As jobs go, the character of Kerr Avon did not look too promising. He was a subsidiary character in a television sci-fi series that was rushed into production following the success of the first Star Wars film, with a budget that was said to be “the equivalent of a coffee break for Star Trek”.
However Paul Darrow brought such dark wit and charisma to his part in Blake’s 7 that the producers got rid of Blake after two series and elevated Darrow to the starring role.
Blake’s 7 ran for four series in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Despite wobbly sets and rudimentary special effects, it acquired a cult following. With its dark tone and readiness to kill off major characters, it influenced many subsequent series including, some fans would argue, Game of Thrones.
And the morally ambiguous Avon became one of the most memorable anti-heroes on television, motivated not by idealism in the fight against the evil Terran Federation but by his own self-preservation and interests, seemingly ready to sacrifice or betray fellow crew members without a second thought.
On set Darrow was supposedly known as “Kiss of Death” because any female character he kissed was unlikely to make it to the end credits. Darrow even shot his own wife Janet Lees-Price when she made a one-off appearance in Blake’s 7. Or at least his character killed her character.
Darrow appeared in a lot of other television shows before and after Blake’s 7, from Coronation Street and Doctor Who to Dombey and Son and Little Britain. And he worked regularly in theatre, appearing in the West End and at Edinburgh’s King’s Theatre as Elvis Presley Are You Lonesome Tonight? in the 1980s.
But he never found another role to match Avon. Blake’s 7 ended with most of his crew dead. Blake returns in the final episode only to be killed by Avon after a bit of a misunderstanding. Avon himself is surrounded by enemy soldiers, but instead of surrendering he smiles and raises his gun. The end credits play over the sound of gunfire and it is certainly implied that there was no happy ending.
However audiences never saw the body and there were various plans for sequels over the years. Darrow acquired the rights, reprised the character on radio and other audio dramas and wrote two spin-off novels (as well as an autobiography), though proposals for a new television series never quite came to fruition.
The son of a chemist, Darrow was born Paul Valentine Birkby in Chessington in Surrey in 1941. He spent much of his childhood in the local cinema in the days when two films would play repeatedly in “continuous performance”. The young Darrow would stay there until his mother phoned the cinema and asked them to send him home for tea.
He studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, where he shared a flat with John Hurt and Ian McShane. He adopted the stage name Paul Darrow at the suggestion of his father, taking the surname from the famous American lawyer Clarence Darrow.
He spent years in rep and acquired the lifelong habit of smoking after playing twins in a production of Jean Anouilh’s Ring Around the Moon. The fact that one smoked and one did not meant audiences would know instantly which character he was playing at any given moment.
He met his wife on the set of the medical soap opera Emergency – Ward 10 on which he had a recurring role, appearing in more than 50 episodes in the mid-1960s. He was the Sheriff of Nottingham in the 1975 BBC mini-series The Legend of Robin Hood, but it was Blake’s 7 that made him a star.
The title character, played by Gareth Thomas, leads a handful of mercenaries and criminals against the villainous Terran Federation in a show that derived inspiration from both The Magnificent Seven and Star Wars. The character of Avon was intended as a rather downbeat background character.
Terry Nation, creator of Blake’s 7 and one of the creators of the Daleks, said: “It could have been a very dull role, but this particular actor took part of it and gave it much better dimensions than I ever gave it on paper.” Darrow himself saw Avon as “a cross between Steve McQueen and Elvis Presley, with a touch of Richard Nixon thrown in”.
His dry wit, cynicism and deadpan delivery and the fatalistic tone of the series appealed to viewers and still does. Blake’s 7 cast members became regulars at fan conventions and fairs.
Darrow once recalled: “At conventions in America when I’ve met a lot of actors, George Takei (Sulu in Star Trek) said to me, ‘Blake’s 7 scripts are so good, that’s why it did well even though it couldn’t compete against Star Trek for production values’.”
Darrow played a couple of different roles in Emmerdale in 1991 and 2009 and more recently he played a judge in seven episodes of Law and Order: UK. His final TV appearance came last year in a wheelchair on a celebrity edition of the quiz show Pointless. He and Blake’s 7 co-star Michael Keating won the show.
Darrow had health issues in recent years and had one leg amputated and part of the other one. His wife died in 2012. They did not have children. He is survived by Maureen Marrs, his personal assistant and long-time companion.