Some sad endings, or Seventies TV

An actor called Paul Darrow, “science fiction icon”, died this week.

This set me off on an obscure trip down memory lane, and in particular to an evening long ago in my grandparents’ spare bedroom, which I spent learning some of DG Rossetti’s poem “Sister Helen.” It’s a melodramatic tale of betrayed love, revenge and black magic, which begins

“Why did you melt your waxen man,

Sister Helen?

Today is the third since you began.”

“The time was long, yet the time ran,

Little brother.”

O Mother, Mary Mother,

Three days today, between Hell and Heaven!

(I make no apologies for my teenage taste in poetry, especially in poems to learn.)

Digression: Dante Gabriel Rossetti, brother of Christina, was a 19th– century Pre-Raphaelite poet and artist. His life and that of his friends was fictionalised in the 2009 TV series “Desperate Romantics”, in which he was played by Aidan Turner, before the latter became enormously famous in “Poldark”.

But back to my grandparents’ London flat. I should explain for younger readers that back in the late 70s, there were just three channels on British TV. If you missed something you might have wanted to watch, you had to hope it was repeated sometime. There were no boxsets, no endless replays on E4, and no blow-by-blow episode recaps on the net.

British SF on TV at that time was largely “Doctor Who” and imported “Star Trek” (the original series) – and then Terry Nation, who invented the Daleks, came up with a concept called “Blake’s 7.” Over four series, this told the story of a band of lonely rebels and their one space ship, up against the authoritarian multi-planet Federation.

Unlike “Star Trek”, or indeed the fairly contemporary first “Star Wars” film, it wasn’t afraid of the morally grey. Wikipedia says of it:  Critical responses have been varied; some reviewers praised the series for its dystopian themes, strong characterisation, ambiguous morality and pessimistic tone, as well as displaying an “enormous sense of fun”, but others have criticised its production values, dialogue and perceived lack of originality.

I’ll leave you to decide how a series manages to have both a pessimistic tone and an enormous sense of fun. Certainly it was famous even in its own time for the low-budget wobbly sets, but that’s the kind of thing I don’t tend to notice. It was and is also noted for non-squeaky-clean protagonists, who didn’t always win, at a time when audiences expected heroes to do so.

The fourth series ends (SPOILER ALERT) with one of the most famous Downer Endings in TV history, with the entire team apparently outwitted and killed by their enemies. The Federation won.

The nominal hero was Blake, and he was an idealist. But not all his gang were, and for series three and four he disappeared, and leadership fell to the cynical, ruthless and clever Kerr Avon, played, as you will have guessed, by Paul Darrow, and remembered, by me at least, very fondly.

Avon was an anti-hero before we knew the word. (I think he was also by profession a computer programmer before most of us knew those words either.) Avon’s fight for freedom was almost entirely self-interested, and if he cared at all for his fellow team members, he would never say so. Unlike Han Solo, he never gave us a dramatic cockle-warming change of heart.

“Blake’s 7” was a big thing from 1978-81, and Avon was the biggest thing in it.

There are fan theories that he survived the fourth series bloodbath.

It was my favourite programme for some years as a teenager. I’m not sure why, as I’m normally quite happy with non-grey protagonists like Captain America, Luke Skywalker and Captain Kirk, but nonetheless it was – and this gave me a rather silly problem.

In my memory, every year a series of 13 episodes started in January, and ran roughly to Easter. So every year a large chunk of it clashed with Lent.

In those days for a Christian teenager, TV was the obvious thing to give up. To make things worse still, for some reason, the programme was never repeated.

I’m sure, even if you’re not an SF lover you feel my pain. I did not have the sense to say, “This year I’ll just do chocolate”, or even “I’ll give up all TV except my favourite programme.”

No, I sat in another room, and asked my brother to come and see me immediately the programme was over, to give me the lowdown in as much detail as possible.

(I may be misremembering. All this angst may have been just one year.)

Anyway, one episode was shown while we were staying with my grandparents in Kingston-on-Thames. They had a small flat and obviously fewer games and books than at home. So I banished myself upstairs to learn Rossetti’s poem.

Paul Darrow played other roles (including, apparently, Discworld’s Captain Vimes in theatre), but none of them approached the fame of Avon. I learn from his obituaries that he was married for over 40 years to his wife Janet, who died in 2012; that he chose his stagename from the famous American lawyer Clarence Darrow, and that in later years ill-health led to the partial amputation of both legs. The Guardian calls him a “bona fide science fiction icon”, and says he brought an air of “simmering danger” to the role of Avon.

RIP, and thank you.

(This has hopefully nothing to do with Paul Darrow, but like “Blake’s 7”, the poem “Sister Helen” also ends on a depressing and sinister note.

“Ah! What white thing at the door has crossed,

Sister Helen?

Ah! What is this that sighs in the frost?”

“A soul that’s lost as mine is lost,

Little brother!”

O Mother, Mary Mother.

Lost, lost, all lost, between Hell and Heaven!”)

I had and still have some strange tastes.

Love from the PPI Blogger

1 Comment
  • Judith Anne Renton

    7th June 2019 at 9:41 pm Reply

    My memories of 70s TV was, of course, Doctor Who, Star Trek, a bit of Blakes 7 (for some reason it was not a great favourite of mine)and the TV detectives…Columbo, McCloud, MacMillian and Wife, Longstreet, Ironside..etc.
    I also learned poetry…well once. Not actually poetry, it was Shylock’s soliloquy from the Marchant of Venice, and not out of choice. Myself and three friends were caught in the classroom at Peterborough County Grammar School for Girls, listening to the charts one Tuesday lunchtime, by the English, Miss Glavis teacher (who was American!) Our punishment was to learn Shylock’s soliloquy that night and recite it to her one by one first thing the next morning – or have a detention. Being a generally well-behaved child I was mortified…and rather scared of my parents’ response to such a heinous crime. I duly spend most of the night learning it by torchlight, and fortunately was word perfect the next day and so managed to get off scot-free.
    I made such a good effort at this task I can remember it to this day…ask me nicely and I may recite it for you…

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