❉ A tribute to Paul Darrow, who sadly died this week.
It was a wet and dreary Sunday morning in a leisure centre in Reading where I first met Paul Darrow. Somehow it seemed inappropriate that someone so charismatic was in such a soulless hall, but there he was. He was a little smaller than I expected, especially for an actor who was larger than life on screen, but as soon as he turned around and flashed that famous sardonic grin of his, there was no mistaking him. Then, hearing that distinctive voice, talking to me; there are very few stars I’ve been in awe of, but he was right up there with Tom Baker, I was meeting a hero of my childhood and beyond. You know what? He didn’t disappoint. He was so charismatic, that he soon had me and my friends utterly at our ease and completely charmed too. What a guy!
That charisma radiated off the screen whenever he was on and that’s what helped make his most famous character, Avon in Blake’s 7, so compelling to watch. In Darrow’s hands, a character that could easily have been rather one-note and clichéd became someone you came to admire despite him being, as Darrow himself noted many times, an utter bastard.
Avon was the part that was the making of Paul Darrow. Never designed as a hero, Avon started as reluctant part of Blake’s crew, there because it’s expedient. In his earliest scenes in Spacefall, he’s detached from the others, already plotting his own course. He’s only persuaded to join Blake when he realises that he has greater odds of survival by joining him than he would alone. Avon was always a character led by self-preservation above all else. Even when he took the lead once Blake was gone, Avon was never the hero. He always had the anti-hero edge. This theme plays out throughout the series. Avon doesn’t want to rely on anyone else, but as soon as he stops doing that, he loses everything.
Take Horizon, a somewhat unremarkable episode from season B, which does some interesting things with Avon’s character. Here, the crew is diminished bit by bit as they go down to the planet and are all captured. Avon and Cally are the last two left and Avon offers her the chance to run away with him, but she won’t go with him. After she teleports down and is captured, Avon, as Blake puts it, plays the percentages and works out his odds of survival. These are high and he’s on the verge of leaving when he learns there’s a flotilla of Federation ships on the way and alone he’s not going to be able to fight them off, so he laughs and teleports down the planet and rescues the crew, because he needs them. The laugh, like the Avon smile, is a brilliant piece of work from Darrow because he knows the universe is out to get him and what else can you do but smile or laugh in that situation. Oh and it’s ever so cool!
That smile would flash at some of the most inappropriate places, often at things that might make Avon smile, but no other character would quite get, never more so than at the two of Avon’s biggest losses of the series. Firstly, the last shot of Terminal, where Avon’s selfishness leads to the destruction of the Liberator, leaving the crew stranded on a dangerous planet with little hope of escape, what else could Avon do but smile? Secondly, the very end of the series. He’s shot Blake, his friends have been shot down one by one and finally he’s surrounded by Federation guards. He raises his gun and smiles as the end credits kick in. Wonderful.
His voice was quite something too. It was incredibly distinctive; clipped and almost emotionless to begin with, then becoming something bigger, more distinctive, delivering some undeliverable lines of exposition or technobabble with a knowing flair. At times he could almost stress more syllables in a line than it actually had! There aren’t many actors who’ve had their name given to a style of delivery but mention Darrowing to any Blake’s 7 fan and they’ll know exactly what you mean. His performance may have become ever bigger as the series went on, but it was always entertaining to watch and he never lost the knack of being able to surprise the audience with a performance choice, reaction or line delivery.
It was this that both Terry Nation and Chris Boucher admired in him. As Darrow said many years later, “Terry said, ‘I gave you the basics, and let you run with it. You went exactly where I wanted you to go.” They wrote the character; Paul Darrow brought him to life. It’s quite something that a character who was designed as part of an ensemble came to dominate the series and for that to feel so completely right. Chris Boucher would go on to make him even more sardonic and as both he and Darrow were huge film buffs, Boucher would add in the classic film quotes that Darrow loved to deliver. You can see just how much he relished those lines as he delivers them.
When Blake’s 7 came to an end in 1981, Darrow found work both on stage and TV. He had a memorable appearance in Dombey and Son opposite Julian Glover, was vomited over in Little Britain, and successfully played judges in Hollyoaks and Law and Order: UK. On stage he was delighted to play one of his heroes, Elvis Presley in Are You Lonesome Tonight in 1989 and also appeared as Vimes in an adaptation of Terry Pratchett’s Guards, Guards in 1988.
Memorably, he also appeared in Doctor Who. He had appeared opposite Jon Pertwee in Doctor Who and the Silurians in 1970, as UNIT’s Captain Hawkins, an understated appearance compared to his startling performance in 1985’s Timelash. He’d been employed to give an Avon-esque performance, but this wasn’t quite what made it to the screen. Instead Darrow seized upon the Richard III-like qualities of Mailyn Tekker and gave his best Laurence Olivier impression, though the hump didn’t make it to the screen! He was highly entertaining on the commentary recorded for the DVD particularly this memorable exchange between Darrow and Colin Baker:
Colin: I wonder if that style of acting will ever come back?
Paul: (laughing) As far as I’m concerned, it’s never gone away!
Blake’s 7 never went away either. He was always delighted to meet his fans and never disappointed, delighting fans with his hoary jokes, puns, and anecdotes or as he tried with a friend of mine, stealing their replica props! He was often to be found at the bar holding court to an entranced audience at many conventions into the early hours.
He wrote his first novel, Avon: A Terrible Aspect in 1989, which told the story of what happened to Avon before the series began, drawing on some aspects of the episode Rumours of Death. Later he wrote his enjoyable autobiography, You’re Him, Aren’t You? Which he also recorded as a talking book. Big Finish also commissioned him to write three novels which followed Avon after the events of Blake. Taking his prompt from an idea Terry Nation for reviving the show in the late 80s, these stories saw Avon in Napoleon-esque exile until his rescue by a new band of rebels.
He returned to play Avon in two BBC Radio stories in the late 1990s and then more recently for Big Finish’s Blake’s 7 range. Despite often recording his scenes alone, he always claimed he knew his co-stars so well that he could hear them saying the lines and as a result, his performances were always a joy to hear again. In 2017 he wrote his first script for the series, the amusing Erebus, part of the Crossfire season.
Despite the loss of his wife, Janet Lees-Price in 2012 and health problems that in 2014 sadly led to both his legs being amputated, Darrow was still happy to go out and meet the fans, act for Big Finish and even appear on Pointless Celebrities with his old friend Michael Keating. Right to the end, he was the voice of radio station Jack FM in Oxfordshire.
Being in a cult show always gives an actor degree of immortality and to those of us who grew up watching and loving Blake’s 7, he will always be remembered. This was something that never bothered Paul Darrow, as he said in his autobiography, “I don’t mind being forever Avon.”
❉ Paul Darrow (Paul Valentine Birkby), born 2 May 1941; died 3 June 2019
❉ Simon Hart is a regular contributor to We Are Cult.