Actress Jacqueline Pearce’s death was announced yesterday. So it goes. Aged 74, she died at her home in Lancashire, a couple of weeks after being diagnosed with lung cancer.
She was possibly best known for playing the part of Servalan, the villainess in BBC TV sci-fi series Blake’s 7.
I chatted to her in December 1980 at her then home in London, before shooting started on what turned out to be the final, fourth, series of Blake’s 7. The interview was published in April 1981 in Starburst magazine. This is Part 1 of that interview…
Jacqueline Pearce was born in Woking and grew up in Byfleet, Surrey. Her father was an interior decorator and her family background is East End. At the age of six or seven, she started having elocution lessons to get rid of a “slight Cockney accent” and she was educated at the Marist Convent in Byfleet.
It was there that a lay preacher (ie not a nun) encouraged her acting talent. But young Jacqueline’s time at convent school was not altogether happy. She says she hated the rules and couldn’t abide the discipline. She could never understand why the nuns said she should walk upstairs when to run would have been much quicker. Now, she says, “Every time I go on as Servalan and I’ve got one of those dresses that’s slit down to the waist and up to the hips, I look in the mirror and say: “Up yours, Reverend Mother!”
At the age of sixteen, she was almost expelled for performing outspoken dialogue from John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger at a local drama festival. The nuns thought it was “wicked and shocking” but Jacqueline won first prize and a cup to put on the convent mantelpiece, so she was forgiven. When she eventually did leave the convent, in 1961, she won a scholarship to RADA (the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, London) despite strong initial opposition from the nuns and her family.
She spent two years at RADA with fellow students Anthony Hopkins, John Hurt, Ian McShane, Simon Ward and David Warner. During that time, she also met young actor Drewe Henley at a local coffee bar and they married.
Her first acting role on screen was with Drewe Henley, Ian McShane and John Hurt in the 1964 Granada TV play Watch Me, I’m a Bird. In the same year, she also appeared in the feature film Genghis Khan: “I was given as a present by Eli Wallach to Stephen Boyd. Not a word was said and I flew all the way to Yugoslavia for it.”
In 1965, she played Ian McShane’s girlfriend in the John Mills movie Sky West and Crooked. She also appeared in the Morecambe & Wise movie The Magnificent Two and the Jerry Lewis fiasco Don’t Raise the Bridge, Lower the River (both 1967). But her best-remembered movie roles were in Hammer horror pictures.
JACQUELINE: Yes, for The Plague of the Zombies, he made a plaster thing of my face and head for a sequence where my head was chopped off. It was dreadful.
I had to stop halfway through because, at that time, I was very claustrophobic. Suddenly I was having this plaster of Paris all over me with just slight holes left for the nose and it’s very, very heavy and, at one point, I just said, “I can’t take it any more! You’ve got to take it off!” and then we had to start all over again. It was very unpleasant. I suppose it must have taken about half an hour for it to set. It’s – oohh – it’s dreadful.
I was married then and had my husband literally holding my hand and getting me through it. It’s clammy and then it gets hard and it gets so heavy and you know you can’t pull it off, so – oohh – not fun. I got more and more frightened. And it was very strange walking in to make-up the next day and seeing my head on a shelf. That was a little disturbing.
JOHN: You tested for Hammer, did you?
JACQUELINE: I went along for an interview and had a chat with the director (John Gilling) and he said: “I’d like you to play the parts because you have such a wonderful face for films.”… So he cast me (LAUGHS) as a zombie and a reptile.
JOHN: How did you act the part of a snake in The Reptile?
JACQUELINE: I hissed a lot. I think that was about it.
JOHN: Your movement was quite good too.
JACQUELINE: I know the bit you’re referring to. (LAUGHS) There was a bit where I was shifting under the blankets, which everyone seemed to enjoy a lot – I was shedding my skin.
JOHN: It’s a difficult part. You are cast as a snake. How are you going to act it?
JACQUELINE: Well, she was half-snake, half-woman.
JOHN: Like Servalan.
JACQUELINE: Do you think Servalan’s a snake?
JOHN: She’s a villainess.
JACQUELINE: But she’s got great style. I adore Servalan.
JOHN: How did you get the part in Blake’s 7?
JACQUELINE: I was working in Vienna at the English Speaking Theatre. I got a phone call from my agent saying that this series I’d never heard of was being made and would I be interested in playing a part. So I said: “Sure.”
It meant I started rehearsals the day I got back from Vienna. I got off the plane and went to the BBC. My hair was short at the time and they said: “Please, will you keep it like that?”
JOHN: I thought maybe you had cut and dyed your hair specially for the part – short, dark and sinister.
JACQUELINE: No. Most people love it. They find it compulsive and want to stroke it – Feel free – It’s simply because I’m no good at doing hair. I can’t put rollers in. I had lovely long thick hair that used to blow into my face all the time – When I put my head down, I couldn’t see.
JOHN: What did you know about the character when you started?
JACQUELINE: Nothing. Except that I knew she was the Supreme Commander. What we all did, really, was make our own personalities. When it came to costume-fitting, they said, “We’ll fit you up in trousers, a safari jacket and jackboots,” and I said, “No! If you’re going to do that with this haircut, you might as well have a man. I think you should go totally opposite.”
If she is a woman who has this kind of power, then make her so feminine, so pretty, you don’t know what she’s going to do next. So, when she is sitting there looking wonderful, saying Kill him! it’s such a shock. It’s the contrasts.
JOHN: How did you build up the character? A female Adolf Hitler?
JACQUELINE: No. I don’t think she is, actually. I think she is a very caring human being. No-one would believe that. (PAUSE) No, lots of people do – It’s surprising.
JOHN: Surely she’s nasty. She wants to get our heroes and do horrible things to them.
JACQUELINE: Yes, but if she were a man doing those things, everyone would accept it. I remember there was one episode (The Harvest of Kairos, in series 3) about a sort of precious jewel called kairopan and they said: “We can’t afford to get ALL the kairopan and all the men,” so Servalan said, “Well, get rid of the men – Kill the men.”
It was logical. One had to go. She wanted the kairopan, so the men had to go because they were less important. The scriptwriter put in that line and then wrote Laugh cruelly. Rubbish! She doesn’t get a kick out of killing people at all. She does what she feels she has to do. I’m not saying that makes her the girl next door.
JOHN: Has she changed?
JACQUELINE: She changed a lot in the third series. The miscarriage episode. It started there, where her personal feelings, her woman-ness, started to come through. I remember I did a personal appearance, opening (an event) Computers For The Home, and I was surrounded by some of the top brains in the country, who were all really avid Blake’s 7 fans. They rushed home from their computers on Monday nights to watch it. One of them said that he watched the scene where I had the miscarriage and found it shocking because it was so totally unexpected.
From then on, I tried to show the female side of her as much as possible. She does like men; she’s crazy about Avon (played by Paul Darrow) – that’s why she always lets him go. Otherwise it makes no sense to have this intelligent woman chasing these people around in a spaceship, catching them, then letting them go. I had to find a motivation – which was Avon.
JOHN: Is that the only change you’ve made? – She’s more feminine.
JACQUELINE: That’s a huge change to have made.
JOHN: Any resistance from the BBC?
JACQUELINE: For the first two series, I played her the way they wanted, which was as a substitute man. And she’s not; she’s 100% female. So I tried to get more of that over.
JOHN: Do you think the audience appreciates that?
JACQUELINE: I think they do, judging from the fan letters I get. Everyone responds to her in a very positive way. Some people, particularly women, love her – I think Women’s Lib love her. I think to men she’s a challenge.
JOHN: What sort of letters do you get?
JACQUELINE: I get lovely letters. There was one letter that made me laugh so much. A man wrote and asked if he could have a full-length photograph of me with no clothes on and hastened to add that this was not for any sexual purposes! (LAUGHS)
… CONTINUES AND CONCLUDED HERE …