Doctor Who Cuttings Archive

Jacqueline Pearce

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Troubled actress whose portrayal of the vampish Servalan in Blake's 7 was a sexual awakening for a generation of sci-fi fans

"I'd been a masturbatory fantasy for an entire generation of young men," Jacqueline Pearce observed when looking back on her best-known role as the glamorous but villainous Supreme Commander Servalan in the BBC science fiction series Blake's 7.

"I mean, that made a girl feel good," she added with a sly relish and a characteristic disregard for decorum.

Initially engaged to appear in one episode, with her striking looks, closely cropped hair and outlandish costumes, Pearce played the part with such a sexually charged intensity and vampish evil that she became a mainstay of the show during its four series between 1978 and 1981.

Yet when she came to write her autobiography, she apologised to readers for having few stories to tell about the years she spent on Blake's 7. She had been in the middle of a crippling depression, she explained, which had blacked out almost all of her memories of the period. Paradoxically it was the struggle with her inner demons that enabled her to invest the part with an unusual psychological depth that was ruthless and psychopathic yet sensual and vulnerable. Servalan was "a very damaged woman", she said. "She was my alter ego, but it was still a great shock when we met."

Tanith Lee, a scriptwriter on Blake's 7, confirmed that Pearce's troubled existence fed into the character's development. "It is, to some extent, based on her own life," Lee said. "Given an actor of her power inhabiting the psychotic Servalan, how could I resist aiming for maximum emotional anguish?" Pearce, who was known to friends as "Jacks" and in turn called everyone "darling", struggled with mental illness most of her life, the result of a turbulent and disturbing childhood.

There were spells in mental institutions in Britain and America, two broken marriages and a string of unsuitable men, drug overdoses and long periods when she spent her days in her dressing gown, barely able to function. In her candid and sometimes harrowing memoir, From Byfleet To The Bush, she described her adult self as "a sad alienated child living with wounds too savage to heal, blindly searching for identity".

Her illness blighted her career. There were substantial successes on television, in feature films and on the West End stage, spanning more than 30 years. Yet spending her money as fast as she earned it, she seemed to exist in perpetual penury and was at times in her peripatetic life reduced to working as a cocktail waitress in Santa Monica, California, and as a nude life model for an art class in St Ives, aged 50. Her acting was "fuelled by the desire to escape from myself," she said. "Becoming someone else was taking a holiday from the burden of being me."

She could and should have achieved so much more. At Rada she was considered one of the most promising thespians of her generation by contemporaries such as Anthony Hopkins and John Hurt and both remained close friends throughout her life.

Even when her mood was in an upswing, the black dog was never far away. She beat herself up for having "spectacularly sabotaged" her career, but her difficulties were beyond her control. She described a battle with breast cancer as "a walk in the park" compared with her struggles with depression.

She found contentment late in life when she spent five years living in the South African bush as a volunteer in a monkey sanctuary. That it was with animals that she finally attained peace told its own tale. She wrote ecstatically in her memoir that she had forged a bond "deeper than any other I had ever experienced" with the orphaned baby monkeys in her care. As they clambered all over her as a surrogate mother, she felt "blissed out" and experienced "the joy of family which hadn't proved possible with human beings".

Jacqueline Kay Pearce was born in Woking, Surrey, in 1943 and grew up in Byfleet. She was an only child and her father, Reg, was exempt from war service due to his job at the aircraft manufacturer Vickers-Armstrongs.

She never knew her mother, Stella, who left when she was 16 months old. Her strict father beat her regularly and much of her upbringing was left to the household's lodgers, May and George Wilcox, who effectively became her foster parents. When she was 11 she found her father in flagrante delicto with May and, at 14, George made a lunge at her.

As if the damage at home wasn't enough, she was sent to a Catholic convent school, where she endured 12 years of endless petty cruelties and "hated every single solitary moment". She left at 16, "neurotic, seething with resentment and totally frigid", which she blamed for the breakdown of her two marriages and her psychological problems. She claimed to continue to have nightmares about the convent all her life. The one saving grace was a lay teacher called Miss Nurse, whom she called "Nanny", and who gave her elocution lessons, recognised her talent for drama and took her at 13 to Stratford-upon-Avon to see Peggy Ashcroft in As You Like It.

At 17 she was accepted at Rada, but her first professional engagement in a panto in Coventry while still a student was a disaster. During the interval one night she took a fistful of Valium to calm her nerves and overdosed. She woke up in a psychiatric hospital having her stomach pumped and was kept there for six weeks.

Back at Rada Pearce's star continued to rise and when she left she was inundated with work. By the time she was 23 she had appeared in an ITV Play of the Week with Hurt and Ian McShane, made an acclaimed West End debut and starred in the Hammer horror films The Plague of the Zombies, in which she was beheaded, and The Reptile, in which she played the titular creature from the lagoon. This encouraging start was abruptly halted in 1967 when her first husband, the actor Drewe Henley, left her for Felicity Kendall. Pearce fled in a state of distress, and with no plan, to Los Angeles, where she was befriended by Sammy Davis Jr, who gave her a job answering his fan mail, paid her rent and became an on-off lover.

She joined Lee Strasberg's Actors Studio, but ended up working in a cocktail bar, which to her amusement was called The Losers. There she became addicted to amphetamines and sleeping pills and took a lover, whoni she only ever referred to as "Guitar Man". He accompanied her back to London but the relationship was short-lived: she took up transcendental meditation and married her teacher, whose name was David" but whom she. called Fred. The marriage lasted ' 16 months.

A stream of unstable lovers followed, including a bisexual friend; her hairdresser Joel O'Sullivan — with whom she also lived for eight years in a celibate relationship; and, in her fifties, the actors Alan Bates and Richard Hansell, who was 27 years her junior. For several years in the 1970s she lived on a Thames houseboat, working sporadically, her options limited by a reputation for being increasingly erratic. When Blake's 7 ended, she suffered a breakdown and spent 18 months doing nothing until she was offered a part in the Doctor Who episode The Two Doctors with Patrick Troughton and Colin Balm*. Pearce tried California again 'tut ended up in a mental hospital in Pasadena. When she was discharged she returned to London to sign on the dole. On receipt of her fortnightly giro cheque, she headed for the bar at The Ritz where she spent it on champagne. Teetotal until she was 35, drinking bubbly became one of her greatest pleasures.

Later in life she starred in the children's TV series Moondial and Dark Season and appeared with Hurt in the film White Mischief The latter required a nude scene, so she turned up to the audition wearing a mink coat with nothing underneath. She dropped the fur to the floor and asked: "What do you think of that lot?"

She continued to make occasional appearances on the West End stage and had a one-woman show, A Star Is Torn, on the Edinburgh Fringe. But at the age of 50 she moved to Cornwall, living in St Ives for five years in a room above a grocer's shop, where she worked as an artist's model for £3.50 an hour, riches that she promptly spent in the Sloop Inn on the harbour front.

Then came salvation with her beloved African monkeys before she returned to Britain in 2015, when her rich and fruity voice was heard alongside Hurt in a series of Doctor Who audio plays.

She was once asked what she thought her epitaph should be. "Nobody ever called me sensible," she replied with a mixture of pride and regret.

Jacqueline Pearce, actress, was born on December 20, 1943. She died from lung cancer on September 3, 2018, aged 74


Caption: Jacqueline Pearce in 1968. She lived a peripatetic life while battling depression

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  • APA 6th ed.: (2018-09-20). Jacqueline Pearce. The Times p. 58.
  • MLA 7th ed.: "Jacqueline Pearce." The Times [add city] 2018-09-20, 58. Print.
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