Monday, March 12, 2007


Good Luck, Jacqueline Pearce!

I waved goodbye (well, actually, I kissed her hand and called her “ma’am”) to one of my icons on Saturday. This was fairly unexpected: until a few days before, I hadn’t even known Jacqueline Pearce – famous as Servalan from Blake’s 7 and in Hammer horrors – was moving to South Africa to work with endangered monkeys, but thanks to a fab little shop in Edinburgh, I got a chance to see her. So, if you feel like wishing Jackie luck, drop by her blog, and if you visit Edinburgh, saunter all the way down Lothian Road to visit Voga. It’s small but packed full of exciting Doctor Who and similar bits, and they’re very friendly… And, as it’s four hundred miles from my favourite shop, East London’s Tenth Planet, I reckon that’s far enough for them not to be competing too directly with each other (both shops are named after worlds from Doctor Who stories involving the Cybermen, you know).

Jacqueline Pearce and Servalan

Jacqueline Pearce has been one of my favourite actresses for almost as long as I can remember. Servalan was certainly always the character that most grabbed my attention in Blake’s 7. Like Livia in I, Claudius, she was both brilliantly played and an outstanding political anti-hero. I thought she was fantastic growing up, and though it’s fashionable to knock strong woman characters like those two for being bad for women because they were villains, I have to say that’s rubbish. I can’t think of a stronger female role model on TV at the time, and that she was charismatic and three-dimensional enough to win me over despite being, ah, essentially appalling, tells you how impressive she was. Well, I always loved a great villain, and like Francis Urquhart, her mixture of stunning camp and intense emotional drama meant there were points where I definitely rooted for her scheming to pay off, perhaps indulging the side of me that doesn’t want to be so nice, open and constructive about politics. You might also have seen her in Doctor Who’s The Two Doctors (another striking villain, but with a dreadful wig and bacofoil frock), a fanatical nazi in Dark Season (Russell T Davies’ tryout for Doctor Who), The AvengersA Sense of History, Hammer’s The Plague of the Zombies and The Reptile, among many others. In recent years, she’s also been much in demand for audio plays, with perhaps the most outstanding being Big Finish’s terrific Doctor Who drama The Fearmonger, in which to no-one’s surprise Jackie played a far-right political leader. She was also great fun as a starry-eyed fanatic and recurring villain in their second Sarah Jane Smith series, though – as Millennium observed on reviewing it – she’s not as multi-layered a character as she seemed to be building up to be. But I digress, so back to Jackie, and scroll to the bottom of this piece instead if you want spoilers for the climax, or anti-climax, of Big Finish’s Sarah Jane Smith stories…

Blake’s 7 started off in concept as something like Robin Hood in space, but while Servalan occupied the Sheriff of Nottingham role, she got far more character development than any Sheriff. She starts off as Supreme Commander of the military wing of the Federation, a vicious totalitarian dictatorship, but after a couple of years takes advantage of a galaxy-wide crisis to mount a military coup against the civil administration. That never happened to Bad King John. Before long, there’s a counter-coup, and the show’s final season sees her gradually climbing back to power, with considerably more resolve and success than our heroes’ fight against the Federation managed. It’s no surprise, then, that my favourite episodes of the series remain Star One, in which she declares herself President and has her civilian predecessor arrested, and Rumours of Death, in which an abortive coup against her tangles with a personal vendetta and a love affair gone wrong (yes, it’s all film noir again) to overthrow the usual pro-rebellion course of the series. Sand is another episode to look out for, exploring Servalan’s early life and with her seducing one of our heroes. It’s fascinating to watch the change in Jacqueline Pearce’s performance after assuming the Presidency: is it because the script now calls for a charismatic figurehead rather than a ‘harder’ military commander, or, as Jackie said in one memorable interview, “Because that’s when I discovered sex”? It’s always amused me, too, that I became President of my university students’ union on the anniversary of Rumours of Death being shown, though the coup that removed my predecessor was less bloody and my title wasn’t quite as impressive as ‘President of the Terran Federation, Ruler of the High Council, Lord of the Inner and Outer Worlds, High Admiral of the Galactic Fleets, Lord General of the Six Armies, and Defender of the Earth’ (no, not even when I was Vice-Chair of the FPC). Often described as striding across a quarry in heels and a cocktail frock – because she often was – she looked terrific and, I suspect, may have had something to do with my taste for monochrome, with close-cropped black hair and outfits nearly always in stark white or black. Of course, I wasn’t the only one to notice her looks, nor the most passionately: Jackie gives great interviews, in one of which (for BBC2’s I Love 1978, I seem to remember) she proclaimed with pride, “I was a masturbatory icon to an entire generation!” before throwing her head back and cackling at the thought of it.

Jacqueline Pearce in Edinburgh

Jacqueline still looks very striking now, though her long hair is streaked with grey: well, I think of it as ‘long hair’, but that’s merely because the picture of her in my head has such very short hair and in fact It’s only just long enough to have a bit of flow to it. Knowing she’s recovered from cancer in the last couple of years, it was great to see her looking so healthy as she prepared to set out on a great adventure that’s clearly making her very happy. And, with Voga being a friendly little shop – particularly Brian, on discovering that, almost on the spur of the moment (well, two days’ notice), I’d come up from London specially – and not a huge crowd there, she was happy to sign quite a lot of different things. Yes, I’d lugged several items with me, though I wasn’t the most extravagant, and of course I bought a couple of glossy photos for her to sign to help raise money for her monkeys. Glossy photos aren’t usually my thing, but just this once…

We all had a great afternoon, too. She’s a great attention-grabber, and all the wine helped (what a very nice man Martin at Voga is); I think it helped Jackie, too, though she did claim that she’d never tried any before. Well, all right, she subsequently modified that to saying that she’d not previously had any that day. I’m sure you’ll know the myth that the Eskimos have dozens of different words for snow; well, in a reversal of that idea, Jackie has her own language that consists entirely of the dozens of meanings with which she can imbue the word “Darling”. Indulgent, ecstatic, interrogative, flirtatious, warning; it’s uncanny, but more repeatable than the line from White Mischief she declaimed after hooting with laughter on seeing a large print of her from that film which someone had brought along, exposing her breasts to, well, critical attention. I think the three and a half-month-old baby in attendance had to have his or her ears stoppered. I suspect I can’t print most of the stories she came out with about people she’s worked with, either, though she agreed that the cover of Hammer’s stylish The Plague of the Zombies (in which an eerily zombified Jackie quite loses her head) was peculiarly unattractive – the male lead, not much of a looker, being goosed by a zombie, even less of a looker – and could have done with her name in larger letters. And spelt correctly. I enjoyed her dazzling smile, too, as I produced a booklet from Dark Season for her to sign and declare, “I did enjoy making it. For all the wrong reasons!”

I think the second biggest cheer of the afternoon was the moment when the sound was turned up on the Blake’s 7 DVD that had been playing in the background so we could hear her ordering a sinister nurse about with huge aplomb (it was Powerplay, if you want to watch it). For most of the afternoon, the picture was Blake’s 7 but the soundtrack was an assortment of Carry On themes, which was faintly disturbing, and I notice they didn’t dare put on the Carry On in which Jackie actually appears, either. However, the biggest cheer was for a startling cameo. Jackie had finished signing all the memorabilia brought by the group who’d been waiting for her, some had moved on, and the rest of us were standing around with drinks in our hands while Ms Pearce held court when a familiar white-haired figure appeared at the door. It was Gareth Thomas, an actor best known as the eponymous Blake, come simply to pop in, thank his opponent for 29 years of knowing her, hope that she would one day return, and wish her luck in working with real monkeys. Then he blew her a kiss and was gone while we were still gawping.

So, I had rather a lovely Saturday afternoon, though I couldn’t do it every week (physically or financially). “You’re insane,” was the view of one familiar face who I often see at Tenth Planet, and indeed of Richard a little before six that morning as I left to get my train. But I’d not been to Edinburgh for years and I’d been tempted just the previous week while watching BBC4’s new drama (surely some mistake) Reichenbach Falls, so when I saw that Jacqueline Pearce would be making probably her final public appearance in Britain there… Well, it was worth it, despite the long rail journeys being completely exhausting and packed with noisy, drunken rugby fans particularly between Edinburgh and Newcastle (“That was the longest hour and a half of my life,” breathed one woman to me as she fought her way out at Waverley, evidently spotting I wasn’t a scarf-wearing fan). Besides, I had time to stroll around for a bit, even taking a little while to sit and relax half-way up the Mound on the same rock I always used to sit on and read when getting away from family holidays there. With only seventeen hours between leaving my front door and staggering back in, though, there was no time for any Lib Dem canvassing. Shucks.

And getting excited about meeting someone so fabulous has even inspired me to get back to my poor old long-neglected Occasional Livejournal, so not only am I putting this piece there, I’ve written a bit about another recent signing as well.

13 March update: The Voga blog has linked to me today, complete with a lovely picture of Jacqueline Pearce and I (and my chins). You can also find a link to other photos from the day, including a few of me and many of Jackie. Look out for an especially great photo of a laughing Gareth Thomas. In another post, they have a video clip of Jacqueline in the shop.

SPOILERS for the climax, or anti-climax, of Big Finish’s Sarah Jane Smith stories:

The second Sarah Jane Smith audio series was, for the most part, pretty gripping, and all a huge improvement on the first (the five stories in which were, respectively: tediously uninspired; tediously uninspired, idiotic, and homophobic; a bit crude but rather exciting; tediously uninspired again; and not bad. Best to start with the second season, then, or at least miss out 1.2 and 1.4, which add nothing). The real problem with it was that the only ‘episode’ that didn’t deliver was the final one, and not just because by the time that CD spins, Jacqueline Pearce’s character has just died. No, it’s the story: all the wheels suddenly come off. It’s always irritating when you think you’ve worked out a plot and your version is better than the one the author goes on to reveal, but, with two rival secret societies plotting around the return of an evil alien entity that Sarah had previously fought with the Doctor, I’d worked out that Jackie’s ‘nasty’ lot believed the entity was an evil conqueror and were therefore ruthless in killing all who might help it, while the new-agey, hippie-shit cultists protecting Sarah were of course deluded in welcoming their astral tyrant. So I reckoned the final episode would see Sarah working out what the alien force behind it all was, and being forced to ‘switch sides’ because the ‘villains’, while murderous, had the right idea. Instead, she works it all out but, er, seems to be so desperate to relive her outer space days that she goes along with the hippies to welcome their alien overlord anyway, rather than trying to stop it. Then the ambiguous ending implies that they were all so deluded anyway that they just expire while waiting and it didn’t bother showing up, if indeed it was ever planning to. In both ways, this seemed dramatically unrewarding.

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