Tanith Lee was a multi-award winning author of science fiction, fantasy, and horror novels and short stories. She was the author of over 90 novels and 300 short stories, a children’s picture book, and many poems. She also wrote two episodes for Blake’s 7, Sarcophagus and Sand. This interview was conducted in 2005. It was a real honour to speak to a woman I admired greatly. Sadly Tanith passed away in 2015. She is much missed by her family, friends and thousands of fans around the world.
SA: You left art-college after one year, do you ever regret this?
TANITH: The main reason I left art college was firstly because I couldn’t get a grant – apparently as I’d already worked for several years ( I was 25 when I started at college) and paid taxes, this made my eligibility for a grant doubtful. I’ve never grasped the reasoning for this. And secondly the college I really respected and applied to rejected me. I don’t regret leaving. The year I did strengthened my ability, and I had a wonderful time – but by the end I was already writing a novel in the college library. Says it all!
SA: Your early work was for children; would you like to write for that age group again?
TANITH: My early work wasn’t for children – that was just what got published first. And of course I do still write ‘for children’ – though they may be a little older in age range. For instance the Claidi series, the Unicorn series and the Piratica novels.
SA: Were you surprised when Chris Boucher approached you to write for Blake’s 7?
TANITH: Not really but I was extremely pleased. I’d watched almost every episode from the first. After that first show, the nature of the programme seemed to change – the first was very dark, political – worrying. But then fantasy came in more definitely, and the adventures began. I enjoyed both aspects very much. I had, mostly unconsciously, been aware of other potential aspects in the characters that weren’t being used. Chris Boucher gave me the chance to explore these, or some of them.
SA: Were you disappointed that Blake had departed by the time you worked on the series?
TANITH: I’d have liked to write about Blake himself, yes. Frankly I had a half plan of bringing him back for one episode, but that would have been later on – and we all know what happened to ‘later on’.
SA: Sarcophagus focuses heavily on Avon and Cally. Were they favourite characters of yours?
TANITH: Not favourites in that sense, no more than the others. I liked the whole idea of it, and the ill-assorted crew were a glorious ‘family’ to tackle. I could detect a lot of stuff inevitably going on behind their individual masks – some of it obvious and some obscure, tantalising. Again my overall plan, if time and continuance had allowed, was to have been to write in depth about all the characters – including the ship herself. Even the bothering Orac. (Those who know anything of my other work know robot psychology has never deterred me from leaping in headfirst.) Actually one other half-idea of mine was produced as an episode. I was delighted when Chris Boucher developed the notion of mine that I’d discussed with him – an open plot, free for general use – on Vila as Hero. I can’t recall the name of this show (City at the Edge of the World) but it really did make Vila into a hero. The way Chris handled it was both hilarious, touching and convincing.
SA: Were you asked to write a “cheap” episode – no guest actors, mainly set on the Liberator etc?
TANITH: No. I just felt the crew and the ship were all I needed for my start-episode. In a way though there is one other main character – Cally’s alien 'other self' – which she presented perfectly, and looking dazzling in gold body-paint! Besides there are the tiny cameos they all played of other versions of themselves. In fact, it was a main cast of ten!
SA: Unusually for Blake’s 7, Sarcophagus includes a song. What did you think of Josette Simon’s singing?
TANITH: I was startled when, having allocated the song, I learned Josette was a professional singer. I thought she sang magically, and was more than happy. She is a wonderful Shakespearian actor too. I saw her once at the Barbican. She had that enviable quality some actors have – Jacqueline Pearce has it in spades – of holding the audience in the air by a thread, you hung on each word. And why the song? Well I compose them now and then, and this one arrived with the script, music and words. I had tow or three in a radio play of mine too, Death is King.
SA: Did Chris Boucher make any changes to your original scripts?
TANITH: Just a few, and those I made at Chris’s request. It was my first time writing for TV, so I was entirely amenable. In the second script he did add a sort of tie-in to something from another episode – needful for the general overall series. I couldn’t do this as I was in the States and I missed the shooting of the episode. It worked pretty well, though naturally for me it always sticks out a bit.
SA: The show was supposed to be cancelled after Series C. Were you surprised to see it return?
TANITH: I don’t even remember this. So I guess I wasn’t surprised either way. Even as an outsider to TV, I’d heard a bit about how things fluctuate.
SA: Sand focuses on Tarrant and Servalan. Why this particular pairing?
TANITH: Mainly in this one I was eager to write about Servalan. I’d admired Jacqueline as an actor since I first saw her in the two cult classic films, Night of the Zombies and The Reptile. I was astounded at her looks and her calibre, as were most people when they saw these movies. Later I’d seen her in more weighty productions. I thought, and think she is one of our finest actors, aside from her astonishing beauty. Plenty of fans have asked me over the years why I didn’t pair Servalan with Avon. But the answer is fairly clear, isn’t it? Avon had already shared the ‘lead’ role in Sarcophagus. I wanted to expand the role of someone I hadn’t written for yet. Tarrant seemed the obvious choice – Servalan’s intensity against this much more easy-going man, who of them all seemed capable of genuine kindness, compassion, humanity. Plus I did feel rather that putting Avon and Servalan together might pose awful problems for anyone coming in on the scripts that followed. Aside from reducing the local galaxy to ash.
SA: There is a lot of background information for Servalan in this episode. Was this based on Jacqueline Pearce’s own life?
TANITH: I know Jacqueline won’t mind me answering this. It is, to some extent, based on her own life. However, given an actor of her power inhabiting the psychotic Servalan, how could I resist aiming for maximum emotional anguish?
SA: Had the series returned, would you have written more episodes?
TANITH: Indeed I would have done.
SA: Did you visit the set to see your episodes recorded?
TANITH: The first one yes. I was thrilled, and everyone was lovely to me. What a treat! Alas, as I said earlier, I had to be in the States for the second one – I was GoH at a convention long-arranged. However, this did mean that the first I got to see the show was when it came on TV, which had an extra excitement for me.
SA: Did you keep in touch with any cast members?
TANITH: Jacqueline and I certainly still keep in touch – I saw her not long ago. And recently I wrote a short monologue for her in the series The Actor Speaks, produced by Mark J Thompson. Needless to report her performance was magnificent. I was also asked to write one for Paul Darrow in the same series. Again a great pleasure to hear one’s words so brilliantly interpreted.
SA: Do you remember much about the script you submitted for Doctor Who?
TANITH: I didn’t get as far as a script. I was asked for a synopsis and duly sent one. Unfortunately I hadn’t watched the series for years, and the first idea was apparently too like something else they had already done. Normally I wouldn’t do this, but I came up with another idea and offered it, but they said they weren’t keen. So that was the end of my non-history with Doctor Who. I must admit that my great favourites among the Doctors had been Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee. Since then friends have shown me episodes with Tom Baker that were fascinating.
SA: You are an extremely prolific writer. Do you ever get writer’s block?
TANITH: Most writers do. With me it seldom lasts long, though I hate writing to deadlines. Some people flourish under deadlines, I tend to go out and have lunch, in many senses. But what I write is always real for me. It seems to form itself, and if I block, it’s only that I haven’t listened or looked hard enough at what is there. In the end, it comes through and tells me.
This interview was first published in Issue 1 of Scorpio Attack in 2005.