To tie-in with our recent review of Rescue, we are pleased to present an article that Andy Lazell kindly wrote for the Scorpio Attack fanzine back in the glory days of print!
The fourth series saw a real renaissance for FX in Blake’s 7 and I was invited back having spent a year away from the series. 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 C 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 recognisable 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 D. 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.