❉ Michael Seely pays tribute to the impact Jacqueline Pearce made as the iconic Supreme Commander, Servalan.
First I was frightened by the monsters of Doctor Who, then by the angry adults who bullied children in the Sunday classics or in the classrooms of Grange Hill, and then came along Servalan, someone quite unique. There was no one else like this on television. There have always been TV baddies, but not a woman with the scope and power and sheer viciousness and greed which she frequently displayed. She was a high ranking officer in the space army who behaved like a queen. Grandly titled Supreme Commander, she later launched a successful coup and took over the Terran government, becoming President of the Terran Federation – the Supreme Empress.
Jacqueline Pearce as Servalan terrified me more than anything else in my TV childhood simply because she held the power of life and death over anyone in her presence. With a terse command or with the snap of her fingers, death soon followed, even if she still needed them. We are hearing a lot about the camp quality of the character and her innate sexiness, but let us not forget her amorality. Nothing mattered but what she wanted. In the episode Volcano, a very under-rated one in my opinion, she calmly orders the death of two unarmed civilians to demonstrate their total lack of fear or fight, which even her tough working class side kick briefly queried before carrying out her order. Later in the series in Children of Auron, having experienced a ‘psychic miscarriage’, she simply pressed a button and executed the man she blamed for the deaths of her embryonic children in a missile attack which he had persuaded her to launch. Sounds complicated? Well, that’s Blake’s 7. The idea that this powerful woman had the men under her command wired for death at the press of a button was a haunting one, and not one I wished to see extended into my classroom. I was at a school dominated by women, I didn’t want them getting ideas.
You simply could never tell with Servalan who would survive to the end of the episode. Avon knew that. The moment she tried to seduce him with dreams of galactic power, he knew he would be dead within a week, and did his macho act of throwing her to the floor after a chaste kiss. This probably came from a vintage movie that both Paul Darrow and Chris Boucher liked, but in modern times, it looks uncomfortable – until you watch Servalan slowly murder a blind man and gloat over his reputation as a political coward. Watch Aftermath for more details. This episode redefined Blake’s 7following Gareth Thomas’ departure, making Avon the hero and gave Servalan a far bigger role as we follow her attempts to reunify a fractured Federation under her rule. That unfortunately meant that in some episodes the men would try to exert dominance over the female, sometimes subtly, sometimes brutally. In one episode, Moloch, the lusty soldiers of a stranded brigade were instructed by the eponymous creature to ‘give her to your men’ as a punishment. The implication is quite clear, yet Servalan acted with as much poise and grace as is possible before being taken away, assuring Section Leader Grose that this was not an altogether unusual situation for her. Other episodes saw her chained up, assaulted, slapped down to the ground and come close to being blown up. Yet Servalan survived them all.
Kissing someone was no guarantee of survival either. It gave her a chance to stab someone in the neck. When Servalan had to change identities in the fourth series, she slaughtered her way across the galaxy to eliminate the past, a very unlikely scenario, but the production team had the good sense to bring back Servalan rather than introducing a new protagonist for Avon. Thank heavens they did. She brought into the new series an element it so desperately needed to help you forget what a cheap and shoddy production the series had apparently become. She enjoyed killing and punishing when necessary as she enjoyed wielding power, as she herself once admitted.
Jacqueline Pearce played the part to perfection from her very first moment in the sixth episode of the first series – Seek Locate Destroy, which is still one of my favourite episodes to this day. She begins by cutting down two high ranking political officers who have been sent to express concern over her handling of the ‘Blake situation’, flirts with a junior officer and then asserts her authority over him when he won’t obey orders from her new appointee – the disgraced Space Commander Travis, who was pending a war crimes tribunal. Travis became her dirty tricks man. She used him, abused him, and ultimately pushed him into becoming an outlaw who would nearly bring down the destruction of the Federation she had just seized control.
When she wasn’t exuding power and patronage, there were moments I remember others calling ‘Servalan trying to cope’ – such as when she is exasperated by Vila’s inability to ruthlessly shoot down an unarmed prisoner in Moloch, or backing away from a sexually frustrated Egrorian in the perfect episode Orbit. Watch her trying to regain composure and control after backing into a desk. These moments were rare but gave us a chance to smile rather than shudder from behind the cushion.
And she was sexy too. Short hair, figure hugging outfits, she played on her sexual strengths right from the word go with those around her, and it worked on her audiences too. I may not have noticed her charms as a kid, but my Dad most certainly did. She also had a gorgeous voice. Every word, every line ever delivered by Jacqueline Pearce came with exquisite precision. Her beautiful, powerful and velvety voice should have made her fortune. Even a simple ‘Excellent’ after surveying a beautifully laid out table for a banquet in a dining hall in Rumours of Death speaks volumes, as she has reached the peak of her power, influence and no doubt wealth.
There was more to Jacqueline Pearce than just Servalan, although it was her signature role which she enjoyed playing and creating an impact it had on its audience. Blake’s 7 attracted huge audiences at the time, despite playing against Coronation Street. They faced the usual sneers from Fleet Street’s finest and the rarefied world of actors’ academia. But that Blake’s 7 is not just remembered but celebrated and loved, and that Big Finish gave it a new lease of life is down not just to Blake and his crew, but his superb nemesis Servalan. Who outlived them all.
There are those who remember her in Moondial or Russell T Davies’ Dark Season, or the eager adolescents who watched her shower scene in White Mischief. We may have spotted her as the nervous student in The Avengers episode A Sense of History where she played Patrick Mower’s girlfriend – and a few years later in an episode of Mower’s Special Branch where she was the girl-friend of a bisexual transvestite (oh, the seventies) assassin played by Tony Beckley. She met a violent end at his hands. Read her memoirs published by Fantom books and discover the extraordinary life she has lead. I once watched some documentary on BBC2 where a Cornish artist talked about his latest nude model, and it was, he said, ‘the baddie from Blake’s 7.’ Oh my, there she was.
I have heard stories of how delightful and engaging she was at conventions, always willing to pose ‘maximum power’ for a photograph, and I remember a remarkable interview she gave for DWB when she made it perfectly clear albeit politely that there was more she wanted to talk about than Blake’s 7 or her scene stealing performance in Doctor Who where she and John Stratton simply stole the show with their exquisite characterisation. The moment she falls onto the floor to lick the blood of the Doctor as she regresses and embraces her animalistic origins in a very controversial scene is very powerful.
God bless, Jacqueline Pearce, and many thanks for terrifying me a child. It certainly taught me respect for women. And a little fear…
❉ Jacqueline Pearce’s 2012 autobiography ‘From Byfleet To The Bush’ is available from Fantom Books, RRP £12.99.
❉ Michael Seely’s biography of ‘Blakes 7’ director Douglas Camfield was published by Miwk Publishing in May 2017. Click here to order.