Wednesday 26 June 2019

Obituary: Paul Darrow

Actor cherished by science fiction fans for his role as the sardonic anti-hero Avon in 'Blake's 7'

Humour: Actor Paul Darrow as Kerr Avon in 'Blake's 7'
Humour: Actor Paul Darrow as Kerr Avon in 'Blake's 7' Newsdesk Newsdesk

Paul Darrow, who has died aged 78, was hero to a legion of science fiction fans when he played Kerr Avon, the self-interested, cynical computer expert aboard the spacecraft Liberator, in the cult television series Blake's 7 from 1978 to 1981.

The space opera's story of a motley group of outlaw revolutionaries fighting the fascistic Terran Federation "in the second century of the third calendar" furthered the theme of dictatorship seen in writer Terry Nation's earlier creation for science-fiction television, the Daleks in Doctor Who. He conceived Blake's 7 as a darker version of that mainstay of the small screen.

Originally, Gareth Thomas starred as the political dissident Roj Blake, assembling his band of highly individual men and women after being framed for child abuse. Low-budget sets and special effects, combined with the negative verdict of critics - Clive James called it "classically awful" - failed to put off viewers, and up to 10 million tuned in.

Then, at the end of the second series, Gareth Thomas walked out, and Darrow's character, full of sardonic wit, with lines delivered deadpan, became the renegades' leader. Increasingly paranoid and manic, Avon was driven by a lust for power, an anti-hero played by Darrow with a hammed-up performance.

The actor appeared in all but the first episode of the four series. In the final show, Avon kills the returning Blake and is the last revolutionary left standing, the rest having been shot down in slow motion by Federation guards. Avon smiles at the camera as the end titles approach.

Darrow's future career was defined by his work in Blake's 7 and he found it difficult to shake off futuristic roles. "It opened a lot of doors for me - closed a lot as well," he later reflected, "but I went through the ones that were open."

Taking two roles in Doctor Who, he played Captain Hawkins in Doctor Who and the Silurians (1970) and chewed the scenery as the humanoid villain Maylin Tekker in Timelash (1985). In 1998 and 1999 he revived Avon in two Blake's 7 plays on Radio 4.

He was born Paul Valentine Birkby in Surrey on May 2, 1941, to Ernest Birkby, a pharmacist, and his wife Gwen. After the family moved to London, he attended the Haberdashers' Aske's Boys' School, then in West Hampstead.

Intent on acting, he worked in his father's chemist shop in Finchley and at a solicitor's practice before training at Rada from 1960. While there, he shared a flat with John Hurt and Ian McShane, and appeared on the West End stage in The Playboy of the Western World and on television in 1961 as an extra in Coronation Street.

Advised by an agent his surname was difficult to pronounce, he changed it to Darrow - on his father's suggestion, after the American lawyer, Clarence Darrow - and performed with repertory theatre companies around the country.

In York, he met the actress Janet Lees-Price. They worked together in the hospital soap Emergency - Ward 10, he doing a 16-month stint as heart surgeon Mr Verity, she as Nurse Jones, and they married in 1966.

Darrow followed this with one-off character roles in other popular programmes, among them Doctor Matthews back in Coronation Street, attending to residents injured in a coach crash in 1969.

He was more prominent as the Sheriff of Nottingham throughout the 1975 Sunday teatime serial The Legend of Robin Hood, starring as the Victorian lawyer of the title in the peak-time drama The Poisoning of Charles Bravo (1975) and playing Anthony Eden in Hess (1978).

After Blake's 7, Darrow's most satisfying television away from science fiction roles were in Dombey and Son, Making News and Law & Order: UK. He also appeared in the science fiction sitcom The Strangerers and had a short run in Emmerdale.

On stage, he spent a year as Sergeant Trotter in The Mousetrap and played Elvis Presley in a 1998 tour of Are You Lonesome Tonight?

In 2002, Darrow was one of those who formed the consortium B7 Enterprises and bought the rights to Blake's 7 from Terry Nation's estate with the idea of making a new mini-series. However, he left the following year, citing "artistic differences", and later played Avon in 31 Blake's 7 audio dramas, as well as voicing Guidance in the Doctor Who audio story The Next Life.

His voice was also heard on computer games, and he was familiar to listeners on Oxfordshire radio station Jack FM, where he provided soundbites commenting on current events with dry humour.

Turning his hand to writing, Darrow penned Avon: A Terrible Aspect (1989), a novel about the character's early life, and an autobiography, You're Him, Aren't You? (2006).

In 2014 he suffered an aortic aneurysm that led to his legs being amputated. He appeared in a wheelchair on a celebrity sci-fi edition of the quiz show Pointless.

Janet Lees-Price died in 2012. Darrow is survived by his partner, Maureen Marrs. He had no children.

Paul Darrow died on June 3, 2019.

Sunday Independent

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