Glenda Jackson obituary

Many leading British actors have mixed art and politics, but no great actor ever made such a decisive break from one to the other as Glenda Jackson, who has died aged 87, when she was elected Labour MP for Hampstead and Highgate in 1992.

For the previous 30 years, she had been an outstanding, ferocious presence in theatre and on screen, a leading light of the Royal Shakespeare Company in its most radical phase, and as memorable in film comedies with George Segal and Walter Matthau as she was in more tempestuous movies by Ken Russell.

She never had to prove a point about her politics: she was known for having concerns rather than ideas, and these were rooted in her background of Lancastrian working-class poverty, and her belief that the arts had both a higher purpose and a responsibility to educate and inform.

It is extraordinary that, at the height of her fame in the 1980s, she appeared in London stage productions of ambitious, difficult plays by Botho Strauss, Eugene O’Neill, Jean Racine, Bertolt Brecht, Federico García Lorca and Howard Barker. She evinced an uncompromised intelligence, and a scrubbed beauty that had nothing to do with makeup or vanity.

Glenda Jackson campaigning in Kilburn, London, in the run-up to the 2010 general election.
Glenda Jackson campaigning in Kilburn, London, in the run-up to the 2010 general election. Photograph: WPA/Getty Images

She was always strong, never sentimental, with a great aptitude for sarcasm and sourness. She was impatient with frivolity, except when it came to working with Morecambe and Wise. She first appeared on the great comedy duo’s TV show in 1971 as Cleopatra in a typically tawdry, but hilarious, cod-classical sketch – “All men are fools and what makes them fools is having beauty like what I have got” – and returned on four of their subsequent Christmas shows.

Jackson was as fearless in sending herself up as she was in going for the jugular on stage; she was totally without affectation. She did not think much of her looks, having been “an archetypal spotty teenager who suffered the tortures of the damned because I wasn’t like those girls in the magazines”, and she never tampered with her imperfectly aligned teeth; for her legion of admirers, such honesty redoubled her sensuality.

And there was a deep-seated unhappiness about her that she could always turn to dramatic advantage. “When I have to cry,” she once said, “I think about my love life. And when I have to laugh, I think about my love life.” The American director Charles Marowitz said: “It was always the sense of being close to elemental forces that accounted for Glenda’s fascination; the knowledge that she is capable of manifesting those potent inner states, that in most of us remain contained or suppressed.”

Glenda Jackson on the Morecambe and Wise show in 1971; she relished sending herself up.
Glenda Jackson on the Morecambe and Wise show in 1971; she relished sending herself up. Photograph: Moviestore collection Ltd/Alamy

She was born in Birkenhead, Merseyside, the eldest of four daughters of Micky Jackson, a bricklayer, and his wife, Joan (nee Pearce), a cleaner, moving soon afterwards to the coastal village of Hoylake. Her family was distinctly matriarchal, a fact compounded by the absence of Micky for six years during the second world war, serving on minesweepers. Glenda was educated at Holy Trinity Church of England primary school in Hoylake and West Kirby grammar school for girls, where she became, by all accounts, sullen and introverted. She did badly in her exams and, aged 16, took a job in the local Boots pharmacy, a stultifying experience.

A developing interest in the cinema, a school visit to see Donald Wolfit as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice at the Liverpool Empire, and a brush with amateur dramatics led her to audition for Rada in London in 1954; she began studying there in January 1955, financed by a discretionary award from Cheshire education committee. She was one of the first wave of students going against the grain of the old-style “finishing school” Rada in the wake of the arrival of Albert Finney, Peter O’Toole and Alan Bates.

On graduating, she acquired an agent, the redoubtable Peter Crouch, and worked in repertory theatres in Worthing and Hornchurch, making her London debut in All Kinds of Men at the Arts theatre in September 1957, followed by a six-month season at Crewe, where she met and married the stage manager, Roy Hodges. Further seasons at the Dundee Rep and the Lyric Hammersmith led to a West End debut in Bill Naughton’s Alfie (transferring from the Mermaid) as one of John Neville’s girlfriends.

Glenda Jackson as Charlotte Corday in the 1967 film version of Peter Brook’s Marat/Sade.
Glenda Jackson as Charlotte Corday in the 1967 film version of Peter Brook’s Marat/Sade. Photograph: Ronald Grant

Peter Brook bowed to the insistence of his colleague Marowitz in hiring Jackson for the RSC’s notorious Theatre of Cruelty season at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (Lamda) in 1964, an experimental project using improvisation based on the theories of the mad genius Antonin Artaud, and other psychological exercises, leading to “club” performances (to bypass censorship by the lord chamberlain’s office): in one of them, Jackson was stripped naked and dressed in prison clothes while a report on Christine Keeler (of Profumo affair notoriety) was read out; she was later transformed into Jackie Kennedy.

In an intense few seasons with the RSC between 1964 and 1966, she secured her reputation for danger and pent-up savagery in Brecht’s masterpiece Puntila, Peter Weiss’s The Investigation (playing all the female witnesses at Auschwitz, with Penelope Keith), and the David Warner Hamlet; her electrifying Ophelia had all the qualities needed, said Penelope Gilliatt in the Observer, to play the title role.

Most controversially, she appeared in two landmark Brook productions (both later filmed by him), Marat/Sade (1965), in which she played a psychotic Charlotte Corday, whipping the bath-bound Marat with her long hair; and US (1966), a quietly enraged, inquisitive response to the Vietnam war, and how we might deal with it on our own doorstep.

She was one of Chekhov’s Three Sisters (alongside Avril Elgar and Marianne Faithfull) in William Gaskill’s fine production of Edward Bond’s translation at the Royal Court in 1967, and then her film career (which had started in Lindsay Anderson’s This Sporting Life, with Richard Harris, in 1963) really took off: she won two Oscars before she even set foot in Hollywood, for her brilliant performances in Russell’s DH Lawrence fantasia Women in Love (1969), and Melvin Frank’s delightful romcom A Touch of Class (1973), revealing an unsuspected talent for bitchy high comedy as a divorced fashion designer in a hectic affair with Segal.

These years can now be seen as the pinnacle of her career: an amazing performance over six different episodes of Elizabeth R (1971) on BBC television, ageing from 16 to 69, ending with a parched, cracked face, and two Emmy awards in the US; another Russell histrionic special, The Music Lovers (1971), in which she famously writhed naked on the floor of a train compartment to the sounds of Tchaikovsky; yet another take on the Virgin Queen in a recreation of Friedrich Schiller’s fictional encounter between Elizabeth and her cousin Mary Stuart in Charles Jarrott’s Mary, Queen of Scots (1971), opposite Vanessa Redgrave; a tranquil wartime drama in Michael Apted’s The Triple Echo (1972), based on an HE Bates novel; and a finely poised Lady Hamilton in James Cellan Jones’s Bequest to the Nation (1973) by Terence Rattigan.

That film reunited her with Peter Finch, with whom she had starred in John Schlesinger’s pioneering, grown-up look at bisexuality in Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971), written by Gilliatt. Jackson, in fine fettle as a divorced businesswoman, shared her beefcake lover (Murray Head) with Finch’s conflicted gay doctor.

Glenda Jackson in the BBC television series Elizabeth R, 1971, for which she won two Emmy awards.
Glenda Jackson in the BBC television series Elizabeth R, 1971, for which she won two Emmy awards. Photograph: Moviestore/Rex/Shutterstock

Two stage performances, in Jean Genet’s The Maids at Greenwich in 1974, with Susannah York, and Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, directed by Trevor Nunn at the RSC in 1975, were also filmed. Jackson’s Hedda was so withering and scornful, you wondered how she had lasted one night of the honeymoon, let alone six months.

Hedda’s volatility and confusion carried through to Jackson’s private life as she embarked on a tempestuous affair – it would last six and a half years, on and off – with the show’s lighting designer, Andy Phillips (who had been an electrician on the Marat/Sade at the RSC). This ended her marriage to Hodges and propelled her through a couple of indifferent Hollywood romcoms (House Calls with Matthau in 1978, Lost and Found, with Segal again, in 1979) and a mixed bunch of stage shows, one of which, Bond’s version of the Jacobean masterpiece The White Devil at the Old Vic in 1976, signalled both the launch and instant demise of a Jackson/Phillips production company.

There was some respite in two touchingly modulated performances on the West End stage, as the poet Stevie Smith in Hugh Whitemore’s Stevie (1977), in which she projected an aching sense of loneliness; and as a teacher trapped in a dull marriage in Andrew Davies’ Rose (1980).

In between these two, she returned briefly to the RSC in 1978 to play Cleopatra directed by Brook, another disaster. First, the announced Antony, Stacy Keach, was replaced at the last minute by Alan Howard, and the chemistry simply was not right (although Jonathan Pryce was a superb Octavius). Brook insisted on a chamber production with cushions on the vast Stratford stage; although Jackson’s crop-haired Queen of old Nile was a mercurial majesty in orange kaftans, the tragedy never did justice to its own poetry.

At this point, with her Hollywood status in decline – briefly revived, later, with a misfired but interesting Robert Altman movie of Christopher Durang’s Beyond Therapy (1987) and another, less good, Russell go at DH Lawrence, The Rainbow (1989) – she unexpectedly surfaced in 1982 in the West End as Eva Braun, Hitler’s mistress, in Robert David MacDonald’s witty conversation piece Summit Conference (first seen at the Glasgow Citizens in 1978).

Her involvement with, and admiration for, the Citizens theatre under Giles Havergal and Philip Prowse led to her final decade of outstanding theatre work: in London, she appeared in Strauss’s Great and Small (1983) and O’Neill’s five-hour Strange Interlude (1984), both directed by the Citizens alumnus Keith Hack, before linking with Prowse on a sensational Phèdre at the Old Vic; this tumultuous performance was the Cleopatra that went missing and certainly her most terrifying work since Marat/Sade.

Glenda Jackson in Mother Courage, a Glasgow Citizens production, at the Mermaid theatre, London, 1990.
Glenda Jackson in Mother Courage, a Glasgow Citizens production, at the Mermaid theatre, London, 1990. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Then, as a ferociously authoritarian widow shutting up her five daughters in an Andalucían village, she led the Spanish director Núria Espert’s wonderful revival of Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba (translated by David MacDonald), alongside Joan Plowright, at the Globe (now the Gielgud) in 1986.

From this glorious platform, facing new challenges, she was ready for anything. But the world was changing. The roles, too, were drying up. She had no intention, she said, of hanging around to play the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet: “Life’s too short.” Her biographer, the Labour MP Chris Bryant, said that until Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979, Jackson had not regarded herself as a political actor, in the way Jane Fonda or Redgrave did. She had long been a Labour party member, and gave time and energy to single-issue campaigns, such as human rights, Oxfam and abortion.

She considered standing for parliament. Her last hurrah was a typically ebullient and uncompromising performance as the Renaissance painter Galactia in Barker’s Scenes from an Execution at the Almeida in 1990 (she had first played the role on radio in 1984), followed by Prowse’s revival of Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children at the Citizens in Glasgow (seen briefly at the Mermaid); she was loud, brassy, wolfish, pugnacious, resilient and scornful – “God help her opponents in the House of Commons, should she get there,” I wrote at the time.

Glenda Jackson in King Lear at the Old Vic in 2016.
Glenda Jackson in King Lear at the Old Vic in 2016. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Although her friend Neil Kinnock, the then Labour leader, tried to dissuade her from standing in 1992, on the grounds that she was a great actor first and a Labour party member second, he acknowledged her determination and swung his electioneering machine behind her. Despite the overall Labour debacle in losing to John Major, she achieved a swing of twice the national average, proving, in her early career at Westminster, as popular a new “celebrity” MP as were Sebastian Coe and Gyles Brandreth on the Tory side.

In 1997, re-elected in the Tony Blair landslide, she served briefly as a junior transport minister, but she became an increasingly critical voice on her own side, especially over the Iraq war. She was rarely heard in the Commons, but always remained a highly popular constituency MP and was as much a fixture upstairs on the No 24 bus, in her trademark red overcoat, shuttling between her Kentish Town surgeries and parliament, as were Michael Foot and Frank Dobson.

Constituency boundaries were redrawn for the 2010 general election, Dobson taking over many of Jackson’s voters in the safe seat of Holborn and St Pancras, while she was left to fight a tough losing battle, it seemed, for Hampstead and Kilburn; doughty to the last, she held on, after a recount, with a dangerously slight majority of just 42 votes.

Glenda Jackson in a scene from the BBC TV drama Elizabeth Is Missing, 2020.
Glenda Jackson in a scene from the BBC TV drama Elizabeth Is Missing, 2020. Photograph: Marsaili Mainz/AP

She left politics and made a surprise return to acting in 2015, making waves in a BBC Radio 4 series based on the novels of Emile Zola. Then the sucker punch: an 80-year-old King Lear at the Old Vic in 2016, scowling and raging her way through the pitiless storm, a great performance, impressive in its range, stamina and bravery.

She returned to Broadway in Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women in 2018, winning a Tony award, and reprised her Lear in New York in 2019. Latterly she played an elderly grandmother with dementia to perfection in a BBC television drama, Elizabeth Is Missing, winning a third Emmy, and she completed an onscreen reunion with Michael Caine – she had appeared with Caine and Helmut Berger in Joseph Losey’s The Romantic Englishwoman, written by Tom Stoppard, in 1975 – in Oliver Parker’s The Great Escaper, about a war veteran in Hove escaping a care home to attend a D-day landings anniversary.

Jackson was appointed CBE in 1978. She is survived by her son with Hodges, Daniel, and two grandchildren.
Michael Coveney

Julia Langdon writes: Glenda Jackson’s politics were informed primarily by the considerable poverty of her childhood. It made her a traditional socialist and one who was prepared to stand up for her personal beliefs, irrespective of any official Labour party line.

She had joined the party aged 16, fostered an ambition to become a social worker and, despite her considerable early celebrity on stage and screen, had a number of walk-on parts in the periphery of politics from the middle of the 1970s.

A republican and an active feminist, she believed in human rights for anyone, anywhere. Her particular concern was for homeless people, and she campaigned for a wide range of causes and charities. She was also an internationalist, actively helping the African National Congress during the fight against apartheid and, having been devastated by a personal visit to Ethiopia during the 1986 famine, she explored working for Voluntary Service Overseas.

She was vocal and opinionated, making her a highly attractive potential parliamentary candidate for the Labour party. She resisted a number of early invitations, notably to succeed Denis Healey in Leeds East, but was selected shortly thereafter in 1989 for the Tory-held Hampstead and Highgate constituency. Having never previously attended any local Labour party meeting, she was chosen from a shortlist of four women on the strength of the powerful personal manifesto she gave her audience amounting to a repudiation of the policies of the then prime minister, Margaret Thatcher.

She won the seat comfortably in 1992 and held it thereafter in the ensuing four general elections. After boundary changes when the seat became Hampstead and Kilburn in 2010, she had the closest election result in England with a majority of just 42.

In her maiden speech, Jackson challenged the traditional perception of the residents of Hampstead as mainly comprising the well-heeled chatterati and pointed out that the largest single group in her constituency were pensioners, the majority of whom were on social benefits. She swiftly repudiated any idea that her appearance on the Commons’ benches might import a touch of stardust or glamour, presenting herself instead with a scrubbed face as a serious and busy backbencher with a job to do, a performance that proved a serious disappointment to the parliamentary sketchwriters.

She voted for Tony Blair as Labour leader in 1994 and he appointed her as a shadow transport spokeswoman in 1996 and as the transport minister with responsibility for London after the 1997 election victory. She remained in post for two years but then resigned to stand unsuccessfully for selection as the potential Labour candidate in the first London mayoral election, having been identified as someone who could defeat the renegade Ken Livingstone.

Thereafter she became a highly visible backbench MP who exercised her freedom to speak out in defence of her beliefs, particularly if they ran contrary to those of the Labour government. During the rows involving the Militant tendency in the early 1980s, she had denounced the policies of that organisation as “self-indulgent crap”. Now she used the full force of her rhetoric to denounce the Blair government’s war in Iraq. After the 2005 election she threatened to stand against Blair as a stalking horse candidate for the Labour leadership to try to force his retirement as prime minister.

In 2011 she announced she would not contest the next election on the grounds of her age, and she stood down in 2015 after 23 years in the Commons.

• Glenda May Jackson, actor, born 9 May 1936; died 15 June 2023