Paul Darrow is an accomplished actor on stage and small screen, a prolific and respected voice artist and an occasional singer. Throughout a long and varied career, in which he has ensured that he always remained a “competitively priced” performer (his words), he has toured in numerous theatrical productions, tackled a wide variety of Shakespearean roles, entertained audiences in thrillers and whodunits, won critical plaudits for his portrayal of Elvis, featured in numerous television shows, and paid his dues in the realm of corporate training videos and after-dinner reviews.
Yet Darrow has long since come to terms with the fact that, regardless of the breadth and diversity of his thespian credentials, he will always be most readily associated with the TV role he played for just four years of a career that has already spanned more than five decades: that of Kerr Avon in the BBC’s space opera Blake’s 7.
While other actors in a similar position have railed against the consequences of so strong a popular connection between themselves and a single, defining TV role, Darrow is far more sanguine. He had already established himself as a successful actor before Blake’s 7, and went on to build the kind of impressive and broadly grounded career that would be the envy of most jobbing TV actors working today. At the same time he has not, like several of his Blake’s 7 colleagues, sought to distance himself from his portrayal of Avon, or to denigrate in any way the affection and esteem in which the series is held by its many adherents. Indeed, he has been closely involved in several attempts to revive and regenerate the series over the years, and, in addition to writing B7 novels, has become an enthusiastic participant in Big Finish’s range of audio adventures set within the timeframe of the original TV series.
Darrow’s 2006 autobiography You’re Him, Aren’t You? was a well received (and a well written) account of the actor’s lengthy and rather distinguished career, which gave a satisfying amount of space over to his work as a young, breakthrough actor, before turning attention to Blake’s 7, fandom, and reflections on the pleasures and pitfalls of the actor’s life. This audio reading of the book is comprehensive and complete, taking up seven discs in total, and is unquestionably a substantial body of work for any listener to commit to. The good news is that this hugely entertaining, witty and insightful work is more than worth the investment in time and money.
Starting with a warm, but unsentimental, account of his early family life and his time at different schools (leading to some impressive anecdotes about his time as a wily young cadet), Darrow then sets out, in an equally unaffected way, the challenges of launching himself as an actor. As his career begins to take off, Darrow offers real insights into life as a member of a touring repertory company, and the realities of life on the road. It is territory that many actors have explored in their memoirs, but Darrow avoids the usual clichés (of tyrannical landladies and empty matinees) and offers instead some original and revealing perspectives on the world of the roving performer. His descriptions of overseas tours are especially evocative, and full of encouraging recommendations about places the listener should visit.
An experienced vocal performer, Darrow gives life to his own words with a command and confidence that appears effortless. Not only is he a first-rate raconteur, Darrow also has the ability to make the telling of his tale feel up close and personal. This is not someone broadcasting their life history; instead it feels like someone attentively recounting the story of their career to a single listener. Throughout the work, Darrow addresses his audience directly, anticipating their reaction to events, answering their questions, and acknowledging their likely areas of interest.
Darrow’s description of the time, in the 1980s, that he took the lead role in Are You Lonesome Tonight?, a stage play based on the life of Elvis Presley, is particularly striking and conjures up some memorable images (leaving every listener on tenterhooks in case Darrow takes advantage of the audio format to burst into song, which, sadly, he does not). A self-confessed Shakespeare buff, Darrow’s love of the Bard’s plays also shines through in each description of the many leading and supporting roles he has played.
Darrow is well aware that that most of those following his life story are eager to hear tales of Avon and Blake’s 7. He takes the opportunity to revisit his work on the series in two different ways; firstly, by providing his own brief (and very perceptive) assessment of each episode in the entire run; and then, secondly, by recalling a whole number of intriguing behind-the-scenes stories about the making of the show. He provides much thoughtful consideration of the nature of Avon, a character he perceives as a mixture of “Steve McQueen and Elvis Presley with a little touch of Richard Nixon”. Throughout the discussion, he remains generous when giving credit, and highlights fellow actors, writers and directors for praise, reserving his most fulsome appreciation for the show’s creator, Terry Nation. He is equally positive in his assessment of the role of fandom, and the experience of amateur and intimate (and professional and large scale) conventions. Candid about his own relationship with loyal fans of the show, his is both an affectionate and a non-saccharine view.
Exhibiting good humour throughout, this is no salacious tale of gossip and intrigue and contains no hint of score-settling. Rather, this is a generous and inclusive tale that focuses on the risks and rewards of the actor’s craft. “I never promised you sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, did I?”, he asserts at one point. While this doesn’t offer the raw and uncensored personal exposure of Jacqueline Pearce’s recent Call Me Jacks, Darrow is clearly comfortable with the answer to the question You’re Him, Aren’t You?. When he describes Avon as forever “hovering at my shoulder”, a character that “refuses to be abandoned”, there is little sense of resentment in the observation. Rather, it’s a reality that Darrow has long since reconciled himself to.
Honest enough to acknowledge his disappointment at not securing significant film roles, Darrow accepts that he has attained “a kind of celebrity” and wonders what future possibilities might still come his way. Though clearly committed to many more years of stage work, voicing documentaries, dramas and trailers, putting in TV appearances (and doing other less expected things), his anticipation of the obituaries that will appear in the popular press on his passing are as hilarious as they are self-effacing. Delivered with the kind of captivating vocal qualities that give drama directors goosebumps, and imbued with a sense of wry self-deprecation and professional modesty that come across as entirely genuine, this is consistently absorbing storytelling. When Avon calls, you want to listen.
YOU’RE HIM, AREN’T YOU? / WRITTEN AND READ BY PAUL DARROW / DIRECTOR: LISA BOWERMAN / PUBLISHER: BIG FINISH / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW