As both an actress and a raconteur, Jacqueline Pearce is a force of nature. Her performance as Servalan, the towering villainess of BBC space-opera-on-a-shoestring Blake’s 7, dominated the show, even when she wasn’t on screen. Dressed in the most flamboyant and preposterous costumes that the budget (and the wardrobe department’s ingenuity) could stretch to, Servalan was the Cersei Lannister of her day: scheming, manipulative, a consummate survivor, and a political chameleon of the first order. A ruthless commander with a cruel streak as sharp as her tongue, Servalan was always a more interesting figure than the doggedly driven Roj Blake; and it was those rare and enticing entanglements between Servalan and the equally arch and calculating Avon that provided some of the show’s most electric confrontations.
Since her recent return to the UK, Pearce has worked on several Big Finish audio projects, and it’s not hard to imagine how quickly the anecdotes and recollections Pearce shared between takes convinced everyone in the studio that there was great potential in recording episodes from the story of her life in a more systematic way. The result is Call Me Jacks, a revealing and utterly engrossing conversation between Pearce and Big Finish stalwart Nicholas Briggs, which revisits some of the episodes covered in her 2012 autobiography From Byfleet to the Bush. In contrast to the long-running genre interview series Myth Makers that Briggs presented (he and Pearce met up in #59), this is more of an exercise in biographical oral history; ranging across Pearce’s life from childhood (her battles with what she describes as the religious ‘crap’ of school and her difficult relationship with her father) to the present day (a time of genuine personal contentment). This revealing and highly personal approach is far closer to the model of Dr Anthony Clare’s famous BBC Radio 4 series In the Psychiatrist’s Chair than it is to the more familiar format of the ‘special features’ interview.
While Blake’s 7 was being broadcast, Pearce remained the consummate BBC professional; dutifully appearing on children’s television and playing the expected diplomatic, promotional role. But in the decades since, as the programme’s original core audience has itself grown up, Pearce has become a less private and a more open figure. In Call Me Jacks, Pearce and Briggs explore stories from her life which range from the comical, through the unexpected and the bizarre, to the genuinely shocking. Although the tales are occasionally a little disorderly in the telling, Pearce remains a riveting storyteller throughout.
Pearce’s own story is one that, were it a fictional bio-pic, any script editor would say strains at the limits of credibility. ‘I never had a plan’, she explains at one point. ‘It never occurred to me to have a plan.’ She has lived in the UK, the US and Africa, and worked as an actress, as a waitress in a strip club (from which she was fired), as an unofficial fan club secretary for Sammy Davies Jnr, in a sanctuary for orphaned monkeys, and as an artists’ life model. She’s promptly spent any monies she earned, and has frequently had to rely on the generosity of friends to find places to live (spending several years in a one-room flat above a grocer’s shop in St Ives, Cornwall). She’s been married and separated several times and is a cancer survivor twice over. One of the recurring experiences that Pearce has been commendably forthright about have been her life-long struggles with mental health issues. She suffered her first nervous breakdown whilst still a student at RADA and has since endured ongoing battles with depression and other mental health conditions, which she has managed through a combination of medication and counselling.
After some early success in the theatre and film, the role of Servalan became a career-defining one for Pearce. In an era when the spotlight of success in a high-profile TV role could render an actor ‘typecast’ and unemployable, she struggled to find sustained periods of work thereafter. She suggests that her own behaviour, as well as health issues, made the post-Blake’s 7 period that much harder. ‘I managed to sabotage my career quite spectacularly’, she suggests – particularly during those times when, she says, she collapsed the distinctions between her own identity and that of Servalan.
The naturalism and simplicity of this Big Finish production (the sense of two colleagues in conversation) helps gives the listener a sense of ‘being in the room’ with them. When the pair uncorks a bottle of champagne and fill their glasses (‘conversations of this intimacy require alcohol’, Pearce explains) that sense of unforced and honest discussion only increases.
With its robust language and very personal reflections on sex, religion, and mental well-being, Call Me Jacks is unquestionably a release for adults only. Blake’s 7 fans should be made aware that Pearce’s time on the show comprises only a relatively short (albeit very interesting) section of the interview. However, no prospective purchaser should worry that the often serious subject matter makes for sombre listening. This is frequently hilarious (Pearce’s impossibly deep laugh is itself infectious), often surprisingly moving and never less than completely entertaining - even as your jaw drops yet again at what you’re hearing.
What shines through here is Pearce’s impressive personal resilience: her ability to survive, to bounce back, to recalibrate and to move on; even as, time and again, life has thrown the most difficult challenges at her. She describes herself as currently enjoying a renaissance; and it’s great to see her thriving once again, enjoying, amongst other things, the opportunity to revisit the role of Servalan (and to take on fresh dramatic roles) in the audio realm. Blake’s 7 enthusiasts will be pleased to learn that Big Finish are also planning to release an audio book version of Paul Darrow’s celebrated autobiography You’re Him, Aren’t You?, but the appeal of Jacqueline Pearce’s revealing reflections on a ‘difficult life well lived’ deserves a wider audience still. Call Me Jacks is absorbing, compelling listening.
CALL ME JACKS / CAST: JACQUELINE PEARCE, NICHOLAS BRIGGS / PUBLISHER: BIG FINISH / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW /