Rumours of Death feels like a rare privilege to learn more about Avon’s emotional past, and I daren’t look away in case we never get such access again. It’s another strong character piece from Chris Boucher, whose scripts have been my favourites in Series C so far.
The opening scene had me gripped from the start as we moved up an unknown body, only for it to roll over and show us a haggard-looking Avon. This was such an atypical start to a Blake’s 7 episode and I liked the directing immediately.
Unsure how Avon could have ended up in that cell, I presumed we must be watching something that had happened long ago. Right up until he got out of there, that seemed the most logical conclusion because this didn’t seem like the Avon we know; he looked so bloody terrible and appeared a little nervous, even afraid. I was worried for him so was relieved at how swiftly he regained his usual self-assuredness once back on board the Liberator.
Do I have the right?
Avon’s desire for revenge is totally understandable and receives little protest from the others, with only Cally questioning it. As Avon’s about to take Shrinker off to kill him, I’m glad she does because it made me stop and think whether I was comfortable with our heroes committing cold-blooded murder. They have killed plenty of people but it has always been for something. Avon’s mission has a plethora of unnecessary risks and won’t result in anything quantifiable when it’s finished – he’s not planning to stick Shrinker’s head on a pike near a Federation base, so although it’s understandable, that doesn’t necessarily make it justifiable.
I was concerned Avon would be too trigger-happy without Blake around but he’s actually been sensible and this is the most illogical thing he has ever done. I am glad Cally called Avon out – we should ponder the implications of such actions. But I don’t agree with her on this occasion because killing someone like Shrinker would be doing the world a favour. As Avon pointedly says: “All executions are in cold-blood,” and in the Blake’s 7 universe, where the myriad outcomes in the Federation’s favour have filled me with despondency, I think this kind of vigilante justice is sometimes justifiable.
The Liberator crew have always blurred the line between heroes and anti-heroes – Avon arguably most of all – yet it’s interesting that Chris Boucher provides a get-out clause for Avon. There is still no reason to leave Shrinker alive, but in an episode showing a more human side to Avon, it’s right that we don’t watch him execute Shrinker. In fact, I think Avon’s choice to leave him with a choice of starvation or suicide is much more delightfully cruel.
Avon has always been guarded and therefore fairly impenetrable. I was pleased at the end of Countdown when he didn’t reveal anything about Anna to Blake, but so much of the effectiveness of Rumours of Death is because we see a hitherto hidden side to Avon. It’s enlightening that even when we experience his memory of being in bed with Anna, he is still someone who struggles to express his emotions. She asks, “Why do I never know what you’re thinking, Avon?” and he replies, “I could never say it.”
If he couldn’t share these thoughts with her then, he certainly isn’t going to suddenly open up to the rest of the crew. I found the insights into Avon’s thoughts a fantastic way of showing us more and liked the director’s choices for these.
Shooting them from Avon’s point of view provides us with a closeness for his most intimate of memories. I liked that this removed a common problem with shooting flashbacks: characters inevitably look just as old as in the present. As we don’t see Avon, we remain uncertain just how long ago he knew Anna.
I like the way the cuts to the memories are edited when Avon is with Shrinker in the caves; we hear Anna before we see her, giving the sense that these memories are intruding on Avon’s thoughts. It’s also done the other way around, with Shrinker’s voice being heard while Avon’s mind’s eye is still on Anna. Director Fiona Cummings also makes great use of a fisheye lens when Avon is imagining Anna alone in a cell. The distorted effects these techniques produce suit them as buried memories now pushing their way to the surface, and a vague picture of something that may or may not have happened.
The real Anna Grant
I did not really make the Anna Grant/Sula connection and I’ve pondered if we are supposed to; I struggle to remember faces, so wonder if I got a vast reveal later on compared to the rest of the audience. When we saw Anna in bed in Avon’s memory, I was distracted by a thought process of, “Oh, this is a flashback, and it’s a bedroom memory – she’s naked on Blake’s 7! – why can’t we see Avon? Ah, that’s clever… Blimey.” When Avon was thinking about her in the cell, I thought they could be the same person but I wasn’t sure and after that, I got too caught up in the adventure to consider it.
In the cellar, with Servalan there too, there was a lot going on for me to process and I felt slow on the uptake – certainly a few seconds behind Avon’s dawning realisation about who Anna really had been.
I knew Blake’s 7 was never going to give us a happily-ever-after moment, but this seemed so cruel. When Avon finally meets Anna/Bartholomew in the cellar, it felt unfair that he should be forced to experience that publicly. Paul Darrow’s performance in this episode is smashing, but the foundations laid in Countdown add a lot. I love the way Avon speaks about Anna – not what he says, but his tone and expressions. The closest we get is when he’s holding her in his arms and tells her lifeless body, “You never let go.” He may as well add, “And neither did I.” I was a little bit moved.
Shrinker and Servalan
Shrinker had not been what I was expecting. I had envisioned a strong young man in the mould of Anna’s brother or Travis. Shrinker’s sudden transformation from formidable torturer to whimpering prisoner was also surprising. Rumours of Death proved satisfying for its fulfilment of the proverb, ‘All bullies are cowards’ as first Shrinker and later Servalan became husks of their former selves as soon as their power was torn from them. I had expected more stubbornness from both characters yet I still enjoyed seeing such cruel sadists have the tables turned on them.
I predicted the rebel’s attempt to take over the President’s residence would fail, so watching them succeed was increasingly exciting. When they walked into Servalan’s office and slapped her I was stunned. It was odd that we didn’t see the slap; I know it was a big one but I’m curious because the only reason I can fathom is that it’s because she’s a woman and it’s early evening telly. Yet we had the delicious delight of seeing her slap Travis last series so I felt a tad cheated that we missed her turn.
It’s as though that moment knocked something out of Servalan because when we next saw her, I was astounded at how pathetic she was. I thought she would be holding her head high, issuing vicious threats of what would happen when her inevitable rescuers arrived. It was strange watching her reduced down. She’s a sideline to events in this story too; I’m so interested where her story will go next as I don’t think she needed to be in this episode. Avon heads there because it’s Servalan who can tell him where to find Bartholomew, yet the story could have used any important Federation leader. Why is she there then? Why have they chosen to depict her like that? What are we being set up for?
She wasn’t really even in a position to gloat over Avon’s pain. While I was egging him on to shoot her when he first walked in, in the end, I didn’t mind that he let her live because this wasn’t the Servalan I’ve wanted to see our heroes defeat.
She bounces back wonderfully once she’s sure that help is on its way – it’s only when she has that safety behind her. Left alone with Avon, the episode provides us one more moment to hold our breath through. That Avon doesn’t care, that the loss of Anna – in more ways than one – has battered him that much, made it sad rather than just the usual anxiety.
I loved watching Servalan caress a dispirited Avon with a gun, enjoying herself as she tells him, “I’m going to send your friends a corpse.” After a few episodes of seeing softer emotions in Servalan, it’s nice to return to exactly the kind of sadistic evil I like from her. We haven’t often seen her pointing guns herself and she only misses out on killing Avon because she casually turns to shoot someone else.
Servalan’s plan to send Avon’s body back to the Liberator is a wonderful touch; if Avon’s grim treatment of Shrinker invited moral questions about our heroes, this moment is there to reassure us who the real villains are.
Location, location, location
For a sci-fi series set in the future with a spaceship that can go to any planet, you could forgive any members of the audience who were fed up of seeing planets that resemble Earth. Blake’s 7‘s counterpoint to this is that they are generally visiting planets that have been colonised by humans and therefore it makes sense that they should support Earth-like conditions.
This is, I think, only the third time Blake’s 7 has visited the actual Earth and, rather than attempt to create something futuristic on a budget best suited to blowing up models in wide shot, using a country house as a historical building is ideal. Tyrants and dictators always want a grand residence and one with history attached to it is even better, as a home from which to hammer their own mark on the records.
There is a sense of time passing properly as the day progresses and it turns to dusk. One aspect I appreciated in these location elements was that the later scenes do look like they were shot at dusk, as opposed to day-for-night shooting, which I had noticed in last series’ Hostage. On reflection, it may be that the production was lucky and had an overcast day with no sun to provide shadows in these scenes. I accept day-for-night filming as something that had to happen, but it drags me into reality as it rarely passes and I hate that.
I’m uncertain whether all the outdoor scenes were filmed near the house, or if the exterior and interior are even from the same ones – it hardly matters as it was shot well enough that I didn’t notice. I enjoyed the fight between the guards and the Liberator crew on the patio that then turned to tension as they crept indoors. I loved the contrast between the traditional aspects of the house and the cast. Having something from well before 1980 helps too as I never felt suddenly pulled out of the fiction. One of my favourite shots for this mixture was as the camera panned to follow the crew as they withdraw their guns, with Avon covering against the wall with his gun raised in front of an oil painting in an ornate frame.
I hesitate to use the word, yet Rumours of Death is a pretty perfect Blake’s 7 episode for me. It is bookended by wonderful opening and closing scenes and in that final one, Avon’s implication that a part of him has died is the closest he ever gets to sharing his feelings with the crew.
I could go on and on – I haven’t even mentioned how lovely the lighting in the caves is or the great writing for the two security guards. It’s a superb script that stretches Paul Darrow in particular and I think it’s at its strongest when the dialogue is between just two people: Avon with Shrinker or Anna, and, quite differently, the CCTV security guards, where two new characters are established swiftly and substantially, even though they aren’t pivotal to the plot. As a result, while I like that it has some action, the greatest joy this episode provides is in simply watching its characters together.
Both of Chris Boucher’s scripts in Series C have been marvellous character pieces, done in different styles. Not quite to the same extent, we also had a larger focus on Cally for Children of Auron. Avon and Cally’s episodes have shown us their pasts, while Vila’s City at the Edge of the World was focussed on the present. I’m hoping we are treated to something similar for both Dayna and Tarrant. I would especially like to learn more about Tarrant’s past as it remains mysteriously dodgy.