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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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