“No man will go to his death and have an obituary which will refer to his tiger-skin, kitten-heeled shoes,” Glenda Jackson sighed when we met in her penultimate year as an MP in 2014. Despite her extraordinary career – spanning kitchen-sink drama, radical improv, Shakespeare, Morecambe and Wise, as well as Britain’s ministerial ranks – the Oscar-winning actor and Labour firebrand was reflecting on how life is “never, ever a level playing field” for women and men. She had been treated in Westminster “either as an airhead who would fall flat on her face or as some unconscionably egotistical diva who would demand treatment different to everybody else”.
It’s hard to tell what such an enigmatic character, who died aged 87 on 15 June, would make of her own obituaries today.
When we met, I recall my disappointment as a rather star-struck new reporter at her sparse Commons office – just a map of her constituency, Hampstead and Kilburn, was pinned neatly to the noticeboard. It gave no hint of her three decades in theatre and on screen, or any suggestion of her then-imminent return to acting (after 23 years in the Commons, she made a surprise comeback – most notably as a grizzled, ferocious King Lear at the Old Vic at 80).
There were no pictures of the iconic roles she played: whipping Marat in the bath with her hair as the crazed assassin Charlotte Corday, her breakthrough part in the 1964 Peter Brook theatre production and later film adaptation of Marat/Sade; her face caked in white as Elizabeth I in the 1971 BBC series Elizabeth R; hamming it up as Cleopatra in a Morecambe and Wise Show Christmas special. No evidence, either, of the awards she’d won – two Oscars, for best actress in Women in Love (1970) and A Touch of Class (1972), two Emmys and a Bafta when I interviewed her. (A Tony, second Bafta and third Emmy were still to come.)
“I’m not big on the past,” she smiled, when I pointed this out. She found it a “wonderful allegory for awards” that despite her mother polishing up her Oscars, the glitter eventually wore away to reveal the “base metal underneath – I rather like that”, as she told Sue Lawley on Desert Island Discs in 1997.
Even in her maiden speech to the Commons, which she described to me as “the most frightening experience of my life”, she eschewed the luvvie characterisation of her constituency, Hampstead and Highgate as it was then (the stereotypical heartland of the chattering classes). Instead, she spoke up for the plight of impoverished pensioners in her patch.
Born to a cleaner and bricklayer in Birkenhead and raised on the Wirral in a two-up, two-down with an outdoor lav, Jackson was working behind the counter at Boots and doing am-drams when the council helped fund her place at Rada. She had joined the Labour Party at 16, her socialist politics forged in her working-class childhood.
In the first 30 years of her career, she often considered quitting to become a social worker. But once an MP, she never ruled out a return to the acting life. Not for the fame or fun, but because if she was voted out she’d still have to make a living – and acting was the only way she knew how.
From our brief interview, I remember her being merrily ordinary, putting her feet up on her desk drawer and cackling away about the male egos of Westminster – when she had championed a female colleague over a man in a meeting, he’d looked at her like she’d “cut [his] balls off”.
This matter-of-fact approach to her work contrasted with the often erotic intensity of the roles for which she was renowned in her early career – the psychotic Corday; the nymphomaniac wife of Tchaikovsky in Ken Russell’s The Music Lovers (1971), in which she memorably tossed around naked on the floor of a train. She was the first to actress to go fully nude in a prestigious stage play, during the Royal Shakespeare Company’s experimental Theatre of Cruelty season in 1964, also directed by Brook, one of her great influences. Eventually, she turned down a further sexually neurotic role offered to her by Russell. “I think I was tired of playing mad women,” she told BBC Radio 4’s This Cultural Life last year.
Yet the emotional zeal she brought to her signature roles translated into her fierce parliamentary persona. She stunned the Commons with a damning “tribute” following Margaret Thatcher’s death in 2013, accusing her of “wreaking… the most heinous social, economic and spiritual damage on this country” and concluding: “A woman? Not on my terms.”
Despite voting for Tony Blair to lead the Labour Party, and serving in his government as transport minister, she turned against him – opposing the invasion of Iraq and even threatening to oust him as leader. She had no time, however, for the left-wing Militant faction that took root in her Merseyside homeland and divided the party (she called it “self-indulgent crap”).
She spoke to me fondly of her son, Dan Hodges, a popular political journalist whose views moved rightwards as Ed Miliband and then Jeremy Corbyn led Labour. “I think you’ve done quite well as a parent if your kid holds positions totally opposite to your own,” she told me. “He’s a grown-up and I’m a grown-up, so you have to learn to live with your differences.”
Quoted in Chris Bryant’s 1999 biography, Glenda Jackson promised to become an “appalling old lady”. Given the success of her late-in-life acting renaissance, from her turn as Lear to her Emmy-winning role as a grandmother with dementia in Elizabeth Is Missing, that’s one thing she never quite found time for.