Magic Bullet Productions

Jacqueline Pearce


Conducted by Alan Stevens and Alistair Lock in 1991, the following is a extended version of the interview that previously appeared in TV Zone issue 21.

Jacqueline Pearce as Servalan Jacqueline Pearce was born and educated in Surrey. "My father was from a working class family. He wanted something better out of life so he moved from the East End to Byfleet. It was very important to him that I should become a lady. I'm very sorry I've disappointed him. The choice of education was the local council school, or the convent, so I was sent to the convent. I went there at the age of four and found it very strict, very damaging, not necessarily at the time because you're too young to know any different, but sadly when I got out into the world and realised the rubbish that was in my head, it took me many years, a lot of breakdowns and a very good psychiatrist to come to terms with it all".

After studying at RADA for two years, Jacqueline Pearce's first professional appearance was on television in a play called Watch Me I'm A Bird, in which she played a waitress. She then moved on to do a number of Hammer Horror films at Bray Studios which she enjoyed immensely. "The producer said that I had a marvellous face for film and then promptly cast me as a zombie! I didn't quite know how to take that".

At the age of twenty-three, as she was establishing her career, her marriage broke up and she decided to move to America. It was there that she studied at Lee Strasberg's Actors Studio in Los Angeles. After three years she returned to Britain and discovered that she had "blown her career". It took a long time to re-establish herself through television, and it was while working at the English theatre in Vienna that she was approached concerning the role of Supreme Commander Servalan. Originally she was only to appear in one episode, to introduce Space Commander Travis. However, producer David Maloney liked the character and decided to keep her.

"Terry Nation, the creator of the series, told me he has great difficulty writing for women, so Servalan was initially a man, and he was halfway through the first script when he woke up one morning and said, 'no, he must be a she'. So he was changed into a she midway through conception really. This gave it much more dimension".

The Servalan Look

The severe haircut was her idea. "I had that before I started and they asked me if I would keep it. It did get shorter and shorter throughout the series. The original idea for my costume was more towards a militaristic style. It was conventional thinking because she was the Supreme Commander and a military figure, so they thought she should wear jackboots, a safari suit and a pith helmet, and because my hair was so short I said 'well, if you dress her like that you might as well cast a man'. I think it's much more interesting to go in completely the opposite direction and enhance rather than diminish the femininity. The predominantly white costumes I wore in the first and second season were my idea originally because I felt that to be in black was too obvious. The baddies always wear black. In 'Children of Auron', where I had a psychic miscarriage, I put her into black as a symbolic gesture of mourning. And stayed in black because I thought I looked better in it.

"I wore a red costume in 'Gambit'. It was what the director George Spenton-Foster wanted. I'm still not sure why. It was supposed to be an episode outside of all the others, set in Freedom City. There, different rules applied, so she was allowed to go into red. 

"David Maloney wasn't very happy with 'Gambit' because George was outrageous and stirred things up, you know, he was a bit of an outsider, he wanted to do things that were different and daring, so I suspect that's one of the reasons why he wasn't invited back to direct for season three". 

Another cause may have been Spenton-Foster's behaviour towards actor Brian Croucher. "He took a dislike to Brian and made life rather difficult for him. It was very unpleasant to watch somebody being victimised, but Brian is a big boy and was able to handle it". 

Throughout the third and fourth season, Servalan's costumes became more and more elaborate. She didn't always see eye to eye with designer Nicky Rocker. "He did have imagination and flair and style. Not always good taste, he could be a tacky tart sometimes, and we did have some run-ins, but he did do some costumes that were wonderful. I said to him once 'do you think I'm Shirley Bassey in space, darling, because I'm not'. For the penultimate episode, 'Warlord', he'd created a beautiful dress which was actually a copy of a 1930s vogue original, then designed a jacket to go over it I wouldn't have been seen dead in. Not dead. It made me look like a budgerigar. I refused to wear it and I was right, and Victor Vitellis, the director, supported me in that. 

"I remember Victor telling me that he was originally terrified of the thought of working with me, as he had heard that I ate directors for breakfast; as it turned out, we became the best of friends. At the time I couldn't understand how this idea had started, but I think it's because 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”.

Servalan Evolution

As the second season progressed, the emphasis shifted more towards Servalan as the arch-villain, using, and eventually betraying, Travis. "I think Servalan regretted the death of Travis, she'd lost a playmate, someone to spar with, but intellectually I don't think Travis was her equal. Avon was. I stayed on for season three because I was having a good time, and it was another year's work, with a weekly pay cheque, which was very attractive". 

Other members of the cast were not so happy, resulting in Sally Knyvette and Gareth Thomas declining to renew their contracts. "Gareth was told by his smart friends at the RSC that he shouldn't be wasting his time doing something like Blake's 7". Sally was a different case. "I'm older than Sally and I'd had more experience, and I think much as one would like to say 'well it's up to the scriptwriter to give me a part that I can play,' what you learn to do is take the lines they've given you and make something of it yourself. I think Sally hadn't had much experience at that time, so she was just going by the script. What you had to do was invest it with something of yourself, no matter what's on the paper. It's up to you whether you make it something memorable or something that's easily forgotten".

It was only in season three that I really got the feel of Servalan. I'd grown a lot by that time, and it was then that the nails appeared, those wonderful red nails. The costumes and make-up got more pronounced and I was much more confident; suddenly I knew what I was doing. I was happy with the relationship that was developing between her and Avon, and I wanted to get more of that into it". Jacqueline feels that Avon and Servalan could have had a relationship, albeit a very unstable one. "They were both damaged people and damaged people find it very hard to trust. They constantly test the people that they're with and it's ultimately self defeating. I think she would have killed him if he had not been her equal. She was looking for somebody who would match her and I think that she felt that he could. If he proved that he couldn't she would have destroyed him. But it would have been interesting finding out if he could". 

One of Jacqueline's favourite episodes from season three was Chris Boucher's "Rumours of Death", chained as she was to a wall for great lengths of time. Eroticism was part of the make-up of Servalan. When placed in a situation where was was interrogating or possibly about to kill someone, she would trail her hand gently over the victim's face and chest. "I'm not saying that death is sexy, although it may turn out to be a cosmic orgasm. You never know. I hope it does. If you're trailing your finger over somebody's face like that it could turn into a sexual thing, so it's quite erotic. I could do whatever I wanted with them. They didn't know what I would do next. They were at my mercy". 

Everyone from the show received fan mail, Jacqueline receiving some more interesting examples. “The letters I got were mostly from women who were writing to say, 'congratulations! I think it's wonderful to see a woman in a position of power on a television show', although I did get a number of letters from men. There was one which said, 'please come round and dominate me' and then added 'but it'll have to be after nine, when my mother goes to bed.' Very interesting".

Although she had particularly enjoyed the third season, she felt that by the fourth the atmosphere had begun to change. "The magic had gone and egos started to take over. It was to do with politics and personalities within the BBC. My part in the series was basically reduced and the relationship between Servalan and Avon became warped. 

"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. I was very ill at the time, I'd been in hospital between series three and four, I had a complete breakdown after season four and was hospitalized again for quite some time. So I wasn't seeing things logically, rationally or necessarily realistically. But then again that's not to say that I was completely wrong in the way that I was seeing things". 

Although the last season was not a particularly happy time for Jacqueline she did enjoy one particular episode. "Tanith Lee wrote 'Sand' especially for me and it was the loveliest episode that I did. I told her about a love affair that I'd had which had totally traumatized me and made me end up in hospital. So she used the emotions that I'd felt for that. That episode attempted to get to the root of Servalan. Unfortunately by that time I was very ill, and I don't think I did it justice. Since leaving the series I've read a lot of her books which are wonderful, very erotic". 

The final episode ended with the massacre of the entire cast. Jacqueline did not appear in this episode, but... "She's still alive, she's become a legend. Immortal. So they did me a favour without meaning to. However at the time I was very distressed. I'd taken it very personally. I'm a bit older now. Once it was over I let her go. If ever we did it again then I'd have to think about that".

Doctor Who

Ten years later and the character of Servalan is still with her. Many people argue that her appearance in Doctor Who as Chessene was Servalan in a wig. "I got the part because I'd worked with Peter Moffat the director before, and John Nathan-Turner told me he'd once heard me laughing in the BBC canteen and said 'one day I'm going to have that girl in Doctor Who'. I was sent three scripts and asked if I would do it. It was shooting in Spain, and I thought 'what fun', I hadn't worked for a while so off I went. I'll go anywhere on location. I like being with people all together and living under one roof. It's a much more intense way of living and I'm very intense myself so I'm very at home in intense situations and extremes of emotion. 

"The part was originally going to be played by an older woman but she dropped out and I was brought in at the last moment, so I didn't have time to develop anything, it was just get on the plane and go and do it. It was a missed opportunity. If I did it now I hope I'd do it better. I thought the costume was crap. The wig was better than the one we had. The one we had made me look like Elizabeth Taylor playing widow Twankey. Fortunately it was lost in transit. I was so delighted. They had to get this other wig made out there which was actually not bad. 

"There was one particular scene I liked where the character had to lick the Doctor's blood off her hand. I think that should have been played very much more in closeup. I think Peter copped out by doing it as a long shot. You should have seen her licking the blood and it should have been a really big closeup. What I was doing you couldn't actually see. I suppose there was a danger that the scene would have been edited out, but I think I'd rather it was edited out than be compromised". 

In this story, "The Two Doctors", Jacqueline found working with Patrick Troughton, Frazer Hines and Colin Baker very enjoyable. "I adore Pat Troughton, who was a lovely man. Frazer was just always very funny, one of the most naturally funny people I've ever met. He's very quick. Colin Baker is one of my favourite people. I think he's a wonderful actor. He went through a very difficult time with the death of his son. I think to lose your child has got to be the greatest pain ever. They were very kind people, and because I'd gone through this hell on the fourth series of Blake's 7, they were so kind to me and took me to their hearts and made me feel so welcome. So doing Doctor Who was a really lovely time. I always think of it with great affection".


From Doctor Who Jacqueline went on to appear in White Mischief. "Oh, it was very funny. My agent rang and said that the producer Mike Radford and casting director Mary Selway, wanted to see me, but as I had a nude scene, they also wanted to see me naked. So I told my agent that it was no problem, and I arrived for the auditions wearing a pair of black stockings that kept themselves up, a pair of high heeled shoes, and a full length mink. I walked into the office, dropped the mink and said, 'what do you think of that lot?' and Mike replied, 'would you like to be in my movie?'" 

Jacqueline most recently appeared in the BBC children's television adaptation of Moondial. "My agent phoned and said she'd been approached about a children's serial. She said she thought I should do it because a lot of them are quite good, and that I should at least talk to the director and read the scripts and see what I thought. So I met the director, Colin Cant, and I read the scripts and I thought it was good. Or at least the mirror room scenes. The eighteenth century character I found very interesting to play, and I did it and I loved it. Great fun. 

"However I felt the character that was set in the twentieth century was very unsatisfactory, not well written or well developed. It was bad writing. Forgive me, Helen Cresswell, but it was. As both characters were played by the same actress it suggests that there must have been some connection between the two, but we didn't know what it was, and Helen couldn't explain it. 

"My character in the eighteenth century was locked up with this child who had a birthmark on her face, which in those days was considered the mark of the devil, so anyone who had that would be shunned by society. The director and I decided that although I was supposed to be her governess, she had probably been raped by the Lord of the house and become pregnant as a result and had this child, which would be seen as an enormous punishment for her sin. This made it very interesting; the psychology of that. Colin and I would have loved to have made a serial just about that". 

Jacqueline now lives in Cornwall, modelling for the many local artists who work in and around Penzance. "I love my artists, they're gentle people. I haven't felt appreciated by my profession for a long time, so I'm enjoying this period. Some artists have done some wonderful pictures of me, and they may well survive, in a few hundred years time, there'll be pictures around of me, done by wonderful artists. How great. 

"My plans for the future are to stay in Cornwall. I'm viewing life now with the most incredible sense of wonder. I spent most of my life wanting to die because I found it so painful, and now, I'm so happy".

Click to return home