In the 1970s I was a boy watching Blake’s 7 on the telly and for just a moment yesterday, I was again. How things change, though: I was in a TV studio being filmed when I heard that Gareth Thomas has died.
I never met him but I did interview the guy by phone twice. Once was for Radio Times in some kind of countdown feature about TV shows the magazine’s readers had said they wanted to see come back. It might’ve been 2004, maybe 2006, I don’t know. Still, I can see me at the RT desk on the phone to him, having a very happy conversation and only at the end of the twenty minutes or so asking him where he was.
“Tesco,” he said.
I don’t know why it tickled me that he was standing by the chiller cabinets in aisle 9 while being interviewed for Radio Times, but it did and somehow that all fitted into why I just liked the man.
Which means this next bit makes me wince. I can’t remember where Blake’s 7 came in that top ten, but I do remember that for some utter fluke of a chance, its whole section got missed. That top ten went to press and onto newsstands without number six or whatever it was. We ran an extended version online. It’s not the same.
Then in what now seems oddly related, I interviewed him again in 2013 for a book I was commissioned to write about Blake’s 7. I’m proud of that book and its 170,000 words –– seriously, who knew I could write that much about anything? –– but you can’t read it yet. It’s been rather severely delayed since I delivered the manuscript and I’m sure if I knew all the reasons why, I wouldn’t be able to tell you.
Obviously I’d rather it was out and obviously I wish you could read it but I think part of yesterday’s surprise at Thomas’s death is that he’s in this book of mine that is still in progress. How can he die before what he said to me is printed? What’s more, he’s now the second interviewee to die: I count myself privileged to have got to spend a whole hour on the phone with writer Tanith Lee shortly before she died too. She sent me a book we’d been talking about and I didn’t get to read it in time, I now cannot ever tell her what I thought.
Tanith Lee and Gareth Thomas: two names I knew from the TV credits when I was growing up. Two names I got to work with, at least in this small and short way. Neither of them would’ve recognised me on the street but it made yesterday’s news seem that much more of a shock. Cumulative shock.
Let me tell you this instead of dwelling on that. Right now I am at the same desk that I was when Gareth Thomas phoned me from backstage at some theatre tour. I can play back the recording: it’s right here on my Mac alongside the finished book. With one tap I can read the result of our chat and I can summon the man’s voice.
I’m not a Blake’s 7 fan, which on the one hand I think made me a good choice for the book but today also makes me regret that everything you’re hearing and reading about this actor concentrates on that one show. I’m doing it too, I’m doing the same thing instead of covering a giant career.
But I’m doing that because I’m going to do this. I’m going to show you a quote from my interview with Gareth Thomas. I’d heard before that he didn’t watch Blake’s 7 and I was curious whether that was because he wasn’t interested in it. At the time, I thought his answer pointed to a man very serious about his work. Today I’m thinking it hints at a man who was always moving forward, always pressing on, always reaching for something. And so what makes his death hurt is not that I remember him as Roj Blake or in that scary Children of the Stones, but rather that all this life and verve has stopped.
“Never seen the show,” he told me. And he didn’t want to. “I’ve never seen anything I’ve done. I’d hate it, I’d want to do it again properly, immediately. You can’t see yourself on stage so why bother on television?”