As the second Doctor Who Patrick Troughton once exclaimed: “The future is in the past!” It’s hard to believe that Blake’s 7 is 40 years old. The primetime BBC1 sci-fi drama series was launched in the New Year schedules of 1978, with episode one The Way Back debuting on Monday 2nd January.
The adventures of a band of freedom-fighters battling a corrupt Earth Federation and stumbling upon an ultramodern alien starship, the Liberator, Blake’s 7 was the brainchild of Terry Nation. He was already fêted for creating Doctor Who’s Daleks in the 1960s and another BBC1 sci-fi-ish hit of the 1970s, Survivors.
Despite a restrictive budget and starting within a week of the original UK cinema release of Star Wars, Blake’s 7 was rarely short of ambition and quickly became a hit, averaging 9.22m viewers for its first series. In 1978, producer David Maloney told Radio Times: “We’ve got something Star Wars doesn’t have – time to develop our plot, characters and action. They’ve got two hours we’ve got 12.”
Blake’s 7 drew on a lot of BBC talent who’d cut their teeth on Doctor Who. Maloney had directed several Who classics such as Genesis of the Daleks and Talons of Weng Chiang. He hired writers Robert Holmes and Chris Boucher, directors Michael E Briant and Douglas Camfield and designer Roger Murray-Leach. Dudley Simpson composed the stirring theme tune and incidental music.
The original heroic line-up comprised (L–R below): Sally Knyvette as the glam-but-tough space pilot Jenna; Paul Darrow as snide computer expert Avon; Michael Keating as cowardly thief Vila; Gareth Thomas as the stoic and pompous leader Blake; Jan Chappell as telepathic guerrilla Cally; and David Jackson as courageous strongman Gan. The Liberator’s omniscient computer Zen (voiced by Peter Tuddenham) completed the eponymous septet.
Despite awkward cast changes over the years – including the loss of Gareth Thomas and Sally Knyvette after series two – Blake’s 7 ran for four series and 52 episodes. It concluded, memorably, with a bloodbath for the heroes in 1981.
To celebrate Blake’s 7’s 40th anniversary, we’ve dug out some treats from the Radio Times Photo Archive.
In October 1977, Radio Times sent photographer Chris Ridley along to one of Blake’s 7’s early location shoots, at Oldbury-on-Severn power station in Bristol. This was for the fourth episode Time Squad, in which Blake, Avon and Vila first hooked up with Cally.
In the first two photos below the director of Time Squad Pennant Roberts appears in shot.
A trio of menacing Federation guards (below) in Time Squad.
On 22nd December 1977, Radio Times’s Don Smith photographed Paul Darrow as Avon on the Liberator set. Avon would go on to be the mainstay of the series after Blake’s departure.
Don Smith was on set again on 10th January 1978 to photograph episode eight, Duel. This was the second story to feature Stephen Greif as the Federation’s evil Commander Travis (below). It also guest-starred Isla Blair and Patsy Smart as two powerful aliens, Sinofar and Giroc.
Blake’s 7 often attracted a high-calibre guest cast. Here’s Brian Blessed as Vargas (below), the leader of a sadistic religious cult in episode three, Cygnus Alpha. (Photographed by Don Smith)
The indelibly memorable villain of the series was Servalan, Supreme Commander of the Federation, played with immense poise and sangfroid by Jacqueline Pearce. She appeared in 29 episodes, hot on the tail of Blake and his rebels, but unfortunately missing out on the very last shootout.
In 1995, there was a brief reunion for the original six cast members (L–R below): David Jackson, Jan Chappell, Gareth Thomas, Michael Keating, Paul Darrow and Sally Knyvette. They came together to promote the release of Blake's 7 on BBC Video. Photographed by Matthew Antrobus. (David Jackson died in 2005 and Gareth Thomas in 2016.)
Here’s the original three-page article heralding the start of Blake’s 7, published in the Christmas 1977/New Year 1978 double issue of Radio Times. (Click and drag, or click and save to read in full.)