Obituary: Gareth Thomas, actor

Born: 12 February 1945 in Aberystwyth . Died: 13 April 2016 in, aged 71.

Actor Gareth Thomas was best known for his role in Blakes 7. Picture: BBC
Actor Gareth Thomas was best known for his role in Blakes 7. Picture: BBC

Gareth Thomas was a Welsh-born actor whose career on stage and screen was varied and extensive, including guest roles in many of the country’s most popular shows. For all his prowess as a Rada-trained Shakespearean actor, however, the most recognisable role of his career was Roj Blake, the intergalactic dissident leader and title character of the cult BBC sci-fi show Blake’s 7.

Although often derided at the time by critics for its apparently low-budget production values, Blake’s 7 was a hit during four series which aired between 1978 and 1981, attracting audiences of ten million at its peak. Created by writer Terry Nation, who had earlier devised the Daleks for Doctor Who, the show was a more grown-up take on Who and the then about to return Star Trek. Against a dystopian backdrop of oppressive rule by the Terran Foundation, Blake led a small band of rebels on a spaceship called Liberator, a mismatched and often amoral bunch.

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Although more slowly-paced and of-its-time than contemporary drama, the continuing legacy of Blake’s 7 is built partly upon a sense of nostalgia from those fans who continue to attend conventions and listen to new audio dramas, and partly upon a recognition that it offered something different for its time. Although the premise could neatly be summed up as The Magnificent Seven meets Star Trek, this masked a deeper reading as an allegory for Apartheid-era South Africa and the Northern Ireland of the Troubles, amongst other civil conflicts of the 1970s.

Yet by the end of the second series in 1979, Thomas had grown concerned that his newfound popularity as a household name might leave him typecast and cut off from other areas in which he wanted to work.

He asked to leave the show, and for the final two series Blake became a mythical missing-in-action figurehead for his remaining crew mates, occasionally returning for cameos. For the final episode, aired four days before Christmas in 1981, Thomas returned for Blake’s final showdown with the Federation and Paul Darrow’s scheming antihero Kerr Avon, and what remains one of the most shocking finales to a television series ever.

Born in Aberystwyth, Wales, and originally a Welsh-speaker, Thomas’ childhood saw him raised across the United Kingdom from the age of six due to the nature of his father’s work; one of the many places he lived for a brief period in his youth was Edinburgh. He was privately educated at the King’s School in Canterbury and progressed to Oxford University to study English and History, but he left after a year to study acting at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (Rada) in London.

He left Rada in 1966 and spent time with the Liverpool Playhouse the following year. By the end of the decade Thomas had already established his credentials in the two areas for which he would be most acclaimed; as a performer he played roles with the Royal Shakespeare Company, touring to America in 1968, and he notched up early cult screen roles as a non-speaking hitman in The Avengers and one of the London tube workers who uncovers a prehistoric burial site in Hammer Films’ Quatermass and the Pit (both 1967).

Between 1969 and 1970 he played his first continuing television role in the Yorkshire Television detective show Parkin’s Patch.

Even discounting Blake, Thomas made an impression upon the British screen during the 1970s and 1980s, from roles in Coronation Street, Z-Cars, Bergerac and the BBC’s 1974 David Copperfield miniseries to Bafta nominations for Play for Today (1972) and Morgan’s Boy (1984), as well as early television work with the subsequently A-list directors Michael Apted, Mike Newell and Stephen Frears. There were also a handful of film parts in Harold Becker’s The Ragman’s Daughter (1973), the action thriller Juggernaut alongside Richard Harris and Omar Sharif (1974), and in Franco Zeffirelli’s Sparrow (1993), as well as further cult roles in ITV’s Star Maidens (1976), about a universe ruled by women, and the infamous children’s drama Children of the Stones (1977).

Bored with the rush of London and keen to slow down in the countryside, Thomas and his third wife Linda bought a cottage near Galashiels in the late 1980s; they had originally considered Wales, but finding it too expensive, instead relied on his love of the Scottish Borders from the time he spent in Edinburgh.

Over the next two decades Thomas mixed roles in prime-time shows including Heartbeat, London’s Burning, Casualty, Taggart, Midsomer Murders and Doctor Who spin-off Torchwood with regular stage roles at the Royal Lyceum in Edinburgh, Dundee Rep and the Brunton in Musselburgh.

“Everyone thought I had either died or retired,” he said of the move to Jackie McGlone of the Scotsman ahead of a 2000 role in Twelfth Night at the Brunton. When asked what on earth he was doing in Musselburgh, Thomas responded, “working, and I feel very lucky that I’m still doing it”. He and Linda eventually left Galashiels for Surrey in 2009.

Despite the manner of his initial departure from the role of Blake, Thomas became appreciative of the enduring influence the part had on viewers. He took the role again in recent years for Big Finish Productions’ series of Blake’s 7 audio dramas (he also appeared in a Doctor Who drama for the same company in 2001), and in the wake of his death fans have shared stories of a friendly, welcoming man willing to share a drink and conversation at conventions.

Gareth Thomas died of a heart condition, having suffered from heart problems for some time, and is survived by his wife Linda and his son from his previous marriage; he also had a daughter, who predeceased him.