To mark the 40th anniversary of the first episode of Blake’s 7 being aired on 2 January 1978, this is an extract from Alwyn W Turner’s book The Man Who Invented the Daleks…
At conventions and in interviews in the last decade of his life, Terry Nation often told the story of how Blake’s 7, his last major work, came into being and of his absolute confidence in the concept. ‘I said to my wife: “I’m going to pitch this show today, and I know they’re going to do it.”’
His account of the subsequent meeting evokes an era at the BBC that has long since passed. ‘I wanted to do another science fiction show, a good, rousing adventure series in space,’ he remembered. ‘I went and pitched the idea. I said, “The Dirty Dozen in Space”, and they said, “Yeah, let’s do it!” It was just like that, truly. We went on a bit further and I said: “The leader is a little more Robin Hood.” But that was it. Then I went home and I got a call from my agent. He said that the BBC had been in touch and said they would do it, but I had to write the first thirteen episodes.’
Nation may well have pitched the idea as ‘the Dirty Dozen in space’, but the memo of the meeting records no such phrase, instead describing Blake’s 7 as ‘cracking Boy’s Own/kidult sci-fi, a space western-adventure, a modern swashbuckler’. The same note summarised the proposed plotline: ‘Group of villains being escorted onto a rocket ship (transported) which goes astray and lands on an alien planet where inhabitants are planning to invade and destroy Earth. Possibly live underground.’
A script for a fifty-minute pilot was immediately commissioned, but Nation’s recollection that he was expected from the outset to write all thirteen episodes of the first series was incorrect. The pilot was approved and a second episode commissioned in June 1976; this was delivered in September, more than a year after the initial meeting. By November he had been commissioned to write the first seven episodes, but still the BBC did not envisage him completing the whole series: ‘it is our intention to commission other writers for later episodes although Terry Nation has agreed to write further scripts towards the end of the strand of thirteen programmes.’ It was not until December 1976 that the BBC agreed in principle to him writing all thirteen episodes.
The resulting series inevitably faced comparison with Star Trek, the American science fiction series which began airing in Britain in 1969 – after production had ceased – and which had steadily acquired a cult following. There were points of similarity. In both shows a small crew on a highly advanced spacecraft (the Enterprise in Star Trek, the Liberator in Blake’s 7) roam a galaxy dominated by a political structure known as the Federation, and encounter alien races and cultures in a series of weekly adventures.
The differences, though, were more significant than the resemblances. Above all there were questions of tone and of the status of the protagonists. The United Federation of Planets in Star Trek is an essentially progressive force, envisaged as a kind of galactic United Nations, whereas the Earth Federation in Blake’s 7 is a repressive regime existing somewhere between the worlds depicted in George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. The Enterprise is on an official mission ‘to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilisations’, but the Liberator is on the run, fighting rearguard actions and engaging in guerrilla attacks on key installations.
It is the difference, perhaps, between the rampant optimism of 1960s America and the doubt-ridden, nervous state of Britain in the 1970s, where few believed that the immediate future offered much hope for improvement. Even with his love of story-telling, Nation couldn’t avoid the inherent negativity of his vision.
There was a similar discrepancy between Blake’s 7 and the movie that Nation cited as its inspiration, Robert Aldrich’s 1967 film The Dirty Dozen. Both featured groups of convicted criminals embarked on a desperate mission against a fascist state, but there was a gulf between the idea of military prisoners recruited by the American army to operate behind enemy lines in the build-up to D-Day, on the one hand, and Roj Blake’s gang of renegades on the other. In Blake’s 7 there is no official force for good in the struggle against fascism, no higher authority on which to call.
More pertinent was Nation’s other reference point: Robin Hood, the greatest of all English myths, the noble-born hero who makes himself an outlaw in order to fight a guerrilla war in the name of justice, the rights of the oppressed and the restoration of honest governance. Just as important as Robin’s campaign is the company he keeps. The Merry Men are popularly depicted mid-feast, quaffing flagons of mead and laughing uproariously as they gather round an open fire on which a whole deer is being spit-roasted. This very English revolutionary has no time for Spartan self-denial when there’s drinking, singing and general roistering to be had.
It’s a seductive image that has run through the national culture for centuries, and variations on the theme turn up throughout Nation’s work, from The Fixers through The Saint and The Persuaders! to Jimmy Garland in Survivors. Even the Doctor – however crotchety William Hartnell was, however severe Jon Pertwee could be – is essentially cut from the same cloth: the fight against the Daleks is always conducted with a twinkle in the eye. Blake’s 7 was to be Nation’s final expression of the myth, with some very deliberate echoes of Robin Hood, in terms both of character (Olag Gan is clearly derived in part from Little John) and of costume.
And yet there was the same dark twist to the tale. Robin was sustained by the knowledge that one day King Richard would return to reclaim his land from the evil Prince John and his henchmen, represented by the Sheriff of Nottingham, but for Blake and his companions there is no such king over the water, no real hope of ultimate victory, only the fact of resistance against overwhelming odds.
‘Virtually all revolutionary movements, once established, are outlawed by the establishment,’ Nation wrote in a document setting out the themes for the second season. ‘If their cause is just, they generally emerge to overthrow the authorities and themselves become the establishment. So it is with Blake. Except that Blake will never achieve that final objective.’
Other currents also fed into the show’s concept. Paul Darrow, who starred as Kerr Avon through all four seasons and became a close friend of Nation, claimed that the name of the protagonist derived from that of the British spy, George Blake, who was sentenced in 1961 to a record forty-two years in jail, but who escaped after serving just five years and fled to the Soviet Union. ‘Terry Nation, while not necessarily approving of his politics,’ noted Darrow, ‘liked Blake’s style and stole his name.’
There was also, however, a more obvious association with Sir Percy Blakeney, the hero of Baroness Orczy’s classic adventure novel The Scarlet Pimpernel (1905), an Englishman who, with a band of followers, stages operations to rescue condemned aristocrats from the guillotine during the French Revolution. Indeed Blakeney might be seen as one of the key templates for Nation’s heroes, with ‘his reckless daring, his mad bravery, his worship of his own word of honour’ and his inspired improvisations in moments of danger: cornered by his arch-enemy in an inn, he fills his snuff-box with pepper and offers it to his adversary.
When asked why they risk their own lives to save strangers, one of the gang brushes aside suggestions of heroism in the same self-deprecating terms that the Baron and Lord Brett Sinclair would later evoke. ‘Sport, Madame la Comtesse, sport,’ drawls Lord Antony Dewhurst. ‘We are a nation of sportsmen, you know, and just now it is the fashion to pull the hare from between the teeth of the hound.’ Orczy’s novel was required reading for boys in Nation’s childhood and its influence was apparent in much of his writing; at one point in The Persuaders! Danny even refers to Brett as ‘the Scarlet Pumpernickel’.
Given this rich pedigree, it was unfortunate that Roj Blake emerged as one of Nation’s less entertaining heroes. ‘He was supposed to be swashbuckling and dashing and all those things,’ regretted Nation, ‘but I never found it, I never really gave him a chance.’ He is sincere, committed to his cause and concerned for the well-being of his crew, but there is a lack of the devil-may-care hearty bravado that was surely required, and no compensating charisma.
‘To a man of my spirit, opportunities are duties,’ declares Rudolf Rassendyll, hero of Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda (1894), and it was that defiant embrace of life that Blake should have embodied as a kind of Jimmy Garland in space. Instead, as played by Gareth Thomas, a doleful-faced actor with a vague resemblance to Tony Hancock, he was, observed Shaun Usher in the Daily Mail, ‘a thoroughly decent, rugger-playing chap, rather than a maverick anti-Establishment man-of-the-future’.