A Farewell to Jacqueline Pearce
by Alan Stevens
Previously published in Celestial Toyroom
“Death... may turn out to be a cosmic orgasm. You never know. I hope it does.”
Although I conducted numerous interviews with Jacqueline Pearce over the years, the only time I worked with her in a professional capacity was on 12 June 1997, when Alistair Lock and I co-directed the Blake's 7 audio play The Logic of Empire.
This was the first time Jacqueline (or "Jack", or "Jacks", but never "Jackie") had played the role of Servalan in sixteen years. Prior to the recording she informed me, whilst taking a puff on her cigarette, that the entire top register of her voice had disappeared, and that it didn't seem likely to return any time soon.
"That's okay", I replied "this story is set seven years after the end of the TV series!”
"I know darling, I just thought I'd explain myself."
A few months later, when the production was released, I was informed, by a third party, that Jacqueline had loved the script and was hugely impressed with Alistair Lock's sound design.
Arrogance aside, I wasn't too surprised.
David Tulley and I, while writing the piece, had intentionally addressed and, indeed, reversed, all the elements she had disliked about Blakes' 7's final season.
We had restored Servalan's presidency, the loss of which Jacqueline had deeply resented:
"I turned up one day and was given this script and suddenly I was no longer President Servalan, I was Commissioner Sleer. What a name. Sleer. Sounded like sneer. Horrible; I hated it. Why that happened was certainly never discussed with me. I think it was briefly explained when they gave me the script, but it was such a surprise to me and it made no sense."
We had provided Servalan with a final one-to-one encounter with Avon, as she had been very upset about her non-appearance in the programme's final episode:
"I was very distressed. I'd taken it very personally."
And to top it all, at the end of this new adventure, we had allowed Servalan to win the day.
However, there was something more personal to it than that, and the answer lay in the performance she had given.
As a number of reviewers pointed out at the time, although Servalan was back in command of the Federation, there was an undercurrent to Jacqueline's performance that suggested the effort had taken its toll and that something had been lost. Her glee in obtaining and enjoying power had been replace with a sense of duty, even of burden.
I'd like to say that this came from the script. Servalan makes reference to there having "been three major internal conflicts in the last twelve years" with her latest seizure of power coming at a terrible price: "the destruction of Earth was... regrettable."
But more likely, it had come from Jacqueline herself.
Indeed, she had previously told me that although she had "let [Servalan] go" when Blake's 7 had ended, if ever she was asked to play the part again, then she would have to apply some thought as to where the character was going.
This would also possibly explain an exchange we'd had over a line which had read, somewhat innocuously, "he won't be taking off."
I asked for Jaqueline to perform the line again, but this time as
"he won't be taking
"There's no underline in the script!" she replied.
"No, but there should be!"
"Because Servalan knows for sure that Avon will not be taking off in his space ship because she has employed a psychostrategest to predict his every move, thereby, putting her in complete control of the situation."
Jacqueline went on to read the line as instructed. However, it was a dicey moment as she was known to savage directors who failed to justify their decisions, as she had told me on a previous occasion:
"I'm very intolerant of amateurs. I take my work very seriously and get very angry with people that don't, and I had a lot of run-ins with people at the BBC for this reason."
Again, you'd have thought Jacqueline would have embraced the certainty of the new emphasis, but in retrospect, it's more than likely that my instruction didn't fit entirely with Jacqueline own reading of Servalan's character as she now perceived her.
The following year I met Jacqueline again, at which point she had played Servalan once more, this time in the BBC Radio 4 Blake's 7 play The Sevenfold Crown.
In all honesty, I had had not been very impressed with Barry Letts' script, and as it turned out, neither had she.
"Did you give the director a rough time?" I enquired.
"Not at all", she replied, "Brian Lighthill's direction was perfectly in tune with the writing."
"Oh, no" she replied, "for Barry Letts' pantomime dame!"
And that was Jacqueline Pearce: more astute and more aware than you were ever likely to guess at.
In conclusion, I'd say there were three distinct aspects to her personality: the steel queen, the camp vamp and the tormented soul beset by internal demons. Only one was real and the degree to which that troubling reality touched her performance depended on how deeply invested she became in the role she was playing.
To say she suffered for her art is an unforgivable cliché, but to say Jacqueline's pain informed her best work, I think, is a true estimate of the unique quality she brought to those roles that challenged her and explains the enduring fascination we have for Servalan.
As Jacqueline once said:
"She's still alive, she's become a legend. Immortal."