Actor, writer, director, teacher. In the 37 years since she gave up the role of smuggler-turned-freedom fighter Jenna Stannis in 70s Brit space opera Blake’s 7, Sally Knyvette has refashioned herself as a true Renaissance woman.
Now currently “knee-deep in preparations” for her new play as director, Burning Bridges, she sat down with SciFiNow to talk about her time on Blake’s 7 and how it feels playing the part again, nearly four decades on, in Big Finish’s range of audio adventures.
It’s nearly 40 years now since you did Blake’s 7. What’s your most vivid memory of those early days?
I can remember my first day having a meeting with Ronnie Marsh [then Head of Serials at the BBC] and him telling us of the responsibility we had towards the show and how it was going to be Britain’s answer to Star Wars. He sat on his chair waving his legs and we just looked at him as if to say, “Goodness, this is going to be big!” But I don’t think any of us quite realised what we were going into in terms of how much it would impact and what an extraordinary following it would have.
Jenna was a pretty strong character to start out with…
It had great promise on paper, but it never realised. I felt quite strongly after the second year that I had to leave because I didn’t think the writing was being developed, particularly for the women. Actually, [Blake’s 7 creator] Terry Nation agreed with that when I met him much later on in California. The women were kind of sex symbols, and we each had our own defined role, but largely whenever anything dramatic happened, the men took over.
Was Terry Nation not around much on set?
No, never. I only met him in California. I don’t recall ever meeting him when we were recording it. But he concurred saying, “If only I’d known. If I’d have known the sort of person you are, I could have written better for you.” He was very nice, but he said he was always better writing for men.
At what point in the series did you begin to lose faith in the character?
I didn’t really lost faith, but I was very very inexperienced as an actress, and I was frustrated because the writing became less good for me specifically. I was also very keen to go and study and do a degree, and I felt after we started getting the scripts for the second series, I thought this is the time to do it. I started doing A-Levels in evening classes and so I was multi-tasking!
Jenna was never given a proper send-off. She disappears between seasons and is simply referred to as having ended up on a hospital ship. Were you annoyed at not being given a definitive exit?
Not really, because I thought there was potential for her to come back. Had there ever been another TV series or a film, she wasn’t necessarily dead.
You left the show to do an English degree. What did your fellow students think of having Jenna on their course?
I think a few people were amazed and overawed but I played it down and within 20 minutes people tended to forget it.
You returned to the role of Jenna in 2013 when Big Finish released the first of its Blake’s 7 audio stories. Did you need much persuading to return?
No, I was very pleased to be asked! I was at a very different stage of my life, and I always felt that I could have done a lot more with Jenna had I been a more experienced actress, had I had better writing, had I known more about the business, and in every case that was true when I was asked to do the Big Finish plays. They’re fun to do, and it seems like the fans enjoy them.
Do you find the dynamics are the same between you as people as they were in the old days?
When we do the Big Finish recordings we pick up absolutely perfectly. It’s as though it’s ingrained in our subconscious. We have defined relationships with each other which pick up even though we may not have seen each other for years. A very easy working relationship and it’s generally great fun to meet up and do the recordings. And indeed when we go to conventions. We’ve known each other more than half our lives!
Do you ever look at the programme now? What do you think of it now when you see it?
It’s remarkably better than I thought it was in terms of stories. Some of them are really very good. I think it looks very clunky at times, it’s very dated, but at the same time I can understand why people still enjoy watching it. I show it to my little nephew who’s obsessed with Star Wars, but he gets bored very easily, because it’s slow and it’s not got the production values he’s expecting.
We were shocked earlier this year to hear about the death of your co-star Gareth Thomas. Was it a big surprise to you?
To me, it wasn’t a shock because I thought he was looking terribly ill the last time I saw him about nine months previously and I was very worried about him. It was a shock, but it wasn’t a complete shock.
You began directing plays about ten years and you’re working on your latest one, Burning Bridges now. What can you tell us about it?
It’s written by Amy Schindler, who may be well known to people as Brenda in The Archers. She’s written a lot of TV series, but this is her first stage play – it’s a three-hander and is a beautifully written piece. It’s about a young woman with Asperger’s Syndrome who comes to visit her older sister and brother-in-law and they think she’s just come for a holiday but then discover she’s come forever. It explores the dilemmas of what it’s like for a young woman in her early 20s trying to cope with what to eat, what you watch on television, how you deal with your burgeoning sexuality. She sees through a different lens. I’m excited about doing a play that’s witty, it’s really not a heavy didactic piece; it keeps you guessing until the very end and we’ve got some excellent actors in it!
Do you know anyone with Asperger’s yourself?
I do indeed. I’ve got somebody in my own family who has been diagnosed, and I know many other people who have it. and I’m meeting people all the time because we’re partnering with Asperger’s groups and we’re actually going to be putting on two special evenings where we’ll do a relaxed performance and then we’ll have a post-show discussion.
It’s quite unusual in that it’s about a woman with Asperger’s.
Yes, usually it’s always about boys or men, but what I’m discovering through my research is that women are largely underdiagnosed and apparently there are almost as many women as men with it. Women though have a particular propensity to hide it when they’re young because they have an ability to copy other girls.
And so what’s next for you?
A holiday! I shall be knackered after this. There may be some more Big Finish as well. I’ve got lots of plans for different projects I want to do, and I continuously teach young actors. And we’ll see how this play goes. My hope is that this play will go on tour or maybe transfer to the Trafalgar. Who knows?
Burning Bridges is playing from 13 September to 8 October at Theatre 503 – you can book tickets here.