Paul Darrow on Blake's 7, Minister Of Chance and the Star Wars MMORPG
|INTERVIEWS - TV|
One of sci-fi's most uncompromising anti-heroes chats to Shadowlocked...
Generally, I have avoided trying to interview the personal heroes of my youth; it's too risky to one's cherished perceptions. But when faced with the opportunity to chat with Paul Darrow, the British actor who played the laconic and back-shooting anti-hero Avon of 'Blake's 7' (as well as the voice of Grand Moff Tarkin and other characters in 'Star Wars' videogames), I figured I'd take a chance. After all, if he shot me down in flames, at least he'd be in character...
I was, of course, delighted to find that Mr. Darrow retains all the charm and more of his most famous role without the accompanying barbs. Here we chat about Paul's excellent turn as Lord Rathen in the exceptional SF/fantasy audio drama 'The Minister Of Chance', as well as how Avon came to shoot people in the back despite being the 'hero' of a major BBC sci-fi show, what he thinks of his controversial 'Doctor Who' adventure 'Timelash'...and what he's been doing for George Lucas lately....
You always play formidable people, never shrinking violets. Does that issue from your personality, or are you less confident than that in real life?
That's a tough question to answer. Avon, the character I played in Blake's 7, accumulated several million credits in that department. He got caught, but he got away. And he wasn't afraid to look after himself. I don't know if I'd have the confidence to do what he did - so yes, I do generally have less confidence than the characters I play.
I was reading that your father helped you when you first wanted to become an actor, and I found that rather interesting, as it's a reversal of the usual story...
Yes, he was very encouraging. He wanted me to do what I wanted to do. But I think he was disappointed, because he wanted me to be a lawyer. Anyway, he was quite pleased in the end, and he came with my mother to see me perform.
Do you think you would have been a good lawyer?
I might have been...
I think you would have.
My brother-in-law's a judge...
You've played a judge a couple of times.
I have, I played one in several episodes of Law And Order UK, with one more still to come out. I've done five. That's a great show to work on - terrific fun, too.
I was very pleased to see you turn up in Die Another Day, but was it a conscious decision for you to prefer stage and TV over movie work?
As far as films are concerned, I never really managed to break into them, I suppose, which is a pity because I love the movies.
Since you became an actor through your early love of movies, what were the roles you imagined yourself playing?
I always wanted to do a western. Like [drops an octave] Clint Eastwood! I once got into a conversation once with Tony Curtis, at a convention. I'd loved to have had his career! I was talking about his films and I said to him 'You've done some wonderful stuff', and he was pleased to talk about it. Yes, that's what I'd like to have done; that's what made me want to be an actor. Also I wanted to produce and direct. I'd noticed that Burt Lancaster, who'd also helped Tony early in his career, was a producer as well as an actor. He worked with Harold Hecht - he acted in the films, and they both produced.
Have you had the opportunity to do much directing yourself?
Some, in the theatre.
In your career before Avon, did you feel that this dark kind of character was waiting in the wings..?
Well, I had played the Sheriff of Nottingham. I also later on played Mr. Carker in Dombey And Son. So I find the, shall we say, the darker characters more interesting anyway. Like in The Minister Of Chance...[laughs]. He's a bit on the dark side.
Lord Rathen is a wonderful character.
He is - great fun to do, I have to say. I enjoyed it immensely, and what a cast.
It's got a very Shakespearian, 'court-intrigue' feel to it, which I imagine would be appealing for most British actors..?
Yes...I think you've put your finger on it there! I couldn't put it better myself - it does have that quality to it.
Were you surprised to find that it has an adult tone to it in places, with the occasional profanity?
No, you have to do something for the age, and indeed there is a degree of profanity in virtually everything you see and hear nowadays. I remember Platoon in particular - the 'F' word was every other word [laughs]. If they hadn't been allowed to use that word, there wouldn't have been a script.
Do you still need to search for a character, or does your range of experience figure more when you prepare for a role?
A lot depends on the way it's written - you get a feel for it as soon as you read it, and you think 'Ah! That's the way I think it probably needs to go'. It sort of clicks in. And that happened with the Avon character as well. I was talking to Terry Nation about it once, as we were great friends, and he said to me that he wanted to do something completely off the wall with it. Quite unexpected - he said that he enjoyed that. He used to write stuff [for Avon] and say 'See what you can do with this' [laughs]. And I did!
Since you didn't actually write any of the episodes, how did your influence on Avon work? Did you actually meet with script editors and say 'Let's take it in this direction'..?
No, Terry would write it, and Chris Boucher would obviously do some stuff as well during his time as a script editor, and other people would write it on a particular level and just play it the way the character was developing. Terry wrote the first thirteen episodes, so the character was pretty much established in his vein by then, and that just carried on with other writers. They'd say that Avon does this or does that - and sometimes I'd say 'I don't think he'd do this', or 'He would do this', and then...
For example, he would never in a million years have brought in two new people and given them access to the spaceship.
He's not the trusting type.
Well, no, he isn't! And I said to the producer 'He'd never do that' and he said [laughs] 'If you don't, we haven't got a series'! Two of the cast had already gone. So I had to adjust the character slightly there.
Avon also becomes visually darker throughout Blake's 7, with leather and hairstyle changes - I know you're an Elvis fan, and he does become a little bit more Elvis-like...
Were you modelling Avon on The King?
No no! [laughs] But then of course, a few years later, I actually played Elvis.
Since you mentioned that you might occasionally object to scriptwriters taking Avon off-character, what was your initial reaction to the script of Orbit in the final series of Blake's 7?
Well, that was a pinch from Strangers On A Train, the Hitchcock movie, so I decided to play it like that; this sinister, psychopathic guy...well, not a psychopath, but a sociopath perhaps - but he was just focused on his own survival, and it didn't matter who it was in his way, he'd ditch them.
I remember there was one episode where the director said 'Okay, the bad guy's got hold of Glynis [Barber] - you can't shoot because you might hit her'. And I said Avon would. He said 'What do you mean', and I said 'He'd shoot through her'. He couldn't care less; if he wanted to get the guy, he'd shoot her as well. And this director said 'Ooh, he's a right bastard, isn't he?' [laughs].
But he said 'Okay, I'll adjust my camera-work so that you don't have to do that, because you've got a contract!'.
Does doing things like the Doctor Who 'Timelash' commentary give you a new view on your past work?
Well, I'll be honest with you - the Timelash thing, I really didn't know how to play that. I thought 'Tell you what'...I talk to myself, which is getting to be a habit as I get old!...'I'll try and play him like Richard the Third, with the hump and the evil cackle, or whatever.
I more or less got away with it, but they accused me of sending it up. I remember JNT [1980s Doctor Who producer John Nathan Turner] - gone now, God bless his soul - got quite cross with me. Afterwards at a convention in America he said 'You were absolutely right to do it that way - the script wasn't that good and you made something of it'.
But Timelash is the most disliked and also one of the most liked, which is fascinating.
What do you know of the various attempts to reboot or remake Blake's 7? There was talk of Sarah Michelle Gellar once...
I know nothing about that. At one time, over ten years ago, Terry was explaining to me about what he thought would happen. He wanted a mini-series, some two-parters like in Waking The Dead and stuff like that. He wanted something in that vein to finish it all off. I'd hoped to be able to do that, along those lines, but it didn't happen. Whether anything would happen now...it would be very different, I would think.
I know some of the people from the original Battlestar Galactica, which was of course completely revamped. I knew Richard Hatch and Dirk Benedict from the original series, and later got to talk to James Callis, who was in a very different version, but even more successful...
Would it be nice to see a re-release of Blake's 7 with redone special effects? Or did they add something to the show which might be lost?
Like they sometimes do with Doctor Who, on the DVDs. Yes, that would be good. But in the current financial climate, it's difficult to get anything like that done, I would think. It would have to be a big hit straight away. But I think Minister Of Chance would be a very good thing on TV.
Yes, it's got a frisson of Tolkien that's very current.
Someone I was talking to who downloaded it said that it's a mixture of science-fiction and fantasy with a little bit of Terry Pratchett thrown in.
Are you a fan of either genre?
Not really, I'll be honest with you. I've been name-dropping, haven't I? I'll drop another one, though they're all dead, alas. I once did a convention in America with Isaac Asimov. He said to me 'Do you read science-fiction?', and I said 'To be perfectly honest, no, but perhaps I should'. He said 'Yes, you should - you might start with one of my books'. [laughs] So I did! I can't remember which one it was now.
Getting back to Blake's 7, in terms of a science-adventure story, I tried to put myself in the character's place, as realistically as possible. For example, Avon shot people in the back. It came about by accident: a director said to me 'I've got this set up in such a way that the guards have got their backs to you. I tell you what - call out to them and they'll turn round...'.
I said 'Why would you do that? It would give them a chance to gun him down'. He said 'You can't shoot him in the back, you're the hero'. But I said that I would shoot him in the back - not give him a chance. I think that's more realistic - you're not going to call out to Billy The Kid, are you? 'Hey Billy!' - and give him a chance to turn round!
I guess Blake's 7 having its lead character so dark was a happenstance, because Gareth Thomas left the show to you. Can you imagine a new show of the time actually being set up with a lead character that dark?
No, no - I think Terry cast the mould there. Ever since, of course, it's been copied. Over the years there have been a subsequent series of very similar characterisations, where the hero has deep flaws and is very dark and ruthless. Everything that Sean Bean plays, for example.
Sean Bean would definitely throw his mate off a ship [as in 'Orbit'] in order to make escape velocity.
Yes he would. Particularly if they're not Sheffield United supporters.
What are your projects now?
I'm the voice of a radio station called Jack FM, which is based in Oxford, and I think they're opening a new one on the south coast. I record one-liners for them. Well, comments, really. It's 'adult-oriented rock'. We're quite rude. We don't take requests.
You're kind of their Tom Baker?
Sort of. You've met Tom, have you? [laughs]
What was it like to take on Grand Moff Tarkin for the Lucas Games Star Wars franchise?
Actually I've just done another one for Lucas, about a month ago. Now what are they calling it...?
[Seems to be Star Wars: The Old Republic, with Darrow's the first NPC SW voice heard in the new MMORPG]
Anyway, I'm a Sith, and they told me it's coming out at Christmas. I was just doing some tops and tails, because I had recorded it about a year ago. I'm your guide - a Sith warrior.
They wanted as many people as they could from the original cast on Empire At War, but alas Peter [Cushing] had died. A lovely man - they said 'We don't want you to do an impression of him, but you could get close to it..?'.
Are you a videogames fan?
No, I find them really rather boring. And I don't watch much television either! Just the odd football match, and The Kennedys, which is on tonight.
Many thanks to Paul Darrow for taking the time to chat with us. And for not firing first.
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