Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Culture
  2. TV & Radio
11 March 2020updated 03 Aug 2021 1:11pm

Glenda Jackson is superb as the eccentric poet in Radio 4’s Edith Sitwell in Scarborough

Jackson is just so Jacksonian throughout: projecting fast-thinking and decisive intelligence, and a complete inability to suffer fools.     

By Antonia Quirke

Ah, bliss. This is an eccentric play (17 March, 2.15pm), about the eccentric poet and personage Edith Sitwell, played by Glenda Jackson, travelling back to her Scarborough birthplace to confront her unloving parents, in the company of herself as a girl.

Much of it takes place in the bedroom of Sitwell’s mother, Ida, a renowned beauty and outrageous snob (“I thought a baronet was the lowest thing on Earth”), who did time for gambling debts and on occasion borrowed money from the servants. I think she even pawned her dentures, but maybe I misheard that. Anyway, the rest of the time she lived in the crenelated Renishaw Hall under “a shower of novels” (notes Edith), drugged up on “one pill to wipe out melancholy, one pill to summon sleep”. Vain Ida worried a great deal about her daughter’s unusual nose – Edith looked like Charles Hawtrey in a spangled Bloomsbury turban – which, along with the heinously middle-class threat of a university education (Edith fancied it), really got on Ida’s wick.

Meanwhile, Sitwell’s titled father busied himself writing unpublishable books such as A Short History of the Fork (how very now, actually). He talked incessantly about the Plantagenets as though they were a going concern. Jackson’s eternally single Edith negotiates them both in a crooning, scornful way, sometimes yelling “today there will be recognition and justice! The tempest rageth!”, then speaking with sadness about the hatpin cruelly used on her nose in an  attempt to fix it.

Jackson is just so Jacksonian throughout: projecting fast-thinking and decisive intelligence, and a complete inability to suffer fools, while occasionally softening from that marvellous rebarbative haughtiness to utter romantic heroine. She has a way of starting off spiky and ending up soft that no other actress has done nearly as well, bar Bette Davis. Only, Jackson is never feigned and doesn’t lean on various little mannerisms. I know it’s a bit boring to wish she’d done (more) movies rather than politics, but I do. I miss her lack of pomposity, and her range, and her sheer power in a whole swathe of absent films.

Ah, well. We’ll always have Sunday Bloody Sunday

Select and enter your email address Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
I consent to New Statesman Media Group collecting my details provided via this form in accordance with the Privacy Policy

Edith Sitwell in Scarborough
BBC Radio 4

Content from our partners
How industry is key for net zero
How to ensure net zero brings good growth and green jobs
Flooding is a major risk for our homes

This article appears in the 11 Mar 2020 issue of the New Statesman, How the world is closing down