Michael Keating panels
Michael strode on complete with rambling hat (he's a keen rambler), and said, "Gidday" in an Australian accent. He looked fit, tanned, and healthy as he answered questions from an interviewer.
What was his history on TV? His first appearance was on Doomwatch as a scientist. He was told he had the part on the same day his then wife told him she was pregnant with his daughter. In 1977, Pennant asked him to do Sunmakers for Doctor Who, in which he played a rebel called Gaudry. He was put up for Avon on the strength of that and sent in a picture of himself in glasses to look the part of a geek. However he was asked to audition for Vila, doing the scene in which he steals Blake's watch in the holding cells. Vere Lorrimer confused him with an actor called Charles Keating who was much older and objected to his casting, so he almost lost the job.
Does he like science fiction? He liked Dan Dare comics, but he now prefers reading about history and the English language.
Was Vila just a cowardly thief with a drink problem? He wasn't a coward; he was just careful! Michael thinks that the drinking was based on his own during the series which, he added, was nothing to be proud of. There wasn't much input from the cast into the parts but generally they were just given the scripts and left to interpret them.
What was the impact of recognition and fame? He was once getting on a bus with his 5-year-old daughter when someone said, "You're on Blake's 7!" Michael said, "No, I'm not," and his daughter said, "Yes you are, yes you are!" Once two girls from Bulgaria recognised him which he thought impressive. His mother was visiting Australia some years ago and turned on the TV only to see her son as Vila. Michael is not in it for the recognition though; he wants only to be part of the play and explore his character as he explores terrain when out walking. He would like to do more film; he's a film buff now and sees lots of foreign films.
Who is his greatest hero? Ralph Richardson in Fallen Hero.
Did Blake's 7 open doors? Michael is not a hustler; he lets things happen and never pushes for work. He misses it when he's not doing it and learning lines which he enjoys. However acting Is no longer the be all and end all it was once. He has a wonderful life outside acting with his rambling and interests in history and language.
The theatre. He would like to play Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman. He prefers theatre; the advantage over TV is that the play runs from beginning to end with the response of a live audience. He once played Romeo in Belfast which he considers a major factor in the Troubles at the time; it was a disaster. One night he set fire to the stage. He had to stand over Juliet's body with a flaming torch made of cotton wool soaked in lighter fluid, but this particular night they ran out of it and used paraffin. The torch flared up, Michael blew at it, and flaming bits of cotton wool went all over the stage.
What is his favourite place for rambling? Surrey and Sussex. At Easter, he was at Offa's Dyke, the history of which interested him. He's done a lot of walking in eastern Europe, especially Slovakia and the Czech republic which he loves because accommodation and wine are so cheap.
What was Colin Baker like to work with? He was wonderful, a nice man, absolutely delightful.
Is Vila like a Shakespeare Fool? Yes, probably, and Avon is Richard III and Blake is like King Lear towards the end.
What is his favourite memory of Blake's 7? There are many, but he was hung over a lot of the time, he said ruefully. He loved City at the Edge of the World as he had the most to do in that. It was filmed on Oakley Moor on the day of the Fastnet boat races in which 12 boats went down in the storm; they had to cut the outside scenes because of the wind. Michael always enjoyed location work though.
Where did Terry Nation get the names? He doesn't know, but Terry did like the name Tarrant.
Was Blake's 7 big in the US? He once did an interview in St Louis and asked what the viewing figures there were. Millions? Thousands? No—it was 450.
There was a rumour he might have been the Doctor. It was only a rumour, but he would love to play him with a monocle.
The Blake's 7 BBC radio plays. Michael was very tactful and said that sadly, the writer Barry Letts was not "au fait with my character. He had Vila eating an apple (sic) when he should have been drinking." (It was actually a lizard burger.)
You say everyone is so nice. Is there anyone you don't like? "George W Bush!" Michael replied promptly [cheers] and added solemnly, "He's not a Blake's 7 fan."
Who was his favourite writer on Blake's 7? Robert Holmes and Chris Boucher. Robert always wrote well for Avon and Vila; in Gambit, they only get a few scenes but they are so memorable. He also liked Terry Nation's original episodes, though he'd already gone to the US and only wrote brief précis of what he wanted. Often some of the script was hand-written just before filming. Once Michael actually wrote a small scene for Duel. The location shots of Blake and Jenna, filmed earlier, which the rest of the crew was watching on the Liberator, were scratched in one place so the camera had to move off the screen and focus on the crew. Michael wrote a small conversation for Vila and Gan and still wishes he'd been credited for it.
It was this scene:
VILA She's right. Jenna’s right, you know. Why should it be any different? We’ll have the Federation after us till the day we die.
GAN Who says? We’ve been lucky up till now. We’ll be lucky again.
VILA Have you thought about what might happen if those two don’t get back? I mean, could you operate this ship properly?
GAN Let’s just listen.
VILA Well, could you?
What car do you drive? Michael doesn't drive or approve of it. He cycles or walks around London which is much more enjoyable since the new traffic laws have made the air so much cleaner. He does ride in his partner Sue's car though which he supposes is cheating. He said he once crashed a BBC van on film and believes the footage is shown at BBC Christmas parties.
Michael announced that he hopes to get married to Sue next year—if, he added deadpan, his mother lets him. [laughter and delighted applause]. Sue, he added, is 53 and he's all of 57. Congratulations and best wishes to them both!
Michael was interviewed by Alan Steven, co-author of Liberation. He did an excellent job and never let on that he didn't like Vila's portrayal, as is obvious in the book.
There was a real edge to Vila in the first few episodes. Michael said the characters were quite loosely written and the writers watched the cast while the cast in their turn were waiting for the writing. If Vila was not well-formed at first, that was because there wasn't much guidance. The second episode was filmed first so that the actors would be more confident in their roles for the first one. Guest writers got the continuity for characters from the actors.
At one point Vila has a slight Cockney accent. Michael experimented with an accent in season 1, but they didn't want regional accents as they thought there wouldn't be any in the far future.
You knew Jan Chappell as a child. Yes, they were at Molly Hudson's drama school at age 12, and did Twelfth Night together.
On the workload: When season 1 was made in 1977, they didn't factor in how long the SFX would take. It took forever to do teleports though they got faster at it in later seasons. They never completed an episode in the time allotted and always had to remount, working Sundays. At one point, Gareth Thomas did scenes for five episodes in one week.
On Vila's character: he was a 'lovable rogue. How did you feel about that as a victim of crime yourself? He wasn't a victim, not then. (Aside: As he told us in the coffee club, Michael was robbed one night, some years later, while he was sleeping.) "Vila did get too twee in some episodes. Ultraworld for example—I was awful!" (No, Michael—the writing was.) He enjoyed Gambit though and praised the writing. Avon and Vila only had six scenes but those were excellent and very memorable. His daughter fell in love with 'baby Orac' and wanted to keep him. Vere Lorrimer, he said, really loved Vila and wished he could play him.
On Orbit: He cried, but this was cut because it was too real; an extraordinary decision considering the violence they did show.
On Blake: He thought the ending clumsy with them all being shot down at once. Incidentally, the filming was not done in sequence; they filmed the shootings first, then worked backwards. The final scene they filmed was "on the planet-hopper".
On Vila's drinking: The drinking was added in season two because he went out drinking a lot with Gareth and couldn't keep up. Once when they were filming at a nuclear power station, he was so ill they got worried and called out the station's doctor to look at him.
On directors: The vast majority of people are wonderful to work with, but you come across the occasional control freak, though of course that happens in all professions. Once he would have ignored it and got on with the job, but he wouldn't take it now.
On season 4: He didn't like it. It was very rushed; they hadn't thought it out well and it just covered old ground. Michael thought that instead of being in the ship all the time, they should have gone to lots of different planets and had interesting locations. Hawaii, he said, would have been nice. Tanith Lee's episodes were a breath of fresh air though.
Who would play Vila now? He'd say Wes Bentley. As for Avon, he should be played with a limp, eye-patch, and beard.