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Glenda Jackson was piercingly intelligent and unafraid to take risks | Glenda Jackson

Glenda Jackson was piercingly intelligent and unafraid to take risks | Glenda Jackson


Glenda Jackson, who has died aged 87, had a career unmatched by any of her contemporaries. From 1957 to 1992 she enjoyed huge success on stage, film (twice winning an Oscar) and television. From 1992 to 2015 she was a Labour MP, first for Hampstead and Highgate and then for the Hampstead and Kilburn constituency, becoming a notably outspoken backbencher. In 2016 she returned to acting as a magnificent King Lear at the Old Vic, London; later, on Broadway, shewon a Tony award for her performance in Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women.

Born in Birkenhead, Jackson first came to prominence in 1964, in an experimental Peter Brook Theatre of Cruelty season at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (Lamda), during which she was stripped naked, bathed and dressed in a prison uniform to the words of a report on the Christine Keeler case. Jackson went on to join the RSC, playing Charlotte Corday in Brook’s production of Marat/Sade and Ophelia to David Warner’s Hamlet at Stratford. Prophetically, Penelope Gilliatt began her review in the Observer by saying that Jackson was the first Ophelia who should have played Hamlet. “She makes Ophelia,” wrote Gilliatt, “exceptional and electric, with an intelligence that harasses the court and a scornful authority full of Hamlet’s own self-distaste.”

Those qualities were evident in much of Jackson’s later work: a sharp, probing mind and a built-in bullshit detector that allowed her to see through all forms of pretence. I always remember how as Elizabeth I in the 1971 movie, Mary, Queen of Scots, she delivered a blow to the First Earl of Leicester’s solar plexus that would have felled Muhammad Ali. But Jackson could be tender as well as tough: in the same year she did a Fred and Ginger routine on the Morecambe and Wise Christmas show, and in 1974 she won a second Oscar (her first was for Women in Love) playing a dress designer who has a hectic affair with George Segal’s American businessman in A Touch of Class.

Formidable … Jackson in Marat/Sade (1967). Photograph: Ronald Grant

If there was one quality that defined Jackson’s career, it was a willingness to take risks. You saw that in two of her finest stage performances. In 1983, she played a woman cut off from her roots in Botho Strauss’s Big and Small and displayed what I called “the frightening ability of a Beckett heroine to stare into the abyss”. A year later she was the lead in Eugene O’Neill’s four-hour-plus Strange Interlude capturing all the inner turbulence of a woman who shows both delight and disgust with the men she variously possesses.

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That appetite for risk resurfaced in 1992 when Jackson decided to forsake acting and stand as a Labour MP. Roy Hodges, to whom she was married from 1958 to 1976, once admiringly said: “If she’d gone into politics she’d be prime minister; if she’d gone into crime, she’d be Jack the Ripper.” Although she was a hard-working MP and popular in her constituency, she never fulfilled her ex-husband’s prophecy. She was a junior transport minister from 1997 to 1999 but resigned from the post and, although she once described herself as “middle-of-the-road left”, she was fiercely critical of Tony Blair over the Iraq war and even threatened to stand against him as a stalking-horse candidate for the leadership. It was also typical of her hatred of hypocrisy that she was one of the few MPs, on the death of Margaret Thatcher, to attack the former prime minister for her contributions to unemployment and homelessness.

On standing down as an MP on the grounds that she was nearly 80, Jackson astonished everyone by returning to acting. Interviewing her in public shortly before she played King Lear, I was struck by her undimmed mental vigour but wondered how this seemingly frail figure, who at one point left the platform with a coughing fit, would ever be able to sustain eight performances a week. I need not have worried. Jackson was a superb Lear who brought her own singular vision to the role: having made her first entrance hand in hand with her beloved Cordelia, she went on to hurl her youngest daughter to the ground in intemperate fury. Encompassing madness and sanity, anger and tenderness, vocal force and physical vulnerability, this was a great Lear: one that Jackson repeated on Broadway, albeit in a different production. Returning to television in 2019, she gave a deeply moving performance as a grandmother struggling with dementia in Elizabeth Is Missing.

There was nothing cosy or comforting about Jackson, which is why she never achieved the dubious status of a national treasure. But, beneath the slightly formidable exterior, there was a great deal of warmth and humour and, as an actor, she had a hunger for challenge matched by a piercing intelligence that will ensure she is long remembered.

Michael Billington

Published: 2023-06-15 11:55:19

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