Review: From Byfleet to the Bush / Author: Jacqueline Pearce / Format: Hardback or Paperback / Publisher: Fantom Books / Release Date: Out Now
From Byfleet to the Bush is the story of a desperately damaged life. Actress Jacqueline Pearce earned her ignominious place in the science-fiction Hall of Fame courtesy of her role as the evil Servalan in twenty-nine episodes of Blake’s 7 between 1978 and 1981. Her CV includes roles in Doctor Who, Danger Man, Man In A Suitcase, Dark Season (one of Russell T Davies’ first TV writing credits), two Hammer horrors in the 1960s and a string of acclaimed film and theatre credits.
But her life story isn’t that of a successful, fulfilled, glamorous TV star coasting into old age sharing her warm memories of a long and illustrious career but rather the tortured, agonized memoir of a woman battling with insecurity, mental illness, poverty, homelessness and disillusionment. It’s a difficult, sometimes distressing read but despite its often bleak and relentlessly downbeat content it manages to be heart-warming, life-affirming and never less than utterly compelling.
Life was never going to be easy for Jacqueline Pearce. Born in 1943 in Woking Jacqueline spent an uneasy childhood in Byfleet, abandoned by her mother who walked out on the family when the baby was just sixteen months old. Her father, determined she should grow into “a lady” sent her to the crippling environment of a Catholic convent where she was educated by tyrannical “brides of Christ”, emerging some thirteen years later with a lifelong aversion to organised religion and a string of psychological problems which would haunt and torment her throughout her adult life.
But it could all have been so different. Jacqueline entered RADA where she counted a young Anthony Hopkins as one of her contemporaries; at one point he took her aside and told her, earnestly, that she had the potential “to become the greatest actress of the 20th Century.” Alongside Hopkins she was singled out ‘most likely to succeed’ but her demons were already taking control and her lifelong battle with depression was beginning to have a cripplingly-detrimental effect on her career. Her professional momentum - two starring roles for Hammer and a leading-lady role in a movie with Jerry Lewis - was lost when she fled to America in the aftermath of a short-lived unsuccessful marriage.
From Byfleet to the Bush may be the best ‘celebrity’ autobiography I’ve ever read - although undoubtedly Jacqueline herself would deny that she’s any sort of ‘celebrity’ at all (despite being second choice behind Jennie Bond for one series of I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here). Written with eye-opening honesty Jacqueline has left no stone in her life unturned, regardless of whatever nastiness lay beneath it. Sexual hang-ups, persistent disastrous romances and affairs, a long stay in a mental institution in America, it’s all here and more (including one revelation on page 120 which actually made me drop the book!) and told with an unflinching honesty and a very raw lack of self-worth.
But wait! This is the woman who played Servalan; surely there are pages and pages of amusing anecdotes and recollections of her time working on Blake’s 7, memories of on-set antics with Gareth Thomas and fooling around with Michael Keating? Nope. Chapter eight is entitled ‘Blake’s 7’ but even here the show gets short shrift (Jacqueline forgets to tell her readers what the show was actually about or even that it was a sci-fi show) because she’s rightly more concerned with detailing her human condition at the time of the making of the show, her fragile and vulnerable state of mind (and body) even as, unrecognised and unacknowledged here, she became a household name across the UK. Jacqueline’s role as Androgum Chessene in the Doctor Who serial ‘The Two Doctors’, her television return after a couple of years in the wilderness after the end of Blake’s 7, gets a more enthusiastic write-up than her four years locking horns with Blake and his gang.
But then that’s the point and yet it might also be the frustration for Blake’s 7 fans. For From By fleet To The Bush isn’t about the actress who played Servalan, it’s about the woman in whose life the role of Servalan was just a small part. It’s hard to imagine how Jacqueline, lost and alone and completely adrift from the world she found herself living in, managed to find her way through the madness (in every sense of the word) and the peace of mind and the sense of ‘belonging’ she finds in her new and continuing role working with the Vervet Monkey Foundation in South Africa is not only well-earned it’s hard-earned. In the end this isn’t a fluffy back-slapping showbiz tale of dizzying professional highs and occasionally troublesome lows, this is the uncompromising true story of an emotionally-fractured, hugely-talented, warm-hearted woman who battled against impossible adversity and survived. From Byfleet To the Bush is an astonishing piece of work and is beyond highly recommended.