Actor who brought a perfectly judged level of camp to the role of the vampish, villainous Servalan in the TV sci-fi series Blake’s 7
Jacqueline Pearce, right, as Servalan, supreme commander of the Federation, confronts Dayna (Josette Simon) and Justin (Peter Byrne) in a 1981 episode of Blake’s 7. Photograph: Ronald Grant Archive
The actor Jacqueline Pearce, who has died of lung cancer aged 74, was well known to a generation of television viewers thanks to the smouldering intensity and depth she brought to her role as the vampish space villain Servalan in the popular BBC science fiction series Blake’s 7 (1978-81). Created by Terry Nation, Blake’s 7 concerned a morally ambiguous bunch of rebels led by Roj Blake (Gareth Thomas) pursued by the forces of a totalitarian government known as the Federation.
Initially brought in for a single episode, Pearce did such a good job as the evil regime’s coolly calculating supreme commander that she became a recurring character and the show’s main villain. With her striking looks, cropped jet black hair and propensity to stride across the universe in glamorous attire (which the naturally elegant Pearce carried off effortlessly and with a perfectly judged level of camp), Servalan was no stereotypical evildoer. Pearce augmented the character’s ruthlessness with a damaged sensuality and an undercurrent of vulnerability. Years later she was delighted to receive letters from (now grown-up) viewers telling her that Servalan had been the object of their first teenage crush.
Jacqueline Pearce, fourth from left, in 1981 with Blake’s 7 cast members, from left, Michael Keating as Vila Restal, Josette Simon as Dayna Mellanby, Steven Pacey as Del Tarrant, Paul Darrow as Kerr Avon and Glynis Barber as Soolin. Photograph: Popperfoto/Getty Images
She was born in Woking, Surrey, the daughter of Stella and Reginald Pearce. Her father worked at the Vickers Armstrong aircraft factory nearby in Weybridge, and Jacqueline was brought up in Byfleet, where the family shared their home with another couple, May and George Wilcox. Stella walked out when Jacqueline was 16 months old, and the Wilcoxes shared parental responsibility with Reginald.
Jacqueline was educated at the Marist Convent, West Byfleet. Although she found her schooldays traumatic, a lay teacher at the convent opened her eyes to drama by giving her elocution lessons and taking her to the theatre. After an unsuccessful stint at secretarial college, she won a place at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (Rada) in London where her contemporaries included John Hurt (who became a friend for life) and Anthony Hopkins.
On graduation, she secured the services of a good agent and television parts came quickly – the first in a 1964 ITV Play of the Week starring Ian McShane and Hurt. It also featured her husband, the actor Drewe Henley, whom she had met when he directed her in a short film while she was at Rada: they had married within nine months, in 1963.
Pearce quickly broke into films, featuring prominently in the Hammer horrors The Plague of the Zombies (1966 – her character’s rise from the grave memorably ended in decapitation by shovel at the hands of André Morell) and The Reptile (1966, playing the title role). Other films included Don’t Lose Your Head (1967, from the Carry On… team), Don’t Raise the Bridge, Lower the River (1968, in which she starred alongside Jerry Lewis, Bernard Cribbins and Terry-Thomas), White Mischief (1987), Bruce Robinson’s How to Get Ahead in Advertising (1989) and Princess Caraboo (1994).
Jacqueline Pearce in the title role, with Jennifer Daniel in the Hammer horror film The Reptile, 1966. Photograph: Alamy
After her marriage to Henley ended in 1967 (and he subsequently married Felicity Kendal), she took an impetuous sabbatical in Hollywood. She studied at the Lee Strasberg Actors Studio in Los Angeles and worked as a receptionist for her friend Sammy Davis Jr (whom she had met when they worked on adjacent sound stages while he was filming in the UK). When she returned home, she felt her career had stalled, but her extensive body of television work in the UK included guest spots in The Avengers (1966), Public Eye (1966), Man in a Suitcase (1967-68), Callan (1969), Hadleigh (1973), Special Branch (1974), the BBC Shakespeare series (Measure for Measure in 1979), Doctor Who (1985) and Casualty (2006).
Recurring roles included a performance of sad beauty as Rosa Dartle in the BBC’s 1974-75 production of David Copperfield and a pair of memorable fantasies aimed at a younger audience – Moondial (1988, in which she played a dual role) and Dark Season (1991, an early success for Russell T Davies that starred Kate Winslet).
Her theatre work included West End appearances in Harold Pinter’s production of Simon Gray’s Otherwise Engaged (Queen’s theatre, 1975) and JB Priestley’s Dangerous Corner (Garrick theatre, 2001), and an Edinburgh fringe run of her one woman show A Star Is Torn (1999).
During a break in her career she moved to South Africa for several years, initially to care for orphaned monkeys. In her autobiography From Byfleet to the Bush (2012), she was candid about her struggles with mental health. She nevertheless remained a glamorous force of nature – even when hard up and between jobs she would cash her dole cheque and immediately head to the West End to buy champagne.
She maintained her links with cult fiction by reprising the role of Servalan for CD releases of Blake’s 7 (2012-18) and starring alongside Hurt in a series of Doctor Who adventures (2015-17), both for the audio company Big Finish.
A second marriage also ended in divorce.
- Jacqueline Kay Pearce, actor, born 20 December 1943; died 3 September 2018