VFX: ANDY LAZELL
Andy Lazell worked on the special effects for a variety of TV series including Doctor Who, The Goodies and Shoestring. He played a major part in the visual effects work on Blake's 7 across Series A, B & D.
Here he remembers his time on the show...
I had been working at the BBC since 1968 and in the Visual Effects Department since 1974, and had worked on quite a few shows before Blake’s 7. The series had been allocated to Ian Scoones as the designer and I became involved as his assistant; Steve Bowman was the other assistant so the three of us were the first special effects team on the series. Later on we were joined by Martin Bower.
One of the biggest jobs was working with the Liberator which was actually designed by the set designer, Roger Murray Leach. I remember that Ian wasn’t too happy about this as it meant that his design was scrapped. The Liberator looked good but it was a beast to work with. More on this later! As an assistant I wasn’t really involved with the budget, but I seem to recall that most of the FX budget for the first series was spent in the first few days! There was a lot of shooting at Bray studios but a lot of that footage was used over and over so it was deemed a worthwhile expense. But money was certainly tight! The pressure was always there and as each series progressed resources would be stretched thinner and thinner. And of course we were all increasingly exhausted as filming went on.
Apart from the spaceship models and some of the prop guns which Ian Scoones had made outside the BBC, Steve Bowman and myself made all the other special props for series one. None of us really specialised but my area of expertise was electronics, since I had joined Visual Effects from BBC Engineering. I made a lot of speed controllers for low voltage motors and model lighting. I also built Orac including all the electronics. It was designed by Matt Irvine and I was responsible for putting it together. It was featured very heavily in the episodes and had to stand up to close scrutiny. Although it looks dated now, Orac was actually quite a complicated prop. Even the key was a working prop which triggered the lighting circuits.
During Series B, the special effects workload was split between Mat Irvine, Peter Pegrum and myself. Mat Irvine was responsible for the Model Filming and Peter and I worked together on the physical effects and prop making for the location filming and studio recording. One of the happiest elements about working on Blake’s 7 was the fantastic camaraderie between the rest of the production team and the actors. We all spent a lot of time together especially when location filming or in the studio at Television Centre. It was really one big team. I got to know Paul Darrow quite well as he lived near me at the time and I occasionally gave him a lift home. I liked him a lot; he had a good sense of humour. It’s a cliché to say we were all one big happy family, but Blake’s 7 really was a very happy programme to work on. But it could also be somewhat stressful.
It’s often difficult to remember specific episodes as they were all fairly FX heavy. The studios almost always over-ran, often past 11.00 at night and often we had to wrap without shooting all the scheduled scenes. The opening episode of the second series (Redemption) featured a lot of space battles and a huge space station and it was particularly difficult getting everything done to an acceptable standard. At the same time we were filming more ‘stock shots’ of the Liberator which would be used throughout the series, so that’s a period that stands out as being particularly busy. We also had to create a lot of weapons specifically for that episode. They were based on the ones from the Liberator but were much more aggressive looking. It’s always nice when you have a variety of different things to work on in an episode even though it could be a little tiring!
People often used to ask me if it was true that the invading alien fleet from Star One was made up of kitchen implements. Well, yes, it’s true. Mat Irvine used hairdryers glued together for some of the spaceships. He’ll hate me for bringing that up yet again! We were really up against it and it wasn’t feasible to create models from scratch for an entire fleet of ships so we just used whatever was to hand. It wasn’t on screen for long but I do remember cringing when that particular sequence was broadcast. By the time Series C came along I felt I needed a break. A whole series took a long time to shoot and I just wanted to do something else for a bit of a change.
However the fourth series saw a real renaissance for FX in Blake’s 7 and I was invited back. It was a pleasure to return. The team had become much larger and a lot of new people were involved. There were about 40 staff in the Visual Effects department at that time; most of them were effects assistants handling everything from model shots to explosions. The team was headed up by Jim Francis who was great to work with. He had worked on Series 3 and then straight after he moved on to The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy where he had learnt a number of new techniques. At the time there was something of a sci-fi renaissance in America and we were determined to compete. The likes of Buck Rogers and Battlestar Galactica both had very high budgets and were shot 100% on high quality film which Blake’s 7 certainly wasn’t!
For the fourth series everything had to be redesigned and this appealed enormously to all of us. We wanted to move things along and use the latest technology to show things that wouldn’t have been possible in previous series. There were a number of real innovators working in the department at that time. It was a good time to be at the BBC. The busiest time was at the beginning of the series when we were settling on the look and feel of the new ship, props, costumes etc. That was also an exciting time as all departments were working together to establish a totally new identity for the series. As the series progressed the time and money ran out…again. The first thing we had to do was devise a replacement ship for the crew as the Liberator had been destroyed at the conclusion of the third season.
At the risk of offending the faithful fans out there, it was a blessed relief that the Liberator was gone. Although it looked beautiful, the Liberator was really awkward and heavy to move around and so hard to shoot without wobbling. I doubt very much if it was missed by anyone…apart from the viewers perhaps! Of course the Liberator was only destroyed because they believed the series was coming to an end. There was actually a bit of a panic when the series was renewed!
We were determined that whatever we came up with as a replacement would be completely different to the Liberator. It also had to be instantly recognizable because the Liberator had had such a strong image. The script stated that the Scorpio should be an old beaten-up ship which also had to be capable of landing on the surface of the various planets. We were absolutely delighted by this as we had been very keen to move away from the sleek look of the Liberator to something more grimy and functional. I have to be honest here and acknowledge that we were influenced by the sort of hard-edged design work coming through from Star Wars. I worked very closely with Jim during the design process and we went through about a dozen designs. We would each go away and come up with our own concepts and then we’d get together and decide whose was best! I think in this case we went mainly with Jim’s ideas but we changed certain elements and the final design evolved and Vere Lorrimer also had an input. Of all the directors I worked with Vere Lorrimer has to be the most memorable. His enthusiasm was quite remarkable. He used to act all the parts in rehearsal and do stunt falls and make sound effects to show the cast and crew what he wanted. He was great fun to work with and I was delighted to hear he’d been ‘promoted’ to the role of producer for Series 4. Once the design of the ship had been agreed with Vere, construction began on the ship and the base from which it was to operate.
The Scorpio models were assigned to freelance model-maker Ron Thornton who was new to the world of special effects but has since gone on to great acclaim. Ron built the Scorpio based on Jim Francis’ design. In fact he built it in his living room! There were seven different versions of the Scorpio - different sized models, partial models etc. When Ron delivered the models, every one of them was perfectly in scale and proportion and the paintwork was superb. When Ron delivered the models to the workshop, we were adding the finishing touches to the base for the ship.
For Series D we had decided to build a lot of our models BIG. The base area was built to about fifteen feet which allowed us to pan and track around it rather than take it from one angle only. It incorporated a platform on a girder that the ship would sit on which would then spin around. The scenes showing the Scorpio arriving at Xenon Base and descending to the launch silo would be re-used throughout the season and it was vital that they were given top priority. All the launch sequences were shot at Ealing Studios and the daylight shots were done in the car park. We turned the set on its side and used natural light for the approach shot. We were joined by Mike Southon, a lighting cameraman accustomed to model filming. Working together we were able to do all sorts of lighting effects and camera tricks, and the resulting sequence looked excellent. We had been worried that the ship and the base might not work together but fortunately it all worked splendidly. I know everyone was particularly pleased with how they’d turned out. Star Wars was at the height of its popularity at this time and we were all determined to ensure the effects in Blake’s 7 were up to scratch. Obviously we couldn’t get the same results as George Lucas but it was nice that we were given time and money to work on particular ‘set-piece’ FX sequences.
Another memorable effects requirement was for a sequence in Rescue when Josette Simon is attacked by a strange snake-like creature. The snake was designed by Jim Francis and built by Stuart Murdoch. I remember rigging it on location and smearing its mouth with glycerine and angel hair to create the impression of long dribbles of saliva. It was rigged to explode when shot at but we packed too many explosives into the head which gave everyone a bit of a fright when it went off! I seem to recall that was quite an explosions-heavy location shoot which was always great fun for us – but quite terrifying for the cast! I always enjoyed being on location. There was a great feeling of camaraderie among the crew. One aspect of location filming wasn’t quite so enjoyable and that was the weather. Invariably it would rain heavily. I remember Paul Darrow filming a fight sequence and he was practically up to his knees in mud.
Looking back on Blake’s 7 now, I think for a TV series without the benefit of a film budget we did a reasonable job. If the effects were a bit dodgy on occasion then I hope that just added to the charm of the finished product. Don’t forget that the first Star Wars film had come out around the time Blake’s 7 started and we were never going to be able to compete with that. We did our best though.