Next, the VT studio shots had all been “filmised” – but unlike various previous releases where this had been done accidentally, apparently this time round it was an artistic choice. Hum.

Lastly, the credits were remade. This is something that happens regularly on the Doctor Who DVDs and BDs, but they take extreme care to find fonts which match the originals – whereas on the Triffids BD a close approximation was used. Good enough for most, but an irritation for those who have lived with the serial for forty years ….

I could cope with the titles issue, but the grading and filmising are the sort of things which raise my hackles. We’ve been here before with grading problems – some of the Peter Davison Doctor Who DVDs looked a little odd (Black Orchid springs to mind) whilst accidental filmising has bedeviled various DVDs such as Softly Softly: Task Force series one (eventually fixed) and Grange Hill series one – four (never fixed, alas).

Modern televisions tend to handle filmising better than old ones (when I rewatched the early Grange Hill DVDs recently I found that it didn’t look quite as bad as I’d remembered) so the VT scenes in Triffids aren’t totally horrible, although knowing that they could and should be better is a tad irritating.

The film sequences are certainly dazzling – Jo’s yellow boiler suit leaps out of the screen, for example – but I think overall I prefer the more muted feel of the DVD. When I come back to Triffids in future it might be the DVD I’ll reach for, rather than the more glossy BD. What’s certain is that unlike some BD upgrades, I’ll be hanging onto the DVD.

Irrespective of how you watch it, you certainly should. John Duttine is very solid as the everyman cast in an almost impossible situation, with Emma Relph (an actress with surprisingly few credits) offering him strong support. Maurice Colbourne is always watchable whilst there are plenty of vividly sketched cameos (from the likes of Jonathan Newth, Stephen Yardley, David Swift and John Hollis).

With a limited budget, director Ken Hannam managed to effectively depict a London in turmoil during the early episodes (it’s amazing what a few sound effects and a handful of extras can achieve). There are some drawbacks – it was a pity that Bill (John Duttine) didn’t witness Dr Soames’ suicide as he did in the book – but having Bill return to find Soames’ body did mean that the production was saved the cost of an expensive stunt ….

Coming up to its 40th birthday, Day of the Triffids has lost none of its power to discomfort (amazing to think that it was deemed to be acceptable pre-watershed fare).

Terrance Dicks (1935 – 2019)

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Growing up, Terrance Dicks’ Doctor Who novelisations were my staple reading diet. The Target range had other writers of course, but some of their books (like the two by David Whitaker) seemed a bit intimidating (especially the dense Crusaders).

Terrance may sometimes have been criticised for being a plain, straight-ahead sort of writer, but it’s undeniable that his books were perfectly pitched for his young readership. When I was slightly older I had the confidence to tackle The Crusaders, but had Terrance not been there first then maybe I wouldn’t have made the leap.

It’s a common refrain to hear people say that Terrance Dicks taught them to read, but it’s also true in so many cases ….

His contribution to Doctor Who in general was immense.  He wrote and co-wrote some excellent stories, but his work as possibly the series’ most efficient script editor really stands out. Having witnessed the script chaos which bedevilled the series during the late Troughton era, Dicks (with Barry Letts as a strong and supportive producer) brought stability back to the production office.

Dicks’ formula was simple – find a small group of writers you could depend on (Robert Holmes, Brian Hayles, Terry Nation, Malcolm Hulke, Robert Sloman, Bob Baker & Dave Martin) and then keep on recommissioning them. Sounds simple, doesn’t it?

Outside of Doctor Who, his work as first script editor and then later producer on the Classic Serials is worthy of further investigation. Like Doctor Who they had to get by on fairly small budgets and this might be one of the reasons why eventually they fell out of favour. By the mid eighties, glossy all-film productions of classic novels were the way forward and the humbler Classic Serial began to look second best by comparison. But many have stood the test of time well and still entertain today (such as the 1984 Invisible Man).

I’m also prepared to fight the corner of Moonbase 3, a series which I have a great deal of love for. It’s far from perfect (indeed Letts and Dicks’ series opener is especially stodgy) but it’s something I find myself drawn back to again and again. Although I’m not quite sure why ….

This evening I’ll be spinning Horror of Fang Rock in tribute. Not only is it a great story, it’s also a perfect example of Dicks’ no-nonsense style. Forced at the eleventh hour to cobble together a new story (after his previous submission was vetoed) Dicks didn’t panic – he simply rolled up his sleeves and got on with it.

Fang Rock is archetypical Doctor Who – take a group of bickering characters, trap them in an enclosed space with no hope of escape and then kill them off one by one.  It’s hard to go wrong with such a formula and Dicks didn’t disappoint.

He was inadvertently helped by Tom Baker who was in an even more stroppier mood than usual – but his disdain for the script, his co-star, Pebble Mill studios, director Paddy Russell and just about everybody and everything else actually seemed to work in Fang Rock‘s favour. Tom’s Doctor was never more alien and foreboding than he was in this story – and even if this was something to do with the fact that Tom was missing his regular Soho drinking haunts, no matter.

The Fang Rock DVD also boasts a lovely Terrance Dicks documentary and a lively commentary track where Dicks, Louise Jameson and John Abbott swop stories (often about Tom of course).

Judging by the way Terrance is trending on Twitter at the moment I’m sure I won’t be alone in paying tribute tonight. RIP sir and thank you.

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Blakes 40. Blakes 7 40th Anniversary Rewatch – Blake


Blake is all about the ending. An obvious comment, but it means that the first forty five minutes, interesting as they are, feels like a very long prologue (a bit like one of those Dalek stories by Terry Nation, where you’re simply waiting for the Dalek to pop up at the first cliffhanger).

But there are plenty of compensations before the final, fatal meeting between Blake and Avon. The initial appearance of Blake – now a grizzled, embittered bounty hunter – is striking, although his later conversation with Deeva (an underused David Collings) does undercut his first few scenes.

The realisation that Blake is simply playing the role of a bounty hunter (indulging a strange whim it seems) turns out to be his downfall. Blake’s autocratic command style often led to disaster during the Liberator days, but this was his most comprehensive blunder.

There’s no reason why Blake needed to personally vet every new recruit to his latest army, and indeed it seems odd that he’s trawling amongst the dregs of the Galaxy on Guada Prime for likely suspects. Or does he now believe, after his exploits on the Liberator, that criminals are the only honest people left?

I’m not quite convinced by the shot of the model Scorpio crashing through the trees, but the destruction of the full-sized set is nicely done.

“Have you betrayed us? Have you betrayed me?”. Paul Darrow doesn’t hold back here, but since Avon is clearly a man well past his breaking point I think we can forgive his enthusiastic delivery of the line.

I wish I could share some interesting anecdote about how shocking I found the episode to be back in 1981, but alas there’s no such memory. I certainly would have watched it, but I think I just shrugged my shoulders and moved on with my life. Possibly I was already anticipating a fifth series ….

Blakes 40. Blakes 7 40th Anniversary Rewatch – Warlord

Warlord has a striking opening. The inhabitants of Zondar – heavily drugged with Pylene-50 – are mown down by Federation troops whilst the following encouraging words (“You are cared for. You are loved”) seep out of the tannoy. A brief, but welcome, return to the nightmarish themes of The Way Back.

After that encouraging start, things return to normal when we start to focus on the delegates. Um, they’re an interesting bunch ….

Mind you, although they look more than a little silly they do brighten up the episode. Indeed, I was a little disappointed that Rick James’ appearance was so brief.

Avon’s desire to form an alliance with numerous interested parties, including the warlord Zukon (Roy Boyd), seems to have come out of nowhere. Although there was a vague attempt to recruit experts in their respective fields earlier in the year (along with the odd mention of Pylene-50) it’s a shame that this arc wasn’t developed a little more.

Of course this grand alliance is doomed to failure since Zukon is in cahoots with Servalan (shock, horror). Jacqueline Pearce exits the series with something of a whimper – her involvement in this story is minimal and not terribly interesting

I know that many were disappointed Servalan didn’t appear in Blake, but having her pop up at the end of the final episode would have been such a cliché, so I’m glad they didn’t go down that route. But they could have made a little more effort with her role in this one.

Poor Tarrant is unlucky in love yet again. His dalliance with Zeeona (Bobbie Brown) was obviously going to be short-lived (especially after we learnt that her daddy, Zukon. is a baddy). It’s hard to take their scenes together that seriously (mainly because of her Toyah hair-cut) but her final scene is nicely played.

Never a favourite, Warlord still chugs along quite nicely.

Blakes 40. Blakes 7 40th Anniversary Rewatch – Orbit

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You don’t really need to see Robert Holmes’ name on the opening credits to know that Orbit is one of his. Doubtful than anybody else would have had the nerve to do a story quite like this ….

Egrorian (John Savident) is a grotesque who, despite his camp capering, still manages to come across as sinister and threatening. Savident is clearly enjoying himself, but he still reigns it in from time to time – most notably when he’s torturing the hapless Pinder (Larry Noble). “Can you feel your extensor muscle tearing? Can you feel your humerus grating against your radius? Hmm.? Just a little more… a little more… now you’re feeling it, aren’t you?”. Holmes’ dark streak is really noticeable in this story – possibly Boucher had decided that since the series had virtually run its course they might as well go for broke.

To nobody’s great surprise, Servalan is discovered to be lurking in the shadows, but on the positive side Jacqueline Pearce gets the rare opportunity to play comedy – her scenes with an amorous Egorian are wonderful (you can see a whole range of expressions flitting across her face as Egorian launches into his spiel). It seems slightly strange that Servalan has no backup at all, but if she had then the scene of her trapped with a randy Egorian wouldn’t have quite had the same impact.

The dialogue zings throughout. Egorian’s description of the qualities required by a great leader is a delight. “Natural leaders are rarely encumbered with intelligence. Greed, egotism, animal cunning, and viciousness are the important attributes. Qualities I detect in you in admirably full measure”.

But as entertaining as all the Egorian byplay is, it’s the final ten minutes or so (as Avon and Vila find themselves in dire straits) that really stands out. A pity that Paul Darrow couldn’t make his innocent, pleading voice a little more convincing (or was it supposed to be deliberately off-kilter?). The sight of a sweating and tear-stained Vila carries a real punch (the sight of Avon attempting to shift a small Perspex box, slightly less so).

Had the show ran to a fifth series it would have been interesting to see how the Avon/Vila dynamic would have developed. Unfortunately it’s only lightly touched upon during the final two episodes.

But no matter, Orbit might be uncomfortable in many ways, but it’s still one of the series’ best episodes.

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Blakes 40. Blakes 7 40th Anniversary Rewatch – Gold

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Avon’s old friend Keiller (Roy Kinnear), the purser of a pleasure liner called the Space Princess, has a foolproof plan to steal a fortune in gold. What could possibly go wrong?

Gold works as well as it does mainly because of Kinnear’s performance. He plays perfectly to type – a shifty, ingratiating sort of person – and it’s the way that Keiller interacts with his “old friend” Avon as well as his vain attempts to flatter the ice-cold Soolin which provides the episode with pretty much all of its comic highlights.

Interesting that Vila largely sits the story out, was this because it was felt that the characters of Keiller and Vila were too similar? It’s a slight pity, but the little that Michael Keating has to do is impressive – I particularly like Vila’s first meeting with Keiller (which sees Vila in a faintly sinister and threatening mood).

To be honest, the plotline of cross, double-cross and triple-cross isn’t totally engaging, so it’s the smaller moments which make the story a rewarding one. The terrible lift music which haunts the Space Princess, Tarrant’s glassy-eyed and toothsome fake drugged persona and the orgasmic sound of the doors, to name but three.

The late arrival of Servalan is one of those totally unsurprising plot-twists. This does allow her to have a little natter with Avon though (which they didn’t do often throughout S4). Avon’s hysterical guffawing after he realises that Servalan’s totally outplayed him is either a further example of his fractured mental state or it demonstrates what a good sport he is. I know which I favour ….

Not a bad yarn, but I do find my attention drifting every so often. Slightly tarnished gold then.

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Blakes 40. Blakes 7 40th Anniversary Rewatch – Sand

“I know a land beyond the heart of time. The sun never comes there. No moon ever shines. And man, a grain of sand, nameless and lost, blows with the dust”.

This monologue is an early warning that, as befits a Tanith Lee script, this will be an unusual episode. But unlike Sarcophagus we don’t get an oblique opening – instead the first five minutes are spent with Servalan and her mismatched crew.

Investigator Reeve (Stephen Yardley) is the alpha-male of the party. Reeve, hands on hips, appears to be brim-full of testosterone (although maybe the sand felt otherwise since his services were fairly quickly dispensed with). It’s hard to maintain any credibility when you’re dressed in silver, but Yardley does his best.

The episode is really Servalan’s show – it’s easily the story which delves deepest into her personal life (even though certain threads remain a little nebulous – if Don Keller was that important to her, why did she wait so long before travelling to Virn to discover his fate?).

Minor quibbles apart, there’s so much to enjoy in Jacqueline Pearce’s performance – especially the small non-verbal moments of distress, highly uncharacteristic for the former Supreme Commander. After a run of stories in which she seems to have been crowbarred into the action somewhat, Sarcophagus makes for a pleasant change.

The opening modelwork shots of Virn are very nice and the film work on the planet’s surface is also decent (just a pity that a few studio shots are dropped in, as these are inevitably jarring).

There are plenty of good dialogue moments. The way Servalan rebuilt her life after Don Keller, for one. “He left me. I grew up. Power became my lover. Power is like a drug. It is beautiful. Shining. I could destroy a planet by pressing a button”.

Orac’s bizarre declaration of love and Avon’s rejoinder to Soolin’s comment that Vila’s pulse is weak (“well that should go very nicely with the rest of him”) are a few other highlights. I also like Avon’s cock of the walk strutting and the reaction of Dayna and Soolin when they realise what they’ve been saved for ….

The obvious move would have been to lock Avon and Servalan together. I’m glad they resisted the obvious since it was about time Tarrant was given something to do. Steven Pacey holds his own against Jacqueline Pearce and the scenes between them flow nicely.

I assume it was Chris Boucher who dropped in the explanation about how Servalan escaped from the Liberator (“The teleport. A malfunction. A power surge. Suddenly I was back on a Federation world”). This doesn’t make much sense – surely the only planet close to the Liberator was Terminal, and she didn’t end up there. Or had the dying Liberator suddenly developed the power to teleport somebody over a vast distance?

Although not as memorable as Sarcophagus, Sand is still several cuts above the B7 norm.

Blakes 40. Blakes 7 40th Anniversary Rewatch – Games

Stratford Johns really is the saving grace of Games, without him it would be a much less interesting affair. Belkov may not be a very developed character – he’s a devious games player and that’s about it – but Johns is wonderfully watchable. Belkov’s face-off with Servalan about ten minutes in is a definite highlight (for once, Servalan is on the back foot).

Speaking of Servalan, not for the first time she’s pretty much surplus to requirements – this episode does smack of an attempt to fill Jacqueline Pearce’s episode allocation and little else. Her part in the plot (interrogating Belkov) could easily have been filled by any middle-ranking Federation officer.

There’s an awful lot of info-dumping early on as Avon expounds at length about the wonders of Feldon crystals. This isn’t the most effective part of the episode and neither is the sudden appearance of Gerren (David Neal). His fake beard doesn’t help, but Gerren isn’t a very memorable sort (although he’s useful as a demonstration about how ruthless Avon can be. A little light blackmail before breakfast …)

Positives? Virtually every scene with Stratford Johns, especially the byplay between Belkov and his computer Gambit (Rosalind Bailey). Vila gets a generous number of good one-liners and also demonstrates his resourcefulness on more than one occasion.

Not a bad episode, but it’s not really much more than a fairly diverting runaround.

Blakes 40. Blakes 7 40th Anniversary Rewatch – Assassin


Assassin is a story of two halves. The first half – on the planet Domo – is a guilty pleasure. Domo is a barren, sandy sort of place (rather like a quarry, in fact) where men are men and wear the strangest looking beards as well as cast off costumes from Doctor Who.

Avon’s decision to get himself captured and sold into slavery is a bit of a hoot, as is his brief but energetic spot of fisticuffs (I think it was the comment about being skinny that pushed him over the edge).

The early part of the episode also has the unforgettable appearance of Betty Marsden and the fan-fic pleasing concept of Avon being sold to Servalan as her slave. “I think, if you don’t mind, I would prefer my slave to address me as `mistress’.”

Although the beardy types and Betty Marsden are something of an acquired taste, Richard Hurndall, as the doomed Nebrox, is much more solid. It’s interesting that Avon and Soolin – the coldest of our heroes – both seem to form some sort of connection with him.

After this early spot of fun and games we head into the second part of the episode, which is an even guiltier pleasure. Caroline Holdaway’s performance as Piri is a rum old thing. I’ve seen her in various other programmes (All Creatures Great and Small, Rumpole of the Bailey, Codename Kyril) and she never stood out in those, so her turn here must have been a deliberate choice rather than a lack of acting ability.

It’s still very, very odd though as a more subtle characterisation would surely have been better (for one thing, it would have made Tarrant look like less of a gullible idiot).

Having sat out most of the first half of this series, Assassin finally gives Steven Pacey something to do. True, Tarrant’s scenes with Piri are rather torpedoed by Holdaway’s hysterical playing, but it was nice to see the return of the Avon/Tarrant conflict. Another bonus is that Soolin’s given some very acerbic lines, most of them at the expense of Piri.

The main problem with Assassin is that it’s a story with very little plot. So things have to proceed very slowly until the big reveal just before the end. Still, the scenes set aboard Cancer’s ship do have an air of tension, so that’s a plus point for David Sullivan Proudfoot (but several marks off for all the screenwipes).

Not the most tightly plotted story, it’s nevertheless good, goofy fun.

Blakes 40. Blakes 7 40th Anniversary Rewatch – Headhunter 

Like Roger Parkes’ first script for the series (Voice from the Past) Headhunter is as mad as a box of frogs … and I love it.

The plot doesn’t really make any sense. Why has Muller spent his life creating a homicidal android intent on dominating all humanoid life? It also seems a little remiss that the android is only restrained when he’s wearing the correct head (there’s shades of Worzel Gummidge here). And since Tarrant was in a rush, I’ll let him off the fact that he didn’t seem to notice the corpse under the table was missing his head.

Android Muller as played by John Westbrook is a hoot. Westbrook isn’t on-screen for too long but he’s certainly memorable (a small performance it isn’t). Android Muller as played by Nick Joseph is equally as entertaining – as Joseph’s android is headless, he compensates with the most over-expressive hand acting you’re ever likely to see. Oh, and where’s his voice coming from? Hmm, never mind.

Lynda Bellingham has a decent amount of screentime but not a very interesting character to play, alas. But at least Vena gets a good death scene, crushed to death by (she thinks) her husband whilst the others look on with a varying selection of emotions. The fatal bear-hug is clearly Android Muller’s favourite way of despatching people.

As for the regulars, Avon smiles a few times but otherwise he’s in full brooding mode. This is prime S4 Darrow – whether that’s a good or bad thing depends on how much you enjoy S4 Darrow of course. Tarrant and Vila make for a good double-act, Dayna doesn’t really do much that’s memorable whilst Soolin’s character continues to grow as she’s given some decent lines once again.

Soolin’s parting shot to a seductive Orac, promising to fulfil her every desire (“you wouldn’t know where to start”) is delivered in a nicely deadpan way. I also like surly Slave, a bit more of that would have been welcome.

The sight of the headless android stomping very slowly around the base never fails to raise a smile. Whatever else Headhunter is, it’s not dull.

Blakes 40. Blakes 7 40th Anniversary Rewatch – Animals

The main plot – which seems to be drawing inspiration from The Island of Doctor Moreau – is reasonable enough, but Animals has several major problems. Let’s begin with the beasts themselves – perhaps wisely, Mary Ridge elects to show them in all their (ahem) glory within the opening few minutes. No point in attempting to create any suspense, let’s just see them and once the shock’s passed we can move on.

The Dayna/Justin relationship is put at the forefront of the story and it’s one that’s positively dripping with subtext (“my little pupil Dayna, lovelier than ever”). The icky feeling that both have been carrying a torch for each other since their teacher/pupil days isn’t confined to the dialogue – there are several instances when Dayna gives a knowing smirk, each one is worth a thousand words.

Peter Byrne’s performance is very strong – if the script somewhat glosses over the dodgy ethics of Justin’s experiments (note the way that Dayna switches from disgust to acceptance rather too rapidly) then that’s not Byrne’s fault, he does everything he’s required to do by the script.

With Dayna shouldering the bulk of the action, the rest of the regulars are relegated to playing second fiddle (indeed Vila. Soolin and Avon even sit out the opening quarter of an hour or so). Tarrant has a nice scene with the ever apologetic Slave, Vila gets rather dirty and complains a lot whilst Soolin has one good line (when Vila wonders why he gets all the dirty jobs, she responds “typecasting”). Slim pickings for Soolin then, but better would be just around the corner.

Avon’s not a barrel of laughs today. There are some who maintain that series D was one long nervous breakdown for him whilst others contend that he was perfectly fine (just a touch unlucky from time to time). I lean towards the former viewpoint – his inability to crack a smile along with Tarrant and Soolin at Vila’s grubby predicament is one reason why. In years gone by he wasn’t afraid to show his lighter side – but it’s in very short supply at the moment. Increasing pressure due to the heavy burden of command?

Not for the first time Servalan doesn’t add a great deal to the story. I also find it odd that when Dayna is captured, we don’t see the moment when she and Servalan are brought face to face. Considering their past history this is a strange omission. It’s nice to see Kevin Stoney, although he’s wasted in a role which doesn’t really develop the plot (his character imparts a few morsels of information which Servalan could have easily discovered elsewhere).

Hmm. Those new Mutoids (I assume that’s what they are) are interesting, aren’t they?

Animals isn’t a total write-off but it’s a few drafts short of being a satisfying story.

Blakes 40. Blakes 7 40th Anniversary Rewatch – Stardrive

Nobody loves Stardrive. The reason’s pretty obvious – the Space Rats look very, very silly (things don’t improve when they open their mouths either). Their leader, Atlan (Damian Thomas), is briefly given a moment of character development when it’s revealed that he’s not actually a Space Rat. But since this revelation isn’t developed it proves to be something of a dead end.

Another issue with the Space Rats is the fact that Vila was given a few minutes to big them up – so after you’ve been told that they’re the baddest of the bad, the reality can’t help but be a disappointment ….

It’s nice to see Barbara Shelley, just a pity she’s wasted in a nothing sort of role. Doctor Plaxton is a very pallidly drawn character – we never really learn anything about her (especially why she’s so obsessed about perfecting the stardrive).

But if the guest cast are a little thin, at least the regulars are well catered for. Avon continues to blunder about (his wonderful plan to hitch a lift on an asteroid nearly kills them all). Quite why the others are still content to follow him after his recent string of command disasters is a bit of a mystery.

I love Vila’s drunk act – it’s an excellent demonstration of his natural cunning. Teaming Vila and Dayna up is another good move, even if Vila does revert to his more usual persona of a clumsy coward during these scenes.

The fact that Avon’s quite happy to use Vila and Dayna as a diversion is a telling moment (whether they live or die doesn’t seem to matter to him). Ditto poor old Doctor Plaxton, whose only reward for developing the stardrive is a painful death. The way that Avon comments “who?” after being asked about her, post-death, is a fascinating character touch – has he already blocked her death from his mind, or is he just attempting to?

Stardrive feels like a cheap story. Most of the new modelwork is pretty basic whilst the location (yet another quarry) doesn’t add any visual flair to the episode. But although it’s by means the series at its best, it’s not an absolute disaster either. The Space Rats thankfully aren’t on the screen for very long and the regulars (apart from Tarrant, who doesn’t do much at all) get a decent crack of the whip.

Blakes 40. Blakes 7 40th Anniversary Rewatch – Power

The omens for Power aren’t good. Firstly you have two little words which strike fear into the hearts of many (‘Ben Steed’) and secondly, within the first few seconds a group of hairy tribesmen lurch into view (hairy tribesmen are always one of my least favourite B7 sights). And yet ….

Dicken Ashworth’s Gunn-Sar might appear at first glance to be a typically stereotyped tribal leader (“I am Gunn-Sar, chief of the Hommiks. I rule by right of challenge, which means I’m the biggest, toughest, meanest son of a Seska on this planet”) but there’s much more to him than meets the eye. Ashworth mines the script for comic material and surprisingly for a Ben Steed episode there are some gems to be found.

The way that Gunn-Sar becomes increasingly exasperated at having to repeat his leadership mantra, his duelling (both verbally and physically) with Avon and the revelation that he’d much sooner put his feet up and embroider a nice rug are all nice little character touches. Frankly, I was sorry to see him meet a sticky end.

Gunn-Sar’s relationship with Nina (Jenny Oulton) is something which seems like it’s been dropped into the script specifically to wrong-foot viewers who were aware of Steed’s style. In public Gunn-Sar treats Nina with contempt, but in private there’s a tender bond between them. Gunn-Sar’s public/private facades are an interesting part of the story.

Isolated from the others for most of the script, Avon swans around as if he’s in a Western (which maybe he is). Avon’s easily able to get the better of Gunn-Sar but he meets his match when tangling with Pella (Juliet Hammond-Hill).

There’s something a little uncomfortable about the way Avon forces her to submit and – as so often with post S2 Avon – then grabs her for a quick snog. Just in case we aren’t following, Steed gives our hero a short speech which reinforces why men are best. “You see, Pella, it’s your strength, and however you use it, a man’s will always be greater. Unfair, perhaps, but biologically unavoidable.”

Slightly icky, but since Pella then levitates a computer keyboard to knock Avon out (Paul Darrow’s shocked expression and his slow descent to the floor are the funniest thing in the episode) it suggests that honours are pretty much even between them at this point. This is another moment where Steed seems to be subverting the male stereotypes from his previous stories (unless I’m just being too generous).

Dayna gets to challenge Gunn-Sar, Tarrant stands around a lot whist Vila becomes increasingly hysterical. All three do their best with what they’re given, but this one is really Paul Darrow’s episode. And what of Soolin? The way she turns up a minute before the end is unforgivable (just what has she been doing for the previous 48 minutes?). It would have been nice had Chris Boucher rewritten the script to give her at least a little something to do.

The Western theme is seen again in the closing minutes as Avon proves to be quicker on the draw than Pella. It’s a shocking moment, which Avon sums up thus. “You can have war between races, war between cultures, war between planets. But once you have war between the sexes, you eventually run out of people”.

If that’s the case, then he shouldn’t have killed her. Oh well.

Overall Power‘s not as bad as it might have been (even if the ease at which they gain a teleport system beggars belief). It’s never going to be a favourite, but the series did far worse.

Blakes 40. Blakes 7 40th Anniversary Rewatch – Rescue 

The first ten minutes or so are fascinating. Dayna and Tarrant – two people who you’d assume would both be good in a crisis – somewhat go to pieces. Dayna has to be rescued several times (first by Avon and then Dorian) whilst Tarrant seems to have turned into a drunk, wallowing face down in the snow. I might be doing him a disservice though, possibly the canister contained nothing stronger than water and he’s simply feeling the side-effects from their Terminal adventures.

Even more unexpected (although welcome) is the way that Vila’s temporarily recast as the hero – not only rescuing Tarrant (“If I’ve broken my back hauling a corpse about, I’ll never forgive you”) but also saving the day at the end of the episode.

As for Avon, well he’s still Avon, although given their reduced circumstances it’s maybe not surprising that he’s even more ruthless than usual. Although Dorian is later revealed to have unfriendly plans for them all, Avon wasn’t to know that at first – so the casual way he cheerfully hijacks Dorian’s ship is a reminder that he isn’t a very nice person at all ….

There’s not a great deal of plot in the episode, but I don’t have too much of a problem with this. Since there’s only six speaking parts everyone is given a good share of the action (although it’s ironic that Soolin – later to become a regular – comes off the worst). Geoffrey Burridge is more than memorable as Dorian, although things do go slightly awry around the thirty minute mark (when he starts to age). It’s then that all pretence at subtlety goes out of the window.

When Dorian tells Avon that “you really are most welcome here, my friend” it’s possible to read considerable subtext into those simple words. An acting choice or as scripted? I wonder.

I do like the way that once Dorian reveals the truth about his secret room he suddenly starts speaking like a character in a florid 19th century melodrama (“all the madness and rotting corruption which would have been mine”). There’s an obvious reason for that, but it’s nice that the script doesn’t feel the need to hammer the point home. Had this been a contemporary Doctor Who story it’s easy to imagine the Doctor muttering something about Oscar Wilde just before the TARDIS left the scene.

The plot isn’t exactly watertight. How fortunate that Dorian – who has been searching for Avon and the others for a while – happens to find them immediately after the Liberator has been destroyed (and therefore at a point when they’re at their most vulnerable. The reason why he needs them, rather than any other group, is a little puzzling too. Dorian requires people who are close to each other (“You care for each other. After what you’ve been through together, you couldn’t fail to care for each other. Even you, Avon”.). Only Avon and co fit this bill? Hmm, okay.

The cut price monster at the end is a bit of a disappointment and it’s a pity that Soolin isn’t given more to do, but all in all this is a solid season opener.

Pinter at the BBC – Landscape (4th February 1983)

 

Written for BBC radio in 1968 and performed on stage a year later, Landscape is a one-act play with decidedly Beckett-like overtones. A couple – Duff (Colin Blakely) and Beth (Dorothy Tutin) – sit at opposite ends of a long table, each indulging in lengthy monologues (they are either unable or unwilling to register the other’s conversation).

Duff does at least acknowledge that Beth is there, whereas she seems totally unaware of his presence. There is no plot as such, Beth recounts a story about a previous romantic interlude (possibly with Duff, possibly with somebody else) whilst Duff concerns himself with more practical matters.

The Lord Chamberlain’s office, back in 1967, found itself unimpressed with Landscape. “The nearer to Beckett, the more portentous Pinter gets. This is a long one-act play without any plot or development … a lot of useless information about the treatment of beer … And of course, there have to be the ornamental indecencies”.

The passage of time is illustrated by the diminishing light. At the start it’s a fairly bright day, but by the end of the play the pair are in virtual darkness. This lack of light generates a feeling of oppression and enclosure (director Kenneth Ives reinforces the mood at this point by focussing on close-ups of either Tutin or Blakely rather than cutting away to wide shots of the pair).

Dorothy Tutin remains wonderfully dialled-down and reflective throughout whilst Colin Blakely is given the chance for some expressive fireworks in the last few minutes. The way that Beth never for a moment acknowledges Duff’s histrionics (she simply continues with her tender tale) is a compelling moment.

Regularly punctuated by John Williams’ guitar interludes (the music was composed by Carl Davis) Landscape exercises a subtle, but strong, grip.

Pinter at the BBC – The Hothouse (27th March 1982)

Written in 1958, between The Birthday Party and The Caretaker, The Hothouse was then put aside by Pinter for more than twenty years. It wasn’t until 1979 that he picked it up again – it was staged in 1980 at the Hampstead Theatre and transferred to television two years later.

The most striking thing about the play at first glance is just how funny it is. Pinter’s other works aren’t always devoid of humour, but for long stretches The Hothouse plays like a farce (albeit one with a very dark heart).

The setting – a nameless Government run rest home which (it’s strongly implied) uses any means necessary to “cure” those unfortunates who’ve found themselves within its walls – is a sombre one. The dehumanising nature of the place is reinforced when it’s revealed that the patients are never referred to by their names – only numbers.

The momentary spasm of disquiet this generates is then negated when Roote (Derek Newark) launches into a lengthy argument with his second-in command, Gibbs (James Grant), about whether 6457 is alive or dead. This is an early example of Roote’s inability to grasp the simplest of arguments and as Derek Newark attacks the lines with gusto there’s little you can do but sit back and enjoy the ride.

Featuring seven speaking parts (five major, two minor) it’s the character of Roote who dominates throughout. Newark was always one of those actors who could be guaranteed to add a certain something to any production, but I can’t recall a better performance from him than this one. Raising the roof on more than one occasion, Newark delivers a sparkling comic turn. Roote presents himself as an expert of virtually any topic, but the reality appears to always contradict this (mind you, it’s possible that he’s more perceptive than his outwardly blimpish persona might suggest).

Although the plot is a good deal more straightforward than many of Pinter’s other plays, there are still points which are open to interpretation. Roote is shocked to learn that 6459 has given birth (and also that the majority of the staff had – at one time or another – taken advantage of her) but there’s strong evidence to suggest that he’s actually the father. And we never learn exactly who organised the revolution which – offscreen – slaughtered all but one of the senior staff towards the end of the play.

As a character, Roote will only work if he has equally strong personalities to bounce off. James Grant deadpans throughout as Gibbs, his passive and methodical nature contrasting nicely with Roote’s hysterical outbursts. Robert East (Lush) is a totally different character type from Gibbs (Lush is outspoken and arrogant) but again he’s another who interacts delightfully with Roote. In possibly the play’s funniest scene, an incensed Roote throws several glasses of whisky into Lush’s face before Lush decides it might be more sensible to hide the glass until he’s delivered his latest contentious comment.

Given the era it was written in, it’s possibly not surprising that The Hothouse only features one female character, Miss Cutts (Angela Pleasence) and also that she somewhat skirts the environs of the piece. The lover of both Roote and Gibbs, she may be somewhat indistinctly defined but Pleasence is able to bring her into sharp focus.

Roger Davidson as the hapless Lamb, also has limited screentime but leaves a lingering impression. The least experienced of the senior staff, Lush finds himself wired up with electrodes and tortured by Gibbs and Miss Cutts (Gibbs is looking for someone to take the blame for 6459’s pregnancy and the ingenious Lamb fits the bill nicely).

His name seems apt, since he really is a lamb to the slaughter (before, during and after his ordeal he doesn’t really seem to understand what’s happening). His blithe co-operation, even when being tortured, is played for laughs, but is undercut by the pain he suffers when the electricity is turned on. With the patients remaining off-screen throughout, this scene gives us an inkling about what could be occurring throughout the building.

Deftly juggling light and dark themes, The Hothouse doesn’t feel like a relic of more than sixty years ago. Indeed, maybe it’s even more relevant today than it was back then.

Blakes 7 – In Praise of Series A

Last year I treated myself to a fortieth anniversary Blakes 7 rewatch (one episode per week). It was jolly good fun (well, apart from Hostage and a few others) and by the time everybody had bitten the dust on Gauda Prime, I did feel a more than a twinge of regret.

I also came away from the rewatch with a new appreciation for series A, which (if I was the sort of person to bother about rankings) I’d have to claim as my favourite run of B7 episodes.

Partly this is borne out of nostalgia as I acquired ex-rental VHS tapes of The Beginning and Duel back in 1987. With the unedited, episodic releases not beginning until 1991, for a number of years these were the only B7 episodes I had. So I watched them again and again and again ….

Trimmed as they are (The Way Back was reduced to a mere 15 minutes, the others clocked in at around 40 minutes each) there’s still something magical to me about these video presentations. A pity that nobody’s uploaded good quality versions to YouTube. Oh well.

Trevor Hoyle’s first novelisation also helped to stoke my interest in these early episodes (I’ve no idea why I didn’t buy the others at the tine). Roj Blake’s struggles after leaving the security of Dome City (from the publishers of Star Wars no less) certainly fired my imagination.

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Occassionly this question is posed from a B7 newbie – where to start? The Way Back would seem to be the obvious choice, but some say no. That’s baffling to me (I suspect they’re rabid Avon fans, pining for their hero) as whilst The Way Back is totally atypical, you really need to watch it in order to understand just what makes Blake tick.

Playground dispute question, who’s best – Blake or Avon? I’m a confirmed Blake fan (although series C and D weren’t without their moments of interest).  Both characters have plenty of layers which can be unpeeled, but Blake has always fascinated me more.

Series A also boasts strong roles for Jenna and Cally (well, strong-ish). I always got the feeling that Sally Knyvette’s decision not to re-sign for series C was the reason why Jenna was written out of large parts of series B (on more than one occassion the girls were relegated to the job of teleport operators whilst the boys went out to play). Both are certainly better served by Series A, even if they’re not driving any of the plots.

Series A also benefits from the best Travis and only a handful of appearances by Servalan. Of course I love Jacqueline Pearce, but Servalan was hopelessly overused during the next three years. Ideally she should have had strong roles in three or four stories each year. Alas, they couldn’t resist the temptation of shoe-horning her into any old plot, whether she fitted or not ….

Terry Nation may have run out of steam towards the end (Deliverance/Orac and also had to rely heavily on Chris Boucher at times (Nation’s first draft of Bounty was very weedy) but the fact that Series A featured a single authorial voice is something else which appeals. The series had to broaden its writers pool in order to survive, but there’s an undeniable unity to these stories and this helps to compensate for some of the more clunkier or familiar plot devices (radiation sickness! anti-radiation drugs!)

The fairly drab costumes also anchors the series into some sort of reality. Clearly at this point they hadn’t discovered the Liberator wardrobe with the more outlandish clothing creations. We’d have to wait for series B for that.

So there you have it. Series A is really rather good. In fact I think I’m going to go and watch it again.