The man who brought Avon to life in the cult classic Blake’s 7. Paul Darrow has had a very long and successful career, though he is known for playing mostly villains. Darrow’s most enduring characters have also all been from cult series, and also often from within the science fiction and fantasy genres. In this article we will be taking a look at his most prominent roles as well as giving an overview of his career.
The Sheriff of Nottingham/ The Legend of Robin Hood
Darrow’s first major role was as the evil Sheriff of Nottingham in this miniseries that told the life of the most famous British folk hero of all time.
Prior to this he had appeared in many high profile television series, such as The Saint, Emergency Ward 10, Z Cars, and the Doctor Who story Doctor Who and the Silurians.
This role however not only marked his first big break, but it also in many ways set the template for much of his later career. Following this performance he would often play villains and anti heroes. though this was a much more subdued performance than his later scenery chewing turns as Avon and Maylin Tekker however.
This series, though very popular at the time, has been somewhat overlooked in the decades since which is a shame. It’s a brilliant adaptation of Robin Hood, and one of the best things about it is how it handles the villains.
The series features all 3 of Robin’s most famous adversary’s Prince John, Sir Guy and the Sheriff and manages to find the right balance between them.
Most other adaptations tend to either omit one of Robin’s enemies, or even two and only feature the Sheriff, or they’ll do down one of them to be a complete non entity.
In the Adventures of Robin Hood for instance, Sir Guy played by Basil Rathbone is Robin’s archenemy not the Sheriff. The Sheriff doesn’t really have any big role in the story. He’s not a physical threat to Robin at all. He’s fat, short, cowardly and he’s also quite slow witted too. (Though there are some moments that hint at a greater intelligence.) Generally speaking however the Sheriff is not really anything in that film.
In Robin Hood Prince of Thieves meanwhile, Sir Guy is nothing more than the Sheriff’s lackey whilst Prince John is not in this version at all.
Its hard trying to find space for 3 strong villains particularly when Sir Guy and the Sheriff often occupy the same role. Swordsman who is Robin’s equal who works for the king, and whose job is to track him down, and who may be a love rival for Marian’s affections etc.
This adaptation manages to find the right balance by making Sir Guy the physical threat to Robin and the love rival for Marian, whilst the Sheriff is a political usurper with the biggest ambitions and who manages to twist Prince John’s mind and manipulate him and every one else around him, including even Sir Guy for his own purposes.
Unlike the Adventures of Robin Hood whilst the Sheriff may still not be a physical match for Robin. He is no fool and is two steps ahead of everyone. Even when he is finally defeated he manages to find a loop hole that spares him a slow torturous death by pointing out that his rank entitles him to a quick execution via an axe.
The Sheriff is almost the complete opposite to Sir Guy in this series. He sits at the back calmly planning whilst Sir Guy goes out there and fights Robin. He is almost asexual as he only cares about gaining power for himself, and if anything looks down on Sir Guy for letting his infatuation cloud his better judgement.
Prince John meanwhile who is played by David Dixon is also portrayed as a slightly more intelligent character which makes a nice change. He is aware of just how slimy and ambitious the Sheriff is, but at the same time he is also aware that he needs the Sheriff to help him become king. Its interesting watching the two of them interact with John being aware that the Sheriff is using him for his own ends, but John at the same time is also using the Sheriff to quietly dispose of his enemies. There’s an unspoken agreement between them of you scratch my back, but both are aware that the other will stab them in the back as soon as its convenient.
Its very interesting watching how these three very different villains work together and even try and use each other for their own selfish ends. We have Sir Guy, the best swordsman who can more than hold his own with Robin, and though he is genuinely in love with Marian. He is at times arguably the most loathsome of the three as he is the most openly sadistic, taking a perverse pleasure in torturing and murdering Marian’s own father when he tries to get in the way of their relationship. John meanwhile is the one with the real power who is smarter than people think and often plays the fool to throw people off, whilst getting other people to do his dirty work. Finally the Sheriff, the cold, ruthless, icey master manipulator who in many ways sits at the true center of this dark empire, is the true main villain of the series who is two steps ahead of Robin and who is practically untouchable until the very end.
Though this series may not be as fondly remembered as other adaptations it was still very influential on later BBC versions of Robin Hood.
Darrow’s Sheriff in particular would serve as something of a template for Nikolas Grace’s version in Robin of Sherwood and Keith Allen’s version in the BBC’s 00’s version of Robin Hood.
I’d rank Paul as one of the best Sheriff’s. I’d say that Alan Rickman’s in Robin Hood Prince of Thieves is probably the definitive version, but Paul’s is definitely a close second and I’d strongly recommend The Legend of Robin Hood to anyone as its a great series overall and definitely one of Paul’s best performances.
Kerr Avon/ Blake’s 7
His most famous role, Avon was in many ways the creation of Paul Darrow as much as he was Terry Nation.
Blake’s 7 revolved around a group of criminals. Led by a man named Roj Blake who tried to bring down a corrupt interstellar empire called the Federation in a stolen alien spaceship called The Liberator.
It was pitched as being essentially a Dirty Dozen and Robin Hood in Space. The fact that Avon was among Blake’s group of rebels makes this role the opposite to his performance as The Sheriff of Nottingham.
Avon, according to Nation was originally written to be a fairly bland character. He was to be the annoying guy who would complain all the time and be proved wrong by Blake. Darrow however gave the character such charisma and presence that the dynamic was changed. Instead Avon would often be shown to be in the right and even save the crew of the Liberator many times.
Avon was a truly groundbreaking character in so many ways. It would be wrong to say that Blake’s 7 was the first genre series to focus on a character who was a total, irredeemable bastard. Lost in Space, which came over 10 years earlier than Blake’s 7 had focused on the villainous Doctor Zachary Smith.
When he first appeared Doctor Smith was willing to murder women and children for his own ends, and though he did calm down as time went on he always remained a greedy, selfish, cowardly, backstabbing weasel of a man. Despite this or more likely because of it he was the most popular character in the series, and the show very quickly began to focus entirely on him.
Doctor Smith however, though he was the main character, was never shown to be right. He was often portrayed as being too stupid to live, and he always had to be rescued by the more heroic characters around him. Each episode would often end with Doctor Smith being humiliated in some hilariously over the top fashion, whether that was being tossed out of a moving spaceship, hung from a tree, being forced to listen to the Robot’s awful singing, or wait on the Robinsons hand and foot for several weeks after he turned their spaceship into an intergalactic hotel.
Doctor Smith was also a comical character too, and indeed Lost in Space itself became one of the first sci fi comedies as time went on thanks to Smith’s influence. Its greatest influence can be found in the likes of Red Dwarf and Futurama with Dr Smith himself having been cited as an influence on the likes of Bender and Arnold Rimmer.
Avon however in contrast to Doctor Smith was often shown to be correct. Morally he was just as corrupt as Doctor Smith. He only really cared for himself. He was happy to shoot people in the back, and had it not been for Blake. He would have happily sold the Federation the secrets of the Liberator to buy his freedom. Not caring that it would have made them even more powerful and able to inflict devastation on more planets across the universe.
Nevertheless his ruthless and callous actions often saved the day. A classic example of this is in the episode Star Rats when Avon is forced to sacrifice a scientist in order to save the rest of the crew. This would have been unthinkable in Lost in Space. I can easily imagine Doctor Smith being happy to let someone die, but the difference is that an alternative solution would have been found and Doctor Smith would have been made to pay by the writers for his evil actions.
Here not only are the crew forced to go along with Avon’s actions and murder an innocent woman, but at the end of the episode when Avon says he got them out of that and someone brings up her name, Avon actually quips “who?”
In one episode Avon even tries to murder his longest serving ally Vila when the two are trapped on a spaceship that is crashing. Avon is told by the ships computer that jettisoning Vila will stop the crash, and Avon instantly without a seconds thought tries to kill Vila. He actively hunts Vila through the ship with a gun.
Avon shows absolutely no remorse or hesitation. He talks in a perfectly calm voice trying to lure Vila in whilst holding a gun in his hand “Vila where are you. I need your help. I know how they sabotaged us, but I can’t do it alone please help me” Vila who knows what he is planning, is show to be cowering in a box crying! The actor who played Vila, Michael Keating added this aspect to the scene as he felt it was appropriate. Avon and Vila had never had a good relationship, but Avon had always helped Vila when it mattered.
Vila was the least popular member of the crew. Dayna viewed him as a creepy lech (which he was) whilst Tarrant always enjoyed bullying him and even threatened to kill him, telling Vila that he could throw him off the ship and no one would care as they all hated him. Avon later threatened to kill Tarrant if he did this again and told him that Vila was for more useful to them than Tarrant ever was. In many ways among the current crew Avon was the closest thing Vila had to a friend. Vila even told Avon that he felt safe with him. With this in mind for Vila to see Avon actually try and murder him without a seconds hesitation is a truly devastating blow to the character.
Though Avon does manage to find a way to save them both at the end of the episode. He is once again completely unapologetic about the fact that he did still try to kill Vila. He even makes a joke about his actions to an angry Vila at the end of the episode.
Its a trip I won’t forget Avon.
Come now Vila as you always say you know you are safe with me!
Much like Doctor Smith though he started out as just a supporting character from the end of season 2. Avon became the main protagonist of the series and by far away the most popular among viewers. To this day ask anyone who saw Blake’s 7 on television and the first and possibly only thing they will remember will be Avon.
Avon would prove very influential on many subsequent anti heroes in popular culture. Blake’s 7 though often slated for its shakey sets was ironically the blue print for almost all modern fantasy and sci fi series like Game of Thrones, Babylon 5, Firefly, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
It did all the things these series did first. It was the first genre series to have ongoing story arcs. Previous series like Star Trek and Doctor Who’s stories were most often stand alone (most television series did this for syndication and sales abroad, as often they would not be repeated in order and therefore it was felt it would be easier for people to jump in at any point.) Blake’s 7 however broke new ground by having the episodes all work their way up to a climactic season finale which is now the norm.
It also was the first to regularly kill main characters. Again nowadays its odd NOT to have half the cast of a series at least die violent horrible deaths, but back when Blake’s 7 started it was unprecedented. Blake’s 7 made George R Martin look like a light weight. It literally killed all but one main character (possibly two) throughout its 4 year run. It was also the first to end on a real downer. Again nowadays most genre series in Britain certainly will have bleak endings, but Blake’s 7 was the first to really establish that trend.
Finally Blake’s 7 was also the first to present us with Avon an unsympathetic character who beat up women, shot people in the back, betrayed his friends, was happy to give a fascist regime advanced technology, as the character who actually saved the day, and only ever won because of the dirty tactics he employed.
It was a whole new type of hero. Certainly as far removed from the likes of previous British sci fi heroes such as the Doctor and Dan Dare as you can imagine, but also worlds away from the idiotic Doctor Smith. With Avon, Paul Darrow essentially created the modern 21st century anti hero.
There were many different layers to Avon’s character however. He wasn’t just a black hearted villain. Though obviously his anti hero qualities were what made him stand out, but at the same time Darrow gave what I felt was a very nuanced performance and was able to show a lot of interesting different sides to this seemingly villainous person.
It was obvious in spite of how self serving he could be that he did care about certain members of the crew. He and Blake did clearly care about each other. It was subtle but you could see it there as Avon in spite of everything that happened, still never did turn his back on Blake and after he left was desperate to save him.
Blake for his part later said in one of his last moments with Avon that he had always trusted Avon from the very beginning. Little did Blake know that when they first met, Avon did try and betray him. He tried to convince Jenna to leave Blake to die on the planet Cygnus Alpha and run off with the money of the Liberator. His speech to Jenna telling her that if they both stay with Blake they will end up dead as he can’t win against the Federation rings eerily true when you consider the ending of the series. Still what’s interesting about Blake (who didn’t know this ) confession of having always trusted Avon, is that we do see a look of guilt on Avon’s face. It’s probably the only time we ever see him show any kind of remorse though he quickly gets over it.
Avon was also shown to have romantic feelings for another member of the crew, Cally. It was unclear just how much he did care for her, but many episodes show him being prepared to go the extra mile to help her above all the others, whilst other episodes show him still being prepared to leave her to die.
Most interesting is in the episode Horizon when Cally teleports down to rescue the others and Avon pleads with her more than he did with anyone else not to go. Though he hides it, its obvious that he cares about her more than all the other members of the crew combined, yet when she does go down and is captured too. Avon ultimately plans to leave her and the rest of the crew without a seconds thought. He does end up saving them all, but it’s only because he later discovered that he couldn’t survive on his own without the other members of the ship.
Its a rather humorous moment when Avon works out with the ships computer Orac how he can survive. Orac tells him that once he makes it to the neutral area of space he will be okay, but that if he is pursued by three Federation ships before he gets to the neutral space, there is no way he can escape them on his own. Avon then plots a course for the neutral space perfectly happy to leave Cally and the others to be imprisoned, enslaved, tortured and even killed, but just as soon he sets off he is pounced on by three federation ships and realises that he will have to save the others after all.
Paul Darrow has said that he never saw Avon as being evil more just pragmatic to the point where he appeared callous. He was someone who lived in a very difficult time and unlike Blake was not idealistic, and often did what had to be done not only for his own sake, but for the rest of the crew.
He was a fascinating character and again whilst the writing of the show was top notch credit must go to Paul Darrow not only for his performance, but also because it was he who really made Avon into what he was.
Terry Nation the creator of the series said in an interview when asked about the popularity of Avon.
” Paul Darrow took hold of the part and made it his own. It could have been a very dull role, but this particular actor took part of it and gave it much better dimensions than I ever gave it on paper.”
Avon was possibly the only main character who definitely did not die at the end of the series. The only character who didn’t die for sure was the evil Servalan.
In the last episode Avon tracks Blake who has been MIA for two whole years down, but thanks to misunderstanding he believes that Blake has betrayed them all and actually kills him before Blake can explain himself. Throughout series 4 it is hinted that Avon is in fact going insane.
Its a brilliant twist Avon, the laid back cynic from the earlier series is unable to cope after becoming leader, and after he loses both Cally and the Liberator; you can see him gradually begin to descend into madness.
One episode in series 4 sees him burst into a fit of demented laughter after Servalan (who he has become obsessed with killing, after she killed Cally) not only escapes his latest attempt on her life, but actually tricks him into risking his own life and the lives of his crew into making her rich!
I love the way the other members of the crew are angry at Avon at first, but then when he starts laughing like the Joker they get scared. You can see even they are thinking “has he snapped?”
If he didn’t lose it then, then he most certainly goes insane after he murders Blake. When the Federation troops storm the base, and one by one slaughter the entire crew, Avon doesn’t even react. Even when they are calling to him for help, he doesn’t react. The final shot sees him standing over Blake’s corpse smiling once again in a way that indicates he has completely lost his marbles before it cuts off and we just hear gunshots.
To this day many people have argued that Avon survived, but since no sequel was ever made and since he’s surrounded by about 70 heavily armed guys then yeah he is most assuredly dead.
Truly one of if not the greatest ending to any television series. Even by today’s standards this would be bold. Game of Thrones looks like Watch with Mother compared to this ending.
Paul Darrow and Terry Nation did try and produce a sequel mini series in the 90’s which would have revealed that Avon was taken alive so as not to make him a martyr. Avon would then have been put into exile like Napoleon and would have had to have made public announcements decrying the resistance regularly to crush its hope. Many years later however Avon would escape and lead a new team of rebels against the Federation. The series would have ended with Avon’s death finally bringing an end to the series.
Whilst this sequel was never made Darrow has gone on to reprise the role in numerous Big Finish audios of Blake’s 7 set before the last episode.
Blake’s 7 remains a cult classic to this day have established a loyal following all over the world. Paul Darrow has always been proud of the work he did as Avon and is still a regular at conventions all over the world.
With Avon Darrow achieved what all actors really want. That one character that is not only perfect for them, but also a enduring character that will always be remembered.
Captain Hawkins/ Maylin Tekker/ Doctor Who
Paul Darrow appeared in two Doctor Who stories Doctor Who and the Silurians and Timelash.
Of the two of them The Silurains is far better. Its easily one of the best Doctor Who stories ever made. Sadly Paul doesn’t have the biggest role in it. He’s just a generic UNIT soldier, though he is in it right the way through. He still doesn’t make it quite to the end as he is killed by one of the Silurians.
Timelash which he has a bigger role in is sadly often regarded as one of the worst ever episodes of Doctor Who.
Now Timelash sadly is in a lot of ways as bad as people make out. It suffers from a rushed script, shoddy direction and some very poor production values. There are however some positive elements to the story that I feel get unfairly overlooked. It was ironically a trend setter, as this was the first story that saw the Doctor travel with someone important from history, with their adventure with the Doctor subsequently inspiring their most famous work.
Many stories in the revival have followed this same formula, such as The Unquite Dead, Vincent and the Doctor, and The Shakespeare Code. Added to that the make up for the Borad is among the most effective for any monster in the history of the series.
So overall the story is not without merit.
Paul Darrows performance meanwhile is very over the top, but personally I felt it was one of the most entertaining aspects of the story.
The great thing about Maylin Tekker is that he is a classic example of a big ego, small name type of a badguy. He is nothing more than just a crappy little lackey with no charisma, intelligence, or anything special, yet he thinks he can be the one who finally defeats the Doctor. What’s brilliant is that the Doctor has nothing but contempt for him. He doesn’t even have a kind of grudging respect for him that he has for say the Master. He just views him as a little worm.
Ah my dear Tekker still living in other people’s shadow’s are we.
In spite of this however he is not entirely without merit. When he discovers that the Borad plans to destroy his people, he sacrifices himself in a futile effort to stop him. Even the Doctor is shocked at this.
The character is more than just a boring lackey and I think Paul’s performance benefits the character as the fact that it is so over the top really gives you an idea that this character is so full of himself based on nothing!
One of the good things about Paul being in Timelash was that Colin Baker who plays the Doctor in this story had previously appeared in an episode of Bake’s 7 as a villain called Bayban the butcher.
Colin completely stole the show as the gloriously over the top villain and he often joked that Timelash was Paul’s revenge, as he got to appear as an even more over the top villain on Colin’s show later on. The sad thing for Paul is that the episode of Blake’s 7 Colin was in, is often regarded as one of the best episodes of the whole series, so I suppose Colin still has one over on him that way.
Big Finish needs to get these two in something again.
Over the years Paul’s name has been linked to the role of the Doctor. Though contrary to popular belief Paul was not going to play the role with Sarah Michelle Gellar as his companion in the 00’s. That rumour started out as a joke when Paul after being asked if he would have ever wanted to play the Doctor, said that it would be fun, and that he would love Buffy to be his sidekick.
Paul is a massive fan of Joss Whedon’s work including Buffy, Angel and Firefly. However later in typical fashion it was misreported as Sarah Michelle Gellar and Blake’s 7 star in new Doctor Who. Sadly neither were ever in the running, though that would have been brilliant.
Paul would have made an excellent Doctor. Hopefully he can still play the role in a Doctor Who Unbound audio story one day for Big Finish.
Paul Darrow provided the voice for the main villain in this classic video game.
Zarok is a hideous demonic wizard who raised an army of zombies, shadow demons and gargoyles to conquer the land of Gallowmere, and at the end of the game he changes into a gigantic dragon like creature.
Though Zarok is pure evil. He is a somewhat more comedic villain. Described as being as camp as a row of tents, Paul has great fun hamming up the characters grandiloquent dialogue.
Funniest of all is his death when after having been beat by his archenemy the living skeleton Daniel Fortesque, he tries to kill him by making his own castle fall to bits. Whilst in the middle of an evil laugh however a piece of debris falls on Zarok and crushes him to death, with only his arms sticking out the side.
Darrow also supplied the voice for many other gargoyles and demons and monsters throughout the game too.
Paul later went on to reprise his role for MediEvil Resurrection a remake of the game on the PSP.
Grand Moff Tarkin/ Star Wars Empire at War
Darrow voiced this character originated by Peter Cushing in the first Star Wars film. Darrow was good friends with Cushing in real life and says that it was an honour to take over a role from him.
The character much like in the original film is just a straight forward bad guy, but Paul like Cushing imbues him with enough authority and menace to make the character effective.
Paul is one of the few actors to appear in the Blake’s 7, Doctor Who and Star Wars franchises.
Duncan Clench/Toast of London
Paul Darrow appeared in this classic, surrealist British comedy starring Matt Berry. It’s hardly surprising as Matt Berry is a fan of British science fiction series such as Doctor Who and Blake’s 7. There are many other references to and actors from these series in Toast of London, such as Peter Davison (The 5th Doctor) and Louise Jameson (Leela the companion to the 4th Doctor).
Darrow’s character Duncan Clench is the director of a ridiculous play that Berry’s character Toast is starring in. Unfortunately Clench’s boyfriend who is a cyclops is jealous of Toast because after having only met him for a few minutes. Clench falls in love with Toast and his boyfriend drowns him in a jealous rage.
Despite his apparent death, Clench later shows up and scolds Toast for directing his play. Though Clench claims he survived. The implication is that he is a ghost, as he is still dripping wet and is suddenly able to teleport around the room.
Its a classic example of the crazy humour of the show and Darow is suitably creepy as the ghostly yet still snobby director.
Paul recently appeared a the main villain Lord Rathan in the audio drama series Minister of Chance alongside such other big names as Jenny Agutter and Sylvester McCoy. Sadly I haven’t had a chance to listen to this series yet, but it has proven to be very popular so much so that there is even a facebook page with thousands of likes to try and get a film adaptation made of it.
Darrow has also provided voices for other computer games including another Star Wars game Star Wars the Old Republic. He also had a recurring role on Law and Order UK throughout its entire run as Judge Prentice and in 2009 he appeared in a recurring role in Emmerdale Farm as Eddy Fox.
Sadly in 2015 Darrow suffered an aortic aneurysm. Though he survived both his legs were partially amputated and he now uses a wheelchair.
Much like with Tim Curry who is also in a wheelchair now as a result of a stroke. Its sad seeing a childhood hero who was so full of life suffer such from such a debilitating condition, but at the same time its also incredibly inspiring in both cases the way both men have continued to work, and remained in such good spirits throughout.
Darrow continues to work with Big Finish and lend his voice to video games, documentaries and is still a regular at conventions around the world.
Whilst he has had a long and steady career on television he will forever be Avon which is a pretty good thing, considering Avon is easily one of the greatest television characters of all time.
Some B7 inacuracies, however still one of the best paul darrow articles I have read anywhere on the net.
Terrific article. Thanks.
You are wrong about Avon. He only WANTS too be heartless and ruthless. In fact, his behaviour shows him to be a complex man of deep enduring emotions, driven by them and not able to control them.
Take “Orbit”, which you referenced, when Avon tried to jettison Vila. Except, he didn’t, not really. Avon always speaks to Vila in a tone of contempt and scorn, but when he was hunting Vila through the ship, he was speaking in this coaxing, cooing voice, guaranteed to put Vila on the alert. As soon as he found the neutron star, he reverted to barking out orders. Conclusion: although Avon was trying to do the ruthless thing, he was undermined by his emotional nature…his “better nature” and couldn’t really go ahead….
The key to Avon is Anna Grant. He loved and lost her, as he believed, to the Federation s torturers. When some people lose love, they resolve never to be hurt again. This is why Avon has such conflict over Blake. Like the rest, he feels Blake’s charisma, but he resists it. He says he despises Blake, but he doesn’t leave. He protects and saves him, at risk to himself.
After Anna is revealed to be a double agent, that’s when Avon begins to lose it. Perhaps he tracks down Blake in order to kill him, and be rid of anyone who can affect him, forever.
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I don’t think Avon wanted to track Blake down to kill him. I think its when he thinks Blake betrayed him that he finally loses his entire grip on reality, as at that point its like “NOT AGAIN!”
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I’m surprised you haven’t included Mr Darrows role as Thomas Doughty in Drake’s Venture in your (otherwise) excellent article. I found this TV film only recently on YouTube and, apart from Blake’s 7, I think it is the best role I have seen him in. In my opinion he steals the show from its star, which when you consider said star is John Thaw and Darrow’s character only appears in half the film, this is quite some feat. Given that it was made in 1980, presumably after the last series of B7, it couldn’t be more different than his role as Avon, and therefore shows his versatility as an actor. If you haven’t seen it (unlikely if you are a Darrow fan), then I urge you to do so, even given that the picture quality on YouTube is poor.