Paul Darrow passed away on 3rd June 2019, but the legacy he left was immense. Doctor Who fans will know him from Doctor Who and the Silurians and Timelash, but he’s more widely known for starring in Blake’s 7 as Kerr Avon.
Such a giant of our TV screens naturally becomes a giant in the lives of fans too. Join Alex Skerratt, Jonathan Appleton, and David Traynier as they regale what Darrow, and Avon, means to them.
“Well now.” What a terribly sad day this has been. Paul Darrow – my hero of science fiction, acting, and writing – has left us at the age of 78. What an impression he made on my life.
In fact, I can safely say that Paul Darrow inhabits my very earliest childhood memories. I became a Blake’s 7 fan at the age of 3. The majority of my playtime both at home and at nursery (yes, nursery) was characterised by my terrible impersonations of Kerr Avon – the crisp anti-hero that Darrow so icily portrayed.
My biggest regret is that I never got the chance to work with Paul. But then: “Regret is part of being alive, but keep it a small part,” as Avon once said. I nearly got my chance though; I had a lovely conversation with his agent when I was casting for a radio project. Alas it wasn’t to be. I did however get the pleasure of meeting him at a convention in 2004, and he was everything that I hoped he would be. A gentleman and a scholar. And of course – forever Avon.
If (by some cruel twist of fate) you have never encountered any of his work, I would implore you to do so. Watch an episode of Blake’s 7 (I’ll throw a curveball and recommend Orbit!) Or if you can find any footage of his appearance in Emmerdale as biking enthusiast Eddie Fox, stop everything and watch it. He doesn’t just eat the furniture. He razes the scenery to the ground.
It goes without saying that I owe a lot to the work of Paul Darrow. I knew that I wanted to be an actor from the moment I started doing my own Avon impersonations in the playground, and in fact I went on to do my degree in Drama. So it seems I can blame Avon for my student debt as well! (Although, knowing Avon, he would have creamed millions of credits out of the Student Loans Company with just a few lines of code.)
“[Death] is the one talent we all share.” And dang – I’m feeling that today. I’m raising a glass of adrenaline and soma to the actor that dominates my DVD and radio collection. Thank you so much for everything, Paul Darrow. You’re my hero.
It was the voice that did it for me. No wonder that Paul Darrow would be heard on countless voiceovers over the years. It’s always a good thing for a show aiming for a young audience to have characters that can be easily imitated and Darrow’s nasal, sometimes sneering delivery as Avon in Doctor Who’s rather darker stablemate provided rich pickings for myself and my brother whenever we wanted to entertain ourselves. Other candidates for our Appleton family comedy impressions included Darth Vader and Windsor Davies in It Ain’t Half Hot Mum (could our childhood have been any more rooted in the 1970’s?).
A little later, once I had acquired that desire to consume material about my favourite shows which I still have to this day, I would look forward to Darrow’s regular column in Marvel’s short-lived Blake’s 7 Monthly. It was wonderful how he never lost his love for the show which had given him his best-known role, and his rundown of his favourite episodes (culminating in Blake which, fittingly, he picked as the subject of his article in the magazine’s final issue) was a particular highlight. And I love that story, which I can well believe must be true, about how he beat all-comers in the Blake’s 7 quiz at a convention.
One of the television greats of his era, Paul Darrow will be sadly missed. But my goodness, we had some fun watching him.
I came to Blake’s 7 2 years too late and 2 years too young. I watched Series C in early 1980 when I’d just turned 4. I know this because the image of the giant throbbing brain that gorged upon a conveyor belt of cadavers at the centre of the eponymous “Ultraworld” froze in my unconscious; and I would find shards of it on my pillow for years after.
But it is with Series D in 1981 that my clearest memories of Blake’s 7 begin. The curly haired revolutionary himself having departed at the end of Series B, I did not really know (or then care) who Blake was. I discovered him, and the first two series, when I was a teenager and the BBC began releasing the series on VHS. Up until then, I had always pictured him as he would appear in the series finale – rotund, dirty, unshaven, and scarred. So, it was quite something to see him years later; clean, slim, and fresh. But even then, and I say this with no disrespect to the late Gareth Thomas ̶ a fine actor to be sure ̶ the show’s dark centre was always Kerr Avon.
In real life, Avon was a man with three fathers: the legendary Terry Nation fashioned the skeleton of his character, script editor Chris Boucher gave him caustic voice, but it was Paul Darrow who made him flesh. Darrow’s performance was assured from his first appearance, but that confidence only increased as he grew comfortable with the part and the writers accustomed to the relish with which he chewed the words. Had the series aired a few years later, I believe Darrow’s mannered, unique delivery would, like William Shatner’s staccato James Kirk, have been irresistible to impressionists.
Why have I always found Avon so compelling? It’s difficult to avoid the clichés. Yes, he was sardonic, ruthless, pragmatic, cold, capable, and cynical. All true. But more importantly, I think, he was honest: about himself and in his dealings with other people. While he was deeply private, nothing he allowed you to see was a façade. You always knew where Avon stood (though you were a fool if you let it be behind you). This honesty was an edge that surpassed simple intelligence. It meant that he, unlike Blake, appraised situations and people as they were and not how he wished them to be. “Don’t you ever get tired of being right?” Dayna asks him at one point, to which he replies, “Only with the rest of you being wrong.” And yet he was not a superhuman, a muscled action man or infallible. Dissident Blake only met criminal Avon on the prison ship London because his attempt to rob the Federation banking system had failed. “What went wrong?” asks Blake. “I relied on other people.” Avon was a loser.
Perhaps another reason why Avon was fascinating is that glimpses beneath his surface were rare. In truth, Avon was far from being a fully rounded character. We seldom saw him relaxing. We never saw any hobbies, a family, friends or romances (in any conventional sense). We learnt only a little of the one, true love in his life and only that naturally just before he killed her. His twin objectives were wealth and longevity, but I find it hard to imagine what he would have done with either. We did not know Avon, I think we merely witnessed him.
In the first 2 years, Avon’s cynical ambiguity was a much-needed foil for Blake’s monochrome zealotry. Their continual sparring masked what I choose to see as a mutual need: Blake for ruthless logic to temper his arrogant idealism and burgeoning messianism and Avon to meet his heavily submerged need for something ̶ someone ̶ to believe in. From Series C on, Avon became the official focus and Darrow’s performance became even more mesmerising. This was aided in strong measure by an equally marvellous performance from the late Jacqueline Pearce as the impracticably glamorous, serpentine Servalan ̶. Blake’s 7’s ground-breaking villainess. Their embrace of lethal hostility clothing mutual fascination lent their scenes crackle and smoulder and a delicious, camp perversity (only enhanced by Avon’s penchant for black studded fetish wear). For me, their antagonistic familiarity peaks in a sparkling moment in Series D, when Servalan chides Avon for holding a gun in her face with the same insouciant intimacy with which a woman might admonish her husband for leaving his shoes in the hall.
By the fourth series, Darrow’s charisma and intensity became operatic; teetering just this side of pantomime. The firmness with which he delivered his lines in the early days became stentorian, Shakespearean declamations by the show’s end. These operatic shadings matched the timbre of that final series as the rag-tag band of former revolutionaries reverted to criminals and struggled, no longer to overthrow the Federation, but merely to stay out of the ground. This chain of calamity began with the loss of the Liberator at the end of Series C and continued throughout Series D: their schemes are foiled, their losses mount, their bond fractures, and their luck fails. And alongside this, Paul Darrow gives us a superb portrait of tragedy, of a man of exceptional qualities overmatched by a relentless, unquenchable state; tumbling towards outright insanity. He loses his ship, his self-confidence, his authority, and finally the one person he believes in. How fitting an end to his oedipal struggle with Blake that he eventually confronts infinity while standing astride his bloodied corpse in that final episode.
In truth, this piece has been a paean to Kerr Avon rather than to Paul Darrow. I never met the actor and what I know of him comes only from interviews, convention appearances, and hearsay. What I have seen and heard tells me he was a warm, humorous man and good fun to be near. I know that, while he continued to work and did well for himself on TV, stage, and radio, he never recaptured the acclaim of those 4 years. Nevertheless, unlike some other members of the cast, he embraced the series and became its finest ambassador. I believe he would be pleased at the blossom of affection that spread upon news of his death. And I credit Paul Darrow for being the surpassing reason why people still write about, talk about, and love a silly, overwrought space opera with creaking sets, absurd costumes, and rackety effects. We do that because, at its best, Blake’s 7 is magnificent. Avon was the centre of that, a magnificent loser.
Paul Darrow is gone but Avon remains, frozen in that final moment, supremely himself: clear-eyed, alone, outnumbered, outgunned, and smiling into forever.