Interview: Stephen Greif on Blake's 7
With Sky One set to remake Dalek creator Terry Nation's Blake's 7, DoG chats with the original actor behind leather-clad villain Travis...
The estate of Terry Nation is in very good shape these days, with the Daleks remaining unchallengeable as the favourite villain of Doctor Who fans worldwide. In addition, Nation’s excellent 1977 post-apocalypse saga Survivors is currently being remade by the BBC. Late last week, Sky One announced that Nation’s 1970s space-opera Blake’s 7 is also the subject of a remake.
Quite handy news, as we only recently had a chat with Blake’s 7’s archest male villain, in the form of well-respected actor Stephen Greif.
Greif played Travis, the eye-patch wearing, leather-clad villain of the series, a psychopath only nominally in the service of his ‘master’, the glamorous Servalan (Jacqueline Pearce). At the same period that Greif played Travis, he was cast as Tooting mob-boss Harry Fenning in the hugely popular UK sitcom Citizen Smith, and became concerned that he might end up as a generic ‘TV heavy’…
Were you picked for the role of Travis, or did you audition for it?
I was very friendly with Paul Darrow, who was already playing Avon in [Blake’s 7]. He had played my defence counsel in a thing called Killers in the mid-seventies, and we just became great friends. We were movie buffs and we met at the BBC while I was doing Citizen Smith, and he was doing Blake’s 7. We just struck up a conversation, as you do, and he said ‘Listen, they're looking for this character’…he described [Travis] as an intergalactic Jack Palance. Well, the imagination boggles.
They had seen people and they couldn’t find anybody suitable, and Paul thought that I might be, so I rang my agent on Monday - this was Sunday - and told him to get me an interview with the producer, which he did. I went to see the producer the following afternoon, I think. It was in this little office in the BBC. We liked each other right away, and our interview lasted for about ten minutes. He explained what it was and I said ‘great’. I got home two hours later and the phone rang. I got the part and that was that.
Did you have any hesitation, because of Harry Fenning, that you might be beginning to play a number of TV heavies?
Good question. Not then, no, because Harry was a publican and this fella was a sort of a space ranger. I didn’t associate the two at all, actually. They were heavies, but they were different kinds of heavies.
So this became a concern later on?
Yes - oh yes. I suddenly got very frightened by it all, but at the time – no, I thought it was good. I thought I had made a good decision. There were directors I had worked with before…Michael E. Bryant, for instance, who I liked very much. Worked with him a couple of times. And wonderful director Dougie Camfield.
I was considered to play the lead in Howard’s Way when it was first done, and one of the directors wanted me very much, but the other did not. The other got his way, I think rightly, because the chap who played that part - Maurice Colbourne - was extremely good, and better suited to the role.
Did you have any input from Terry Nation for Travis?
Not at all. I didn’t really know who Terry Nation was, to be frank with you. Well, I knew he'd been connected with Doctor Who but I wasn’t a Doctor Who fan.
Did you approach this psychotic character looking for background and motivation, or did you think that was a little bit too much for the kind of series that it was?
It wasn’t evident in the script, and so there was no point in trying to alter it at that stage. Later on I would have just broadened him out a bit, but at the time it was fairly clear he was a pretty psychotic army man who always accomplished what he took on. He liked killing, he liked orders, and the more killing that the orders involved, the better. If it was someone who had duffed him up, then it was meat and two veg to him, so that was all. But in retrospect, it would have been nice to just pepper him occasionally with a bit more humour…you know, not so black and white.
You probably had the best opportunity to define him in Duel, which was really a ‘Blake and Travis’ episode. Was that an opportunity you took to deepen the character and flesh him out?
It was my favourite episode, because Gareth and I were old friends. We'd been at drama school. I like Gareth a lot. We got on very well, and most of the episode was about us. It needed altering, and nobody was against doing that in those days. They were all good authors; never minded the scripts being altered. They didn’t know who was going to be playing the parts, so they presumably realised the actors that [took on the roles], and cut and tailored it to suit them a bit.
Even so, it didn’t really provide an opportunity to delve very much deeper, but it had more opportunities for conflict in the scenes with he and I. We weren’t just talking about each other in different worlds or different space ships, we were actually there in the New Forest. We were also up in space somewhere, as far as I can remember. It was a deeper episode, but there weren’t very many opportunities to add strings to the character’s bow, if you know what I mean
Towards the end, Travis shows some remorse about the possible death / murder by Servalan of the Surgeon who saved him, at which point we begin to see that this is not a total ‘mad dog’, but a person with some kind of loyalty, and feeling. If you had known that Travis would get such exposure in series two, would you have liked to have seen that gone on and developed?
Absolutely, without question. You’re very good about all this!
I've been watching and immersing in Blake’s 7 for weeks…
You've really done your homework [laughs]. The answer is yes…David Maloney - the producer, whom I really liked - represented values that have very much gone now. Because I am very old fashioned I'm afraid I like all those old values, and he said that they would like me to come back and would I like to do it, and I said that I didn’t want to, because I didn’t want to repeat the process.
It seemed to be very boring, and I wanted to have more input if possible. I wanted him to broaden out a bit and not become so two-dimensional. I thought four and a half episodes were quite enough of being two dimensional, and we needed to expand it a bit.
After a very slow start, Brian Croucher took the character in a different and new direction. Is that one you would have been comfortable with? The cowboy renegade look is very different from the way you were taking the character…?
No, I didn’t see any of Brian's stuff apart from a little tiny bit, and I did see that he had given it his take, and that was fine, but the little I saw that was Brian's take wouldn’t have been my take. As I say, I would have done it, but later I changed my mind - through greed really. I'd had an accident and I had broken my Achilles tendon, which is not a nice thing to do, and that had ruled me out of a very good series that I had got a part in called Out, and I was pretty upset about that.
That’s why, in the fifth episode, half the time you only see me from the waist down in the studio. That was somebody else, and I came in later and voiced over that part.
Did that exclude you from more exposure in Blake’s 7? Did they actually cut you out of another episode?
So it didn’t have too much of an impact on the filming?
No, we had done the filming already. In fact it was the filming that was the stumbling block for the second series, because I had agreed with my agent to appear in twelve episodes, and that I would have more input. It was non-specific, the input aspect, but it was on a trust basis, and I am sure it would have worked out just fine.
But then I was offered a very good caper-movie in the south of France, a very good part, and it conflicted with the filming of Blake’s 7. So the film came first and - in a way - it was my compensation for having lost the series Out, this movie. So that was that.
Croucher's Travis had this very small eye patch, whereas your Travis had this enormous make-up. I know that many actors like an accoutrement of that nature to help them get into the character. Was that an aid to you or was it an obstruction?
It was an obstruction at first, because it was clearly difficult to see through it, but I suggested putting a pin prick through the patch, which immediately broadened my vision and also led to a mysterious kind of quality, because every time the studio lights caught it, it caught my eye inside; you would see the odd glint, and that was kind of interesting. That was an accident, but I didn’t question the patch - I thought it was a good idea. It lent all kinds of history, and I liked that, but it was necessary to put that little pin prick in it
Paul Darrow eventually had some input into his own costume. Did you have any input into Travis’s ‘biker’ look, with the black leather?
No, not as such. There was a terrific costume designer…I think her name was Barbara Lott. If I am wrong, I apologise to her, but she was really good. We went to this place called ‘Hard Core Leather’ in Chelsea. They were selling all sorts of other things, including costumes in leather [laughs], and we had it made up there. It looked fine.
The show came around in the era of punk and anti-government sentiment. Is this a good time for a new reiteration of Blake’s 7?
I don’t know. I think we have come along so far with science fiction since 1978, that I really just don’t know. I am delighted that Doctor Who has had a good response and is working so well, but there are so many of them. I mean, I have been to conventions where there are stars from series that I have never even heard of…you know, in America, Babylon 5…?
I do know now, but I didn’t then, because I didn’t follow it. There’s Battlestar Galactica and stuff like that, there are any number of them…so I don’t know what you could do with it. Also, the public expect a certain degree of technical expertise. The charm of Blake’s 7 was that it was so cheap. You could see the scenery moving. Everything was amateurish. But the British love that.
Do you think it holds up as drama, in spite these things, 30 years later?
I don’t know, Martin, because I haven’t seen any of them lately. I saw one episode some years ago, when the DVD was being released. I commentated on it with a couple of others of the cast, including Jackie Pearce, but I don’t know whether it would. I suspect I watched an episode of The Brothers the other night, and I was totally gripped by it. It was so simple, so easy to follow, and the problems were no different to some of the problems that exist today, or before. So maybe if I like The Brothers, I would like Blake’s 7 again. I haven’t seen it for years and years.
Talking about Jacqueline Pearce, Servalan flirted with many in the series, but do you think Travis was maybe a little too ‘double-Y chromosome’ for her? A little bit too psychotic? She didn’t seem to flirt too much with him?
Yes. I don’t think that was ever on. Maybe in the second series, possibly. It didn’t seem right to me, and I don’t think to her. It was also kind of odd, acting against somebody who was dressed up like that. Bizarre, but she carried it off terribly well, I thought. It was a good counter-balance really
Was it a fun series to work on?
Oh I loved it. I loved every minute of it. I loved it because of the people. We all became great friends and we all wanted it to work. We all worked very hard on it. The director was great, the producer was a good guy, and yes, I loved it. It was good fun.
Are you surprised at the kind of adulation you receive at conventions and the great interest in the character?
Well, I'm not anymore, but I was at the time. I dismissed it as soon as I had done it. I was doing a lot of work at that time, and, you know, it was just another telly for me, although it was my first series. Well, no, Citizen Smith was my first series, but I said ‘no’ to conventions for years. Then, suddenly, Paul again rang me and said ‘Look, I've got this American thing and I think you'll have a really good time with it. They treat you well and it’s good fun’, and I thought ‘Oh hell, go on, I'll do it’. And I wished I'd done it ten years earlier, because it was everything he said it was. It was great fun, and I still do them, and I still like them. They are fun things to do.
Are you a Science Fiction fan? Is there anything in the genre of sci-fi that kind of grabs you besides Blake’s 7?
No, I am not interested in Torchwood. Doesn’t interest me.
Me neither actually.
[laughs] I have seen a few of the latest Doctor Who's, and they’re ok, but they have become a bit…I had better be careful here, hadn’t I? Probably we [Blake’s 7] were the same, the tendency to become a little ‘samey’ after a while. And you lose interest in them, and it’s not new anymore.
David's persona is quite different to some of the others, like say Tom or Colin Baker, both of whom I liked a lot, but that’s old fashioned of me to say that, because they were old fashioned and I'm old fashioned. David's the new generation, so that’s why he’s so popular he’s also a very good actor.
Is there anything you could say to the younger Doctor Who fans to perhaps recommend them to Blake’s 7, despite it’s older production values? What was the quality of the series to you, something that perhaps attracted you at the time and is still valid?
I think it was character-driven, and that’s really what counts in the end. The fact that the effects were fairly - you know - not slick in the way that Star Wars was…but then they had a hundred times more budget than we did, and rightly so. That doesn’t really come into it. It’s the stories, really, and the interrelation of characters which I think always interests people.
I have to tell you, if they put The Brothers back on TV, I'd certainly be watching it. They’re never going to do it; it’s far too dated, but the stories work. That opening episode that I saw the other day really works because it sets up the characters and their conflicts, and if you become interested in the characters, you become interested in their conflicts.
That’s why I think Blake’s worked - because you had one set of characters verses another set of characters and the problems were thrown in to see what the mix would be like, and generally it was pretty good. The characters were likeable. People liked them, and I think you can take them anywhere as long as you establish that the chemistry is good with everybody.
Are you doing any more Blake’s conventions this year?
No. I did one last year, and I think there will be another one this year because of the 30th anniversary.
Is it an annoying thing to be associated with one role so strongly?
No, not really. It doesn’t come into the equation. You do other stuff, and if people want to remember that, then that’s fine by me.
Stephen Greif, thank you very much!