'Awards don't make you better... the work still has to be done'
After 23 years in Westminster, Glenda Jackson’s dazzling return to the stage as King Lear saw her crowned Best Actress at the Evening Standard Theatre Awards. She tells Nick Curtis about her comeback.
It was a consummate comeback. The great and the good of London sprang to their feet at last Sunday night’s Evening Standard Theatre Awards when Glenda Jackson won the Natasha Richardson Award for Best Actress, in partnership with Christian Louboutin, for her extraordinary performance as King Lear at the Old Vic, after 25 years away from the stage, 23 of them serving the people of Hampstead and Kilburn as a Labour MP.
“Come on, sit down, we don’t do standing ovations,” said Jackson as she cradled the statuette, her accent closer to her Birkenhead roots than to the transfixing, diamond-cutter tones of her stage and screen roles.
“I thought I was the token oldie,” the 81-year-old says when we meet at the National Gallery, Jackson striding in from the cold wearing a spiffy red coat. “All the other nominees were younger. But as long as I’m a ‘goldie’ I don’t mind. It’s always very nice to be nominated for awards, but they don’t make you any better. The work still has to be done.”
Jackson is often described as brusque or scary, but I’d say she’s refreshingly no-nonsense and very focused. “I’ve always tended to eschew fun,” she admits. “I am pretty work-oriented.”
She speaks as a winner of two Evening Standard film awards and two Oscars in the Sixties and Seventies. Her mother, a shop assistant and cleaner, diligently polished the latter. “And it is a very thin level of gold, if it is gold, and it is base metal underneath,” Jackson says, “which I think is a perfect analogy.”
Jackson turned down acting work after entering Parliament in 1992 — “I haven’t even been inside a theatre to watch a performance for 25 years, which is shameful” — so Lear was the first chance for a new generation to experience her flashing, charismatic talent.
When she decided not to stand in the 2015 election — on the grounds that she was nearly 80 — she put a tentative toe back in the acting world, appearing in a Radio 4 adaptation of Emile Zola’s Blood, Sex and Money. Then she went to see her friend, Spanish actress Núria Espert, perform Lear, and Espert asked why she didn’t try the part.
“I said ‘don’t be RI-DIC-U-LOUS’” Jackson says, sounding ever more Scouse. “Me? Do Lear, in England? They’d never let me. But the Vic sent me a play which I didn’t want to do, and another friend said, ‘Why don’t you do Lear?’ and I said, ‘Oh, okay then’. The Vic said fine, and there we were, doing it.”
What was the appeal? “It’s a great play without a lousy part in it,” she says. “He loses power and finds love too late. And what is interesting, from what one has seen over the course of one’s life, is that the absolute gender barriers, of what being a woman is and being a man is, begin to melt slightly as you get older. I wasn’t interested in gender-bending. I think that battle has been won.” Really? “Oh yes! Who cares any more?”
She made a magnificently arrogant king in Deborah Warner’s stark ensemble production, unromantically maddened as she strode trouserless through driving rain. The rest of the cast (including Celia Imrie, Jane Horrocks and Rhys Ifans) didn’t treat her any differently “except when we put in an extra matinee, and everyone was clearly waiting for me to die. I was initially concerned that I wouldn’t have the vocal or physical energy to do it but the only day I felt exhausted was Sunday, when we didn’t play.” Throughout, she kept to a rigorous swimming regime, and cut back to smoking 10 Dunhill a day.
She did worry that inspiration might have deserted her during the years in Parliament: “But a great friend said, ‘Don’t worry, it’s like spring: it’s all inside you, waiting to come out’. And there it was.” But she was still nervous every night. “It has certainly been my experience that the fear increases the longer you do it, but you can’t waste time on it. And what is truly frightening is when you don’t feel frightened, because every performance you are going off that diving board and you don’t know if there is any water in the pool.”
Jackson grew up in Birkenhead, the eldest of four daughters, her father a builder. “I was born in 1936, so I was raised by women,” she says. “All the men had gone to the war.” Her Leftist politics were formed by reading American literature and by appreciation of the changes — the founding of the NHS, free access to education — introduced by the post-war Labour government.
She joined an amateur dramatic group in her teens and, after leaving grammar school at 16 and working for two years in Boots, she applied to Rada.
“I think it was boredom, the sense that there had to be more to life and I had more to offer,” she says. “Rada was the only drama school I had heard of, and I had to have a scholarship because we didn’t have any money.”
The principal told her she would only get work in her forties, as a character actress, but Jackson made her professional debut in Separate Tables while still at drama school in 1957 and worked in repertory theatre for six years after graduating. “When I went home, my mother would check my shoes for holes,” she says. “That was proof that I was earning.”
From the perspective of today, her career looks like a series of queenly chess moves; in fact, it was a matter of luck and radical gambles. There was Peter Brook’s 1964 Theatre of Cruelty season for the RSC, with its depictions of nudity and torture in Marat/Sade, the Vietnam critique US, and a Hamlet in which critic Penelope Gilliatt presciently noted that Jackson was the first Ophelia who could perhaps play the prince.
There were the Ken Russell films, 1969’s Women in Love — during which she was pregnant with her son Dan, and for which she won her first Oscar — and 1970’s The Music Lovers, where her nude love scenes earned her the tabloid epithet “first lady of flesh”. “It never worried me,” she snorts, “because I’d done it on stage.”
She shaved her head to play an iconic Virgin Queen in the BBC’s pioneering, nine-part Elizabeth R in 1971, and reprised the role that year in the film Mary, Queen of Scots, which secured her first Evening Standard British Film Award. The second, and her second Oscar, came courtesy of the 1973 romantic comedy A Touch of Class opposite George Segal. There would be many more iconic roles in London, New York and LA but in 1992 Jackson abruptly quit acting when she was asked to stand as a Labour candidate and won.
The House of Commons proved just as institutionally sexist as the theatre world of the Sixties and Seventies had been. “And the egos that walked up and down those corridors wouldn’t have been tolerated in a theatre for 30 seconds,” she says. She was a junior transport minister and at one point put herself forward as a candidate for London mayor, but she fell out with Tony Blair over Iraq, and is chiefly remembered in Parliament for lacerating speeches she gave on Tory attitudes to the poor.
She says she was always happiest as a constituency MP, and had she stood and been elected again in 2015 would have supported the leadership bid of Jeremy Corbyn, “because I always felt we had to have a Left-wing contender, though I would never have voted for him”.
She was married to Roy Hodges from 1958 to 1976 but has not been in a relationship for several decades: “It’s nice to meet people but the idea of changing my mode of living, or my routine — it’s too hard.” She lives now in Blackheath with her son, Dan Hodges, a political journalist, his wife and their 11-year-old son. “I’m in the basement, they have the rest of it.” Is she a doting grandmother? “No, we fight all the time,” she grimaces. “I am a stern disciplinarian, which is just water off a duck’s back as far as my grandson is concerned.”
Although she claims not to have missed acting while in Parliament, she has embraced it again with a vengeance, and next year will appear on Broadway in Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women. Is this the start of a second flowering of her career, in her ninth decade? “Oh God, I don’t know,” she says. “I am very thrilled to be doing this play in New York, but it doesn’t go any further than what you are doing right now. That has to work. Every performance is a first night.”