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Sally Knyvette interview

We interview the theatre director and Blake’s 7 star about her latest production, A World Elsewhere.

Sally Knyvette

Recently we caught up with Sally Knyvette, who is well-known as an actress for playing the feisty rebel Jenna, one of the Blake’s 7 gang, before she swapped intergalactic piracy for farming in Yorkshire as Kate Sugden in Emmerdale.

For the last decade, Sally has returned to another of her passions – directing. Her latest project is the world premiere of Alan Franks’ new play, A World Elsewhere, which runs at Theatre503 from 22nd January.

Over a lively chat Sally told us about the themes of A World Elsewhere; why she wants it to resonate with younger audiences and how she has collaborated with Alan Franks on the project, as well giving us the lowdown on her feelings about Blake’s 7, and her recent return to the role of Jenna.

Hello Sally. You’re directing a brand new play called A World Elsewhere. What attracted you to the piece?

Many things. I know the writer, first of all. He’s a really terrific talent. Do you know Alan Franks’ work at all?

I think of him mostly as a journalist, though he’s something of a Renaissance Man, isn’t he?

Very much so. He’s just written a novel that’s been heralded as one of the best one hundred books of the year, and it was book of the week in the Guardian newspaper in November, so he’s had great success with that. It’s called The Notes of Doctor Newgate. He’s terrifically talented: he’s a journalist, he writes folk music, he sings well… And I liked his play! I thought it was beautifully written with a Chekhovian style. It has great subtlety and wit. It’s a play about an era and a time. I’m a child of the late 60s early 70s. Obviously I was drawn to that on some level. I had many friends at Oxford in the early 70s, and this is set there in the late 60s, so many of my friends would have been there at the time.

How did you come to be asked to direct?

Alan had seen a show I’d done at the Tricycle, Judgment at Nuremberg, which was my last production. It’s been about a year in development, but I liked his work and he liked my work. I’m very keen to put on new plays. I’ve done a lot of courtroom dramas in the past, but now that my name is becoming a bit more established as a director, I wanted to work on new plays, and also with a young cast, which this play has.

What can you tell us about the cast?

They’re all young actors in their mid-20s who have graduated from places like LAMDA, Guildhall and East 15. They’re all very good and I’m having a great time working with them. One or two of them might go on to become very well established, but who knows in this job? It’s such a weird job! I also have one of my old cast from Judgment at Nuremberg who is in fact a barrister/judge and an older man. He’s not officially a professional actor, but he’s certainly as good as any professional actor I’ve ever worked with.

A World Elsewhere

Rehearsals for A World Elsewhere, directed by Sally Knyvette.

It’s on at Theatre503. What do you make of the venue?

I’ve seen loads of great stuff there. As well as the Royal Court, it’s one of the main theatres in London to encourage new writing.

You’ve directed many shows at the Tricycle Theatre, haven’t you? How did that come about?

It’s very difficult for an actor to move over into directing, particularly a woman, and a white woman who’s middle-aged, so that move over was tough, but I’ve been very lucky to have the chance. For the last ten years I’ve been directing people in the legal profession in courtroom dramas. I cut my teeth on some pretty massive shows with casts of twenty-five upwards. I’ve learned to work with large casts and in testing circumstances because the lawyers weren’t always professional actors.

A World Elsewhere and some of your other shows have a political edge to them. Does that interest you?

Yes. What’s interesting about this, which I hope that people who come and see it will find interesting, is that it’s set in a time when students were quite active, politically. It was the anti-Vietnam War time; and we had the 1968 student riots in Paris. Often nowadays young people can be characterised as apathetic, but I believe there is a new burgeoning ‘Sixties ideology’ developing through things like the Occupy movement, or Anonymous, the internet group which is standing up against big conglomerates, and which is all about trying to get a voice. It’s very different now for young people. We were living in a time when you’d never had it so good; the economy was buoyant; people could walk into jobs very easily; they had free education: now young people don’t have any of those things. So I think it’s going to be a very interesting play to get a dialogue going. I want to encourage young people to come and see it, and particularly those who feel inclined to protest and maybe join the Occupy movement or other movements that are fighting against the difficulties in life.

A World Elsewhere

A World Elsewhere, directed by Sally Knyvette.

What sort of questions will the play provoke?

We’re looking at the anti-war movement in the 60s regarding Vietnam, and that bleeds over into many people’s contemporary objections to war both in Iraq and Afghanistan, with soldiers dying there and their families feeling it’s an unwinnable war. There’s that issue that comes to light. Also the whole nature of what it is to be young and facing a complex world, and what your place in it is. Education, which we, particularly people in Oxbridge, walked into, was completely funded by the state. Now of course it’s £9,000 per year for young people to end up with huge loans to pay back. In those days not only did you have free education but scouts to make your bed and look after you – you hardly had to lift a finger! You’d come out with a brilliant degree and easily walk into a brilliant job. So it’s all of these issues, and looking at then and now. I want to get a good debate going.

Will audiences have chance to discuss the issues that arise from the play?

We’re having a Q&A on Saturday evening with Nigel Williams, the author. If you don’t know him, he wrote Elizabeth I, which won a Golden Globe and starred Helen Mirren and Hugh Dancy, amongst many other things he’s done. He’s written a new book called Unfaithfully Yours, which has been very well received. There’s going to be the journalist Donald Macintyre there too. He was unfairly arrested in the South Audley Street riots in Grosvenor Square, so he’ll be talking about his experiences. It’s about: how do young people protest nowadays? It’s very difficult for people to get their voices heard. So we’re hoping to persuade the people from the Occupy movement to come so they can air their feelings. There’s a burgeoning Sixties ideology trying to be heard.

A World Elsewhere

Rehearsals for A World Elsewhere, directed by Sally Knyvette.

It’s set in the late 1960s – will it have a nostalgic quality for those who remember the era?

Oh yes, certainly. It’s good for all generations. But anyone in their late fifties, early sixties will have memories of the Paris riots and the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations, as well as the general feeling of student protest, optimism, and the idea that young people could make a difference. Now it’s very different. I think there are so many pressures on young people. A sense of “How am I going to survive? I have to get a job. Can I really afford to protest or will it jeopardise my career?” The Anonymous groups and the Occupy groups are trying to be heard. Also the political parties are less well-defined now. There was a left and a right then. Now it’s all centrist. I’m not a heavy political animal but I do have strong feelings about some issues. Then you had the luxury of being able to protest and make yourself heard. Now, with all the pressures on young people, it’s so much more difficult. So what we want to do is get a then and now viewpoint.

What influence has the writer Alan Franks had on shaping the play? Does he sit in on rehearsals?

He’s been so involved in writing programme notes and timelines so people can understand the terminology and politics of the time. He’s a real perfectionist. The programme will be both play script and information. He does also come to rehearsals but not all the time. He came to the auditioning process, and he and I worked together on editing the play for about two months beforehand. So we worked very closely and I talk to him most days. He doesn’t want to be at rehearsal every day, but he can give an overview and notes, and he’s pleased with how it’s going.

You’re still acting too. You were in King Lear directed by Jonathan Miller.

I was, and I loved playing Goneril. She’s such a fantastic part! Shakespeare is my big speciality. When I went back to university I studied in both English and Drama, concentrating on Shakespeare. I love playing Shakespeare but I don’t get enough of a chance because you get very typecast in this business. People think of me as a Yorkshire farmer from my years in Emmerdale, which I’m definitely not!

I think of you as a glamorous pirate from space!

Exactly! So to be able to get out and do more Shakespeare and the classics was my dream. It was great to be able to do that with Jonathan Miller.

How did you find being directed by Miller?

Interesting (laughs)! He’s a great intellect. He’s a polymath. He’s a neuropsychologist, doctor, artist… He comes at the script in a very different way, but when you’re being directed by somebody else you completely allow that process to happen. All directors and authors to some extent self-direct, but it has to serve the whole. It was a very enjoyable process and we had a good show.

And you’ve also recorded some new Blake’s 7 adventures on audio?

Yes, I did a whole summer of recording Blake’s 7 episodes. It was wonderful getting the original cast together and working again after thirty-five years. It was extraordinary how it slotted straight back in from the old days. We all knew our parts so well.

Sally Knyvette

Sally Knyvette

Would you have envisaged the reunion in the late Seventies when you were making the series?

God no (laughs)! We never envisaged anything more than tomorrow! We were just doing it. The idea that I’d still be involved in this world all this time later would have never even occurred to me. I spoke to Jan [Chappell, who played Cally] yesterday, and it’s been a matter of great surprise and delight to all of us that it’s continued to be such a popular programme.

What are your feelings about the character of Jenna?

Quite strong actually (laughs)! The reason I left was because I felt she was a little bit too much of a clothes horse and a sex symbol and not enough of what she should have been, which was an intergalactic pirate who is the only person who knows how to fly the Liberator, and who is very feisty and could have done rather more than she was allowed to do in those days. I mean, every time things became difficult, the boys would step in whilst Jenna would just press a few buttons! My feelings on that are well-known and I’ve said as much to many people over the years. It would be great if she could develop if we did more. I’m not entirely sure she’s not now killed off, but anyway…

Well, it was an off-screen death, reported by other characters, so you never know: Jenna could live to fight another day!

Or she could be a clone or something. It would be great if Jenna had a really action packed episode where she’s getting everybody out of scrapes.

There was a Blake’s 7 annual that described Jenna along the lines of, “a young woman with very remarkable qualities, not least of which is being able to cope with many dangers without turning a hair”.

Exactly that (laughs)! Her make-up’s still perfect and her hair’s still perfect and all that. She’s a very feisty woman, and when you think of the Sigourney Weaver part in Alien… I would love to have been doing more of the stunts and being more hands-on. Obviously we couldn’t do that now because we’re all so much older. But if there were to be a future film or, I believe there’s some ideas of a series…

I’ve heard rumours…

It’s nothing more than rumours at the moment to my knowledge. But if that were to happen, it would be great to bring in the clone of Jenna or the grandmother of Jenna or whatever, who still has extraordinary powers at an older age. One of my other beefs in life is that actresses over the age of fifty get forgotten about. I think women in their fifties are probably stronger, more mature and wiser than they’ve ever been. It would be great to give actresses of that age more of an airing, both on radio and on television.

Sally Knyvette

Sally Knyvette

There are a lot of fans who would love to see it happen.

Exactly. I’m always getting letters asking when Cally and Jenna are going to take over the story.

You left Blake’s 7 originally to go to university. Was it just coincidence that you left at the same time as Gareth Thomas [Blake]? Had you spoken together about leaving?

Do you know I honestly can’t remember, you’d have to ask him. I think we had different frustrations about the show but I can’t remember what his were. But I don’t think he was going to university! He wanted to go onto other work. But Gareth and I worked very well together.

The two of you always made a good team.

Gareth came back in Series Three, didn’t he?

He briefly appeared in one episode of Series Three and Four. I have to ask you about Paul Darrow, who gives wonderfully watchable and eccentric performances as Avon. What’s he like in real life?

He’s a very nice fellow! I don’t know him terribly well now because we’ve not worked together for thirty years apart from a bit in the studio. He and I didn’t have the same close friendship that Jan and I had. But he’s a very nice man, slightly eccentric, yes, but kind and decent. I’ve never worked with him apart from in Blake’s 7.

It’s exciting to learn that there are new audio adventures of Blake’s 7 though, released by Big Finish.

One’s called The Liberator Chronicles. There’s also Jenna’s Story, though oddly I wasn’t as keen on that one because it was so full of exposition. It was nice for me, because I was in that one a lot, but it was just me talking all the time! What I prefer is when you get the real drama happening.

Perhaps if I can ask, since you direct and act: which gives you most satisfaction, or is it different hats for different days?

I think it’s that precisely. I love acting and I love directing – and I also love teaching, especially younger actors.

Amazing. Is that at drama schools?

I’ve taught at RADA and the American equivalent, also at Guildford School of Acting and City Lit: always short contracts because that’s all I’m prepared to do, so it would usually be one term or ten weeks, or a particular production. I also do a lot of private teaching. I don’t advertise but people just find me through word of mouth. It’s usually actors who may want to get in to drama school, actors who are struggling with a script, or who want to do more Shakespeare: a bit of everything really! But I love doing that because it’s about working with young people who are full of energy and enthusiasm and passion for the business. Working on a one to one basis is always great.

You’d always wanted to direct, hadn’t you?

I had, yes. I made a film just after I left Blake’s 7 based on a Guy de Maupassant short story and I sent it to the Beaconsfield Film School at the National Film School and they gave me a bursary to do another film. At that time it was all looking like I was just going straight into directing and I was very much encouraged by Beaconsfield to do that. But then I had a lot of personal issues to deal with when I was in my early forties, but I always intended to come back to it, and more recently I have, which is great. I feel that it’s a good time, and I get fed up when I hear people say, “Oh, well of course, they’ve retired now that they’re in their late fifties.” I think it’s a more suitable time than any other and that goes for women in any profession, and they should be encouraged to have confidence to go forward and pursue their dreams.

It’s wonderful to hear such passion. It’s been a real pleasure speaking to you Sally, and we’re very much looking forward to seeing A World Elsewhere.

My pleasure. Thank you.

You can see the play Sally is directing, A World Elsewhere by Alan Franks, at Theatre503 in Battersea from 22nd January to 15th February. Tickets are available from the Theatre503 website

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