How do I begin to pay tribute to Jacqueline Pearce and her role as Servalan? When I learned this week of Jacqueline’s death at the age of 74, I felt as if someone had punched me in the stomach. Losing her – as with losing ‘Blake’ (Gareth Thomas) two years ago – feels like part of my childhood has died. Sadly, I never got to meet the wonderful RADA-trained actress behind Blake’s 7’s ultimate villain and so this cannot be an obituary for Jacqueline herself since I’m not equipped to deliver that. However, I wanted to pay tribute to her unique and irreplaceable creation, Servalan, since I have had a girl crush on the latter since I used to run around the playground at primary school firing on an imaginary ‘Liberator’. I’ve used her image as my online avatar for several years and I’ve felt somehow indelibly bound up with her since then. I know from talking to many people that she is an iconic figure that many of us loved to hate, or simply loved/lusted after!
If you have never seen Blake’s 7 (for shame!) or if it is a while since you watched it, let me recommend a few of the best episodes featuring the character of Servalan, to begin to appreciate her. Servalan’s introduction came a whole 6 episodes into Series 1 in Seek-Locate-Destroy, written by Blake’s 7 creator Terry Nation, and broadcast in 1978. It is fascinating to read in Adrian Rigelsford’s book: The Making of Terry Nation’s Blake’s 7 (published Boxtree 1995) that Servalan was originally going to be a male character, but in casting became female. I think this is one of the reasons she is such a strong character – like Ripley in Alien, she is first and foremost a human being, and rarely conforms to perceived assumptions about feminine behaviour.
This episode introduces many of her character traits. In her first scene, we see Servalan meeting two representatives from the President of the Terran Federation, concerned that the outlaw Blake is becoming a rallying point for the opposition. It is obvious from her measured, courteous but firm approach with the politicians that this Supreme Commander of the fleet is used to being obeyed, unquestioningly. “Responsibility is something I have never evaded…” she states calmly, painting a back story of loyalty to the Federation. Servalan is undoubtedly loyal to herself above all, but she certainly believes in order rather than chaos. When Travis, the Space Commander she hopes to use to wipe out Blake, arrives, she immediately plays mind games with him, forcing him to wait outside her quarters until invited in. Her self-confidence in the presence of an ‘alpha male’ is striking and one of the reasons I feel Harvest of Kairos in series 3 is so flawed – Servalan has never struck me as having masochistic tendencies, rather the opposite to be honest.
Moving on, it is telling that Servalan often wears white – the colour of purity. In contrast, Travis is the archetypal villain in a black leather suit reminiscent of Darth Vader. Both are sociopaths, to our modern eyes, but Servalan is the more adept at hiding it, and, therefore, more dangerously alluring.
Inevitably that first mission to destroy Blake fails, and thus the scene is set for the cat and mouse game across the galaxy which makes up so much of the plot of Blake’s 7. Servalan was originally intended as a one-off character but Jacqueline made such an impact with her portrayal that the character had to come back. A stand-out episode in series 2 is Gambit where in contrast to her poised and quiet introduction in series 1, we see Servalan in a much more camp, exuberant form, and I for one love her like this! Travis by this stage has gone AWOL looking for Star One, the Federation’s communications’ nerve centre, and Servalan is trying to track him down with the help of the sleazy folk of Freedom City. Dressed a bit like a glitzy red Quality Street chocolate, Servalan spends most of the episode reclining on cushions, exchanging banter with Krantor, and generally oozing a weird but potent mix of lots of cleavage, combined with icy contempt towards Travis – “he outlived his value.” Delicious!
Over time the writers gave Jacqueline more scope to expand and deepen her portrayal of this beloved character. In series 3 Avon takes over the helm of the Liberator, and he and Servalan enjoy an often flirtatious, but always tense, relationship – does he want to kiss her, kill her, or (hopefully) both? In probably my favourite pair of episodes of all time, series 3’s Children of Auron and Rumours of Death, we see a side to Servalan which we may never have thought was possible – vulnerability. In the former she sheds tears – yes, real, human tears – at the loss of her children. Of course, any sympathy for the devil is perhaps washed away by the fact that Servalan has wiped out almost the entire population of Cally’s home planet, but I defy anyone not to feel a touch of empathy when you see that beautiful face contorted in pain. In Rumours she is brought to the depths of despair – her short-lived Presidency overthrown by a palace coup; betrayed by someone she thought was a friend. Avon finds her chained up in a basement by the rebels and literally grabs her by the throat.
This is a world away from the camp humour of Gambit – Jacqueline gives the scene her all, with tears in her eyes as she faces Avon’s threats of violence with quiet dignity. The tables are turned in the end, and Servalan points a gun at Avon, who appears more than ever her equal as he dismisses the threat of death nonchalantly – “you really think I care?” – in the face of being betrayed himself. Spine-tingling stuff from both actors here – Avon and Servalan are well-matched as always and confrontations between them rarely disappoint.
Season four is sometimes regarded as the weakest in Blake’s 7 but it does contain a couple of gems as far as Jacqueline Pearce is concerned, by now playing a paranoid and murderous Servalan disguised as Security Officer Sleer. (Hmm, paranoid, murderous – she and Avon would be swiping right on Tinder by now, surely?) I would recommend watching two episodes, which I appreciate are controversial choices: Sand and Gold. In the former, Servalan, at last, consummates a relationship with a member of the crew, but unfortunately for all of us shipping on ‘Servavon’ (if there is such a thing), this turns out to be with someone else. (No, not Orac. Rhymes with ‘Arrant’.) This contains that heady mix of humour and the threat of violence which seem to go hand in hand when Servalan/Sleer is in the room. Even with a gun literally pointed at her head, it is clear who is in charge (clue, the one wearing the gorgeous sparkly dress…) When the tables are turned she smiles radiantly – “I can kill you…” – and we all believe it. Dayna quite understandably is far from pleased when she finds out her friend and colleague didn’t take the opportunity to eliminate her father’s killer, but I doubt any of the audience could have pulled the trigger.
In Gold, Servalan/Sleer only appears in the final few minutes, but she is worth the wait. Facing yet another double-cross, Avon sneers: “He doesn’t know you as well as I do.” Servalan softly replies “Who does?” Ah, a final moment of truth, amongst all the lies. Forget Romeo and Juliet – Servalan and Avon are the star-crossed lovers of my dreams. How many other murderous, thieving, treacherous psychopaths would you find yourself rooting for? That we care – that we can genuinely like Servalan in the face of all her terrible atrocities – is a tribute to one person, Jacqueline Pearce, who brought her to life so convincingly.
Rest in peace Jacqueline and thank you so very much for Servalan – just one of your many acting roles, but one which has brought a lot of pleasure to my life. I am kicking myself that I never got to meet you in person. As a shy, rather nervous, child, I was poles apart from you, but you showed me that women could be strong and self-confident but still feminine and beautiful.
Please add your own favourite episodes and memories of Servalan (or Jacqueline) in the comments below.