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The late Jacqueline Pearce on the Actors Studio, Blake’s 7 & “crying and crying”

Actress Jacqueline Pearce died two days ago. So it goes. She is remembered, among other roles, for being the iconic main villain Servalan in BBC TV’s science fiction series Blake’s 7.

Yesterday’s blog was taken from the chat which I had with her in December 1980, as published in Starburst magazine in April 1981. The chat happened between Series 3 and Series 4 of Blake’s 7. This blog concludes that interview.


JOHN: Getting back to te way you approach roles. Between 1967 and 1971, you were in America. You joined the Actors Studio in New York, which is the home of Method Acting – Marlon Brando and so on. Why did you go to America?

JACQUELINE: I got divorced. I just wanted to get away. I joined the Actors Studio because I wasn’t working and so I was going crazy. I didn’t have a work permit. I knew I had to do something, so I went to the Actors Studio and auditioned and passed and was accepted, which meant I could work there. So it was a way of saving my sanity. 

JOHN: Did you learn anything useful?

JACQUELINE: I think one always does, even if it doesn’t seem to have much value at the time. I think Lee Strasberg (who runs the Actors Studio) tends to be a little bit of a dictator. His way is the only way and that’s it. It’s like religion. If you’re not Catholic, you won’t go to heaven. And, if you don’t do the Actors Studio, you won’t be a good actress. That’s rubbish..

JOHN: Just like being back in a convent?

JACQUELINE: Yes, it is.

JOHN: And you react against that?

JACQUELINE: Yes, I do. I always do react against it.

JOHN: Why did you not stay in America?

JACQUELINE: Well, I love New York passionately, but Los Angeles is like a planet all on its own. It’s hard enough to cope if you’re a man. It’s virtually impossible if you’re a woman. Also, I didn’t get a work permit from working with Strasberg. I just became a member of the Studio. It took about three years to get my work permit, by which time I was so homesick I just had to come home.

JOHN: Did you come back a Method actress?

Jacqueline as Servalan and Paul Darrow as Avon in Blake’s 7

JACQUELINE: I came back with an understanding of it, but not necessarily a way to work with it. I’m very instinctive in the way I work – You ask Paul Darrow! (Avon in Blake’s 7) I love working with him. We work together very, very well. Paul always knows what he’s doing in front of a camera; technically, he’s quite brilliant and I rely on him for that. He will make sure I’m in the light or not blocking myself. He lets me go completely intuitively and he responds to that. It’s like a wonderful marriage: very rare and wonderful when it happens.

JOHN: You have had to contend with two different actors playing the part of Travis.

JACQUELINE: That was very difficult.

JOHN: They were slightly different characters.

JACQUELINE: Totally different.

JOHN: It must have been very difficult to…

Jacqueline (Servalan) with Brian Croucher (Travis) in Blake’s 7

JACQUELINE: … adjust. Yes, it was. Steve (Greif), the first one, I could bounce off. Brian (Croucher) is a totally different type of actor. And the reason he had to go on being (a character called) Travis was that Terry Nation (the show’s originator) insisted on having that name.

But, instead of letting Brian find HIS Travis, they tried to make him follow Stephen’s. Fatal. He’s actually a wonderful actor. I’ve seen him do wonderful things. But Brian’s not really a heavy. He’s lightweight and cuddly. He’s not really menacing, which Stephen was.

JOHN: Menace is indefinable. Your character is sort of menacing.

JACQUELINE: I think it’s the danger of Servalan that makes her menacing: the opposites that are in present in her all the time. No-one ever feels totally relaxed around her except Avon.

JOHN: Avon has two facets to his character, too.

JACQUELINE: Well, we have always felt they were opposite sides of the same coin.

JOHN: He’s nice with nasty bits and you are nasty with nice bits?

JACQUELINE: That’s right, yes.

JOHN: Was that conscious?

JACQUELINE: No. In the third series, we got more and more to do together because we insisted on it. When we had the love scene: that brought in loads of fan letters. And, in another episode, I kissed him as well and the audiences loved it. They like people to relate.

JOHN: The new character Tarrant is a sort of Blake Mark II. The first Blake character didn’t seem to work out, because it’s difficult to get any humanity into a straight up-and-down hero.

Audience thinks: “I’m not quite so bad after all”

JACQUELINE: Impossible. No-one really likes a nice guy.

JOHN: Why do you think villains like you are more interesting than heroes like the original Blake?

JACQUELINE: The straight up-and-down characters tend to make most people resentful because they’re being good and, God knows, we are not. Whereas someone who is a villain is fallible and makes mistakes and is cheap and rotten and we all are that sometimes. So, seeing someone be that, an audience thinks: Oh, I’m not quite so bad after all. They can identify and empathise. Well, Servelan’s a bit over-the-top: there aren’t many people who go around like her. (LAUGHS) 

JOHN: You are maybe not a Hitler figure, but you are a sort of female Napoleon?

JACQUELINE: Yes, but I think if Servalan did get full power, full control, she would rule very fairly. I don’t think she’s into power for its own sake; I think power means something different for her. It might originally have been power for its own sake but, when she fell in love with Avon, she realised that the main power is love.

JOHN: Ah! You should be a scriptwriter.

JACQUELINE: It requires tremendous self-discipline, which I don’t have. What I would really like to do is produce.

JOHN: Why?

JACQUELINE: Because then I could pick the directors I wanted, the crew, the actors and the script.

JOHN: You would just produce?

JACQUELINE: I would act as well. But I would love to produce, even if it were just once – which it probably will be. I would love to do it on film. You know – go for broke. (LAUGHS)

A BBC TV fan photo signed by Jacqueline

JOHN: Why film rather than stage or TV?

JACQUELINE: Of all the media, I love film best. It is free-est. It uses the imagination in a way you can’t in theatre and don’t on telly. The options are enormous. Ideally, I would like to do films all the time.

JOHN: So what have you been doing since the last season of Blake’s 7?

JACQUELINE: I went straight off to America the day after we finished the show and spent some time in New York and Mississippi and then went out to Los Angeles and I saw Terry Nation when I was in Hollywood. He doesn’t want to be in England any more. You can understand. It takes so long to get anything done here. Anyway, I came back from there and I was offered a film which I turned down. It was vulgar, cheap and exploitative.

It was a science fiction film, of course – you can see how their minds work. My part consisted of sitting on a loo doing something extremely intimate and then I got murdered sitting on the loo and I could see no justification for this. I thought: No! I am not going to sit on a loo, dear! Awful film! I can’t even remember its name.

JOHN: And then?

“… I collapsed and was resting in hospital …”

JACQUELINE: Then I went into hospital. I collapsed and was resting in hospital for a while. Then I came out and I was going to do one of the first Hammer House of Horror (TV) films and I found I had a lump on my breast and had to go and have that taken out. I had never been ill before. I came out of hospital again and went off to do (the Tom Stoppard play) Night and Day and apparently anaesthetic stays in your system for about a month after you have had a general anaesthetic and I didn’t allow enough time and I’m quite highly-strung, as you may have noticed.

So I finished Night and Day, which is a very, very tough job, came back here, tried to keep going but I got to the state where all I could do was cry. The other Saturday morning, I was just sitting in a heap here crying and crying and crying. 

JOHN: Night and Day has the female lead on stage most of the time, doesn’t it?

JACQUELINE: Yes, it’s a huge part to carry, particularly when you’re not well. But now I feel absolutely wonderful.

JOHN: You have done Blake’s 7 for three years. There’s the obvious problem of being typecast.

JACQUELINE: Well, we will just have to see. I mean, I’ve always been typecast as a strong lady. I think being dark-haired you tend to get put into a category. If you are blonde, you play the wife and, if you’re dark, you play the mistress.

JOHN: I am surprised Blake’s 7 has developed such a following. The BBC scheduled it against Coronation Street.

JACQUELINE: I know. And one year we were put up against Charlie’s Angels, which had a very, very big following. But, last season, we averaged 10 million viewers a week, which is a lot of people.

JOHN: What happens if Blake’s 7 stops after the upcoming fourth season?

JACQUELINE: Well, the way it looks to me, it could go on forever, if they keep giving the public what the public seems to want and not trying to give them something they want the public to have, which is very different. There is no reason why it couldn’t go on forever.

(BLAKE’S 7 ENDED WITH SEASON 4)

 

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Fugitive rapist film director Roman Polanski delivers a pointless turkey

Last night, I was invited to a preview screening of Roman Polanski‘s new film. It was never likely to end happily. It was a bit like a Jew being invited to a screening of the Nazi propaganda movie Triumph of the Will, except that Triumph of the Will was an artistic success.

Let us get ‘the Polanski factor’ out of the way first. As any regular reader of this blog will know, I think the rich fugitive rapist should be rotting in some stinking prison cell in California.

Personally, I would not finance a movie directed by some criminal who drugged, raped and buggered a 13 year-old girl and then fled the country to escape justice – and I know something about financing films involving criminals. But Polanski’s showbiz friends seem to think an ‘artist’ of his ‘stature’ (an ironic description, given that he is vertically-challenged) should be forgiven for what they see as a past minor crime. They and I perhaps have different opinions on that – and on our choice of meaning for that crucial word ‘minor’.

I never much rated his early Knife in the Water nor Cul De Sac. But Repulsion was very effectively paranoid, Dance of The Vampires was brilliant and his Playboy-financed version of Macbeth – the first film he directed after his wife Sharon Tate was butchered by the Charles Manson ‘family’ – is one of the two best movie Shakespeares I have ever seen (the other being Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet).

Pirates (1986) and What? (1973), though, were virtually unwatchable.

Whether or not he has made great art in the past is somewhat irrelevant; artistic merit is no mitigation against serious criminal charges.

We also have to bear in mind that all views of movies are personal views. So, for example, when I saw Polanski’s allegedly comic new movie last night, it sounded to me as if the publicists had inserted ‘laughers’ in the third row to lead the hoped-for audience merriment: it is always difficult to ‘dub’ laughter naturalistically and the guffaws appeared to be slightly misplaced.

I may have been wrong, though.

Later, coming out of the screening, I talked to a comedian I know and his friend. They had both genuinely enjoyed the movie and had laughed in many places. So I was perhaps wrong in finding the thing a totally laugh-free zone – although, in my defence, they did compare the movie to Cat On a Hot In Roof and A Streetcar Named Desire, neither of which I see as laugh-a-minute raucous comedies.

So… let us get to the movie itself: Carnage, which has some passing aspiration to depth with references to atrocities in Darfur and the Congo and to the God of Carnage. At the start, it includes the line “If this kid gets away with hitting people, why would he stop?” – a line included apparently without any intentional irony, despite Polanski’s past – and, towards the end, it includes a line about how, morally, you are supposed to control your compulsions “but sometimes you can’t”.

If only the script actually addressed these points. But it does not.

This is the sort of film that actors admire.

It has four excellent actors – Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, John C. Reilly and Christoph Waltz – getting their teeth into what looks less like a movie script and more like an Actors Studio limbering-up performance piece. It is a sub-Edward Albee claustrophobic Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? style extravaganza of psychology and showy performance. Jodie Foster, with the showiest, juiciest role, displays genuinely brilliant Oscar-worthy acting of a type that Academy voters love.

But the thing I saw last night is not a movie. It might be a good stage play (which is what it originated as) or even a radio play or it certainly could be a cheap TV play, but there is no reason on God’s earth for it to be made as a big screen movie.

With the exception of a brief opening MacGuffin and a brief final coda set outside, the entire 79-minute film takes place in real time inside a New York apartment (though it was shot in Paris because Polanski is a fugitive from justice in the US).

I describe the opening scene as a Hitchcockian MacGuffin because, really, it does not matter what the protagonists are arguing about. The plot is that four people – two couples – argue throughout with each other in varying configurations. What they argue about is almost irrelevant. The plot is the psychological arc of their arguing though, it has to be said, it is aimless and, ultimately, reaches no climactic end resolution.

I suspect Polanski (who co-adapted the stage script and is therefore partly to blame) may have been attracted by the chance to show he can keep an audience’s attention in a single location as Alfred Hitchcock successfully did in Rear Window and Dial M For Murder or Oliver Stone did in Talk Radio.

It is visually competent, but no more – though Polanski shows-off to film students and cineastes by placing one wall mirror in the apartment’s living room and three in the bathroom – mirrors are difficult for directors to shoot round. But what is the point of this film other than, when it comes down to it, a self-indulgent acting exercise?

The movie does not have the psychological depth it aspires to and, though well-acted, it is a shallow shouting match between four people. It never seems to be going anywhere and, in fact, never reaches anywhere. The film just ends without warning or meaning.

I never laughed once and, as far as I could see, the only humour in the film came when Kate Winslet unexpectedly vomited on a coffee table. There was a knee-jerk laugh. But, if you have to rely on an unexpected vomit for your laughs, you are in big trouble.

Give me a knob gag any day.

From my humourless viewpoint, the marketing strategy on this film appears to be wildly misconceived. A comedy movie it is not. It is like selling Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? as a comedy. Why bother? If anything, it is a filmed actors’ showcase within a stage context.

At the end of his excellent, though over-rated, movie Chinatown, someone got shot. With this new movie, it should have been Roman Polanski himself.

I was going to compare the movie (filmed a year ago) to the Emperor’s New Clothes but, really, I think I will settle on describing it as a movie which should have been released at Christmas. That is the traditional time to sell turkeys.

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Filed under Crime, Movies